Heraclitus Criticism - Essay

B. A. G. Fuller (essay date 1923)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: B. A. G. Fuller, "Heracleitus," in History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 118-42.

[In the following excerpt, Fuller provides an overview of Heraclitus 's philosophical theories, focusing in particular on the doctrines of flux and wisdom.]

Just a hundred years separate Heracleitus from Thales. Born at Ephesus some time in the latter half of the Sixth Century, he was in his prime about 500 B.C., and it is probable that he lived to see the battle of Marathon, and perhaps that of Salamis. Of his work we possess only fragments, and these are written in a style which already in antiquity had gained him the title of "the obscure." By birth an aristocrat of the aristocrats—the religious title and office of "king" seems to have been hereditary in his family—he was himself, a later biographer1 tells us, an arrogant and haughty man. For the "people" and democratic government he had a keen disdain, founded not wholly upon the prejudice of his class, but in part at any rate upon a very just appreciation of their faults. Certainly he had estimated quite correctly what has proved to be a constant and apparently incorrigible petulance in the temper of democracy at all times and places, when, apropos of the exile of his friend Hermodorus, he put into the mouths of his fellow-Ephesians the cry, "We will have none who is best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere and among others."2 We may wonder what he would have said had he known that in later times this sentiment would come to be regarded by some as the last word in the art of government, and that the voice which uttered it would be called the voice of God.

For such middle-class nonconformity, half ritualistic, half evangelical, as Orphism he had also scant respect. The Orphies, he tells us, are to be classed along with "night-walkers" and "mystery-mongers." "The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries."3 The phallic rites with which Dionysus was worshiped are shameless, praying to images as senseless as invoking the walls of a house, and purification by the cleansing blood of a sacred animal as foolish as trying to wash off mud with mud. The "orthodox" Homeric theology, however, fared no better at his hands than at those of Xenophanes. Homer he tells us "should be turned out of the lists and whipped,"4 and for Hesiod he had as little use. "The wisest man" he felt was "an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man."5 God is all things, as Xenophanes had declared. He is "day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savor of each."6

Still, for reasons which we shall point out later, Heracleitus considered Xenophanes superficial and second-rate. Nor had he any higher opinion of Pythagoras. Both of them he dismissed with the remark that a varied learning does not inculcate understanding, else it would have taught them something.7 Indeed he seems to have felt that all of his predecessors had been quite in the dark, and that it had been reserved for him to discover and enunciate the first philosophic system of any account. This conceit was in part justified, for his interpretation of the world is regarded by many as by far the most brilliant and profound philosophy of the two centuries which intervene between Thales and the teachings of Democritus and Plato.

In their table of the ten fundamental oppositions the Pythagoreans had already included the antithesis of Rest and Motion. In their preoccupation, however, with the relations of the Limited and Unlimited, which their interest in music and mathematics disposed them to regard as the central philosophic problem, they had passed over the other antitheses as of secondary importance.

But the interweaving of change and changelessness throughout the pattern and fabric of the world, though it might for the moment escape the attention of the philosopher, had already arrested the vision and moved the imagination of the prophet and the poet. Man had measured the transitoriness of his own existence against the fixity of nature and the deathlessness of the blessed Gods, and Homer and Hesiod and the Gnomic poets had divined the tragedy of a creature whose mind could move for a brief space, free and godlike, amid things eternal, whilst its body must stumble a little while and fall at last amid the wreckage of Time.

The conflicting magic, too, of rest and restlessness is as old as the human soul, whose varying moods of zest and weariness, its "bugles of dawn" and "flutes of dawn" and "flutes of rest" alternately enchant. Desire wavers like Odysseus between the longing for final homecoming and the thirst for fresh adventure. The Gods of the one mood are throned in unshaken serenity high above all the noise and the running to and fro, rescued from Time and Change. Their seats are upon the "pillours of Eternity," afar off in some bright stormless space unreached by wind and frost and rain, bathed in steady and unclouded light. The Gods of the other are no calm Olympians. Their dwelling is the storm cloud, the surge, the hurricane, the misty land seen through the driving rain, the beckoning finger of smoke spied over the treetops of the unknown forests, the cave of Polyphemus, the Sirens' Isle. For they are, Dionysus-like, just the wine, the intoxication, the exhilaration, the inexhaustible novelty of the ever-unfolding adventure.

With the contrast, then, of change and changelessness ever before his eyes, and his desire continually torn by their appeal to the intermingling moods of a spirit half eager and half weary, it was inevitable that as soon as man began to guess behind the face of things a heart, he should ask himself whether permanence or change was the truer index to its nature. Is the essence of all things restlessness or rest? Is Reality changing or changeless? Is it, to use the language of modern science, dynamic or static, energy or matter? Is it, as the modern philosopher might say, an Activity and Process, or is it a Substance? Is it, to employ the terms which the Greek used, Becoming or Being? …

It is perhaps from the quarter of the Milesian School that we may best directly approach the Heracleitan theory that Reality is essentially Change rather than a Substance unaltered by its apparent changes. The Milesians had unwittingly raised a question as important as it was difficult. In reducing the variety of the world to a single principle they had assumed both that a simple substance like Water or Air can become different things, and that it can somehow at the same time remain itself and still continue to be Water or Air underneath all its apparent transformations. To speak more technically, they had on their hands—without handling it—the problem of the relation of the One to the Many, and of the persistence of Identity through Change.

Now, a little reflection upon this problem might easily breed a certain skepticism of mind. Is it thinkable, we might ask, that any given substance should of its own initiative, and without the admixture of any outside force or element, turn into something else? Is it any more reasonable to suppose that Water really can surreptitiously turn itself into a suit of clothes, for instance, than that a red bandana handkerchief can actually within the privacy of a conjurer's tophat become a white rabbit or a glass of beer? This, however, represents only half the strain to which our credulity is put. For we are also asked to believe that the World-Substance remains the same during and in spite of its transformations. The suit of clothes is really Water all the time that Water is supposed to have become a suit of clothes. The red bandana handkerchief is both itself and also a white rabbit and a glass of beer all at once. The One is both One and Many, Reality is simultaneously both the single homogeneous thing it really is and the many different things it really is not.

The Milesian theory, then, that all things are made of one and the same single World-Substance might on investigation look suspiciously like a mere juggler's trick, and the marvelousness of its feat was bound to inspire criticism and distrust. We would seem, indeed, to be confronted with a dilemma. If the Universe is really always the same single substance, then it is not really many different things and does not really change. In other words, the many, variety, alteration, motion are merely matters of false opinion. On the other hand, if change and variety are real there can be no unchanging self-identical Unity at the heart of things.

As we shall see later, the Eleatic School apparently accepted this dilemma as absolute, and faced frankly the consequences of clinging to the theory that the World is a single self-identical Substance. Whether Heracleitus really faced the difficulty at all, and deliberately sought to escape it, we cannot say. Certainly he was not caught on either of its horns. Both his own words and the testimony of later philosophers show how his imagination was obsessed by the changing, impermanent, diversified, kaleidoscopic character of the spectacle of existence. Becoming, multiplicity, the ceaseless transformation and interchange of the Many, are no superficial misinterpretation of the nature of the Universe but are rather its very self and essence. But at the same time, Heracleitus was just as convinced as the Milesians or the Eleatic Parmenides that the Universe is one. He would not entertain the Pythagorean supposition that two equally fundamental and absolutely opposed Principles were needed to explain things. He felt like Anaximander that even the deepest and most irreconcilable opposition was grounded in an underlying unity. His problem, then, might well have been to find some sort of Oneness which, unlike the unity of the fixed elemental substances or unities proposed by the Milesians and Xenophanes, should preserve and explain, instead of destroying, the reality of Change and Multiplicity.

The solution occurred to him perhaps even before the problem was articulate in his mind. And it was very likely this sudden insight which in his opinion distinguished him from his predecessors as the first philosopher of any consequence. It seems to have flashed across him that this new kind of Oneness which he sought lay plain and bright before the eyes of every man who had the mind to understand the witness of his senses. To see it from without a man had only to look at the fire on his hearth. To feel it from within he had only to give heed to his own consciousness of living and experiencing. Life and experience are forever going on, different at each new instant, crowded with variety and novelty. Yet they are somehow one and the same life and experience and career through all their changes and episodes. So, too, fire in its flaring, quivering restlessness is never the same from moment to moment. It is all bright movement and agitation, the antithesis of an ever self-identical stuff like Water or Air. Yet it, too, is unbroken and continuous, one and the same fire through all its ceaseless alteration. Here, so plain that not only he who runs may read, but curiously enough that he who runs fastest may read best, is this new sort of Oneness and Identity which permits of Multiplicity and Change. Only think of the Nature of Things as something which goes on like Life or Fire, and not as a mere state of being always the same thing like Water or Air, and we have reconciled the real change and variety of the world with its no less real unity.

We shall not be surprised, then, to learn that Heracleitus felt that in Fire he was beholding face to face the stuff of which all things are made. At its touch he could see all things yielding up their individual natures and disappearing merged and indistinguishable in the moving brightness of its burning. To life and thought it exhibited an extraordinary affinity. Our bodies glow. All higher forms of life are warm to the touch. And even to-day, for all our modern chemistry and physics, we still find Fire the most animate of inanimate beings, likening, as figure after figure of speech shows, our inner experience to its brightness and heat and fitful moodiness, and making of it a companion and fellow-being in whose presence we never feel quite friendless and alone. "This world," says Heracleitus, "which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out."8 "All things are an exchange for Fire, and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares.'9

So swift, fluid, and unarrestable is this process of cease less transformation and exchange of which Reality consists, that the senses are unable to keep pace with it. They are always lagging behind, perceiving and recording the events of any given instant only after they are gone. They really only photograph, as it were, the trajectory of a flying projectile, and so-called specific things or moments are in reality merely sections of flight. In the words of Heracleitus' own simile, "You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you."10

But the idea of Reality as Flux and Fire did more than overcome the difficulties, inherent in the Milesian systems, of deriving the Many from the One, and Change from a single simple Substance. It also enabled Heracleitus to see through the conflict of opposites which the Pythagoreans had regarded as fundamental, and to supplement the vague statements of Anaximander that opposites can arise within a single Principle, with the startling assertion that they are really identical. Flowing and burning mean a multiplicity of aspects and episodes succeeding, superseding, melting out of and into one another. Without another and different moment into which to go on, and another and different aspect to assume, there could be no such thing as Change and Flux. For it is by the contrast and opposition of the new to the old that we mark and measure change. Thus we only note and measure the waning of winter by the waxing of summer, the disappearance of hunger by the increasing feeling of satiety, the coming of day by the going of night. It is the very essence then of Process that all things should be constantly melting into their opposites, of Becoming that all things should be constantly becoming the negations of their former selves.

But at what precise instant in this inconceivably smooth, oily, and unbroken Flux of things are we to say that the old has become the new, that one moment of time has become another, that day has at last faded into night, or that spring has really come? Such an instant cannot be discovered or even conceived. For divide and subdivide Time and Change as you will, it is impossible to discover a moment which contains simply the old, or simply the new. On the contrary, there is no moment so minute as not to contain both the old and the new caught in the act of the one becoming the other.

Indeed, could we find an instant which was not a tran sition—an instant, for example, in which we could say that winter or night had come to a definite end but that spring or dawn had not yet begun—we should have arrested Time and destroyed Change. We should be dealing not with a transition and transformation of the old into the new, but with a mere substitution of the new for the old. The old would have been cut off short and an absolutely fresh beginning made in its place. In that case the Universe, if such it could be called, would be a collection of full stops and fresh starts, of moments and things annihilated with a bump and new moments and things suddenly jerked with a jolt into being from nowhere, like an American railway train entering and leaving way stations. And the inhabitant of such a world would be like a traveler forced to change cars at the junction of each instant with the next.

Change and Becoming cannot, then, consist in a succession of different occurrences rapidly substituted for one another. The new occurrence must be developed, budded off, prolonged from the old. In a word, it must be one with the old. Change means Identity in Difference. This doctrine that opposites are identical is at first sight startling, and Aristotle later accused it of transgressing the law of self-contradiction. But after all, to take even the pairs of opposites upon which the Pythagoreans laid so much stress, what is day but a process of waning, and waxing night, night save a process of waning and waxing day? What is hunger but satiety in process of passing away, satiety but hunger disappearing? How should we ever know justice if it were not for injustice?11 And according to even the very Orphies of whom the Pythagoreans were the disciples, what were the winter of nature and the death of man but life transformed and sleeping? What were summer-time and life but death and winter reawakened and risen from their sleep? "It is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, awake and asleep, young and old; the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former."12 "Hades is the same as Dionysus."13 "Mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, one living the others' death and dying the others' life."14 God really is both "day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger."15 He really can "take various shapes,"16 for he is a "Going on" and a Becoming, not a permanent state of Being.

The fragments which we have been considering also suggest another remarkable characteristic of the Flux of the ever-living Fire. Change may bring novelty, but it also brings repetition. The number of pieces, colors, shapes, and combinations in its kaleidoscope is limited. The transformation of opposites works either way. Day becomes night and night becomes day again, summer winter and winter summer, life death and death life. Underlying the reciprocal conversions of these lesser cycles there is the great wheel of the elemental transformation of Fire down through fiery storm-cloud to water and thence to earth, and back through water to itself again.

At this point, perhaps, an objection might be made. Have we not fallen into a difficulty similar to that which beset the Milesian School? If Reality is Becom ing, and there is really nothing but a Flux and melting of things into their opposites so swift that the mind can photograph in any given instant only a mere blurred trajectory, how do we come by the experience of permanent objects at all? Stability, permanence, rest are just as apparent in the world as flux and change and motion. But how account for them, if the latter alone are real?

Heracleitus has his answer ready. In the first place there is the fact that of the ever-living Fire fixed measures are ever kindling and fixed measures going out,17 and that Change is a reciprocal exchange of Fire for all things, and all things for Fire. The "measures" sufficiently counterbalance each other and the exchange is sufficiently fair to assure no robbery of the other elements, but rather the presence of an approximately constant quantity of water and earth and the other variations of Fire.18

But his explanation does not stop here. Take the great fundamental cycle of the transformation of Fire through water to earth and back to Fire again. This cycle, since it is a process of circulation, has a downward and an upward sweep which Heracleitus calls the Upward and the Downward Ways. In water, for example, there is at once a "downward" tendency to change into earth, and an "upward" tendency to change into fire. And fire and earth, which are at the top and bottom of the process of circulation, are moments and states of hesitation, pulled both backwards and forewards, as it were, when the upward swing of the cycle from water is on the point of bending over and becoming the downward swing towards water again, or when the downward plunge from water is turning into the upward return arc towards water. It follows that since the two ways are simply the prolongation of each other, they are one and the same, and afford a fundamental example of the identity of opposites.19 But it also follows—and this more immediately concerns us—that each one of the three elements is pulled at one and the same time in opposite directions. It is a component of two conflicting forces, a friction of two antagonistic movements dragging against and retarding each other.

It is this pull of the Upward and Downward Way against each other which keeps fire, water, and earth all in existence, with their specific characters, at the same time. Abolish the Downward Way, for instance, and all water released from the downward drag in its nature would evaporate and shimmer away into fire. Abolish the Upward Way, and all fire would precipitate itself into water, and water turn to solid earth. But each drop of water because it is an equilibrium due to a tension of forces pulling in opposite directions, is held rigid and remains itself. When the sun is "drawing water" or water rises in mist, the "Upward Way" has for a time partially mastered the Downward; when it rains or freezes the Downward tendency has for the moment overcome the Upward. "Men do not know," says Heracleitus, "how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre."20

Obviously permanence and stability of this sort are not mere illusions due to the deception of our senses. The Flux will really bear our weight here and there, and has characteristics which are frozen and firm and definable. But this fixed and structural character of the world is, as we see, not due to any restful and sedentary habit on its part. The immobility of any thing and all things is rather the immobility of a pair of wrestlers putting forth all their strength against each other and held rigid in a deadlock in which neither is able to down the other. The cycles in nature and history are but the slow swaying and bending back and forth of these antagonists in their struggle. And the adversaries, like the Siamese twins, are one at heart. A common Life and Fire circulating from one tv, the other animates their struggle with each other. Could either slay or even really down the other, he would also have downed or slain himself. "War" in very truth "is the father of all and the king of all."21 "Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away."22

Later commentators, to be sure, particularly those of the Stoic School, found in Heracleitus the belief that from time to time one of the wrestlers does fall and the whole universe "goes up...

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Heinrich Gomperz (essay date 1939)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Heinrich Gomperz, "Heraclitus of Ephesus," in Philosophical Studies, edited by Daniel S. Robinson, The Christopher Publishing House, 1953, pp. 88-107.

[In the following excerpt originally published in 1939, Gomperz examines the Heraclitean concepts of the Cosmos, Fire, Becoming, and Change, remarking upon problems with commonly assumed views of his major tenets.]

It is a pleasure to present to an outstanding scholar of modern Greece a summary of investigations on the philosophy of Heraclitus that have now been carried on for almost thirty years. Unfortunately it will be but a very incomplete sketch, since time and space fail and much important material is not...

(The entire section is 6823 words.)

G. S. Kirk (essay date 1951)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: G. S. Kirk, "Natural Change in Heraclitus," in The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, Anchor Books, 1974, pp. 189-96.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1951, Kirk examines Heraclitus's doctrine of change, contending that it emphasizes the order and regularity of change and not, as has been claimed, a universal and constant change.]

The thought of Heraclitus of Ephesus is still often summarized as "All things are flowing," panta rhei; by which it is inferred that everything is in constant change. This summary goes back ultimately to Plato, who at Cratylus...

(The entire section is 3419 words.)

Edward Hussey (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Heraclitus," in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 32-59.

[In the following excerpt, Hussey provides an overview of Heraclitus 's thought, particularly his concept of logos, and contends that the point of many of his paradoxical writings was to offer analogies.]

In the middle of the sixth century, the Ionian cities of the Asiatic coast had for some time been tributaries of the kingdom of Lydia. The Lydian kings were not hard masters; the last of the line, Croesus, was distinctly phil-Hellene and was sincerely admired by many Greeks. But in 546 Croesus was defeated by the invading Persians under Cyrus, and the Ionians were faced with...

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Jean Beaufret (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Jean Beaufret, "Heraclitus and Parmenides," in Heidegger on Heraclitus: A New Reading, edited by Kenneth Maly and Parvis Emad, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986, pp. 69-88.

[In the following essay, originally written in French and published in 1973, Beaufret argues that both the philosophy of Heraclitus and that of Parmenides are concerned with change and permanence and are not as opposed to each other as is commonly believed.]

If the world is of the opinion that the pre-Socratics are rich in original figures, then Heraclitus and Parmenides are radiantly central figures in that world. For it is with Heraclitus and Parmenides that the foundations of Western thinking...

(The entire section is 6440 words.)

Charles H. Kahn (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles H. Kahn, in an introduction to The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 1-23.

[In the following excerpt, Kahn offers a survey of Heraclitus 's historical and intellectual context, paying particular attention to the philosopher's links with Ionian natural philosophy. Kahn maintains that Heraclitus 's "real subject is not the physical world but the human condition, the condition of mortality."]

1 The Man, the Time, and the Place

The details of Heraclitus' life are almost completely unknown. Reliable information is limited to the fact that he was a native of Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor north...

(The entire section is 11370 words.)

David Wiggins (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: David Wiggins, "Heraclitus' Conceptions of Flux, Fire and Material Persistence," in Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craven Nussbaum, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 1-32.

[In the following essay, Wiggins explores the context and meaning of Heraclitean theories of flux, fire, and material persistence, arguing that Heraclitus developed these concepts as a response to the natural philosophy of the Milesian thinkers Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Thales.]

Even when they are most worthy of amazement, things of daily occurrence pass us by unnoticed....

(The entire section is 13075 words.)

Edward Hussey (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Epistemology and Meaning in Heraclitus," in Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craven Nussbaum, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 33-59.

[In the following excerpt, Hussey examines several rules for the interpretation of sense-experience which he contends Heraclitus followed. The editors have included only those footnotes which pertain to the excerpt.]

1. Epistemology: the programme

1.1 The hypothesis to be explored claims that at the heart of Heraclitus' thought there lies a remarkable and characteristic epistemology, and...

(The entire section is 10899 words.)

Malcolm Schofield (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Malcolm Schofield, "Heraclitus' Theory of Soul and Its Antecedents," in Psychology, edited by Stephen Everson, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 13-34.

[In the essay below, Scholfield explores Heraclitus's conception of the soul and psychology, concluding that the philosopher held the soul to be, like the universe itself, "a physical substance subject to the unity of opposites and to opposite sequences of transformations."]


For souls it is death to become water, for water it is death to become earth; from earth water comesto-be, and from water, soul.

A dry soul is wisest and best....

(The entire section is 9344 words.)