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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


HERACLITUS

(c. 540 — 480?B.C.)

 

MATERIALISM

Heraclitus came from Ephesus in what is now Turkey. He seems to have been a man of strong character and rather contemptuous of his fellow men. Only fragments of his writings remain, and these are to be found in the works of later commentators. These sayings, moreover, are usually unclear, gnomic, and often seem to contradict one another. Because of this confusion in his thought we cannot always be sure what Heraclitus actually meant. In ancient times he was often known as 'Heraclitus the Obscure'.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] According to many commentators Heraclitus believed, in the words of one source, that one "cannot step into the same river twice" [see Plato, Cratylus 402a] — a remark which would suggest that he thought everything was in a state of constant flux. Heraclitus seems to have believed that change and conflict are real, essential and necessary features of the universe [a]He explicitly identifies conflict with justice [b] in this fragment:

It is necessary to understand that war is shared, and justice is strife, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife and necessity. [Fr. 80]

However, there are many fragments in which apparently Heraclitus too was looking for a primary cosmic principle unifying the real multiplicity of things in the world [c] as perceived through the senses. For example:

Things conjoined as wholes and not-wholes, convergent and divergent, consonant and dissonant; from all things one and from one all. [Fr. 10]

In this remark he is referring in particular to opposites [d] or contrasts of various kinds, such as disease and health, cold and warm, wet and dry. And what he may mean is that each member of a pair both comes from and, when in harmony [e] with the other, makes up a single thing. As he says,

They do not comprehend how a thing agrees being at variance with itself; it is attunement which turns back on itself, like that of the bow and lyre. [Fr. 51 ]

Heraclitus identifies this unifying principle with the logos [f]: "...the Logos is common" [Fr. 2] This is a problematic term because of the many meanings it had in Greek: not only 'principle' but also 'utterance', 'account' 'word', 'proportion', 'ratio', 'reason', 'formula' n most of which Heraclitus seems to have employed in different fragments at different times. But it is reasonable to suppose that he intended it particularly to mean both what, in the opening of his book, he calls "this account" of all things [Fr. 1] and, more especially, that which the account refers to, namely a principle or formula which is at the same time independent of and manifested in the universe. He goes further by identifying this principle also with Fire as the primary 'element' of all things (and indeed as 'divine') [see Fr. 67] [g] ):

All things are exchanges for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods. [Fr. 90]

This ordered universe, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire ever living, being kindled in measures and in measures going out. [Fr. 30]

This is interesting because fire itself seems always to be in a state of constant change. And several hundreds of years later the Stoics supposed Heraclitus to have held the view that the universe undergoes periodic conflagrations [h]: but it is more likely that Heraclitus meant no more than that all things change from and back into fire.

While Fragment 30 suggests that the universe is not made by any god, elsewhere [for example, Fr. 67] Heraclitus compares god to fire. And in Fragment 64 he perhaps implicitly identifies god with fire: "The thunderbolt steers all things". He seems also to have suggested a relationship between fire and the other two 'elements' — water and earth [i]. Each is either hot or cold, wet or dry. So air is hot and wet, fire is hot and dry, water is cold and wet, earth cold and dry. Each element changes in succession into the other: but it is not certain how he thought this occurred. Some commentators [for example, Hussey] believe he held a theory of four elements — depending on the translation of 'burner' (prester) in Fr. 31:

The turnings of fire [the pure cosmic fire]: first sea, and of sea the half is earth and half burner ['hot air', 'fiery lightning'?] is dispersed as sea and is measured so as to form the same proportion as existed before it became earth.

 

PSYCHOLOGY/ KNOWLEDGE

[2] It is also possible that Heraclitus equated fire with wisdom and believed that the human soul can acquire wisdom because it possesses the divine quality of fieriness: "One thing, the only truly wise, does not and does consent to be called by the name of Zeus" [Fr. 32]; "A dry soul is wisest and best" [Fr. 118]. The 'fiery' soul as the principle of intelligence [a] both makes possible our understanding of the everyday world we perceive through our senses and is the means by which we can penetrate to the logos [a]. Heraclitus seems also to have thought that virtuous souls, remaining 'dry', survive death to become part of the world-fire [b].

 

ETHICS

[3] Heraclitus's moral philosophy is grounded in his philosophy of nature. His central principle accordingly is that the individual should seek to understand and model himself on the logos as "divine law, common to all" [Fr. 114] [a]. Right thinking and wisdom will lead to right actions [b]. "Man's character", he says [Fr. 119] "is his daimon [destiny]", by which he means to emphasize that one's future is under one's own control.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

It is difficult to pin down Heraclitus's philosophy; he seems so often to be shifting his position — epitomizing the flux which he sees as a central feature of the universe. His fragments are therefore often open to a variety of interpretations. The idea of harmony in Fr. 50, for example, has been described as an attunement which either "turns back on itself" or "is pulled both ways" — depending on the text. The former would seem to support an 'oscillatory' universe rather than one in equilibrium. Likewise there may be a difficulty in reconciling the views of fire as a physical element and as the controlling agency of the universe as a whole, sometimes identified with god but in other fragments seen as separate from god. However, the main points of Heraclitus's world-view are fairly clear: he stresses that strife is the norm (there is no Being, only Becoming); and that this is exhibited most obviously in fire. Generally we may say he is noteworthy for his originality as a speculative philosopher rather than for his 'scientific' reasoning.

 

READING

G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, ch. VI.

R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates, ch. 10.

C. H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus.

See also essays by H. Frnkel, U. Hlscher, and G. S. Kirk (all in Mourelatos), and by G. Vlastos (in Furley and Allen).

 

CONNECTIONS

Heraclitus

 

[1a] Change, conflict real and essential in cosmos

   Thales

   Anaximander

   Pythagoras

Parmenides

Zeno

Empedocles

Plato

Aristotle

Diderot

[1a]

[1a 1b]

[1a]

[1a d]

[1b] [2a]

[1b]

[1c 3c]

[8a b e]

[1a]

 

 

[1b] Cosmic in/justice    Anaximander [1d]

 

[1c] Real multiplicity and unity; underlying principle

   Thales

   Anaximenes

Pythagoras

Parmenides

Empedocles

Plato

Posidonius

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1b]

[1c 3c]

[1a]

 

[1d e] Opposites, harmony and conflic

   Anaximander

   Pythagoras

Anaxagoras

Empedocles

Plato

   Leibniz

Diderot

[1b]

[1c d]

[1c]

[1c]

[3c]

[4b]

[1a]

 

[1f 2a; 3a] Logos, divine reason and law; soul as intelligence

Anaxagoras

Empedocles

Plato

Chrysippus

Posidonius

Heidegger

[2b c]

[3b]

[5b]

[3b 5a]

[3a]

[1a]

 

[1g; see also1c] 'Element', 'material cause' underlying change — fire

   Thales

   Anaximander

   Anaximenes

Empedocles

Plato

Aristotle

[1a 1a]

[1a 1a]

[1a 1a]

[1b]

[5a]

[6a 9b 10c]

 

[1h] Fire — God and cosmic conflagration (?)

Chrysippus

Posidonius

[3c f]

[1b d]

 

[1i] Plurality of 'stuffs', 3 or 4 'elements' change into each other

Parmenides

   Anaxagoras

Empedocles

Plato

Aristotle

[1a]

[1b]

[1b]

[5c]

[10c 12d]

 

[2a] The soul — knowledge and. perception; penetration to logos

Empedocles

Plato

Chrysippus

[3b]

[6b 7b 9a]

[5a]

 

[2b] The ('fiery') soul and survival

Empedocles

Plato

Chrysippus

Posidonius

[3a]

[9b sec. 10]

[5a b]

[3c d]

 

[3a — see 1f]      

 

[3b] Right thinking leads to right action Plato [13a]