The Presocratics Part III: Heraclitus
Ancient Greek thought becomes darker and more mysterious with the arrival of Heraclitus, who was born around 540 b.c.e. in Ephesus, which was also in ancient Ionia. There is a much more substantial written record of Heraclitus’ works, including a passage which is thought to be the introduction to a book he wrote, On Nature, which is now lost. Most of the existing writings of Heraclitus are in the form of epigrams or aphorisms—short sayings, such as, “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” which can have more than one meaning. Probably due to the comparatively more vast quantity of extant fragments, Heraclitus comes across, at least to a lay reader such as myself, as a more challenging, sophisticated, and enigmatic thinker than his Presocratic predecessors. Of course, this is also due to the nature of his writings, which are frequently obscure and paradoxical (he was known, in his time and after, as “The Riddler”). His fragments have also been described as “oracular,” meaning that they resemble the oracle with their cryptic, elusive structure.
Much can be said about the writings of Heraclitus, so I will try to focus on a few passages, and what I believe to be the most salient points that Heraclitus tried to make, however obliquely. A topic that frequently arises from discussions of Heraclitus is the “unity of opposites.” This is the notion that opposites coincide or exist in conflict to make a cohesive whole. The unity of opposites is exemplified in the following fragment.
The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive.
Sea water as a single entity consists of two conflicting properties in opposition, yet comprising a whole: its life-sustaining properties (as regards fish) and its toxic properties (as regards man). The previously discussed fragment, “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” also exemplifies this unity. The passage does more than simply state the obvious—that a road that slopes uphill from one person’s perspective also slopes downhill from another’s. Rather, Heraclitus is saying that a single entity—the road—is simultaneously two opposing things: a road that goes up and a road that comes down. It is thus two seemingly conflicting properties that exist in opposition to one another to constitute a united whole.
Heraclitus believed in the concept of the universal truth. He maintained that these truths were present in the form of a single logos (which means “word,” “account,” “measure,” or “reason,” among other possible meanings/translations), but that the common person, or perhaps mankind, as a whole, is not necessarily able to see or understand this logos. It is only through reflection, contemplation, and thought that individuals can glean these universal truths. It seems to me that Heraclitus used his aphorisms as a means to express hidden truths about the world in an abstract manner in an effort to cause his listeners to pause and reflect on his words, and in turn, understand the logos. This is expressed in Heraclitus’ fragment that, “An unapparent connection is stronger than an apparent one.” Furthermore, he says that, “The soul has a self-increasing logos,” which seems to imply that human beings are born with an innate ability to understand the logos, which increases as universal truths are systematically understood.
Regarding “common man,” Heraclitus’ writings also feature a strain of elitism, as in the following aphorisms.
A fool is excited by every word.
Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to people if they have barbarian souls.
Uncomprehending when they have heard, they are like the deaf. The saying describes them: though present they are absent.
One ought not to act and speak like people asleep.
One person is ten thousand to me if he is best.
These fragments are indicative of an individual with little patience for the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the common man. Heraclitus, if his writings are taken at face value, placed great value on wisdom, rational inquiry, and understanding, at the expense of a willingness to follow the herd, as it were. His impatience or sorrow towards mankind’s predilection for ignorance and indifference is frequently expressed in later paintings and images of Heraclitus. He is often depicted as a gloomy, black-clad philosopher wringing his hands above a globe, which represents mankind, and perhaps the negative aspects of the human condition.
I’d like to conclude with a final note about Heraclitus’ metaphysics. The writings of the Milesians make it fairly explicit what these philosophers believed in terms of what constitutes the stuff of the cosmos, whether it is air, water, or “the indefinite.” In keeping with his other fragments, Heraclitus expresses his understanding about the composition of the material world with some ambiguity. He expressed a belief that fire is the life-giving stuff of the cosmos (hence, living organisms are warm, while they become cold when they die, and the “fire” no longer gives them life). Another consensus among philosophers and historians is that movement has a particular significance in Heraclitus’ thought; that things are always in a state of flux, or change. Take Heraclitus’ famous aphorism, “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow,” which is commonly paraphrased as, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” As the composition of the river is always changing, in the form of rapidly-flowing waters, the river is technically different from one moment to the next. I find it appealing to consider this fragment in other terms as well: the experience of the world causes people to change from one moment to the next as well; therefore the “you” who steps into the river is different from the “you” who subsequently steps, again, into the same river.
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