Text #9161"Heraclitus", in .
Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of the Greek city Ephesus, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor. He was of distinguished parentage. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. From the lonely life he led, and still more from the apparently riddled and allegedly paradoxical nature of his philosophy and his stress upon the needless unconsciousness of humankind, he was called “The Obscure” and the “Weeping Philosopher”.
Heraclitus was famous for his insistence on ever-present change as being the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice” (see panta rhei, below). This position was complemented by his stark commitment to a unity of opposites in the world, stating that “the path up and down are one and the same”. Through these doctrines Heraclitus characterized all existing entities by pairs of contrary properties, whereby no entity may ever occupy a single state at a single time. This, along with his cryptic utterance that “all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos” (literally, “word”, “reason”, or “account”) has been the subject of numerous interpretations.
The main source for the life of Heraclitus is Diogenes Laërtius, although some have questioned the validity of his account as “a tissue of Hellenistic anecdotes, most of them obviously fabricated on the basis of statements in the preserved fragments.” Diogenes said that Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad, 504–501 BCE. All the rest of the evidence — the people Heraclitus is said to have known, or the people who were familiar with his work — confirms the floruit. His dates of birth and death are based on a life span of 60 years, the age at which Diogenes says he died, with the floruit in the middle.
Heraclitus was born to an aristocratic family in Ephesus, Anatolia, in what is now called present-day Efes, Turkey. His father was named either Blosôn or Herakôn. Diogenes says that he abdicated the kingship (basileia) in favor of his brother and Strabo confirms that there was a ruling family in Ephesus descended from the Ionian founder, Androclus, which still kept the title and could sit in the chief seat at the games, as well as a few other privileges. How much power the king had is another question. Ephesus had been part of the Persian Empire since 547 and was ruled by a satrap, a more distant figure, as the Great King allowed the Ionians considerable autonomy. Diogenes says that Heraclitus used to play knucklebones with the youths in the temple of Artemis and when asked to start making laws he refused saying that the constitution (politeia) was ponêra, which can mean either that it was fundamentally wrong or that he considered it toilsome. Two extant letters between Heraclitus and Darius I, quoted by Diogenes, are undoubtedly later forgeries.
With regard to education, Diogenes says that Heraclitus was “wondrous” (thaumasios, which, as Plato explains in the Theaetetus and elsewhere, is the beginning of philosophy) from childhood. Diogenes relates that Sotion said he was a “hearer” of Xenophanes, which contradicts Heraclitus’ statement (so says Diogenes) that he had taught himself by questioning himself. Burnet states in any case that “… Xenophanes left Ionia before Herakleitos was born.” Diogenes relates that as a boy Heraclitus had said he “knew nothing” but later claimed to “know everything.” His statement that he “heard no one” but “questioned himself,” can be placed alongside his statement that “the things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most.”]
Diogenes relates that Heraclitus had a poor opinion of human affairs. He believed that Hesiod and Pythagoras lacked understanding though learned and that Homer and Archilochus deserved to be beaten. Laws needed to be defended as though they were city walls. Timon is said to have called him a “mob-reviler.” Heraclitus hated the Athenians and his fellow Ephesians, wishing the latter wealth in punishment for their wicked ways. Says Diogenes: “Finally, he became a hater of his kind (misanthrope) and wandered the mountains … making his diet of grass and herbs.”
Heraclitus’ life as a philosopher was interrupted by dropsy. The physicians he consulted were unable to prescribe a cure. He treated himself with a liniment of cow manure and baking in the sun, believing that this method would remove the fluid. After a day of treatment he died and was interred in the marketplace.
Diogenes states that Heraclitus’ work was “a continuous treatise On Nature, but was divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics, and a third on theology.” Theophrastus says (in Diogenes) “…some parts of his work [are] half-finished, while other parts [made] a strange medley.”
Diogenes also tells us that Heraclitus deposited his book as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis, the Artemisium, one of the largest temples of the 6th century BCE and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient temples were regularly used for storing treasures, and were open to private individuals under exceptional circumstances; furthermore, many subsequent philosophers in this period refer to the work. Says Kahn: “Down to the time of Plutarch and Clement, if not later, the little book of Heraclitus was available in its original form to any reader who chose to seek it out.” Diogenes says: “the book acquired such fame that it produced partisans of his philosophy who were called Heracliteans.”
As with other pre-Socratics, his writings survive now only in fragments quoted by other authors.
According to Diogenes Laërtius, Timon of Phlius called him “the riddler” (αἰνικτής ainiktēs), and explained that Heraclitus wrote his book “rather unclearly” (asaphesteron) so that only the “capable” should attempt it. By the time of Cicero he had become “the dark” (ὁ Σκοτεινός — ho Skoteinós) because he had spoken nimis obscurē, “too obscurely”, concerning nature and had done so deliberately in order to be misunderstood. The customary English translation of ὁ Σκοτεινός follows the Latin, “the Obscure.”
Diogenes Laërtius ascribes the theory that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia to Theophrastus. Later he was referred to as the “weeping philosopher,” as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the “laughing philosopher.” If Stobaeus writes correctly, Sotion in the early 1st century CE was already combining the two in the imaginative duo of weeping and laughing philosophers: “Among the wise, instead of anger, Heraclitus was overtaken by tears, Democritus by laughter.”
“The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos” and “the Logos is common,” is expressed in two famous but obscure fragments:
This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep. (DK 22B1)
For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding. (DK 22B2)
The meaning of Logos also is subject to interpretation: “word”, “account”, “principle”, “plan”, “formula”, “measure”, “proportion”, “reckoning.” Though Heraclitus “quite deliberately plays on the various meanings of logos”, there is no compelling reason to suppose that he used it in a special technical sense, significantly different from the way it was used in ordinary Greek of his time.
The later Stoics understood it as “the account which governs everything,” and Hippolytus, in the 3rd century CE, identified it as meaning the Christian Word of God.
Stoicism was a philosophical school which flourished between the 3rd century BCE and about the 3rd century CE. It began among the Greeks and became the major philosophy of the Roman Empire before declining with the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century.
Throughout their long tenure the Stoics believed that the major tenets of their philosophy derived from the thought of Heraclitus. According to Long, “the importance of Heraclitus to later Stoics is evident most plainly in Marcus Aurelius.” Explicit connections of the earliest Stoics to Heraclitus showing how they arrived at their interpretation are missing but they can be inferred from the Stoic fragments, which Long concludes are “modifications of Heraclitus.”
The Stoics were interested in Heraclitus’ treatment of fire. In addition to seeing it as the most fundamental of the four elements and the one that is quantified and determines the quantity (logos) of the other three, he presents fire as the cosmos, which was not made by any of the gods or men, but “was and is and ever shall be ever-living fire.” Fire is both a substance and a motivator of change, it is active in altering other things quantitatively and performing an activity Heraclitus describes as “the judging and convicting of all things.” It is “the thunderbolt that steers the course of all things.” There is no reason to interpret the judgement, which is actually “to separate” (κρίνειν krinein), as outside of the context of “strife is justice” (see subsection above).
The earliest surviving Stoic work, the Hymn to Zeus of Cleanthes, though not explicitly referencing Heraclitus, adopts what appears to be the Heraclitean logos modified. Zeus rules the universe with law (nomos) wielding on its behalf the “forked servant”, the “fire” of the “ever-living lightning.” So far nothing has been said that differs from the Zeus of Homer. But then, says Cleanthes, Zeus uses the fire to “straighten out the common logos” that travels about (phoitan, “to frequent”) mixing with the greater and lesser lights (heavenly bodies). This is Heraclitus’ logos, but now it is confused with the “common nomos”, which Zeus uses to “make the wrong (perissa, left or odd) right (artia, right or even)” and “order (kosmein) the disordered (akosma).”
The Stoic modification of Heraclitus’ idea of the Logos was also influential on Jewish philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria, who connected it to “Wisdom personified” as God’s creative principle. Philo uses the term Logos throughout his treatises on Hebrew Scripture in a manner clearly influenced by the Stoics.
The church fathers were the leaders of the early Christian Church during its first five centuries of existence, roughly contemporaneous to Stoicism under the Roman Empire. The works of dozens of writers in hundreds of pages have survived.
All of them had something to say about the Christian form of the Logos. The Catholic Church found it necessary to distinguish between the Christian logos and that of Heraclitus as part of its ideological distancing from paganism. The necessity to convert by defeating paganism was of paramount importance. Hippolytus of Rome therefore identifies Heraclitus along with the other Pre-Socratics (and Academics) as sources of heresy. Church use of the methods and conclusions of ancient philosophy as such was as yet far in the future, even though many were converted philosophers.
In Refutation of All Heresies Hippolytus says: “What the blasphemous folly is of Noetus, and that he devoted himself to the tenets of Heraclitus the Obscure, not to those of Christ.” Hippolytus then goes on to present the inscrutable DK B67: “God (theos) is day and night, winter and summer, … but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savor of each.” The fragment seems to support pantheism if taken literally. German physicist and philosopher Max Bernard Weinstein classed these views with pandeism.
Hippolytus condemns the obscurity of it. He cannot accuse Heraclitus of being a heretic so he says instead: “Did not (Heraclitus) the Obscure anticipate Noetus in framing a system …?” The apparent pantheist deity of Heraclitus (if that is what DK B67 means) must be equal to the union of opposites and therefore must be corporeal and incorporeal, divine and not-divine, dead and alive, etc., and the Trinity can only be reached by some sort of illusory shape-shifting.
The Apologist Justin Martyr, however, took a much more positive view of him. In his First Apology, he said both Socrates and Heraclitus were Christians before Christ: “those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.”
Botten, Mick. (2012). Herakleitos – Logos Made Manifest, Upfront Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78035-064-6 All fragments, in Greek and English, with commentary and appendices.
Davenport, Guy (translator) (1979). Herakleitos and Diogenes. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press. ISBN 0-912516-36-4. Complete fragments of Heraclitus in English.
Heraclitus; Haxton (translator), Brooks; Hillman (Forward), James (2001). “Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus”. New York: Viking (The Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam, Inc.). ISBN 0-670-89195-9.. Parallel Greek & English.
Kahn, Charles H. (1979). The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.