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Philosophy of Heraclitus


This website was last updated on: 28 February 2011


Alchemy meant for Heraclitus an examination of the four fundamental elements of nature:  fire (always first and foundational), then earth, air, and water.  Already, his Ionian precursors, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had made a series of more secular or naturalistic statements about the four elements, even though they expressed their views in expansive and abstract terms.  Their statements nonetheless are also remarkably alchemical, that is, in the strict sense of delving into the secrets of nature for the purpose of understanding the relationship between human and divine nature.  In a very real sense, the images that we have of Medieval alchemy reflect accurately the life that Heraclitus no doubt led:  secret and lonely searching, inner reflection based on the laws and manifestations of nature, and, most important, the emphasis on fire as a transforming energy.

-- Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus, page 11

 

"Heraclitus and Democritus" (1477), by the Renaissance architect,  Donato Bramante (1444-1514); the work is a fresco transferred to canvas and is on display at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 B.C.) and Democritus (ca. 460-370 B.C.) are known, respectively, as the "crying and laughing philosophers." In Bramante's picture, Heraclitus has tear drops flowing from his eyes, and Democritus has a cheerful smile.

Democritus, born at Abdera in Thrace, was known as the laughing philosopher because he found amusement in the follies of mankind. His philosophic system was contrasted with that of the earlier Heraclitus of Ephesus, who was reputed to be melancholic. They were linked as a contrasting pair by Florentine humanists; they used the pair to support the view that a cheerful demeanor was proper to a philosopher.

These two philosophers were frequently represented in paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In this work, Bramante has depicted Democritus, who believed that the Earth was round, with his most typical attribute - a terrestrial globe.

 

In my opinion, Heraclitus of Ephesus is one of the nine greatest philosophers of the Western World. He lived in the then flourishing Ionian Greek city of Ephesus, located on the western coast of present-day Turkey. The era during which he lived has been called the Shower of Stars by Will Durant and the center of the Axial Age by Karl Jaspers. Heraclitus flourished around 500 B.C., when the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Zarathustra were also alive and teaching in the East. The noted American philosopher, Richard Geldard, believes that:

 [Heraclitus] introduced to the West the notion of Mind as the driving controlling force of the universe.

Early in life, Heraclitus withdrew from an active political career to devote himself to philosophical inquiry. Professor Geldard surmises that he used alchemy, literally playing with fire, to probe the secrets of nature. Heraclitus is also famous for his doctrine of Flux, i.e., nothing stays the same in the world around us, everything continually changes.

In classical times, Heraclitus was known as "the dark (obscure) one" or in Greek "skoteinos."  Heraclitus was a major influence on the thinking of many later philosophers such as Plato, Zeno, Philo of Alexandria, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger.

He appears to have written only one book, entitled On Nature (which may be rendered in Greek as: έρί  Фύσέως).  Diogenes Laertius, the 3rd Century A.D. historian of philosophy, tells us that:

As to the work which passes as his, It is a continuous treatise On Nature, but is divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics, and a third on theology.  This book he deposited in the temple of Artemis and, according to some, he deliberately made it more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt.

A copy of On Nature was once given to Socrates; even he had difficulty understanding the text. Diogenes Laertius tells us that:

Euripides gave him the treatise of Heraclitus and asked his opinion upon it, and that his reply was, "The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it."

The complete text of Heraclitus' book has been lost; however, since he was frequently quoted by other ancient philosophers, there are about 130 fragments of writing attributed to him. Unfortunately, more than one-half of these fragments have been challenged as to their authenticity by various scholars at various times.  This leaves only about 60 fragments which are accepted as genuine by all classical academics. In my opinion, Heraclitus' most important philosophical ideas may be grouped into six categories as follows:

1.  His Theory of Flux, i.e., the Cosmos is dynamic; all things therein are subject to change.

2.  His Theory of Opposites.  The German philosopher. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), adopted much of Heraclitus' thinking in his development of his well-known "Hegelian Dialectic."

3.  His Theory of Nature (Physis) and the World-Order (Cosmos).  To the best of my knowledge, Heraclitus and his contemporary, Pythagoras, are the first Greeks to use the word "Cosmos" in a philosophical sense!  In Heraclitus' view, fire (energy) was the essential constituent of the Cosmos.

4.  His concept of the Logos.

5.  His views concerning the nature of men - both those who are "asleep" and "those who are "awake."

6.  His famous but esoteric three-word utterance: Ethos anthropos daimon.

There are many good sites on the Internet which discuss in considerable detail all of the above categories.  In my opinion, one of the best 20th Century interpreters of Heraclitus was Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950); his writings on the subject, which first appeared as articles in Arya magazine between December 1916 and June 1917, are accessible on the Internet at Bernard's Web Site.

 

The Fragments of Heraclitus

Probably the best modern text for analysis and translation of those Heraclitian fragments considered to be the most authentic is The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield (Second Edition, Published 1983), at pages 181-212. This work is commonly referred to by most modern philosophers as the "Kirk and Raven" book.  Because the chapter on Heraclitus follows others in the Kirk and Raven book, their fragment numbering starts with 194 and concludes with 250.  Thus, per Kirk and Raven, only 57 Heraclitian fragments are considered to be absolutely genuine verbatim quotations!

There are several fragments which I consider to be of primary importance with respect to understanding each of the six philosophical categories cited above. English translations and the original Greek texts of these fragments are presented below. 

The fragments are numbered in accordance with the so-called Diels-Kranz (DK) Numbering System. If these same fragments are cited in the Kirk and Raven (K&R) book, the K&R fragment numbers are also provided in parentheses. Emphasis (red boldface) is applied to certain words which I consider to be key to understanding the real meaning of these fragments.  Where considered appropriate, I also add the comments of several major philosophers pertaining to Heraclitus.

 

1.  The Theory of Flux:

Fragment DK22b12 (K&R 214):  New and different waters flow around those who step into the same river.  The river disperses and comes together … flows in and out … towards us and away.

Ζνων τν ψυχν λγει ασθητικν ναθυμασιν, καθπερ.· βουλμενος γρ μφανσαι, τι α ψυχα ναθυμιμεναι νοερα ε γνονται, εκασεν ατς τος ποταμος λγων οτως· ποταμοσι τοσιν ατοσιν μϐανουσιν τερα κα τερα δατα πιρρε· κα ψυχα δ πτνγρν ναθυ­μινται.

Fragment DK22b91:  You cannot step twice into the same stream; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.

οδ θνητς οσας δς φασθαι κατ ξιν· λλ΄ ξτητι κα τχει μεταϐολς σκδνησι κα πλιν συνγει  κα πρσεισι κα πεισι.

Fragment from Plato’s Cratylus 402a  (K&R 215):  Socrates:  Heraclitus somewhere says that all things are in process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a river he says that you would not step twice into the same river.

Sôkratęs:  legei pou Hęrakleitos hoti panta chôrei kai ouden menei, kai potamou rhoęi apeikazôn ta onta legei hôs dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaięs.

[Sorry, I am able to provide only a transliteration of the Greek text.]

 

2.  The Theory of Opposites:

Fragment DK22b8:  What opposes unites, and the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and all things come about by strife.

τ ντξουν συμφρον κα κ τν διαφερντων καλλστην ρμοναν κα πντα κατ' ριν γνεσθαι.

Fragment DK22b10 Graspings: things whole and not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.

συλλψιες· λα κα οχ λα, συμφερμενον διαφερμενον, συνδον διδον κα κ πντων ν κα ξ νς πντα.

Fragment DK22b51 (K&R 209):  They do not apprehend how being at variance it agrees with itself [literally: how being brought apart it is brought together with itself].  There is a back-stretched harmony, as in the bow and the lyre.

ο ξυνισιν κως διαφερμενον ωυτ μολογει· παλντροπος ρμονη κωσπερ τξου κα λρης.

Fragment DK22b53 (K&R 212):  War is the father of all and king of all; and some he shows as gods, others as men, some he makes slaves, others free.

πλεμος πντων μν πατρ στι, πντων δ βασιλες, κα τος μν θεος δειξε τος δ νθρπους τος μν δολους ποησε τος δ λευθρους.

Fragment DK22b60 (K&R 200):  The path up and down is one and the same.

δς νω κτω μα κα υτή.

 Fragment DK22b80 (K&R 211):  It is necessary to know that war is common and right is strife and that all things happen by strife and necessity.

 εδναι δ χρ τν πλεμον ἐόντα ξυνν, κα δκην ριν, κα γινμενα πντα κατ' ριν κα χρεν.

I think that one of the most important things to note about Heraclitus' Theory of Opposites is that it is a major influence in the development of the Hegelian Dialectic.  Hegel, in one of his lectures (first given at Jena in 1805) on the History of Philosophy, tells us that:

 ... Heraclitus at least understands the absolute as just this process of the dialectic. The dialectic is thus three-fold:

(a) The external dialectic, a reasoning which goes over and over again without ever reaching the soul of the thing;

(b) Immanent dialectic of the object, but falling within the contemplation of the subject;

(c) The objectivity of Heraclitus which takes the dialectic itself as principle.

The advance requisite and made by Heraclitus is the progression from Being as the first immediate thought, to the category of Becoming as the second. This is the first concrete, the Absolute, as in it the unity of opposites. Thus with Heraclitus the philosophic Idea is to be met with in its speculative form; the reasoning of Parmenides and Zeno is abstract understanding. Heraclitus was thus universally esteemed a deep philosopher and even was decried as such. Here we see land; there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic. ...

[Source:  Lectures on the History of Philosophy by G. W. F. Hegel, translated into English by E. S. Haldane during the period 1892-96.]

 

3.  Primary Constituent of the Cosmos -- Fire (Energy):

Fragment DK22b30 (K&R 217):  This Cosmos [the same of all] did none of gods or men make. But it always was, and is, and shall be an ever-living Fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.

κσμον τνδε, τν ατν πντων, οτε τις θεν οτε νθρπων ποησεν, λλ' ν ε κα στιν κα σται πρ εζωον, πτμενον μτρα κα ποσβεννμενον μτρα

Fragment DK22b90 (K&R 219):  All things are an equal exchange for Fire and Fire for all things, as goods are for gold and gold for goods.

πυρς τε νταμοιβ τ πντα κα πρ πντων κωσπερ χρυσο χρματα κα χρημτων χρυσς

 

4.  The Concept of the Logos:

Few people have ever even heard of the Greek term "Logos" which in the Greek alphabet is spelled "λόγος."  Most English speaking people, who have heard of this term, probably have done so in connection with the King James Bible translation of the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1 and 14. which is cited below:

Verse 1:     In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Verse 14:  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

(Gospel of John, Chapter 1, Verses 1 and 14, King James Version)

The New Testament was originally written in the Koine (common) Greek of the First Century A.D. In this common Greek, the same verses from the first chapter of John are rendered thus:

Verse 1:    Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος, καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος.
 

Verse 14:  Καὶ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.
 

In the King James Version of John, as well as in almost all other English translations of this Gospel, the Greek term "λόγος" (Logos) is always translated as the "Word."  Unfortunately, this is a very simplistic translation of a very complex philosophical term. 

Many people may not know it, but at a very early date, Christian theology became very strongly influenced by Greek philosophy - particularly by the Stoic and Platonic philosophers.  The first evidence of this is in the Gospel attributed to the Apostle John.  This Gospel is thought to have been written in about 90-100 A.D. 

As is evident in the two verses quoted above, the Logos, which is an abstract, impersonal concept in Greek philosophy, has been transformed in Christian thinking to a personal deity - namely the Christ!  Jesus Christ is asserted to be nothing less than the incarnation of the Logos!  This is an unprecedented change in thinking; I am not aware of any other such transformation, from the impersonal to the personal, in Greek or Roman philosophical thought.

To the best of my knowledge, the first people in human history to write about this concept were the ancient Egyptians in their concept of Maat. But, in my opinion, the full development of the idea occurs first in the writings of the Presocratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus.  See the following fragments:

Fragment DK22b1 (K&R 194):  Of the Logos which is as I describe it, men always prove it to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos, men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep.

το δ λγου τοδ ἐόντος ε ξνετοι γνονται νθρωποι κα πρσθεν κοσαι κα κοσαντες τ πρτον· γινομνων γρ πντων κατ τν λγον τνδε περοισιν οκασι πειρμενοι κα πων κα ργων τοιοτων κοων γ διηγεμαι κατ φσιν διαιρων καστον κα φρζων κως χει· τος δ λλους νθρπους λανθνει κσα γερθντες ποιοσιν κωσπερ κσα εδοντες πιλανθνονται.

Fragment DK22b2 (K&R 195):  Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos is common, the many live as though they had a private understanding.

το λγου δ' ἐόντος ξυνο ζουσιν ο πολλο ς δαν χοντες φρνησιν.

Fragment DK22b50 (K&R 196):  Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.

οκ μο λλ το λγου κοσαντας μολογεν σοφν στιν ν πντα εναι.

 

5.  The Consciousness of Men (Asleep or Awake):

Fragment DK22b26 (K&R 233):  A man in the night kindles a light for himself when his vision is extinguished; living he is in contact with the dead when asleep, and with the sleeper when awake.

νθρωπος ν εφρν φος πτεται αυτ [ποθανν] ποσβεσθες ψεις, ζν δ πτεται τεθνετος εδων, [ποσβεσθες ψεις], γρηγορς πτεται εδοντος.

Fragment DK22b73:  We ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep.

ο δε σπερ καθεδοντας ποιεν κα λγειν· κα γρ κα ττε δοκομεν ποεν κα λγειν.

Fragment DK22b75:  Those who are asleep are fellow-workers in what goes on in the Cosmos.

τος καθεδοντας ργτας εναι κα συνεργος τν ν τ κσμ γινομνων.

Fragment DK22b89 Heraclitus has said that the waking have one Cosmos, but the sleeping turn aside, each into a world of his own.

ρκλειτς φησι τος γρηγορσιν να κα κοινν κσμον εναι τν δ κοιμωμνων καστον ες διον ποστρφεσθαι.

Fragment DK22a16 (K&R 234):  According to Heraclitus, we become intelligent by drawing in this Logos through breathing, and forgetful when asleep.  But we regain our senses when we wake up again.  For in sleep, when the channels of perception are shut, our mind is sundered from its kinship with the surroundings, and breathing is the only point of attachment to be preserved, like a kind of root.  Being sundered, our mind casts off its former power of memory.  But in the waking state, it again peeps out through channels of perception as through a kind of window, and meeting with the surrounding it puts on its power of reason.

[Note: The above fragment is taken from a work by the 2nd Century A.D. Greek philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, entitled Adversus Mathematikos; the Greek text for this fragment will be provided at a later date.]

6.  Ethos anthropos daimon.

Additional words of explanation are needed, as I am unable to provide an accurate translation of this fragment into English. The philosopher, Dr. Richard Geldard, has written that:


The most challenging of the Heraclitean fragments to render into English is … 'Ethos anthropos daimon.' Most commentators simply translate "Character is fate." Kirk and Raven [the principal scholarly textbook in English concerning Heraclitus], aware of the ambiguities involved intentionally leave daimon untranslated because of the serious philosophical problems involved in attempting an English equivalent such as 'fate' or 'destiny,' which in turn proclaim a reductive meaning.
 

In my opinion, the Heraclitus quotation “Ethos anthropos daimon” has a much more profound meaning than “character is fate.” The Heraclitus utterance is not a sentence; it’s a series of three nouns.

Reducing the Greek philosophical term ethos to the English word “character” is a major intellectual oversimplification! Many pages could be written as to just what the term “ethos” means in the instant case. The true idea that this term is intended to represent has challenged the likes of many great thinkers such as Hegel, Heidegger and Voegelin. It certainly challenges me!

Of course Anthropos is a human being in the sense, not of a machine, but a human with an individual soul, even though it may be undeveloped.

I do not believe that Daimon, in this usage, means spirit , destiny or fate; Heraclitus uses the word in the ontological sense of pure Being in and of itself. Gurdjieff would call it the “Essence” of a man or woman as opposed to mere personality, which is only a highly complex, system of electrochemical circuitry in the brain, which perishes with the death of the body.

I think that Heraclitus put those three words together to communicate, albeit imperfectly, an insight he had received while in a state of higher consciousness. Unfortunately, ideas concerning the Noumenal World, to use a Kantian term, are invariably nondiscursive in nature and cannot be fully expressed in any natural language, even Greek!

In my humble opinion, the true meaning behind these three Greek words is something that may only be understood by a person who has achieved and is currently in a state of higher consciousness. Accordingly, I leave it to each individual person to work out his/her own meaning as to these words.

Fragment DK22b119 (K&R 247)Ethos anthropos daimon.

θος νθρπ δαμων.


Disclaimer

This essay provides my interpretations of some of the ideas of Heraclitus.  These interpretations should not be considered as a complete summary of all of his ideas.  The interpretations are entirely my own and I am solely responsible for any errors, whether objective or subjective, that may be found.


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