Greek Philosophy 5: Heraclitus

For this lecture, please read the Fragments of Heraclitus.

heraclitus bustHeraclitus (535 – 475 BCE) was born in Ephesus, not far from Miletus, in Ionia.  An educated child of aristocrats, Heraclitus came to an understanding similar to that of Xenophanes (who we last studied) and Socrates (who we will soon study): No one can ever know the truth entirely, and so we should continue to seek truth endlessly to become wise.  Diogenes Laertius, the historian of philosopher biographies, says Heraclitus was to be king of Ephesus but abdicated the throne to become a sage.  Some scholars have suggested that Heraclitus was in fact Buddha, and that the teachings of Heraclitus, many similar to teachings of the Buddha, came from India into Greece or from Greece into India.  While I am a big fan of cross-cultural transmissions, this is rather far fetched.  It is likelier that Heraclitus and Buddha are both skeptical of human judgements, arguing all things including judgements and truth are impermanent and changing, and this position is found across human cultures.

cyrusEphesus had been part of Persian empire since Ionia was conquered by Cyrus in 547 BCE.  Heraclitus was just coming to prominence as the Ionians began their revolt, and likely lived to see both the battle of Marathon and Ionian independence from Persia near the end of his life.

One source says Heraclitus heard Xenophanes as a child.  Heraclitus says he was largely self taught, inquiring like Socrates about the self and the cosmos, but Heraclitus was well aware of the Greek thinkers before him.  It was mentioned that Heraclitus criticized Pythagoras as knowledgeable yet foolish for believing in reincarnation, “believing himself in one life to have been a cucumber, and in another a sardine”.  Clearly, though Pythagoras had moved to Croton, his thinking as well as that of others was well known in Ephesus and Ionia.

Ephesus Library of CelsusHeraclitus was very critical of everyone, particularly the early Greek philosophers and his fellow Ephesians.  Like the Athenians killed Socrates for questioning too much and so “inciting the youth to riot”, Ephesus had exiled Hermadoros because was ‘worthier than average’, presumably doing philosophy and cosmology.  Heraclitus responded:

As for the Ephesians, I would have them all go hang themselves, leaving the city in the abler hands of children, for they banished Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying ‘Let no one of us excel, or if he does let him do it elsewhere among others.  May wealth never leave you, Ephesians, lest your wickedness be revealed.

Heraclitus sad paintingJust like many other great thinkers, Heraclitus did not like the politics of his day and was critical of traditions of thought in general.  Heraclitus was not, however, sad or angry as much as he was a skeptic.  Heraclitus was called ‘the weeping philosopher’ by a few sources in the ancient world, as well as ‘the dark’ and ‘the obscure’.  Democritus is called the laughing philosopher, and Heraclitus the weeping, both disgusted by humanity.  Juvenal, the Roman poet (not the American rapper) wrote that, given the post popular prayer in temples is for riches, it is no wonder that Democritus laughs and Heraclitus weeps.  In Raphael’s famous painting ‘The School of Athens’, he is portrayed looking downward with a somber expression sitting off by himself near the bottom center in a purple cloak, unlike other philosophers and scientists who are enthusiastically conversing about the cosmos in groups.


Raphael HeraclitusHeraclitus does seem to laugh, and many of his fragments appear playful jokes.  Despising the beliefs, traditions and politics of the day does not make one a sad or angry person relative to others.  Rather, it turns criticism of the other into criticism of the self and one’s own civilization.  Heraclitus was convinced that wisdom and inquiring within show us that all is one big cosmic fire, and things that unify the community and the individual bring wholeness and true happiness.  However, he believed that humans are often foolish and let their minds divide themselves from the whole and from each other such that their understandings are disjointed and ignorant.

Caspar Wanderer above the sea of fog (mountains hiker)Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus often tired of people and would walk in the hills by himself, similar to the later Heraclitus-influenced German philosopher Nietzsche.  Both wrote that people are apes and only the few become wise and see things as a great individual.  In his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote in response to the rising German antisemitism of his time that a race is good for getting to six or seven great men, and then getting around them.

Diogenes Laertius also says that Heraclitus wrote a book ‘On Nature’ which had three parts (the first about cosmology, the second about politics, and the third about theology).  We only have the introduction and various fragments remaining today, known as the Fragments of Heraclitus, but his book was famous among later ancient Greek thinkers.  Heraclitus deposited his book at the Great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Temple of Artemis Ephesus

artemisArtemis, daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, was the widely revered Greek goddess of hunting and the wilderness (counterpoint to Apollo, god of agriculture and civilization).  Her name and other evidence leads scholars to suppose that it comes from an earlier bear cult of the region, and the priestesses were known as ‘little bears’.

Heraclitus is said by other sources to have been a doctor, and many of his fragments do speak about the workings of physiology within the larger frame of physics as a thinker who is immersed in ancient cosmology would.  Heraclitus believed that the soul, mind and self becomes soggy and intoxicated when one indulges in desire and pleasure (drinking and sex are moist by nature), and likewise when one studies with the fire of the mind and abstains from pleasure the soul dries out.  While this could come from a physician, some fragments seem critical of physicians and the practice of medicine just as others are critical of philosophers, spiritual groups and politics.  In one fragment he writes:

The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like the lyre and bow.  Therefore, good and ill are one.  Good and ill to the physician must be one, since he derives his fee from torturing the sick.

river runsHeraclitus’ most famous idea is a memorable image: you can never step in the same river twice.  Just as a river is always flowing and changing, so is reality always flowing and changing, such that nothing stays exactly the same for any two moments.  You step in a river, then step out, then step back in the same river, but it is no longer ‘the same river’.  Heraclitus says this is also true of the cosmos and the human individual.  One fragment reads:

We do and do not step into the same river.  We are and are not.

Fire FlamesHeraclitus argued that the world is always in flux, as a single thing stable and eternal but as many things in constant change and tension.  Paradoxically, constant change is the stability and being of things.  Rivers flow, fire burns, life thrives, always in motion to be stable in what it is.  If things stop moving and growing the way that they do, they disintegrate and fall apart.  In what often appears as a strange and out-of-place fragment, Heraclitus says, “Goat cheese congeals in wine if not well stirred”.  This is an example of a motion keeping a mixture what it is.  Red wine mixed with goat cheese was a common beverage served at gatherings.

While his famous image is of water in a river, Heraclitus argued that fire is the arche, the most basic element that forms and moves all things.  All things are part of the eternal fire, flowing like water, and ordered by the word/breath/air of the cosmos itself.  While Heraclitus differs from the early Milesians in the selection of fire as his arche, he seems to be bringing Thales (who argued all things are water), Anaximander (who argued that all things are of the one infinite) and Anaximenes (who argued that all things are air) into line with his own position, agreeing yet disagreeing with them.  Heraclitus wrote:

cloud lightningThat which always was, and is, and will be ever-living fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away…As all things change to fire, and fire exhausted falls back into things, the goods are sold for gold, the gold spent on goods.

Fire is desire and satisfaction.

How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape?  One thunderbolt strikes root through everything.

jupiter with thunder bolt

Fire also flows, and individual tongues of flame rise out of the fire and then return and integrate with the whole.  Fire, like water, flows in a consistent manner that is always self-similar but never exactly the same twice, just as each person, wave or flame is individual and distinct.  Notice that a thunderbolt, such as that hurled as a weapon by Zeus and which the ancient Greeks thought was made of fire, is the energy and cause of formation for the cosmos, though Heraclitus does not mention Zeus by name.  The Zoroastrians of Persia held fire as the highest element and identified it with their monotheistic god.  It is possible that Heraclitus is influenced by Persian Zoroastrians while taking it in his own direction, just as he does with the work of the Milesian school.  Zoroastrians also believe that the cosmos is ordered by divine speech, by the word and command of the cosmos.  The beginning of Heraclitus’ book, which we still have, reads:

HeraclitusThe word proves those first hearing it as numb to understanding as the ones who have not heard, yet all things follow from the word.  Some, blundering with what I set before you, try in vain with empty talk to separate the essences of things and say how each thing truly is, and all the rest make no attempt.  They no more see how they behave broad waking than remember clearly what they did asleep.  For wisdom, listen not to me but to the word and know that all is one.  Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead.  People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes.  Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know.  Yet they lack the skill to listen or to speak.  Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.  Things keep their secrets.

logosThe ‘word’ is ‘logos’ in ancient Greek, from which we get the word ‘logic’.  In the ancient world, the art of logic was used for debate and persuasion.  Plato and later Greek philosophers used this conception, but it is first used by Heraclitus.

anaximander-1-sizedLike Anaximander, Heraclitus is comfortable with the infinite, and says that the cosmic fire is never born and never dies.  Anaximander said that the elements encroach on each other, committing injustice, and that they perish when transforming into each other.  Heraclitus shares this, but extends it: the elements encroach on each other, but it is conflict that is the birth of all things.  Only the All is permanent.  All the other things are wandering temporal forms.  The many beings arise from the energy of Being, and then they fall back into the fire and disappear.  The cosmos resembles the chaos yet order of the human community centered on authority by spoken word.  The LOGOS, the word/plan/order/command, is the formative force in the cosmos, the force of fire and light in the watery chaotic world.  The cosmic fire speaks with its ever-present Logos (fire over air) and this brings about the firmament in the chaos (the earth rising out of the water).  This process, however, does not bring about eternal or stable beings, but chains of beings that are in flux and interdependent.

ancient city wallThis goes also for laws, which Heraclitus says have to be defended as if they were city walls.  This is sometimes read that Heraclitus thought human law was important and had to be defended, which he did, but in fact he is also telling us that human laws are impermanent like walls made out of earth.  They may seem eternal and permanent, but as any former citizen or city of the Persian empire knows, empires fall and impressive city states are overthrown and change hands.  The eternal word of the fire forever forms the cosmos, but human speech and walls are temporary, and therefore take force and effort to maintain.

As a skeptic, Heraclitus believes that the divisions made by the mind are mortal, not eternal, like the human body.  Our knowledge and laws are impermanent like mounds of dirt.  Heraclitus says many things to humble us, including pointing out our similarity to apes to put our achievements in perspective.  Notice in the opening passage that some incorrectly try to separate the essences of things, and the rest are completely ignorant and asleep.  Heraclitus was not a fan of experts and specialists, and he ridiculed the cultural leaders of his time.  He says that the common people are completely asleep, but far more dangerous are the experts who have a small piece of the puzzle and say that they know the entire truth.

HesiodHeraclitus calls the poets Hesiod and Homer and the Pythagoreans frauds, says Homer and Archilochos should be beaten, and says that there are no permanent truths or laws other than the constant formation of watery chaos by the sun and cosmic fire.  Notice that this does not question the cosmology as we have studied it everywhere (and what the Persians gave to the Eastern Greek city states).  Many often ask, “Why, then, should I listen to Heraclitus, since he is simply an expert?”.  Heraclitus replies as most skeptics do: don’t take my word for it, but look into the world and within yourself and you will find that it is true.  Heraclitus said:

Of all the words yet spoken, none comes quite as far as wisdom, which is the action of the mind beyond all things that may be said.  Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.

Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within.

heraclitus weepsSince mindfulness, of all things, is the ground of being, to speak one’s true mind and to keep things known in common, serves all being, just as laws made clear uphold the city, yet with greater strength.  Of all pronouncements of the law the one source is the word whereby we choose what helps true mindfulness prevail.  Although we need the word to keep things known in common, people still treat specialists as if their nonsense were a form of wisdom.  Fools seek counsel from the ones they doubt.  People need not act and speak as if they were asleep.  The waking have one world in common.  Sleepers meanwhile turn aside, each into a darkness of his own.

pythagoras statue with togaNow that we can travel anywhere, we need no longer take the poets and myth-makers for sure witnesses over disputed facts.

If learning were a path of wisdom, those most learned about myth would not believe, with Hesiod, that Pallas in her wisdom gloats over the noise of battle.  Pythagoras may well have been the deepest in his learning of all men, and still he claimed to recollect details of former lives, being in one a cucumber and one time a sardine.

Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters never understand that night and day are one.

Homer bustHomer I deem worthy, in a trial by combat, of a good cudgeling…They raise their voices at stone idols as a man might argue with his doorpost.  They have understood so little of the gods.

We should not be children of our parents.

Just like Xenophanes, Heraclitus does not advocate pessimistic nihilism but continuous pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.  All things change, but this gives us more to know, not less.  It is sad news only if one wants unchanging truths.  Experts who try to separate things from the great flow to know them permanently and in isolation are ignorant of the single unchanging and unified truth: all things are one and all things change constantly.

BattailleBataille, the french philosopher close to the Surrealist movement and a Nietzschean, said that the problem is not that there is too little truth, but that there is too much, a terrible excess that we often can not face out of fear.  Bataille also wrote that all of human knowledge is comparable to a temporary ape erection, to an ape standing on its hind legs for a while and getting a bit excited.

Martin HeideggerHeidegger, a popular German philosopher also influenced much by Nietzsche, said that we prefer to be ignorant of the flow of time and try to box up reality in static concepts because the endless process of time brings us all things but threatens to take all things away.  This became the central concept of Existentialism, a term coined by the french philosopher Sartre and back-applied to Nietzsche and Heidegger.

I happen to be critical of American and British Analytic Philosophy, and enjoy French and German Continental Philosophy which is quite involved with the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger.  Like Heraclitus, I believe that we should be critical of all human truth and institutions, recognizing that things change and judgements are useful but impermanent.  Unfortunately, American and British philosophy is often uncritical of science and dismissive of earlier systems of thought as ‘unscientific’.  While there is no denying that scientific institutions can achieve great insights and produce incredible technology, it is dangerous to trust any institution or expert uncritically.  Human beings, particularly experts, are as talented at being ignorant as they are at being wise, and modern technology is used for the best and the worst in recorded history.  As Heraclitus suggests in ancient Greece, experts tell themselves they know and many believe them but we can always learn more by being critical and having the wisdom to question everything continuously.

Nietzsche painting munchSpeaking of Nietzsche, who argued in his Beyond Good and Evil that things can not be separated into simply good and simply evil, another prominent idea in Heraclitus’ fragments is the unity of opposites.  If all things are one, this means that both sides of any opposition, such as good and evil, are one and the same thing.  Consider opposites such as good and evil or hot and cold.  There is nothing more unlike good than evil, nothing more unlike hot than cold, and yet there is nothing more like good than evil, nothing more like hot than cold.  Good is the opposite of evil, but they are both values, in fact the two and only extremes of value.  Hot is the opposite of cold, yet they are the two extremes of temperature.  If there is no thing that is absolutely hot or absolutely cold, then all hot things are also somewhat cold, and all cold things are somewhat hot.  All things are hot, and all things are cold.  Likewise, if all truth and judgements are only relatively true, then all human beliefs are true and false, good and bad.

Plato HeadPlato is critical of Heraclitus even as he is influenced by Heraclitus, arguing that nothing can be truly known or be said truly to exist if all changes constantly.  As we will see, Plato saw Heraclitus as right about the watery world below, but wrong about the eternal and ideal forms of things, which like the mathematics of the Pythagoreans lies above the lowly chaotic mortal realm.  Heraclitus, like Xenophanes, would say that things can be relatively known more or less, but not absolutely.  For Plato, knowledge must be ideal, distinct from relatively correct belief.  For Heraclitus, there is relatively greater and greater views of the whole, but the ideal is not achieved by particular mortal beings or their temporary judgements.

refrigeratorFor Heraclitus, fire is water, day is night, peace is war, and stability is change.  It is good to find the origin of things in their opposites, as this is the last place most would look.  Consider that refrigerators cool food down by heating up in the back, drawing the heat out of the fridge.  If one thought heating in order to cool was impossible, they would not conceive of the refrigerator.

From the strain of binding opposites comes harmony.  The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known.

kithara lyreFrom tension and strain come harmony, just as the tension in the strings of an instrument allow harmonious and pleasing notes to be played.  We have already heard that satisfaction itself is a form of energy and tension.  The harmony past knowing, the wisdom to see that things are united beyond the distinctions of knowledge and concepts, is more deeply in tune with the universe than partial understandings.

Without injustices, the name of justice would mean what?

The way up is the way back.  The beginning is the end.

b5437-mountain-trail255b1255dAs the world works in cycles, we advance to both leave and return from the starting point.  While the starting point is never the same twice, just like a river, to go forward and change is the same as to return and remain what one is.  Some translate the first line here as “The road up is the road down”, which is true of any mountain road: the same road leads both up and down, depending on which way one is facing.

Immortals are mortal.  Mortals are immortal, living the death of others and dying their life.

When we covered Xenophanes, we spoke of the tree shape of one branching into many that unifies an unending and unmoving infinite with the many mortal and particular beings of the cosmos.  While Heraclitus’ fire seems to be an infinite that is only still in its constant motion, unlike the immobile infinite One of Xenophanes, the words of Heraclitus above fit their common understanding.  We are all immortal insofar as we belong to the whole, but mortal insofar as we are our particular selves.  As things die to be transformed into the next things, each thing’s life comes from death (“living the death of others”) just as each life leads toward its own death, which is the life of the next thing in succession (“dying their life”).

As for psychology of the human individual mind/soul, Heraclitus believed that the soul could become wet or dry, wet being weighed down by desire, dry being wise and unified through reason.  In the ancient world, fire was often identified with thought as thought is often visions of light in the head, and so those with a superior mind fire and/or dry soul can have greater visions of the past, present and future.  Some fragments read:

Moisture makes the soul succumb to joy.  Dry, the soul grows wise and good.

A gleam of light is a dry soul, wisest and best.

confucius right sideWhile Heraclitus seems to be an elitist, arguing that only the few are wise and the rest are asleep, he seems to share a similar picture to Confucius in China and earlier Egyptian wisdom proverbs.  While excellent thinking is rare, no one can obtain all wisdom and so one should remember that everyone has some thought and wisdom.  A fragment reads:

Thinking is common to all.

Even so, all human judgements are like child’s toys.  In a passage that sounds very much like Zhuangzi the Daoist patriarch from China, using animal perspectives to show that what we value and desire is relative, Heraclitus says:

Orangutan TubThe language of a grown man, to the cosmic powers, sounds like baby-talk to men.  To a god the wisdom of the wisest man sounds apish.  Beauty in a human face looks apish too.  In everything we have achieved the excellence of apes.  The ape apes find most beautiful looks apish to non-apes.

The sea is both pure and tainted, healthy and good haven to the fish, to humans undrinkable and deadly.  Poultry bathe in dust and ashes, swine in mud.  Donkeys would choose trash over gold.

Human nature has no insight, but divine nature has it.  A man is called infantile by a divinity as a child is by a man.  The wise is one alone, it is unwilling and willing to be called by the name Zeus.

XenophanesNote the last line, and how it incorporates theistic and atheistic, traditional and philosophical thought into the same whole as various perspectives within the all-perspective.  While Heraclitus challenges those like Homer and Hesiod who write that gods delight in blood and war, he suggests that Zeus, here more like Xenophanes’ abstract god, is both the anthropomorphic view and the abstract philosophical monistic view, and so is both willing and unwilling to be called by the name ‘Zeus’.  The whole view is an agreement of disagreements, a unity of conflicts.

Two made one are never one.  Arguing the same we disagree.  Singing together we compete.

Dogs bark at everyone they do not know.

Conceit is a holy disease.  Sight tells falsehoods.

Vygotsky child development psychologistThe whole is not only a site of conflict, but is also characterized by Heraclitus as playful, like a child playing with its toys, our mortal selves and our perspectives.  Parallel to this, the developmental psychologist Vygotsky, who did work in the 1930s and 40s in Soviet Russia, noticed that children narrate their world out loud to give form to their thoughts and world, and that later this speech splits into vocal speech to others and inner speech to oneself.  Heraclitus asks us to look within, and that the cosmos and our thoughts are given form through speech.

Time, eternity, is a game played by a child.  The kingdom belongs to a child.

Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius follow Heraclitus, say Zeus rules the cosmos through law, using fire and lightning, balancing things out.  Heraclitus was one of the most famous thinkers of the Greek and Roman world.  He was a big influence on Plato, though Plato is very much opposed to his thinking as we will see soon.  Both Heraclitus and Plato were big influences on Christianity which initially flourished not in Israel but in Greece, Turkey and Syria.

apostle-paul-liturgicalIf a primal speaking of the Word or Logos sounds familiar, Heraclitus was a central influence on the Greek and Roman stoics, and the author of the Gospel of John was almost certainly a Greek stoic writing in Roman times.  The opening of the Gospel of John famously reads: the Logos/Word/Order was with God (Fire/Cosmos), and God spoke (“let there be light”) and light was separated from darkness.  Ephesus was a major concern of Paul, the evangelizer of Christianity which first flourished in and around Ionia (Greece, Syria and Turkey today) wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians in Ephesus and wrote one of the central epistles to the Christians of Ephesus (Ephesians).

SchleiermacherSchleiermacher, one of the most famous and central protestant theologians and an opponent of Hegel, was a major force in bringing popularity to Heraclitus and a major translator of Plato.  The philosopher Hegel saw Heraclitus as a skeptic who is put in balance with Parmenides, who we will study next, to give Plato his position.

One thought on “Greek Philosophy 5: Heraclitus

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