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Ancient tradition has termed Heraclitus “obscure,” although many of the passages in his fragmentary Peri physeos (on nature), which consists of fewer than 150 sentences, are very clear in their intent and content—for instance, the denunciation of his fellow citizens:The Ephesians ought to hang themselves, every one who is of age, and leave the city to the boys. They who threw out Hermodorus, the worthiest man of them, saying: “Let no one of us be the worthiest, but if there is one, let him go somewhere else, among others.”

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or his compliments to his eminent predecessor:Learning many things does not teach one to have intelligence; else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, also Xenophanes and Hecataeus.

or his estimate of pious individuals:They “purify” themselves by staining themselves with different blood, as if one who stepped into mud should wash it off with mud. However, one would be thought mad, if any man should see him behaving this way. And they pray to these idols, just as if one were to have a conversation with a house—knowing naught of the nature of gods and heroes.

or such remarks about human imbecility as “Dogs bark at every one they do not know” and “Donkeys would choose garbage rather than gold.” Besides Hermodorus, only Bias of Priene escaped Heraclitus’s contempt, and that was because Bias had said, “Most men are bad.”


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Heraclitus despised other men because he had made a discovery that he thought so obvious and important that failure to appreciate it was inexcusable. This was the discovery of what he called the Logos, a word that cannot be translated satisfactorily; it means not only “word” but almost anything else connected with words or what words stand for: account, discourse, argument, fame, reason, formula, pattern, rationale. One common rendering is “rationale.”

Heraclitus’s book began thus: Of this Rationale [Logos], which is eternal, men turn out to be ignorant, both before they hear it and when they hear it for the first time. For although all things occur in accordance with the Rationale, they are like novices when they are tested by such words and works as I work out, distinguishing each thing according to its nature and explaining what it is. However, such things as they do when they are awake escape other men, just as they forget about what they do when asleep.

To judge from the wildly divergent interpretations of Heraclitus’s teaching that have been offered since his time, people are as ignorant of Logos now as when they heard it for the first time.

“Listening not to me but to the Rationale, it is wise to agree that all things are one.” This is the succinct account of the content of the Logos, which is the unity of all things. What Heraclitus meant is best explained by considering first the view he rejects. Most people suppose that the world is full of a number of things, each on its own, comprising a miscellaneous aggregation. The “learning many things” practiced by people such as Pythagoras and Hesiod consists of classifying the ingredients of the aggregate in accordance with a “table of opposites” and of explaining how these opposites came into being. Understanding is analysis.

This approach is utterly mistaken, Heraclitus protests. Opposites are not capable of existing: “They do not understand how what differs agrees with itself; back turning connection, as in bow and lyre.” About a sixth of the extant fragments deal with opposites. They show four senses in which opposites are “the same,” as Heraclitus puts it, with characteristic paradox. First, even common sense ascribes unity to what when “analyzed” proves to be full of so-called opposites:Over those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow. The way of letters [as in a line of writing] is straight and crooked. It is one and the same. Beginning and end are common on the circumference of a circle.

Second are polar opposites:They would not know the name of Justice if these things [injustices] did not exist. Sickness makes health pleasant and good; hunger, satiety; weariness, rest.

Third, there is the special kind of polar opposition that consists of the regular succession of one thing by its opposite, so that if the one perished, so would the other:The teacher of most men is Hesiod. They understand that he knew many things—he who did not recognize day and night; for they are one. The cold things get hot, hot gets cold, wet gets dry, parched gets damp.

Fourth, many oppositions are “subjective,” dependent on the point of view or nature or interests of the observer, not on essential natures:Swine rejoice in filth. Sea is the cleanest and the dirtiest water: for fish it is drinkable and salubrious, but for men it is undrinkable and poisonous. Doctors who cut and burn complain that they get no adequate pay for doing these things. The way up and down is one and the same. [That is, the same road is “the road up” to valley dwellers and “the road down” to hill dwellers.]

Heraclitus summarizes:Things taken together are wholes and not wholes; being brought together is being parted; concord is dissonance; and out of all things, one; and out of one, all things.

Insistence on the unity (interdependence) of opposites should not be mistaken for a denial of the existence of opposition. On the contrary, the business of opposites is to oppose, and the strife of opposites is the basic fact of existence. “It is necessary to know that war is common, and justice is strife, and all things happen in accordance with strife.” “War is father of all, king of all, and he shows some to be gods and some to be men; he makes some slaves and some free.” “Homer deserved to be thrown out from amongst the contestants and beaten; and Archilochus likewise,” their offense having been pacifism; but to pray for the cessation of warfare amounts to desiring the end of the world. Process, not substance, was Heraclitus’s fundamental ontological category.

However, if the world does not consist of unrelated things, neither is it a chaos of haphazard events. What happens does so according to “measures”; the pattern of the measures is the Logos, or Justice. “The sun will not overstep measures; if he did, Furies, guardians of Justice, would find him out.” “This cosmos, the same for all, no one of gods nor of men has made, but it always was and is and will be everliving fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.” “Wisdom is one thing: to know the Rationale of how all things are steered through all.”

The World as Process

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Philosophical speculation (as distinguished from mythology) about the nature of things had existed for hardly a century when Heraclitus wrote. His predecessors had taken it for granted (perhaps by inheritance from creation myths) that the world was made of one basic stuff, which had existed in an undifferentiated condition “in the beginning.” They conceived their problems to be two: to identify this basic stuff (Thales, water; Anaximander, “the Boundless”; Anaximenes, mist; Pythagoras, number/atoms) and to describe the process of differentiation that had produced the world as we know it.

Heraclitus set himself in opposition to this tradition. The world, as a measured process, is eternal, in all its complexity. To be sure, it is “ever-living fire,” but “fire” is chosen as symbolic of process, not as a “basic stuff” put forward as an alternative to water or mist or what-not. “All things are exchange for fire, and fire for all things, just as merchandise is exchange for gold and gold for merchandise” has often been cited against the present interpretation, but all the statement means is that the so-called elements merge into one another in the world process, that nothing is absolutely and eternally distinct from anything else. An obscure fragment purports to describe the exchanging: “Fire’s turnings: first sea; of sea one half is earth, the other half is lightning-flash. Sea is poured out, and it is measured in the same proportion as that which it had before the earth arose.”

Religion and Immortality

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Though Heraclitus was scornful of popular belief, he thought, like Xenophanes, that religion should be reformed, not rejected utterly. His religious position is perhaps not too misleadingly described as pantheistic:God: day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, satiety-hunger. He changes in the same way as when there is a mixing [of oil] with spices, it is called after the fragrance of each.

According to this fragment, God is the organized totality of things, the unity of all apparent opposites. God, as one might expect, takes the objective view:To God all things are fair and good and just, but men suppose some things to be just and some unjust.

That Heraclitus thought his conception of God to be a purification of the popular notion is suggested by this fragment:That which alone is wise is one. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.

Heraclitus taught immortality, but only in the (somewhat attenuated) sense that the soul, like everything else in the world process, is not a stuff but a process that undergoes successive phases. “There await men, when they die, such things as they do not hope for nor expect.” “Immortals-mortals, mortals-immortals, living one another’s death, dying one another’s life.” “Death to souls is to become water, to water death is to become earth, but from earth water comes into existence, and soul from water.” Although “For souls it is delight to get wet,” still “When a man is drunk, he is led by an immature boy, stumbling, not heeding where he steps; his soul is wet.” Hence, “A dry soul is wisest and best.”

Law and Evil

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On the basis of this fragment Heraclitus has some claim to consideration as the founder of the philosophical theory of natural law:Those who speak with intelligence must take their strength from what is common to all, as a city from law, and much more strongly. For all human laws are nourished by the one divine. It has as much power as it wishes and it suffices for all and it prevails.

The one divine law is, of course, the Logos, which Heraclitus conceives not only as the formula of what is but also as the criterion of what ought to be: “The people should fight for the law just as for the city wall.” His political views were decidedly undemocratic. Besides the denunciation of Hermodorus’s banishers, three other fragments may be cited in this connection: “One man to me is ten thousand, if he is best”; “Also it is law to be persuaded by the counsel of one”; and “Every beast is driven to the pasture with a blow.”

Like Socrates, Heraclitus in effect equated moral turpitude with lack of (intellectual) understanding. Failure to apprehend the Logos, that which is “common,” is the root of all evil. “Thus one ought to follow what is common. However, although the Rationale is common, the many live as if they possessed private understanding.” Heraclitus frequently compares “the many” to sleepers, since “For men awake there is one common cosmos, but men asleep turn away, each one, into a private world.” “It is not right to act and talk like men asleep.” Unfortunately it is not clear from the extant fragments just what alteration of behavior would ensue if one decided to “follow the common”—other than that one would not get drunk, nor throw out Hermodorus.

Heraclitus the Individual

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“A man’s character is [determines] his destiny,” Heraclitus said, and the remark applies especially to himself. Though there is no reliable biographical information about him, Heraclitus’s severe, haughty, enigmatic, yet pithy and curiously attractive style reveals him as a person. No one in Greek history before Socrates is so sharply delineated as an individual. It was Heraclitus’s style that ensured the preservation of much of his book (which must have been a short one) through copious quotations by later writers. It was his style that led inevitably to distortions and misinterpretations of his teaching.

The two statements still most commonly attached to the name of Heraclitus are “Everything flows” and “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Because of these, Heraclitus is summarized in the histories of philosophy as having taught a doctrine of perpetual change, and he is set off against the Greek philosopher Parmenides, who said that there is no such thing as change. However, many scholars doubt that either of these sentences is a genuine Heraclitean fragment; both are believed to be Platonic paraphrases that are, to say the least, misleading. Though Heraclitus, as a process philosopher, was committed to the view that reality is activity, the universality of change was not central in his thought by any means; what he stressed was rather the ordered and eternal pattern that intelligence (as contrasted with “learning of many things”) could discern in the flux of existence—the flux itself being so obvious as not to deserve comment. As for rivers, it will be recalled that what Heraclitus actually said was that one could step into the same river as often as one pleased—but that when one did, “different and again different waters” would flow over one’s feet, the point being to illustrate the relation of transitory particulars to a fixed pattern.

In later antiquity the Stoics found in Heraclitus’s pantheism and natural law doctrine much that was congenial to their own philosophy. In consequence they looked upon him (rather sentimentally) as their progenitor. In the course of accommodating his doctrines to theirs, he was made out to have taught that fire is the basic stuff of the universe and that the world process moves in cycles, each of which is terminated by a general conflagration.

The actual teachings of Heraclitus (as distinguished from ex post facto quoting of his apothegms to decorate opinions independently arrived at) had little influence on the course of Greek philosophy. Unlike his Milesian and Pythagorean quasi contemporaries, Heraclitus made no contribution to the development of natural science. Perhaps he should be counted the founder of philosophical ethics for having related a moral code to a Weltanschauung, but the evidence bearing on this matter is slight, and it does not appear that he worked out this connection in any detailed way. Although his insistence on the Logos as the proper object of understanding is important, credit for it must be shared with the Milesians and Pythagoreans, his sneers at their superficiality notwithstanding.

However, as a stylist, phrase maker, and critic, Heraclitus is unique. This is not said by way of patronizing him. Heraclitus compared himself to the “Sibyl with raving mouth uttering things mirthless and unadorned and unperfumed.” She “reaches over a thousand years with her voice.” Heraclitus has surpassed her by many years.


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Additional Reading

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. 1892. 4th ed. Reprint. London: A&C Black, 1975. Chapter 3 is devoted to Heraclitus and is probably the best of the nineteenth century English works that discuss Heraclitus. It has considerable insight and is readable without being dated.

Cohen, S. Mark, Patricia Curd, and C. D. C. Reeve, eds. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995. Good introduction to Greek philosophers and their writings. Heraclitus’s fragments are presented in straightforward English without commentary.

Dilcher, Roman. Studies in Heraclitus. New York: Olms, 1995. Intensive examination of Heraclitus. The first chapters examine the existing fragments as they relate to the conditions of human existence. The later chapters attempt to give coherence to his philosophy and resolve obscure or puzzling statements. Ends with a broad perspective of his work.

Kirk, G. S. Heraclitus, the Cosmic Fragments. 1954. Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. A deep and thorough analysis of some of the Heraclitian fragments, this volume focuses on the “cosmic” fragments—those that are relevant to the world as a whole, the Logos, the doctrine of opposites, and the action of fire.

Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. 1957. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. One of the chapters provides a very good analysis of Heraclitus. The book itself is one of the very best on Greek thought and the individual Greek philosophers.

Mourelatos, Alexander. The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1974. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. A collection of critical essays covering the major contemporaries of Heraclitus. Included in the book are four fine essays on Heraclitus.

Robinson, T. M. Heraclitus: Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary. 1987. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Good first approach to Heraclitus. The introductory section examines his life and offers an overview of his work and contemporary testimony. Heraclitus’s fragments are presented with side-by-side Greek text and English translation followed by concise commentary. Study concludes with a summary of his philosophical thinking, short paragraphs on Heraclitus’s peers, and a detailed bibliography.

Schur, David. The Way of Oblivion: Heraclitus and Kafka. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Schur examines Heraclitus’s and Kafka’s work and finds similarities between the two.

Sweet, Dennis. Heraclitus: Translation and Analysis. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995. Opens with a brief look at Heraclitus’s life. The rest examines the fragments, detailing Greek text and English translation plus commentary on facing pages. The study concludes with an analysis of Heraclitus’s main themes that permeate the fragments.

Wheelwright, Philip. Heraclitus. 1959. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. An excellent and well-written volume, the text reads very well because footnotes and matter not relevant to main points are relegated to the end of the book. Includes a very good bibliography.

Wilcox, Joel. The Origins of Epistemology in Early Greek Thought: A Study of Psyche and Logos in Heraclitus. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1994. A critical evaluation of Heraclitus and his thought.

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