The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (Greek Ἡράκλειτος Herakleitos) (c. 535 – 475 B.C.E.) is one of the most important pre-Socratic philosophers. Born in Ephesus, Asia Minor, he is known as the predecessor of the idea of dialectical movement, which identified the principle of change and progress with struggles. Although some subsequent thinkers attributed the full concept of dialectic to Heraclitus, much of his concept is unknown. As with other pre-Socratics, his writings only survived in fragments quoted by other authors. Much of his appeal comes from the immediacy of his pre-conceptual or proto-conceptual statements.
His words resemble those of a prophet, rather than those of a philosopher. There is a notable parallel to the contemporary prophets of the Old Testament, one major difference being that Heraclitus' focus is the cosmos, rather than the creator. He directed people away from the sensory world, which can be seen and touched with physical senses, to the underlying unifying principles or logos only the mind can see. By identifying principles of all phenomena with an invisible, unchanging principle, Heraclitus opened up a path to ontology in a preliminary mode.
He disagreed with Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras about the nature of the ultimate substance and claimed instead that everything is derived from the Greek classical element fire, rather than from air, water, or earth. This is related to his belief that change is real, and stability illusory. “Fire” exists not as a stable thing, but as a process or an event. In order to explain this process-like character of existence, Heraclitus described it as “Fire.” Fire here is not to be simply taken as literal, physical fire, any more than Thales’ water is to be taken as ordinary water. “Fire” signifies his conception of the principle of being as a process. In his focus on struggle in progress and change, however, Heraclitus failed to realize the deeper point that progressive change is achieved by mutual cooperation and that struggle is eventually an obstacle to progress.
For Heraclitus, everything is “in flux," as exemplified in the famous aphorism "Panta Rhei" that has been attributed to him:
Πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει
Everything flows, nothing stands still
Heraclitus’ work, referred to as the "book" has been lost, and his entire legacy consists of a mere 130 fragments, i.e. quotes extracted from later writers (such as Aristotle and Plutarch), some of which are inevitably doubtful. All of it can be read in less than 20 minutes. (The same, of course, cannot be said of the numerous elaborations on Heraclitus' thought.) The problem of reconstructing a thought based on such fragments is universally recognized. Heidegger goes further in questioning our very ability to comprehend pre-Socratic texts from our contemporary perspective without fundamentally altering their originally intended meaning. Issues of translation underline the difficulty of resurrecting these fragments even through the most careful exegesis. The various translations given by scholars to the word logos illustrate the problem.
Logos and the Dialectic
The idea of the logos is credited to Heraclitus, as he proclaims that everything originates out of the logos. Further, Heraclitus said "I am as I am not," and "He who hears not me but the logos will say: All is one." Heraclitus' use of the term logos prefigures its later "glorious" career in classical Greek thinking and in Trinitarian Christianity. However, here, its meaning is still somewhat indefinite. There is a clear hint of a reference to a supreme, pervasive, cosmic (perhaps heavenly) law, or even a supreme being; but the term could also simply mean report, account, word(s), speech, etc., and, generally, more than just simply the author's own opinion, i.e., some unspecified authority.
But Heraclitus is primarily recognized as the earliest dialectical philosopher with his acknowledgment of the universality of change and development through internal contradictions, as in his statements:
- "By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine. All things change. Fire penetrates the lump of myrrh, until the joining bodies die and rise again in smoke called incense."
- "Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonizes with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre."
He is famous for expressing the notion that no man can cross the same river twice:
- ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν
- εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
- We both step and do not step in the same rivers.
- We are and are not.
Those in the history of thought who have identified conflict as the source of progress have tended to see Heraclitus as a sort of “patron saint” of the dialectic. Hegel and Engels, in particular, have saluted Heraclitus as the founder of the dialectical method; Hegel from the perspective of his panlogistic idealism and Engels from the perspective of his dialectical materialism. Referring to Heraclitus, Hegel said "here we see land," meaning that the positive development of human thought had begun with him. As for Engels, he spoke of Heraclitus’ "primitive, naive, but intrinsically correct conception of the world" (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 45). The fragmentary nature of Heraclitus' extant writings lends them naturally to variable interpretation depending on the underlying premises of the observer.
There is indeed something like an anticipation of Hegelian dialectic in Heraclitus' treatment of the opposites. There can be no question that Heraclitus ascribes a universal, creative quality to “conflict,” even called “war.” Nevertheless, there is no clear positioning of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as in Hegel and Engels. Rather in Heraclitus there is a strong awareness that in the universe (including nature, man, and gods), a confrontation of opposites is the norm, not an accident. What we do not find is the concept of a systematic development through a dialectical process, as Hegel sees it. Some have even suggested that Heraclitus’ thought is better summarized by the notion of “identity in difference” (Plato) or “complementarity of opposites” (e.g., male and female).
Heraclitus’ insistence that change was foundational to any theory of nature was strongly opposed by Parmenides, who argued that change is an illusion and that everything is fundamentally static. Underlying the different views of these two archetypal philosophers is the common view that reality cannot be simply grasped. For Heraclitus, genuine reality is the ever present logos at the heart of fleeting reality. For Parmenides, it is the immutable being lying under that illusory reality.
Heraclitus appears to have taught by means of small, oracular aphorisms meant to encourage thinking based on natural law and reason. The brevity and elliptical logic of his aphorisms earned Heraclitus the epithet “Obscure.” The technique, as well as the teaching, is somewhat reminiscent of Zen Buddhism's koans.
Moreover, the Heraclitean emphasis on the nature of things and existence as one of constant change, expressed with language of polarity, is particularly evocative of another ancient philosophical tradition, that of Taoism: the Tao (or "the Way") often refers to a space-time sequence, and is similarly expressed with seemingly contradictory language (e.g., "The Way is like an empty vessel / that may still be drawn from / without ever needing to be filled"). Indeed, parallels may be drawn between the fundamental concepts of the logos (as it was understood during Heraclitus' time) and the Tao.
Finally, Heraclitus’ aphorisms naturally bring to mind Jesus’ similarly cryptic statements that “the first shall be the last” and that “those who want to lose their life will save it, and those who want to save it will lose it.”
Heraclitus was known as the "Obscure" and Plato has said he was not quite sure he understood what his predecessor really meant. As for the character of the Ephesian, it has been described as gloomy, supercilious, and even perverse. He speaks as one who offers the ultimate truth, and does so with "boundless arrogance" (Jaspers). Due to his melancholy disposition, Heraclitus is sometimes referred to as the "weeping philosopher," as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher."
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
- Heraclitus. Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton. Penguin Books 2003.
- Kahn, C. H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
- Kirk, G. S. Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
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- Heidegger, Martin, and Eugen Fink. Heraclitus Seminar, trans. Charles H. Seibert. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993.
All links retrieved December 20, 2017.
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