37. Logos: from Philo of Alexandria to St. John the Apostle

St. John followed Philo of Alexandria in pointing the Greek concept of logos toward the divine. The allusion of light from light shows the Logos as God.
St. John the Apostle

In this post, I will discuss how Philo of Alexandria put Hebrew flesh and bone on the Greek abstract concept of logos. This made the idea of the logos so significant that, I would argue, it was the only word John could have used in chapter 1 of his Gospel. (Please see the previous post as background for this one.)

Greek as the Bridge Between Judaism and Christianity

It is no accident that the New Testament was written in Greek. Greek was the language of philosophy. It came loaded with philosophical terms and ideas that the Greeks had been developing for over 400 years. And thus it leant itself to eventually being used by the Church fathers to develop Christian theology.

Paradoxically, the type of Greek in which the New Testament was written was Koine Greek. Koine Greek was “street Greek,” the parlance of the common person, rather than a classical type of Greek that would be used in education. But at the same time, the same philosophical terms found in classical Greek were also found in Koine Greek. Koine Greek reflected God – it was at the same time a transcendent and an immanent language.

Philo of Alexandria’s Concept of Logos and God’s Word

By attempting to bride Hebrew and Greek thinking, Philo laid the foundation for Christian theology and philosophy. And his logos was the intermediary between the two. In order to bridge the Hebrew and Greek world, he introduced the Greek concept of logos conceived by Heraclitus and the Stoics into Judaism.

In the previous post, I mentioned that the logos represented both the idea of God’s inscrutable essence – His divine mind – and the manifestation of God’s existence in creation. Philo saw a parallel between this purely Greek concept and the Hebrew idea of God’s Word or utterance as found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In post 20 on Abraham, I mentioned that to the Hebrews, words and actions were synonymous. There was no such thing as a word that was not accompanied by action unless it were a “stillborn” word.

In the same way, for the Hebrews, God’s utterance or His Word was a part of His inscrutable essence, but when He spoke, His Word affected creation itself, even bringing it into existence (Genesis 1) or “breaking to pieces the cedars of Lebanon” (Psalm 29). It is easy to see parallelism between God’s Word and the Greek Logos. Both the Hebrew Word and Greek Logos represented God’s ideas as well as His actions in creation. The logos then becomes a manifestation of God’s thinking-acting. For Philo, then, the eternal Logos is one and the same with God’s Word.

The Logos as the First Born Son of God

According to Philo, the logos had an origin. But at the same time, since logos was synonymous with God’s transcendent eternal thought, then its generation was eternal. This is obviously a paradox that the logos could be, at the same time, both first born and eternal. In post 36, I mentioned how the Stoics developed the concept of “eternal generation” and applied it to creation. Philo now applies the same to the concept of logos.

Philo stated that the Logos was the first begotten Son of the uncreated Father:

For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he [Moses] calls the first-born; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.”

(Conf. 63)

A confusing point in all of this is that eventually, Philo equates the Logos with the creative power itself. So the Logos is at the same time creature and creator. This was Philo’s way of saying that the logos was as close to God as possible, being like Him in all ways, but yet being distinct. Philo had many names for the logos, two of which were “image” and “sight of God.”

In addition to being creator, in the vein of Heraclitus and the Stoics, the logos is the ordering and governing principle of the universe. It is the “glue” that holds the created order together. And this includes not just inanimate objects like the solar system, but our own bodies and souls. It connects our bodies and souls as well as ourselves with the created order.

We can start to see how New Testament authors like St. Paul utilized these ideas in talking about Christ:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation;  for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

– Colossians 1:15-17

Since the Hebrew language was not a philosophical language, the New Testament authors and theologians would have been hard pressed to describe these concepts were it not for the Greek language with its philosophical heritage.

Obviously, I am simplifying much of this for the sake of brevity. Philo’s system is rather complex and includes such things as the “creative power” and “regent power” of God as well as other concepts. If you wish to dive deeper into this matter, please see The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Transcendent and Immanent Logos

It seems that in developing the concept of logos and applying it to Hebrew thought, Philo was moving a step closer to solving the transcendence and immanence problem that I discussed in the last few posts. As I mentioned above, the Logos was as close to being God as possible and, at the same time, immanently involved in creation.

Genesis states that we are created in the image of God. For Philo, this meant two things: We have intellect or rationality and we have free will. This distinguishes us from beasts that have only appetites and instincts. So by having a rationality and will, we have both an intellectual and a moral component to our beings that animals do not have.

The Immanency of the Logos

So far I have emphasized Philo’s idea of the logos being transcendent. Now I would like to discuss how it is at the same time an immanent idea.

Apart from holding together and governing the created order, the logos also gives us our rationality as an extension of itself and by implication, God. This is how we can be created in the image of God – the Logos bridges the gap. It transverses the great divide between transcendence and immanence. It allows God to be God by remaining transcendent, while at the same time enabling God to be immanently involved with His creating through the Logos.

So then, according to Philo, our rationality that makes us a reflection of God is simply a part of the logos of which we partake or share. Our minds are merely a portion of the divine Logos. This is what distinguishes us from all other living creatures. When God breathed life into man at creation, He gave us His spirit to partake in. Since the Logos pervades everything, then all humans can partake of the divine mind. With this spirit, we can now voluntarily choose, unlike animals that are governed by mere instinct.

The Unity of the Divine Mind

In post 34, I discussed how Heraclitus’ concept of logos was as a universal consciousness of which we all partake. This idea is evident in Philo’s idea of the logos reflecting the divine mind. According to Philo, the divine mind is one, and as we partake of the divine mind through the logos, we are one with the divine mind. But like Heraclitus said, even though we have the capacity to tap into the divine logos, not all people avail themselves to this opportunity. Those who don’t are the unenlightened. But unlike Heraclitus who said either one is enlightened or one is not, Philo had delineated various degrees of enlightenment, from the completely enlightened to the completely unenlightened.

The point is, as I discussed in the previous post, once the issue of God’s transcendence and immanence is solved, the problem of the one and many is also closer to being solved. Philo viewed the divine mind as a unity within itself and within us as well. And just as the Logos created diversity and differentiation in the universe, so too our unified minds can analyze and recognize diversity in the created order. The Logos, then, is the source of unity and diversity.

Light From Light

For those willing to take the journey upward through the mediation of the logos to behold God, then they will comprehend God. According to Philo, we ultimately perceive God through God Himself and not through any other means. We can, in one sense, understand God by what He has made. But this is still a dim reality. To truly perceive God, we must perceive Him through the agency of Himself.

This enlightenment is not sensible, but mystical. It is only possible as we transcend the material world and, through the mediation of the logos, experience God. Philo uses the analogy of only being able to see light through the agency of light. So too we can only see God through the agency of God:

“In the same manner God, being his own light, is perceived by himself alone, nothing and no other being co-operating with or assisting him, a being at all able to contribute to pure comprehension of his existence; But these men have arrived at the real truth, who form their ideas of God from God, of light from light.” 

(Praem. 45-46)

Now we have Philo the mystic. The sensible and the mystical are both necessary if we are to comprehend the immanent and the transcendent.

“God from God, of light from light.” Let’s see…where have we heard that phrase before? How about the Nicene Creed:

God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven

It seems as though the Church fathers borrowed more from Philo and the Greeks than most of us have realized.

Logos as the Wisdom of God

Philo equates the Logos with the Wisdom of God as found in Proverbs:

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens”

-Proverbs 3:19

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of old.
 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.

-Proverbs 8:22-24

With Hebrew ideas like this, we can see how it wasn’t too difficult for Philo to see parallels between Hebrew and Greek thought. The Logos, like the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, was the agent by which God created the universe and was the first born of all creation.

Logos as the Perfect Mediator Between Heaven and Earth

For Philo, the Logos was the mediator between heaven and earth:

And the father who created the universe has given to his archangel and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Logos rejoices…saying, “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you” (Num. 16:48); neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties.”

(Her. 205-206)

As the Logos is “continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” Philo also considers him a high priest figure as found in Judaism.

Hebrews 7:25 states:

Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Philo transforms the impersonal logos of the Stoics to a personal one that was neither eternal like God nor created like His creatures. Someone who could stand in between and mediate blessings and forgiveness. In this way, Philo took an abstract Greek concept and gave it the humanness of a Hebrew high priest:

“For it was indispensable that the man who was consecrated to the Father of the world should have as a paraclete, his son, the being most perfect in all virtue, to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings.”

(Mos. 2.134)

Logos as God

In three places, Philo designates the Logos as God. In one place that describes man as the image of God (Genesis 9:6), Philo states that man cannot represent transcendent deity, but he can only represent Logos, the Second Deity, who is the image of the Father.

Philo clearly depicts Logos as the second person in the one God, the manifestation of his wisdom and creative power. The Logos is the complete personal manifestation of God’s attributes.

Logos as Christ

Anyone vaguely familiar with Christianity or Christian theology will see many similarities between the Logos and the Christ of the New Testament. Take, for example, other verses from Colossians:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”

-Colossians 1:9

“Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

-Colossians 2:3

This high Christology comports very well with the Logos of Philo. Philo took the Stoic idea of logos and supercharged it by combining it with Jewish religious ideas. In this way, faith and reason came together. The concept of logos as handed down to him would have been useless for Christianity because it was too abstract. By combining it with Old Testament Jewish thought, Philo personified it, even humanized it, thus creating fertile ground from which New Testament writers, such as St. John and St. Paul, and later Christian theologians and philosophers could reap a bountiful harvest.

St. John and the Logos

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 1-16 are some of the most profound words ever penned by the hand of man. I’d like to end this post by discussing verses 1-2:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

A closer transliteration of what God said was, “In the beginning was Logos, and the Logos was with God, and God was the Logos.” (See if you can find the word “logos” in the copy of his Gospel that John is holding in the image at the top of this post.)

Of all the words John could have used, it was no accident that he chose “logos.” It wasn’t for lack of a better word, but really it was the perfect word. Prior to Philo, it would have been adequate but too abstract for his audience to grasp. Philo put flesh and bone on an abstract idea and made it the ideal word for John to use in describing Christ.

What Philo could not do in understanding the exact relationship the Logos had to God and to creation, John and later theologians did in formulating the concept of the Trinity. And what Philo could not do through reason alone, later Christians would complete through divine revelation. Yet without the prior work of Philo and the Greek thinkers, divine revelation would have been enigmatic.

This is the beauty of reason and revelation working together and man being a coworker with God in the discovery of Truth. In His providence, Christ did not come until the fullness of Greek thought had been developed that gave man the tools necessary to understand God’s revelation.

The Legacy of Philo

It is amazing to me that Philo is often viewed as the man who tried but failed to completely unify Greek and Hebrew thought. I think that this is a pessimistic way of looking at it. For me, the opposite is true. Without Philo’s pioneering work, those who came after him would have had a much more difficult time sorting out how Christ could be the Logos. He brought us one step closer to the Truth.

Of course, he did not understand the Trinitarian nature of God, but he went further than his predecessors at approaching that concept. He went as far as he could without more divine revelation, for he only had the Old Testament.

The relationship between faith and reason is a delicate dance between God and man. If we both work in harmony, then the two – faith and reason – blend into one beautiful representation of the truth without losing their distinctiveness.

“He who seeks to escape from God asserts, by so doing, that God is not the cause of anything, but looks upon himself as the cause of everything that exists.”

– Philo of Alexandria


All of the quotes from Philo as well as many other concepts in this post are, with great appreciation, taken from an entry about Philo in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Young, C.D. (translator), The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, Hendrickson Publisher, Peabody, Mass., 1993.

36. Logos: from the Stoics to Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria played an important role in marrying Greek thought with Jewish theology, examining God's existence via the logos.
Philo of Alexandria

Let’s continue our journey from Heraclitus’ idea of Logos to St. John’s application of the Logos to the Son of God.

In post 35, I discussed how the Stoics took Heraclitus’ idea of the logos and expanded it to include the idea of eternal recurrence – the continual destruction and rebirth of the entire universe. The logos, a physical entity, was the ordering principle that guided this process.

So much did logos order the universe, that the Stoics saw a strong determinism woven into its fabric. In summary, the Stoics handed down a logos that was reformulated from what they received from Heraclitus. Their logos was a strongly rational principle that guided the entire universe in a deterministic manner.

The Nature of the Universe

The Stoics believed in the eternality of the universe and the logos was a part of that universe. Since, as Parmenides said, something cannot come from nothing, that left no other option than the universe had always existed, albeit in continual cycles of destruction and rebirth (i.e., eternal recurrence).

Also in post 35, I discussed how Plato and Aristotle wrestled with the problem of how the universe came to be. Aristotle’s transcendent “unmoved mover” provided motion but really had no reason to create or be involved with a universe that it was completely separated from. Plato’s demiurge solved that problem by being immanently involved with the world, but it created a new problem of the infinite regress. In short, the problem of the eternality of the cosmos – one that Greek philosophers wrestled with from the time of the Presocratics, through Plato and Aristotle, up until the Stoics – illustrated that the “problem” of creation still had yet to be solved.

The Transcendent, According to Anaximander, Plato, and Speusippus

I previously discussed the importance of Anaximander’s designation of the arche in the more abstract concept of the infinite or the apeiron. This separated him from all of the other Presocratics whose versions of the arche were mainly physical elements, with Heraclitus being the other notable exception. In this way, Anaximander laid the foundation for the concept of the transcendence of God. Plato developed this further with his ideas of transcendent Forms, which included the good as the highest form.

Plato’s nephew and student, Speusippus (407-339 BC), took over the academy after Plato’s death. According to Plato’s students, Plato had an unwritten teaching – the one and the dyad. The interaction between the two was responsible for all of reality. This was possibly Plato’s way of solving the problem of the one and the many. The one was the source of unity and the dyad, multiplicity.

Speusippus broke with what would become traditional Platonism and completely separated the one from the dyad. He placed it above intellect and even above the concept of being itself, thus freeing it from the idea of principle itself. The one, then, was the cause of goodness and being and everything else. But since the one was a simple singularity, the dyad was still responsible for the multiplicity found in the universe.

Lest we be mistaken, Speusippus’ concept of one being the cause of everything does not mean that the one created anything. Being a cause and being a creator are two different things. Speusippus saw the universe as “eternally generated.” This is different from the Judeo-Christian belief that the universe had a beginning and was created ex-nihilo. Nevertheless, the concept of eternal generation was incorporated by the church fathers to describe the Son of God as being “eternally begotten” or “eternally generated.” So even though the Christian church disagrees with the idea of the eternality of the universe, the philosophical concept of “eternal generation” became extremely important in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity.

Speusippus broke ground in developing the concept of transcendence, taking it to new heights, if you will. His idea of transcendence was Anaximander’s concept of the apeiron on steroids. He took Anaximander’s and Plato’s concepts and developed the idea of “utter transcendence.”

It seems like these thinkers realized that in order for the universe to make sense, there had to be a transcendent entity. But how this transcendence and the immanence and multiplicity of the universe fit together was still quite a mystery.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 40 AD) was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived at a time when Greek philosophical thought met Jewish religious thought. It is only natural that when two major bodies of thought interact, someone will try to work out a synthesis between the two, and Philo was just the one to do it.

Philo was a person of means who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine. Hellenized Jews were Jews who lived with the Gentiles outside of Palestine, spoke Greek, and used the Greek translation of the Scriptures, which was called the Septuagint.

Philo was drawn toward the idea of transcendence as was being formulated by Greek thought. Maybe Greek philosophy and Hebrew revealed religion weren’t that far apart. After all, the Hebrews had the name of YHWH, which was so sacred that attempting to pronounce it was forbidden. This same God, with an unutterable name, also forbade the Jews to make images of Him for His nature was indescribable. The Greeks, with their idea of transcendence, really seemed to be describing the inscrutable God of the Hebrews.

In reality, even though there were similarities, there were marked differences. The inscrutable God of the Hebrews could, nevertheless, be described using analogy and metaphor. He saves people with “His mighty outstretched arm” and He “rides on His chariot.” He also is a God who interacts with His creation. He is a Father who takes care of His children. These points would put Philo at odds with the Rabbinic scholars of his day in applying the ideas of Greek transcendence to the Jewish God.

Philo’s Idea of the Nature of God

This seems like it would have been a real dilemma for Philo of Alexandria. How was he to reconcile Greek thought and the Hebrew concept of God? The answer is by separating the concepts of God’s essence and existence. According to Philo, God’s existence could be described in terms as stated above, but His essence, on the other hand, could not be described at all. So in order to reconcile Greek and Hebrew thought, Philo had to separate two concepts that should not be separated – namely, God’s essence and existence.

Later scholars like Thomas Aquinas were definitive on this matter. In answering the question – whether essence and existence are the same in God – St. Thomas states the following:

“Therefore it is impossible that God in His existence should differ from His essence. Existence must be compared to essence, if the latter is a distinct reality, as actuality is to potentiality. Therefore, since in God there is not potentiality…it follows that in Him essence does not differ from existence.”

Regardless of this error, Philo was on the right track. Like his predecessors, he was seeking to reconcile God’s transcendence and immanence. Jewish revelation and Greek thought were closer to becoming reconciled.

God’s Essence Verses His Existence, According to Philo

In differentiating God’s existence from His essence, Philo developed the concept, found in predecessors such as Plato, of apophatic theology, which is a theology of denial. It is also known as the via negativa or the “negative way.” Apophatic theology basically states that since God is inscrutable, we can only describe Him in terms of what He is not rather than positive affirmations of what He is.

The concept of the via negativa would go on to have a long life in philosophical and theological thought, stretching into medieval theology. It was utilized by the Christian Neoplatonic philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Some say that the idea of via negativa really started with Philo.

Philo stated that God’s essence is single and one. Therefore He cannot be described in any positive way. We can only describe God in a negative way. For example, “God is not like us; He is not a man.” We cannot put God in any class or categorize Him. We cannot place God in any genus or species category. Only God can utter positive statements about Himself since He alone has accurate knowledge about Himself.

God’s essence is single and therefore, according to Philo, its property is one that is denoted by acting. He stated, “Now it is an especial attribute of God to create and this faculty it is impious to ascribe to any created being.” God’s act of creating sets Him apart from His creation. And this is where Philo transitions into a discussion concerning God’s existence.

Philo’s Concept of Logos and God’s Existence

According to Philo, God’s creative act is a manifestation of His thinking, which is accomplished by His logos. The logos is God’s image. The logos created the universe. It made the universe after its own image, which in turn is the image of God. The universe then became the image of the image of God or, as Philo put it, “the idea of ideas.” So even though God is hidden, His existence is made manifest through His image, the logos, and through the universe that it created, which we can perceive with our senses.

The logos then becomes the connecting point between God’s hidden essence and His revealed existence. If Philo were to divide God’s existence and His essence, then there had to be a commonality between them or else God would be divided and not single, thus destroying Philo’s concept of God as one.

Philo’s solution to this dilemma was to incorporate the Stoic idea of the logos that they developed from Heraclitus. Even though Philo’s doctrine of the logos and how it related to God was complex, his logos did become a vehicle by which we can perceive God’s existence with our senses, even though we cannot comprehend His essence.

Philo the Mystic

For those thinkers who espouse the via negativa in relation to God, the door to experience the oneness of a God that we cannot comprehend is through mystical experience. Philo of Alexandria was a mystic. He stated that only those who are at the highest level of awareness can experience God in this way. But one must be aware that there is a difference between experiencing God and understanding His essence.

Those at a lower level, according to Philo, will understand God through His existence. And, as stated above, this is through beholding His logos that acts on His behalf. Those intellectually understanding and sensibly experiencing the logos will be able to have a knowledge of God in this way.

Finally, there are those so immersed in the sensible world that they have not even an awareness of the logos and so live like brute beasts, immersed in the sensible world only, not understanding that it is an image of God through the image of the logos.

According to Philo, then, the highest level of awareness is mysticism, the second is the philosopher-intellectual, and finally, there is the unaware commoner.

Philo’s Essential Logos

As I mentioned above, without the concept of the logos, Philo’s entire system would have broken down. In order to reconcile Hebrew and Greek thought, he had to make a distinction between God’s essence and His existence. If he stopped there, he would have had a divided God. But without that distinction, he would have not been able to reconcile Greek and Hebrew thought.

Philo’s entire system rested upon the concept of logos. Logos was the eternal idea and the organizing and ordering principle of the universe. The logos was at the same time the idea of God as found in His inscrutable essence and a manifestation of God’s existence as found in His sensible creation. Without the logos, Philo’s system would have been a disunified and contradictory series of ideas and propositions.

This would have all been impossible without Heraclitus’ foundational work in developing the idea of the logos as well as the Stoics’ furthering of that work.

Philo’s Logos as Foundational for Christianity

If you are a Christian who is even somewhat aware of Christian doctrine, you have already probably started to see the connections between Philo’s logos and the New Testament writings of St. John and St. Paul as well as the later development of Christian theology. I will explore this more in the next post, especially how Philo saw the idea of logos not only in Greek thought but in the Hebrew scriptures as well.

Philo laid the foundation for a synthesis between faith and reason, between Hebrew revealed religion and Greek thought. He showed that such a synthesis was possible. His concept of logos was key for this.

It was important in another respect as well: It brought philosophical and theological thought a step closer to reconciling the transcendence and immanence of God as well as its corollary problem of the one and the many or the unity and diversity of the universe. In this way, Philo of Alexandria provided the philosophical and theological tools and vocabulary for the development of Christian thinking.

“Learning is by nature curiosity… prying into everything, reluctant to leave anything, material or immaterial, unexplained.”

― Philo of Alexandria


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Philo of Alexandria

Jones E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

David, A.P., Plato’s New Measure, The ‘Indeterminate Dyad,’ Mother Pacha, Inc., Austin, Texas, 2011

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35. Logos: from Heraclitus to the Stoics

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, took Heraclitus' concept of Logos and developed it as the order of the cosmos.
Zeno, Founder of Stoicism

The One and the Many

What unifies a universe made up of individual and diverse things?

As I previously stated, the main philosophical problem to be solved – throughout history but especially in ancient Greek philosophy – is that of the one and the many. (Please read the preceding posts if you haven’t already, starting with post 32, as background to this post.) Because Heraclitus took elements of Eastern or Persian thinking and combined them with Western Greek thinking in developing his concept of logos, Western Civilization became one step closer to solving this problem. Eastern thinking tends to emphasize the one, and Western, the many.

After Heraclitus, other Presocratic philosophers would continue to make important contributions to philosophy. But eventually, Presocratic philosophy went into the doldrums, hamstrung by its failure to find the unifying principle of the universe in a material cause. Sound thinking was replaced by the rise of sophistry and the superstitious worship of the Greek pantheon of gods…that was, until Socrates.

Socrates put everything back on track and and paved the way for his successors, Plato and Aristotle, to make seminal contributions to philosophical thought. To see how he did this, please read the series of posts on Socrates.

Plato’s Forms and the Demiurge

After Socrates cleared a path through the ancient Greek philosophy thicket, Plato was then able to pick up where the Presocratics left off, but with one crucial difference: In order to solve the problem of the one and the many, Plato left the material world and entered into the world of abstraction. Like a rocket ship unable to break the pull of Earth’s gravity and enter space, the Presocratics were unable to break the pull of the material world and enter into a non-material reality. This was the world of ideas and abstractions, and according to Plato, it was more real than the physical universe.

Plato called these ideas “forms” on which the visible world was based. With Plato, the pendulum had swung in the other direction from the Presocratics. Compared to the forms, the material world was just a shadowy existence. This was the opposite of the Presocratics, where the arche or originating principle of the universe was, shall we say, on the shady side.

Still, the problem with Plato’s forms is that they did not come to explain how the cosmos came to be. Plato tried to demonstrate a correspondence between the forms and the material world, but the crucial question is how can an abstract, unchanging entity interact with changing matter? How can essence and existence remain separated, and what can bridge this great divide?

Plato’s Timaeus is a fascinating read where he tries to reconcile all of this. He basically comes up with his version of God, which he calls the demiurge. The demiurge was the artisan who crafted the universe based on the preexisting model of the forms. The template for the universe – the forms – existed outside of God. So, Plato’s demiurge became the intermediary between the abstract forms and the material universe. As such, it is not truly God, being wholly immanent and not transcendent.

Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

Plato’s student Aristotle did not agree with this theory of forms. If Plato’s forms had an objective existence, where were they located? And besides, as stated above, separating existence from essence creates an irreconcilable chasm.

Plato tried to reconcile this chasm with his demiurge. But according to Aristotle in Metaphysics, this violated the principle of what he called “infinite regress.” If everything has a cause, then what caused the first cause? If nothing caused the first cause, then how can everything have a cause? What caused the demiurge to come into existence and how could the demiurge be an active agent if nothing was acting upon it?

Aristotle tried to solve this problem with his “unmoved mover.” There obviously had to be an original, uncaused cause. Since the universe is characterized by change and motion, then the unmoved mover was the first cause, and at the same time, could not have any motion that needed a cause within itself – thus the unmoved mover. The fact that Aristotle’s mover had no movement that needed moving solved the problem of infinite regress. But it created another problem.

Unlike Plato’s demiurge, which was totally immanent, Aristotle’s unmoved mover was totally transcendent. The problem with a totally transcendent God is that he has no reason to be involved with or act in the world. Why would an entity devoid of any motion be the cause of the motion inherent in a universe full of change? By solving each other’s dilemmas, Plato and Aristotle create their own irreconcilable dilemmas.

By trying to solve the problem of constancy and change, which is another way of looking at the one and the many, both Plato and Aristotle backed themselves into a theological argument regarding the nature of God. As I stated previously, philosophical arguments are ultimately rooted in theological presuppositions. And this problem was no different.

In trying to solve the constancy and change problem, Plato and Aristotle found themselves grappling with the transcendence/immanence problem of the nature of God. But neither Plato nor Aristotle could solve this problem because neither understood God’s nature.

What do Plato and Aristotle have to do with logos?

The answer is “not much” directly but amounts to a great deal indirectly. Plato and Aristotle did not develop Heraclitus’s idea of the logos to any great extent, but they did ask the right questions and posit the right dilemmas that the logos eventually answered.

It seems that Plato and Aristotle didn’t quite understand what Heraclitus was trying to accomplish. Plato was the one, in a previous post, who lumped Heraclitus into the “all is change” crowd and erroneously juxtaposed him with the “all is one” guru Parmenides. And concerning the concept of logos, Plato does not even mention the term once.

In the same way, Aristotle did not seem to take Heraclitus seriously. He lumped Heraclitus into the “physicists” group – those thinkers who were looking for a material cause of the universe. Aristotle dismissed Heraclitus as just another one of those thinkers whose material cause just happened to be fire. Also, he also could not quite come to grips with the self-contradictory nature of Heraclitus’ philosophy, the unity of opposites.

The irony of Aristotle’s critique is that both he and Plato wrestled with trying to unify the apparent contradictions in the universe, the very thing that Heraclitus said existed and brought harmony to the universe. And by trying to solve the problem of how the universe could be diverse but unified, constantly in flux but remaining the same, they ran up against the problem of the nature of God. God needed to be both transcendent (Aristotle) and immanent (Plato) in order for the seemingly contradictory nature of the universe to work. But how could he be both? Maybe Heraclitus was onto something after all.

Plato and Aristotle had hardly anything to do with logos, but as we will see, they had everything to do with logos. But let’s leave them temporarily and move on to the Stoics.

The Stoics

The period from Socrates through Aristotle was the high water mark of ancient Greek philosophy. After Aristotle died, it started to decline like it did after the Presocratics. One reason for this was that Plato and Aristotle got as far as they could and hit a philosophical roadblock. Another possible reason is that the talent pool was devoid of another Plato or Aristotle. After all, talent like that seems to arise only every 500 years or so.

The next heavyweight to come along was St. Augustine circa the late fourth century AD. Still, those who came between made important contributions to philosophical thought. One of those groups was the Stoics.

Stoicism, the next school of thought in ancient Greek philosophy, was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium (Cyprus) around 300 BC, just about 20 years after the death of Aristotle. Historically, there are three phases of Stoicism. For the sake of this post, I am only interested in the first phase, which covers the period from Zeno’s founding through the second (Cleanthes of Assos, 330-230) and third (Chrysippus of Soli, 280-207) Chairs of the school. Zeno lived from 334 to 262.

Stoicism lasted well into the Roman period, with the last school finally being closed down by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 529 AD. The effects of Stoicism continued well after that and are alive and well today in popular culture as well as formally in psychological behavioral theories. It is probably the most popular ancient Greek philosophy practiced today.

What do the Stoics have to do with the logos?

I will devote a separate blog post to the Stoics, but for present purposes, I will discuss how Stoicism relates to the logos.

The Stoics developed a rather sophisticated philosophical system. At the heart of this system was the idea that virtue was the chief good. And in this sense, it was very Socratic. Zeno counted Stilpo among his several teachers; Stilpo was a pupil of Socrates.

Like the Cynics, the Stoics believed in the pursuit of eudemonia, the Greek word for happiness. Aristotle developed this concept and claimed that a life of eudemonia was one of contemplation. We have to be careful here because our modern definition of happiness consists of a superficial feeling of elation often tied to circumstances. When the Greek philosophers used the word, they usually meant a more deep-seated sense of satisfaction and contentment not necessarily tied to circumstances or material goods.

Eudemonia for the Cynics was living close to nature, which for them meant living a more ascetic life. They were also contrarians, shunning the normal duties of life and staying away from political involvement. Some of them even took to begging. You could say that they were the first hippies, except for the asceticism.

Socrates’ influence can be seen with the Stoics, for they believed that eudemonia was tied to living a virtuous life. Even though virtue was highly important for Aristotle, he taught that the fullness of eudemonia could be found only in contemplation.

Zeno developed a tripartite philosophical system that included virtue, logic, and physics. As mentioned above, virtue was at the foundation of Stoic philosophy, being Socratic at heart. The logic part included formal logic and epistemology.

Enter Heraclitus

In regard to their physics, this is where it starts to get interesting as far as our discussion goes. The Stoics’ arche, or principle cause of the universe, was matter. They rejected Plato’s conception of immaterial universals or forms that existed independently of the material universe. They recognized the existence of abstract concepts, but to them, these were mental entities only. And in this way, they prefigured the Nominalists of the later Middle Ages – more on that later. But by seeking a material arche, they, in a sense, took a giant leap backward (over Plato) to the Presocratics.

This is where Heraclitus’ influence enters in. To the Stoics, alongside the arche of matter was another principle at work – the logos or reason. This was Heraclitus’ contribution. In addition to a material arche that all Presocratics sought, Heraclitus developed the idea of the logos or rationality as an ordering principle.

Stoicism Builds Upon Heraclitus

The Stoics said that logos pervaded the universe, organized it, and, like Heraclitus taught, brought the universe through continual cycles of destruction and renewal through the agency of fire. Stoicism taught that air came from fire, water from air, and finally, inert earth from water. Then everything was destroyed in a conflagration, only to be born anew. This process went on in continuous cycles where matter was indestructible and eternal; it just went through continual cycles where it would change its form.

The Stoics believed that fire and air were active principle while water and earth were passive. They saw the universe pervaded by active and passive principles. Eventually, after air, water, and earth came into existence, everything returned to fire and the cycle started all over again.

The tension between active and passive, the eternality of matter, and the continual destruction and rebirth of the universe also remind me of the Presocratic philosopher Anaximander, who taught eternal recurrence. Eventually the idea of eternal recurrence was adopted by Nietzsche. The Stoics had many influences, a factor that made their philosophy so rich.

Where the Stoics differed from Heraclitus was that Heraclitus saw the purification by fire as occurring within the created order, whereas the Stoics expanded that to include the universe itself. The Stoics saw logos as a material entity, whereas Heraclitus’ logos was more of a principle of reason or rationality – not a material entity.

The Stoics’ Logos As Fate or God

The Stoics believed in a strict determinism. For example, if one would say, “The river is going to flood tomorrow,” then, from the Stoics’ perspective, it is a true or false statement. Either the river will flood or it will not flood. It is already determined. And what directs whether the river will flood or not? Well, of course, it is the logos. The logos is that rational or reasoned principle of the universe that permeates and directs all things after its own wise counsel. And in that light, Stoicism referred to the logos “fate” or “god.” Borrowing from Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that this logos god worked through the agency of fire, the arche of all things.

The take home point from all of this is that Stoicism took Heraclitus’ ideas of logos and amplified it in order to emphasize the fact that the entire universe was ordered according to the wise direction and the rational principles of the logos. The idea of logos was so powerful that it permeated all of Stoic philosophy and practice. For example, this is where the Stoics got the idea that since everything is predetermined, one should accept all things, good and bad, with a calm and emotionless demeanor. This is where we get the adjective “stoic.” You could say that they were the Calvinists of the ancient philosophical world.

In Summary

Back to the original question above: What do Plato and Aristotle have to do with logos? Maybe the question should instead be: What does logos have to do with Plato and Aristotle?

The short answer is that Heraclitus’ idea of logos as developed by the Stoics would be instrumental in unifying what Plato and Aristotle could not. The long answer will be fleshed out in the next post.

“Wisdom is knowing the logos that extends through the whole of matter, and governs the universe for all eternity according to certain fixed periods.”

-Marcus Aurelius


Jones E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

Grayling, A.C, The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019

Aristotle, The Metaphysics, Penguin Books, London, 2004


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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34. Logos and Heraclitus

Heraclitus said that the logos represented the order of the cosmos and the order in the soul

Well, I must confess that I lied. In post 32, I said that I would cover Heraclitus in two posts, but I could not do it. In fact, I don’t think three posts are enough, but we will see. Truth be told, I could probably write at least a dozen more posts on Heraclitus. If any of you feel that I have left out something important or have a question on what I’ve discussed so far, leave it in the comment section below. Please read post 32 and post 33 as background to this post if you haven’t already.

The Meaning of Logos

Heraclitus took a common word, logos, which originally meant “word” or “speech,” and revolutionized the philosophical world. In fact, after Heraclitus, ancient philosophers (and more recent ones, too) would fill pages and pages with discussion on the meaning of logos.

From its original meaning, it evolved into what speech represented – rationality or reason. And from there, it blossomed like a tree to take on a whole host of meanings. It is where we get the suffix -logy where we get words like biology, anthropology, and zoology. From logos we also get words like logical, logistics, eulogy, prologue, and catalog.

The meaning of logos could be described in many ways, including the order of the cosmos, as wisdom or universal consciousness, a logos of nature, and something boundless within the soul to be found by oneself.

Logos as Order

Eventually, for the Greeks, the meaning of logos came to be “the order of the cosmos.” Cosmos was the Greek word for “universe.” The logos was that which ordered and gathered everything into one. In fact, the Greek verb form of logos comes from a root word that means “to gather or collect.” It can also mean “to call or to name.”

It made one out of many and not just one, but a one that was organized, ordered, and made sense. The logos holds everything together. When we look at the world around us, the logos is what gives us that comfortable feeling that things make sense. Without this order, everything would just be non-sense, as if we were taking an adventure like Alice in Wonderland.

Heraclitus Expands the Idea of Logos

Heraclitus is like the George Washington Carver of vocabulary. George Washington Carver took a simple item – the peanut – and found 300 uses for it. So too, Heraclitus took a simple word like logos and greatly expanded its use.

In her book, The Logos of Heraclitus, Eva Brann gives an excellent definition of Heraclitus’ logos that is difficult to improve upon:

“This great Logos has a wisdom, or rather it is the Wise Thing, and this Wise Thing has a maxim, or rather it is the practical principle which guides everything through everything, relates all things to all things, which says One:Everything.”

If you look at the image at the beginning of this post as well as those in post 32 and post 33, you will notice progression. We start first with the man Heraclitus alone with his thoughts. Then we see Heraclitus in relation to the cosmos. Finally, we see the order of the cosmos above. Heraclitus started with himself and like concentric circles, moved out from there.

People Choose to Remain Ignorant

The following fragment of Heraclitus illustrates that his journey began, like Socrates’ journey, not with a declaration of truth, but a declaration of ignorance:

Who can know and does know What?

Notice that this fragment is in a chiasmus, a favorite literary device of Heraclitus:

Who : know :: know : What

Why do you think that Heraclitus chose to use the chiasmus to get his point across? Please leave your thoughts below.

Heraclitus, too came to grips with his ignorance. Like Socrates, he started from the point of realizing that he didn’t know. From there, he began to ask questions, the gist of which went like this example: “Is wisdom available to a select few elite philosophers or is it privy to everyone?”

As usual, Heraclitus must use a paradox in his answers. Heraclitus tells us that the logos, the embodiment of wisdom, is not far from any individual and is ready to instruct, but most are not willing to listen. Most desire to remain in ignorance, thinking that they already know:

“Unapprehending even when they’ve heard, similar to the deaf. The proverb is witness to their being “absent though present.”

“Therefore one must follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, many live as though they had a private mind, in the sense of mindful insight.”

Heraclitus juxtaposes the common wisdom of logos, which is accessible to all, with those whose refuse to be a part of that and instead live “as though they had a private mind.”

We have to be careful that we don’t interpret this out of historical context. To our modern ears, it sounds like he is making a distinction between relative and absolute truth. This view erroneously places Heraclitus with the post-Enlightenment thinkers. Rather, he seems to be making a distinction between objective (common) and subjective (private) truth.

Logos as the Universal Consciousness

He is saying that the logos, the “Wise Thing,” is the common mind of the universe. It alone is the intelligence of the universe. Therefore, if one wants to truly be wise, then one must think the thoughts of the logos or else be left to his own devices in the ignorance of his private mind. For Heraclitus, the private mind is a pseudo-intellect, a non-entity as far as thinking goes. For him, there is only the logos. Those not connected with logos remain in the deepest darkness.

The idea here is more of a universal consciousness. If one is not tapped into the universal consciousness of the logos, then one is not engaged in meaningful thought whatsoever. We saw above that he used the analogy of deafness. Language makes meaningful noise to the ears of all except the deaf. For Heraclitus, if one does not have the faculties to hear the language of the logos, then one is deaf to wisdom.

A private mind for Heraclitus is really no mind at all. The Greek word for private is idios – from which we get the word “idiot.” For the Greeks, an idiot was someone who separated themselves out from the common community.

This idea of a single universal intelligence was mostly a result of Persian influence. When Cyrus the Persian invaded Ionia, there was a cross- pollination between East and West. The Persians brought their religion of Zoroastrianism, thus introducing monism to the Greeks. We can see this influence in the writings of Heraclitus as well as other Presocratic philosophers like Parmenides, whom we will discuss soon. These ideas will go on to have a very long shelf life in the West in both Christian and non-Christian philosophy.

Other philosophers after the Presocratics picked up on this theme of a universal consciousness. The medieval Islamic philosophers Avicenna and Averroes developed the idea of a universal intellect, based on Aristotle’s writings, to explain how common knowledge was possible in the universe. Avicenna called this universal intellect the “Agent Intellect” and afterward, from these ideas, Averroes developed his “Unity of Intellect” theory.

Finding the Logos in Nature

In some ways, Heraclitus was more evangelist than philosopher, preaching the good news about the universal knowledge of the logos. But from his perspective, the prospects were dim. For even though the logos was available to everyone, in reality, few responded. The path to ignorance is wide and many travel upon it, but the road to enlightenment is narrow and only few find it.

How does one find the logos?

In the previous post, I discussed the idea of the logos being both transcendent and immanent. The logos expresses itself not only in the order of nature but also in the language of nature, which involves things like mathematics. The logos is both nature and its language.

The first way of discovering the logos is by grasping the harmony of nature through our senses. We become empiricists. The problem with this method is that nature is a tough sell. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. According to Heraclitus:

“Nature loves to hide.”

Like a prospector digging for gold, one must be relentless at pursuing the truth locked up in the secrets of nature. We can encounter logos there, but it is much more difficult. Francis Bacon, a 17th century empiricist, developed this idea further when he said:

“The nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art [torture] than in its natural freedom.”

According to Bacon, nature must be tortured or it will not readily yield its secrets. The kind of torture he had in mind was scientific experimentation. Thus he laid the ground work for the development of the scientific method that Heraclitus pointed the way to.

Finding the Logos in the Soul

For those finding the way of nature too strenuous, according to Heraclitus, there is another way.

“It belongs to all men to know themselves and to be of sound mind.”

“I have searched myself.”

There’s that phrase again, “know thyself.” This phrase was eventually inscribed in the temple of Delphi and made famous by Socrates when he uttered it at his trial. But it originated with Heraclitus when describing the meaning of logos.

According to Heraclitus:

“Setting out for the bounds of the soul, you would not find them out, though you passed along every way, so deep a logos does it have.”

The logos of the soul, like the logos of nature, is boundless. We can plummet to the depths of our souls and never touch bottom. Why is this? It is because the logos of the human soul is a reflection of the soul of the cosmos. The logos within us gives boundlessness to our finiteness.

We gather insight from nature through our senses, albeit with difficulty. As we meditate on that order of nature, we also see an order of logos within our own souls. If we are attentive, we can hear the logos speak. We can understand the world better only by filtering out its distractions.

We hear the language of nature for it is the same logos, the same order. One is expressed through nature and the other through words. Our meditations become the touchpoint where word and nature meet. The logos is found within because we are made in the image of the logos. It is also where the one and the many meet. For with our senses, we see a multiplicity, but through our meditation, we encounter a single logos which gives order and sameness – as well as saneness – to a seemingly disparate and chaotic universe. Through the logos, everything melds into one, yet remains distinct. It was in such meditations that Heraclitus heard the logos speak: “It belongs to all men to know themselves and be of sound mind.”

“For those who are awake, there is a single and common cosmos; each of those who are asleep turns himself away to the private one.”


“Lord, grant that I may know myself, that I may know Thee.”

-St. Augustine


Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011)

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Heraclitus: https://historyofphilosophy.net/mccabe-on-heraclitus

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33. Heraclitus and Logos

Heraclitus thinks about the logos
Heraclitus, by Dutch Painter Johannes Moreelse, 1630

Heraclitus’ Damascus Road Experience

As portrayed above, Heraclitus is an aged and weary man as compared with the resolute and determined Heraclitus in the previous post. His hands are clasped and his head is bowed as if in prayer. He seems to be either meditating as he awaits some profound insight or resigning himself to the pessimistic fate of humanity.

In Chapter 9 of Acts, St. Paul was humbled by a divine voice and a bright light on the road to Damascus. But Heraclitus encountered divinity through a glass, darkly, as he heard the voice of the logos speak to him from within.

The Logos Speaks to Heraclitus

Somehow and somewhere, Heraclitus heard the logos speak. And afterward, Heraclitus did not speak his own words but instead what he heard from the logos. He spoke not as a condescending academic, but rather as an authoritative prophet.

Heraclitus proclaimed in a stark and astonishing comment:

“Listening not to me, but to the logos…”

He spoke as one under authority, and yet authoritatively. The verb used here has the implications of not just hearing, but obeying as well. Heraclitus is like a parent who says to his children with all seriousness, “Listen!” Something important is always sure to follow. What was that important thing?

Everything is One and the One is Everything

It was a profound metaphysical truth:

“To say the same [as the logos] is the Wise thing: Everything is one.”

He literally says, “There is a wise thing to agree with – one : everything.”

This can even be put in the form of one of Heraclitus’ favorite figures, the chiasmus:

One : Everything :: Everything : One

And why is the wisdom for humanity? Simply because, as the old saying goes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Since we are such a small and finite part of the universe, we tend to see things in our little part of the world, and not the entire picture. According to the logos, wisdom lies in understanding that there is a grand unity to the cosmos.

Parmenides, the next of the Presocratics we will look at, also stresses the concept of the “one,” but his perspective was that there is only the one. There are no such things as things for Parmenides – just a singularity. Any particulars are illusory. Heraclitus, or I should say the logos, puts the brakes on that. For him, there are the one and the many.

The One and the Many

Another way of stating the above is, “out of everything, one; out of one, everything.”

According to Heraclitus, the logos wants us to see that, despite the multiplicity of things and phenomena that we find in the cosmos, there is a profound unity or oneness that binds everything together. All things are unified without losing their distinct individuality or thingness.

All of the Presocratic philosophers wrestled with the relationship between the one and the many. In fact, this is the fundamental problem in philosophy that needs to be solved if the universe is to ultimately make sense. The fact that the Presocratics even recognized this as a problem in the first place is remarkable and constitutes a big leap forward in thinking. This is why each of the Presocratics tried to find that arche, the unifying principle out of which everything else originated.

The problem is that if we only see the individual components to the universe, then we lose continuity between the parts and the universe becomes unintelligible. On the other hand, if we focus on the whole, the individual parts lose their distinctiveness and become unrecognizable.

The Presocratics eventually hit a wall because they couldn’t transcend the material universe in order to find the unifying principle. Plato tried to transcend this material barrier with his Theory of Forms. Aristotle did the same with his Four Causes, thus moving the ball down the field significantly further.

With the move away from metaphysics in the modern age, this problem was eventually shelved altogether. It still remains, I think, the fundamental problem to be solved in philosophy. The answer ultimately lies in the Trinity where there is perfect harmony between the One and the many, but translating that philosophically is another matter altogether – more on that later.

Logos as the Key Word of Western Civilization

Logos is Heraclitus’ key word. The word logos means “word.” It is the key word for Heraclitus. And because of Heraclitus’ impact, it is the key word of the Western philosophical tradition.

In post 22 on Homer, I wrote about the transformation from the Iliad to the Odyssey from a society based on warfare and violence to one based on reason and virtue. Reason and dialogue took the place of the glory of war. Without this transformation, it is impossible for a society to advance and civilization to flourish.

With the Ionian Enlightenment, this was codified in what eventually became the Greek city-state. Wisdom emanates from the deity and finds its expression in the body politic. Another way of looking at this is that philosophy shapes and forms our politics, and philosophy is shaped and formed by our theology or our view of God. Theology corresponds to the Father, philosophy the Son, and the body politic, as the outworking of the two, the Holy Spirit.

It was this establishment of reason and dialogue (dialogue from the Greek words dia, which means “through,” and logos, which means “word or speech”) that made philosophy possible. Dialogue, the inculcation of logos in human society, also made the advancement of civilization possible.

The Logos Is Both Transcendent and Immanent

This same dialogue that provided the impetus for growth and change within the polis and philosophy now spoke as the logos from outside and above to Heraclitus. The logos was both transcendent and immanent as was revealed to Heraclitus:

“The Wise is separated from everything.”

“One thing is the Wise – to understand the maxim by which the thunderbolt steers all things.”

What is “the thunderbolt”? Well, of course, it is fire, Heraclitus’ arche, that is the universal principle. This fire, as we saw in the previous post, moves and guides all things. It is no accident that he uses the imagery of a thunderbolt, for this calls to mind Zeus. This is not to be taken literally, but as a metaphor.

For as Zeus launches his thunderbolts into the world, so too the logos does its work by and through its universal principle – fire.

The important thing is that the logos stands above and outside of the universe and does its work within the universe, being both transcendent and immanent, through the arche of fire.

Heraclitus is one of the most important figures in the history of philosophical thought.

First of all, he took the amorphous concept of logos, which originally just meant “word” or “speech,” and gave it breadth and depth philosophically. This richness paved the way for it to be used in a deep theological way by the Christians.

Secondly, he clarified the fundamental problem in philosophy – that of the relationship between the One and the many. It is the solving of this problem that carries with it many practical applications. For example, societies that emphasize diversity at the expense of unity end up fragmenting. Societies that emphasize unity at the expense of diversity end up becoming rigidly conformist or even totalitarian.

And finally, he got us thinking about the universal principle or deity of the universe as both transcendent and immanent. This is a tension that will again show up in Christian thought and Christian theology.

Please see my next post for some closing thoughts on Heraclitus and the logos before we move on to Parmenides, another heavyweight of the Presocratics.

“Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.”

“Humankind does not have such insights; the divine has them.



Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011)

History of Philosophy without any gaps, Heraclitus: https://historyofphilosophy.net/mccabe-on-heraclitus

32. Heraclitus of Ephesus

This bronze bust of Heraclitus signifies his development of the logos and fire as the arche.

Heraclitus is, for me, the most difficult of the Presocratic thinkers to write about. This heavyweight of Greek philosophy had gravitas – he was a deep, complex, enigmatic figure, and a brooding thinker.

Heraclitus’ Logos – A Redefinition in Greek Philosophy

One of Heraclitus’ main accomplishments was that he redefined the concept of logos which had, prior to him, been an amorphous concept in Greek philosophy. Heraclitus’ logos would reverberate throughout Western civilization. And all of this came from a man who engaged his audience from a distance due to his critical eye toward humanity in general.

Because of his complexity, I will devote two posts to him: the first discussing his life and ideas in general, and the second discussing his development of the concept of logos.

He was, yet again, a son of the Ionian Enlightenment, having come from the famous city of Ephesus in Ionia. Ephesus was close to Miletus, the home of other Presocratic thinkers, namely Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. He was born around 535 BC and lived at the time of Persian domination of Ionia, yet he did not flee to the West like other Greeks in Ionia.

Heraclitus the Hermit

The Ionians gave Heraclitus the honorary title of “King of the Ionians” but he pawned that off on his brother and went to live the life of a recluse. He only returned to the city just before he died at the age of 60. Just as I view Pythagoras as the founder of the first proto-monastery, so I consider Heraclitus the first hermit.

In fact, in the School of Athens painting, Raphael portrays him as a melancholic philosopher sitting apart from the rest. Raphael gives Heraclitus the face and disposition of Michelangelo, who was known to suffer from depression.

This is Heraclitus in the School of Athens painting which shows him thinking about the logos and fire as the arche.

And as a hermit, he didn’t suffer fools well, or even non-fools for that matter. He said of fools that “they are excited by every word.” In fact, he saw the majority of human beings as dimwitted. And he said of great thinkers like Pythagoras that they, despite their great learning, “lacked understanding.” He despised Hesiod and Homer, the great Greek poets. It seems that no one could come up to his standards. He was like the father you could never please.

Heraclitus the Riddler

Heraclitus was the king of one liners, the Henny Youngman of the ancient philosophical world. Like many of the ancients, only fragments remain of his work, but Heraclitus actually wrote in fragments. For this reason, the ancients referred to him as “The Riddler” long before Batman. His aphorisms were more profound than many other philosophers’ treatises. And unlike a philosopher’s treatise, his aphorisms were meant to engage you and pull you into the conversation. That they did; we still talk about them today.

He is also known as a philosopher of paradoxes, and this is yet another paradox – that he who was the most aloof of the Presocratics was also the most engaging.

Heraclitus’ Top Five Fragments

Of the over 100 fragments that we have of his today, I decided to choose my top five – no easy task. (If your favorite is not in this list, please discuss it in the comments below.)

  1. “No man ever steps into the same river twice.”
  2. “The way up and the way down are one and the same path.”
  3. “Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”
  4. “For Fire, everything is an exchange and Fire for everything, just as for gold, money and for money, gold.”
  5. “All things come out of one and one out of all things.”

Universal Flux

Let’s start with the first quotation about no one stepping into the same river twice. This is probably the fragment that is his most popular but also the most misunderstood. We can lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of Plato.

Plato, in his Theaetetus, used this quote to say that Heraclitus believed that everything was constantly changing and nothing remained the same; this is the concept of universal flux. He thus branded Heraclitus as the philosopher of change and put him in opposition to Parmenides (whom we will study next), the philosopher of monism. Monism states that everything is a single changeless entity.

Even though this is a nice, neat characterization, it is simply not true.

Notice that Heraclitus says, “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” He does not deny that it is the same river. In fact, it is in the midst of flux that the river remains the same. Every person has waxed philosophical in this same vein when he or she has said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

To prove the point about the river being the same, he also said, “To those stepping into rivers staying the same, other and other waters flow.” So despite Plato’s interpretation, Heraclitus did not believe in universal flux. For him, the river was the river, which happened to be constantly undergoing change.

The Unity of Opposites

This brings us to his core doctrine called the Unity of Opposites. He stated that the same thing can, at the same time, have opposite qualities. For example, another famous saying of his is that “seawater is healthy for fish but unhealthy for people.” Seawater is both opposites at the same time – healthy and unhealthy. Another one of my favorites of his is “donkeys prefer garbage to gold.” Garbage, and likewise gold, are at the same time valuable and worthless. In modern times we say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

Since I am an avid hiker, I can relate to fragment #2 above. Every time I have hiked up the side of a mountain, I have noticed that the faces of the people ascending seemed strained, while the the ones descending were much happier. The people going down moved much faster as well. The same path yields opposite experiences and is at the same time the way up and the way down. It is just like the river analogy where Heraclitus juxtaposes the same river being composed of different waters.

So it is this tension of opposites between same and different that allows for the harmonious existence of the river and the mountain path to be possible. It allows for continuity to exist with change. If there were only sameness, then everything would be frozen in time; if there were only change, then the universe would be reduced to meaningless motion.

He is not saying that we can find paradoxical situations in life that are unusual and interesting. No, rather he is saying that the entire universe is hardwired on the principle of the unity of opposites.

The tension of opposites in the universe gives rise to perfect harmony – fragment #3 above. The unity of the universe consists in a constant strife between things. Stability arises out of discord. For Heraclitus, perpetual war characterizes the universe out of which peace arises. In summary, paradox is at the heart of the universe.

Fire as the Universal Principle

A recurring theme in my discussions so far about the Presocratic thinkers was their search for an arche or universal principle that gives rise to all things. With the exception of Anaximander, who chose infinity as the arche, all of the other Presocratics looked for the fundamental principle in a material element. And back then, the Greeks only recognized four elements: water, air, earth, and fire.

Thales, the first philosopher chose water; Anaximenes chose air; and Xenophanes chose both earth and water. I find it odd that fire was chosen last since it is the most dynamic of the elements. Nevertheless, fortunately for Heraclitus, it seems that the other Presocratic thinkers left it for him. And how appropriate, since it fits in best with his idea of transformation in the universe.

Why fire? It all had to do with a world-changing event in nearby Lydia – the issuing of coinage. With the issuing of coinage, there was now a universal medium of exchange by which buying and selling could occur in an equitable manner. And how did the ancients produce the coinage? Well, they brought the gold ore to the mint and smelted it with a purifying fire. When the process was finished, beautiful gold coins were the result.

Fire as Destruction and Transformation

Just as Thales witnessed the cycles of the great rivers of the Nile and Euphrates and chose water as his arche, so Heraclitus had a similar experience as he observed that transformative power of fire at the Ionian mint. Fire could be both destructive and transformative, menacing and beautiful. Fire destroyed the gold ore, only to remake it into a purified medium of exchange that fueled the daily rhythms of buying and selling the essentials and luxuries of life.

Thus fragment #4 above: “For Fire, everything is an exchange and Fire for everything, just as for gold, money and for money, gold.”

Heraclitus’s fire in the mint was for him an analog of the cosmic fire that transformed everything. The fragment can also be rendered, “Fire for everything and everything for fire.”

Fire was responsible then for the destructive and transformative power in the universe that violently wrought change, while at the same time purifying and making stability possible. It gave sense and order to the universe. When a fire burns a forest, it consumes the forest into itself, destroying and transforming it, making new life possible. Thus the cycle continues – change and continuity.

If you read the post on Anaximander, you will see that he, too had the idea of conflict at the heart of the universe. But for Anaximander, his conflict was a judicial one, the balancing of which provided a stasis by which the universe existed, whereas I see in Heraclitus a more profound and paradoxical view of conflict, one that leads ultimately to peace and harmony.

Fire in the Soul

Finally, in the end, Heraclitus was not just talking about the beauty and hidden secrets of the universe, but he was talking about the profoundness of humanity.

For Heraclitus, the soul was a form of fire that comprised the life essence of the person it animated. For Anaximenes, the arche had to be air, for when people stopped breathing, they died. But for Heraclitus, when a person died, their warm body became cooler because the soul-fire had departed.

Like the river that is the same river yet different every time we encounter it, so too are we as humans. We are the same person throughout our lives, yet are continually being purified and transformed by the soul-fire within and the refining fires without. We are broken by life crises, yet built up and renewed.

It’s like when you run into an old friend that you hadn’t see since high school. It is a little awkward because the last time you talked, you were both young and immature. The awkwardness comes from the fact that, even though you are the same people, because of the years that have passed, you are completely different people. And therein lay the tension – and the harmony.

“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river – and it is not the same man.”



History of Philosophy Without any Gaps, Heraclitus https://historyofphilosophy.net/heraclitus

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011)

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31. Xenophanes of Colophon

Xenophanes of Colophon

Xenophanes could be considered the roving vagabond of the Presocratic philosophers. Like the others discussed earlier, he came from Ionia. He was from the Ionian city of Colophon which was near Miletus, home of the Milesian Presocratic philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. There was something about Ionia that lent itself to producing great thinkers and Xenophanes was no exception. Thales would have said that whatever it was, it was probably in the water.

This is the birthplace of Xenophanes in Colophon, Turkey who described the nature of God and rejected Greek gods.
Ruins of Colophon, Turkey, Xenophanes’s Birthplace

He left his homeland abruptly at the age of 25 after Cyrus, king of the Persians, invaded Ionia in 550 BC. King Cyrus had the Jews, the people of faith, under his dominion at this time, and now he had the philosophers as well – a prefiguration that one day faith and reason would be united under one head, Jesus Christ. King Cyrus is a prefiguration and a type of Christ, even being called the “messiah” in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

After leaving Ionia, along with other Greek compatriots, he made his way through the Greek colonies in Sicily. He did not settle in any one place for long, but spent his life moving from town to town.

In his old age, he composed the following elegy:

“Already there are seven and sixty years tossing about my counsel throughout the land of Greece, and from my birth up till then there were twenty and five to add to these, if I know how to speak truly concerning these things.”

If we do the math and add 67 to his age when he left Ionia, then he would have been 92 at the composition of this elegy. Not bad for a iterant philosopher!

Xenophanes is much overlooked as just another of the Presocratic philosophers, but as we will see, he was foundational in the development of philosophical as well as theological thought in the West. He was a poet philosopher and would travel around the countryside communicating his ideas through his poetry.

As mentioned in post 26, it was another poet, Hesiod, who started the ball rolling by trying to discover the first principle, or arche, of the universe. The arche is that which gives rise to everything else, the origin of all things. He declared the gods of mythology to be the arche of the universe, in particular the god Chaos.

After laying this groundwork, the Milesian Presocratic philosophers picked up the baton and carried it further. They pursued the concept of arche, but abandoned altogether the possibility of the gods being the arche. Instead, they looked for it in material objects like water, air, earth, and fire.

Xenophanes and the gods

If the gods were reeling at this point, it was Xenophanes who dealt the knockout punch to them. He did not deny the existence of gods; he simply attacked Hesiod and Homer and their anthropomorphic characterization of them. Really, “attack” is putting it mildly. He excoriated Hesiod and Homer for their portrayal of the gods in such a crude and human manner. He thought it ridiculous that the gods would behave like spoiled overgrown children and yet possess superhero strength and immortality.

It was Greek practice, in their piety, to sing hymns to the gods. Xenophanes was morally outraged. He said that only a moron would sing a hymn to a god who was a liar or a rapist. (Tell us what you really think, Xenophanes.)

Casting the mythological gods aside, Xenophanes chose rather to expound on what he thought was the true divine nature. He was the first philosopher to give a systematic account of the divine nature. I like to think of him as the first systematic theologian. In one of his fragments, he states:

“Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.”

This statue of the Rape of Proserpina illustrates why Xenophon of Colon rejected the Greek gods.
The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini, 1622

After rejecting the gods of Homer and Hesiod, he states:

“One God is greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or thought.”

Xenophanes on the Nature of God

Xenophanes declared that there is a being of extraordinary power and excellence that we are obligated to hold in highest regard. This God is good, unlike Homer and Hesiod’s gods that are corrupt. He was the first philosopher to equate goodness with God, something that is a given in Judeo-Christian tradition. And unlike the corrupt Greek gods, Xenophanes’s God does not have a body because He just is and has no need to go anywhere.

He also said that God is in need of nothing, not even the animal sacrifices that the mythological gods always demanded. By stating this, he formulated the doctrine of aseity that is also found in Christian theology. The doctrine of aseity says that God is completely self-sufficient, needing nothing outside of Himself for His existence. Many people trace this doctrine’s origin to Plato, but it really originates with Xenophanes.

Xenophanes said that God’s main function is to sit around and think and perceive. He can make things happen just by thinking them. He is omniscient which means he knows all things, and is omnipotent. God, then, is completely unlike us except in one crucial way – both God and humans think. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas would say something similar when he stated that the primary way in which we are like God, being created in his image, is our intellect.

Two Types of Knowledge

Even though Xenophanes made declarative statements about the nature of God, he paradoxically said that we cannot be dogmatic things about which we cannot be certain. He stated that there are two types of knowledge: that which we can gain empirically and that which is beyond human comprehension such as the nature of the divine. But nevertheless, he did declare that we can know this knowledge that is beyond human grasp:

“Let these things be believed as like the truth.”

By describing two types of knowledge, he laid the foundation for epistemological ideas that would be further developed by Plato and Aristotle as well as medieval Catholic theologians. Namely, he distinguished between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through empirical means – what we call faith and reason, the theme of this blog.

Was Xenophanes a Monotheist or a Polytheist?

The final question to consider is whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or a polytheist. People come down on both sides of the issue. Without getting too much into the weeds on the matter, I would say that the statement, “One God is greatest among gods and men,” is really a monotheistic one. The phrase “greatest among gods,” I think, is a figure of speech which signifies “greatest among gods as perceived by the human mind and not as actually exist.

Furthermore, according to Plato, Xenophanes was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy in Elea, Italy. His main student was Parmenides, another of the Presocratic philosophers who played a very significant role in the development of the discipline. Parmenides was a monist; he believed that, contrary to experience, everything is one. This fits in well with Xenophanes’s idea that God is one. Xenophanes described God as the “one greatest, unmoving god” and Parmenides uses similar language when he describes a “motionless, eternal, and unitary being.” (We will talk about Parmenides in a later post.)

This is the final resting place of Xenophanes of Colophon who build a school in Elea, Italy.
Elea, Italy, the location of Xenophanes’ School

Was Xenophanes a Pantheist?

Aristotle, in Metaphysics, takes this a step further and interprets Xenophanes as saying, “…with regard to the whole universe, he says that the one is the god.” This really turns the matter on its head, for now we are entering into the realm of pantheism, where everything is one and everything is God. According to Aristotle, Xenophanes believed that the entire universe was God.

In other fragments, Xenophanes stated that the arche of the universe was earth and water; he took a dualistic approach. But apparently, even though Xenophanes chose physical substances as the foundational principle of the universe, he – at the same time – must have equated these substances with God. Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher, posited something similar when he said that God is nature.

(What do you think? Was Xenophanes a polytheist, monotheist, or a pantheist? Please leave your comments below or in the chat window.)

In summary, Xenophanes made great strides in philosophy when he sought to understand the true nature of God and by distinguishing and validating two types of knowledge – that apprehended by faith and that comprehended by practical experience. His ideas reverberated among the other Presocratic philosophers as well as those who came later, especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He thus significantly contributed to the larger philosophical and theological conversation of Western Civilization.

“One god there is, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that.”


For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.”

-St. Paul





Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy (New York, Penguin Press, 2019)

Aristotle, The Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (New York, Penguin Books, 2004)

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30. On Those Who Suppress the Truth – Power vs. Authority

A beachball signifies that truth cannot be destroyed, but only suppressed.

Due to our present circumstances in regards to cancel culture, I am taking a small detour from writing on the Presocratic philosophers in order to write an article about about the nature of truth.

I remember that, as children playing in the pool, we liked to see who could hold a beach ball under water the longest. It was not an easy task. We tried to push the beach ball further down thinking that it would be less likely to pop back up. Of course, we discovered that the more we tried to keep the ball under water, the more difficult it became to hold it there. It always popped back up after only a few seconds.

This image reminds me of a verse from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. If truth is to be opposed, it can only be suppressed. Like the beach ball, the more that it is suppressed, the more difficult it becomes to do so.

The Nature of Truth

This leads to a philosophical consideration of the nature of truth. Prior to Descartes in the West, it was a given that absolute truth existed. From a metaphysical perspective truth was pursued as if it could be discovered and comprehended. Even Descartes did not deny the existence of absolute truth. But by shifting the conversation from the metaphysical to the epistemological, he put skepticism front and center in philosophy. The operative question used to be “What do you know to be true,” while today, truth claims are almost always met with some form of, “Well, how do you know that to be true?”

After the emergence of extreme skepticism, the concept of absolute truth, as it had been previously understood, was eventually abandoned and replaced by relativism. But this is not completely accurate. The excursion into relativism was not really an abandonment of the concept of absolute truth, but simply a transition where the idea of absolute truth based on divine authority was replaced by an absolute truth based on human power. (The former is absolute truth in se, whereas the latter is absolute truth de facto.) Since the Enlightenment, we have been moving from authority-based truth to power-based truth. Authority- based truth is transcendent since it come from God, while power- based truth is immanent since it originates from man.

Introducing relativism into the equation made it possible to uncouple the concept of truth from God and to couple it to human agency. Once human authority has severed itself from the truth, then it becomes illegitimate. (In another sense, however, it retains some semblance of legitimacy because the governmental structures themselves are established by God, Romans 13).

Legitimate and Illegitimate Authority

An illegitimate authority must rely on force since it has separated itself from the authority of God. We can recognize an illegitimate authority because it governs by power, using force to accomplish its will. We have seen this in the past in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Mao Tse Tung’s China. Mao famously said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” We see this today in countries like Venezuela and North Korea. Sadly, we are starting to witness this in the West.

Dr. Jeff Mirus, in his article “On Power and Authority,” states the following:

“Authority differs from power in that the term “authority” suggests a right to or fittingness for the power that goes with it. True authority is justified by what a person is, by what he has received from a higher authority…(by which) he is connected to the “authorship” or origination of the power he will exercise…When things are well-ordered, power derives neither from the will to exercise it nor from the strength to enforce that will.”

For example, a police officer’s authority does not derive from his gun, but from the legitimate governmental authority under whom he is commissioned. He must use his power in a manner fitting with and according to the authority that he has received. His power is the outworking of that authority and not vice versa.

The power that comes from divine authority is harmonious and ordered, whereas the power that comes from an autonomous human agency is disordered and oftentimes despotic. A legitimate government does not have to be overtly Christian. On the contrary, a non-Christian government can be legitimate as long as it governs in accordance with natural law. An illegitimate government must resort to force because it has no real authority on which to base its claims.

The Tyranny of Relativism

A modern relativist will profess that there are a many “truths,” but in the end, it his his truth that he wishes to apply in an unconditional manner, not only to himself, but to others as well. A purely relativistic culture is impossible. Sooner or later on group’s “truth” must prevail over the others. Whose truth prevails? The answer is whoever can wield the most power. A relativistic society is one in which various groups vie to control of the levers of power in order to impose their version of truth on the others.

What is anathema at one time can become accepted practice depending on who has power. Ideas which were only recently considered “a matter of personal choice” have now become the law of the land. This carries severe social and legal penalties for those who disagree. The relativist remains a relativist when he has little power, but once he comes to power, he strangely metamorphoses into an absolutist, persecuting those who disagree with him. His “tolerance” disappears under a cloak of despotism.

The weakness of this method is that it is impossible to hold a society together by mere force. After the bloodshed and the purging, an authoritarian society eventually burns itself out after it runs out of victims and collapses in on itself due to the moral rot within. As Aristotle said, all evil eventually collapses in upon itself. After the dust settles, the only thing remaining is the truth.

The West’s Descent into Tyranny

I think of nations such as Russia and Poland, under the grip of the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century, whose people were forced to teach atheism in schools and forbidden to practice religion. Both countries today, although far from perfect, are once again free nations that are able to practice the Christian faith. History is full of examples of attempts to stamp out Christianity. The Romans threw the entire weight of their empire against the fledgling church. Rather than destroying the church, the church converted the empire. The Roman Empire had all of the military might and the Christian Church had none. Christians prevailed because they had truth on their side, truth embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Raw human power can never prevail over divine authority. The truth cannot be conquered. It always prevails precisely because it is the truth.

During the dark days of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government churned out volumes of propaganda now relegated to to the ash heap of history. But works like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which documented Solzhenitsyn’s time in a Russian Gulag, are still read because they are true. Also, back then in the Soviet Union, Russian grandmothers kept the Christian faith alive by teaching the faith to their grandchildren. Consider that it was the faith of the Russian grandmothers, resting on the authority of God, that helped defeat the domineering power of the Soviet Union.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is an iconic figure in standing against those who suppress the truth.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In the West, we are in a period of deep darkness. This darkness may last several more years, decades, or even several centuries. It may be similar to the darkness that prevailed in Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD to the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century. During that time, the truth was preserved by monks in the monasteries until the storm passed.

Medieval monks preserved truth from those who were trying to suppress it.

This present storm will pass as well. The truth cannot be destroyed. It is like gravity. We can deny its existence, but we cannot negate its effects. This does not mean that it will be easy for those on the side of truth. But it is the rule, not the exception, that the church prevails through suffering. The paradox is that the indestructible truth prevails through human weakness and frailty. Try as they might, “cancel culture” will never be able to cancel the truth. It is a fool’s errand. They may succeed for a short time, but power alone is not enough to prevail; they have severed themselves from true authority and will eventually come to their end.

In the past, the heroes who preserved the truth were people like medieval monks and Russian grandmothers, people who had little power in the eyes of the world. The question is, as we face the same foe, albeit in a different disguise, who will be the heroes in this present darkness?

“All truth and understanding is a result of divine light which is God himself.

The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth.”

-St. Augustine

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

-Jesus Christ

The following AP article from 1991 is a fascinating read on how Russian grandmothers kept the Christian faith alive in the former Soviet Union


This is the article On Power and Authority by Dr. Jeff Mirus from which I took the above quote


29. Pythagoras and Harmony

Pythagoras as depicted in the School of Athens writing about harmony.
Pythagoras  in the School of Athens painting by Raphael

Pythagoras was a demigod who went around performing miracles. He talked to the animals and they listened to him.  Once, he convinced a bear to stop harassing the townspeople and the bear gave its word that it would. He also was renowned for having a “golden thigh.”

These are just some of the legends that surround this historical figure. In addition to all of that, he did not invent the Pythagorean theorem. Consequently, when we deal with Pythagoras, we are dealing with an enigmatic figure who is partly mythical and partly real. Like Socrates, he did not leave any writings, but also like Socrates, his followers attributed their ideas to him. And unlike Socrates, who practiced his philosophy publicly, Pythagoras and his followers lived in a highly secretive community. 

Similar to the the other Presocratics, we know almost nothing about his life.  We do know that he was born around 570 BC and died around 495 BC. Like the Milesian philosophers that we’ve studied – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes – Pythagoras was an Ionian by birth.  He was born on the island of Samos, off the coast of what is today’s western Turkey. Around the age of 40, he moved to Italy, apparently because he did not get along with the local tyrant at Samos. He settled in at a Greek town called Kroton (modern Croton) on the east coast of southern Italy. Just like Asia Minor, southern Italy and Sicily had been populated with Greek colonies.

The School at Croton, Italy

The school that he founded at Croton, an Italian school of philosophy, was partly philosophical and partly religious. In this way, it reminds me of a medieval European monastery. The Pythagoreans had some strange practices. Pythagoras prohibited his followers from eating beans since he said that they contained the souls of the dead. He believed in the transmigration of souls and reincarnation, beliefs he possibly picked up while traveling to India.

We are all familiar with Pythagoras from studying the Pythagorean theorem in school where we learned the relationship between the sides of a right triangle as a+ b= c2  Even though Pythagoras’s name is attached to the theorem, the equation was widely known over 1000 years before he was born. He probably came up with a proof for the formula and that is most likely how his name became attached to it. 

Regardless of his relationship to the theorem, Pythagoras is considered the first mathematician. People had been doing mathematics for centuries, but Pythagoras started the first school dedicated to discovering mathematical theorems and principles. Prior to the Pythagoreans, mathematics mainly had been done for practical purposes such as commerce and construction. 

Numbers as the Basis of Everything

If Thales was the first philosophical philosopher, then Pythagoras was the first mathematical philosopher since he was the first to combine philosophy with mathematics. Aristotle said the following in his Metaphysics:

“…the Pythagoreans, in their interest in mathematics, were the first (early philosophers) to bring in numbers and stated that the principles of mathematics were the basic principles of all things.”

Contrasted to the three Milesian philosophers that I previously discussed, Pythagoras chose numbers rather than water, air, or infinity as the arche of the universe. The arche of the universe is that fundamental principle from which everything originates. (See article #26 for a further discussion of the term “arche.”) 

Even though the Greek philosophers were all so unique and had different approaches to things, they had one thing in common – they all sensed an underlying unity to the diversity of the universe. They realized that the cosmos was characterized by change as well as constancy, having both static and dynamic aspects. There were universal principles that worked themselves out through the particulars. For Pythagoras, the universals were numbers. They were abstract and unchanging. That is what gave constancy to a changing world and why he said that numbers created the cosmos and that everything was made of numbers. In his view, numbers were, in fact, divine.

Pythagoras heard the pounding of the hammers on the anvil and realized that there was harmonic proportion.

According to Iamblichus, a Neoplatonist who lived from the third to the fourth century AD, Pythagoras’s journey to discover the arche of the universe started when he walked by a blacksmith shop and heard the sounds of various hammers hitting metal. He realized that certain combinations of hammers produced sounds pleasing to the ear, where others did not. According to the legend, he went into the shop and after observing for a time, surmised that the differing weights of the hammers in combination produces either consonance or dissonance.

Numbers and the Harmony of the Universe

He noticed that consonance was produced by hammers that had a certain weight proportionate to one another. He then started to ponder why this was so – why proportion was so important. I find it interesting that the Presocratic philosophers, given to abstract thinking, were so concrete and earthy in their approach to things. 

Pythagoras then realized that the proportion of string lengths produced harmonic proportion.

After his eureka moment in the blacksmith shop, he started experimenting with strings and found that strings of differing lengths produced different notes, and that combinations of strings of various lengths in certain proportion to one another produced harmonies pleasing to the ear, while other proportions did not. For example, if the notes of two strings, one string half the length of the other, were played simultaneously, this combination would make what is called a perfect octave. The ratio of this harmonious proportion is 2:1. If the ratio of the string lengths is 3:2, then we have a perfect fifth and if the ratio is 4:3, we have a perfect fourth and so on. As such, Pythagoras discovered that mathematical proportions govern the relationship between notes.

It was a major achievement to discover that the pitch of a note was determined by the rate of the string’s vibration and that it depended upon its length. This discovery started the prominence in Pythagoreanism of the relationship between mathematics and music. 

Pythagoras realized that the three fundamental harmonies were generated by the first four numbers – 1, 2, 3, and 4. Adding these together made 10, which Pythagoras stated had a mystical significance since it was the basis of counting. The Pythagoreans liked to make shapes out of numbers, and they represented the number 10 via the following shape, which they called the tetractys: 

Pythagoras discovered musical harmony.

The tetractys had such religious significance for the Pythagoreans that they would swear oaths on that image. Boethius, a philosopher who lived from the fifth to the sixth centuries AD, expanded upon these harmonies and created his own diagram to include the harmonies involving the numbers 6, 8, 9, and 12: 

Pythagoras discovered musical harmony.

This is the same diagram that appears in the above painting by Raphael. See if you can find it. This illustrates how important these discoveries were. Raphael was demonstrating a continuity of knowledge that spanned a millennium, from Pythagoras’s day until his own. 

Numbers as the Link between the Physical and Metaphysical

Pythagoras illustrated that numbers were the link between the physical and metaphysical realm and music was just the beginning. The harmonious relationship produced by two or more objects did not have to be limited to music. The Pythagoreans extended this principle to the heavenly bodies and all of nature including human beings. They surmised that the distances between various planets in proportion to one another produced a celestial harmony of sorts. This was termed “celestial music.” It was not an audible sound, although some Pythagoreans said that the celestial bodies emitted hums that harmonized with one another. The “music” laid in the relationship of the harmonious proportions between them. Boethius would later term this as music universalis to contrast it from the music heard from musical instruments or singing. 

Musical harmony is the music of the universe.

The Pythagoreans also applied these principles to the human body. They thought of the soul as a kind of harmony. They said that if our bodies and our souls are in correct proportion, then we will be in harmony and thus be healthy. When our bodies and souls are unharmonious, then we get sick and even die. They also said that the musical harmonies had a nourishing effect upon the soul and thus the body. This belief laid the foundation for the idea of dualism that would later developed by Plato and end up having a long philosophical shelf life. 

Musical harmony is human music.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man illustrating the perfect proportions of an ideal human body

Boethius termed the harmony of body and soul as “human music” or musica humana. So to summarize, harmonies found in audible music are also found in the celestial bodies as celestial “music” and in humans as human “music.” Indeed they are found throughout all of nature.

Goodness is found when all of creation is in harmony with itself. This is why the Greeks put such an emphasis on harmony and proportion. 

The Pythagoreans extended this concept of human music to ethics, morality, and government. A good government is one that governs harmoniously with itself and society. A person will live a harmonious life if he or she lives within ethical means and avoids the extremes. As you can see, the practical applications of harmonious proportion are endless. This is why it continued to be developed by Plato, and why his followers after him, in the first century BC, combined the ideas of Plato and Pythagoras and developed them even further.

The Legacy of Pythagoras

Plato was attracted to the ideas of Pythagoras because he, too was an abstract thinker and a lover of beauty, whereas Aristotle, being a more concrete thinker, was more dismissive of Pythagoras. Finally, these ideas reached their full flowering with the Neoplatonists beginning with Plotinus in the third century BC and including people like Iamblichus, mentioned above. 

Pythagoras’s ideas would go on to affect not only philosophy and mathematics, but art and architecture, especially in the Middle Ages. Much of Gothic art and architecture was based on this idea of harmonious proportion. The Roman architect Vitruvius (85 BC to 15 AD) was heavily influenced by these ideas as well as the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Through Palladio, Pythagoras’s legacy reached even to the United States, being responsible for the architectural beauty of Monticello, Harvard Hall, and the Capitol Building. 

Speaking of Harvard Hall, one of the buildings below was designed with the principle of harmonious proportion and one wasn’t. Can you guess which is which and do you think that harmonious proportion has anything to do with beauty? The building on top is a modern office building and the one on the bottom is Harvard Hall.

Pythagoras' harmonic proportion in architecture leads to beautiful buildings.
Pythagoras' harmonic proportion in architecture leads to beautiful buildings.

Pythagoras’s journey really started with a search for beauty and led him to the divine. The Greeks recognized not only beauty in music and art, but in the cosmos and nature as well. They all came up with various explanations for beauty, where Pythagoras happened to find the mathematical basis for it. For Pythagoras and many other Greek philosophers, the beauty of the cosmos reflected not only a harmonious order but divinity itself. That is why they were also a community that worshipped.

It seems strange to us that for Pythagoras and his followers, there was no incongruity with being a philosopher or scientist and one who worships God. It seems odd because these things were separated from one another in the Enlightenment. As a result of that, we moderns are living in an unnatural state of existence. We see the universe as meaningless and explain our love of beauty in purely evolutionary terms.

To use Pythagoras’s ideas, we are living in dissonance rather than consonance with the order of the universe as created by God. As a result, we have become alienated, not only from our environment, but from each other and our own selves. We, as modern people, feel the tension of this alienation as loneliness and despair.  This dissonance is also reflected in our art and architecture. By rejecting the principles of harmonious proportion that have guided artists for hundreds of years, we moderns have produced some of the ugliest works of art and architecture ever seen.  

Our hope is found in returning to the rich treasures of Western civilization that we have abandoned. This not only includes the Christian faith, but the rich heritage of philosophy, art, music, literature, and science. These disciplines need to be integrated with one another into a unified whole as they were in the Middle Ages rather than remaining compartmentalized and disjointed. There was a time when artists and architects would consult with philosophers and theologians in order to improve their craft.

This does not mean that we should attempt to recreate the Middle Ages. We do not want to commit the fallacy of nostalgic thinking. But it means that we return to rebuilding the edifice of human civilization upon the foundation that we have inherited from our pre-Enlightenment forebears. When we do that, we will find that eventually all roads lead to Jesus Christ. What begins with the search for beauty should end with the worship of Him. 

This is the Hymn of Pythagoras to the Rising Sun
Hymn of the Pythagoreans to the Rising Sun by Bronnikov, 1877

“When the Pythagoreans, with their discovery of the mathematical ratios underlying musical harmony, caught a glimpse of the deep, mysterious patterned structure of nature, the conviction became overwhelming that in numbers lay power, even possibly the power that had created the universe. Numbers were like the key to vast knowledge – the sort of knowledge that would raise one’s soul to a higher level of immortality, where it would rejoin the divine.” 

-Kitty Ferguson, from her book Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe


Clayton, David, The Way of Beauty (Kettering, Ohio, Angelico Press, 2015)

Also, check out David Clayton’s blog post on Pythagoras:


Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy (New York, Penguin Press, 2019)

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus (Philadelphia, Paul Dry Books, 2011)

Ferguson, Kitty, Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe (New York, Walker Publishing Company, 2008) 

Aristotle, The Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (New York, Penguin Books, 2004)

Taylor, Thomas, Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras (Rochester, Vermont, Inner Traditions International, 1986) 

Also, for more on Pythagoras, please check out the link below from King’s College in London from their series entitled History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps:


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28. Anaximenes of Miletus and Air

Here is old Anaximenes of Miletus sitting and pondering the fact that everything comes from air.
Anaximenes (Getty Images)

Anaximenes, the philosopher who theorized that air was the principle element of the universe, may have inadvertently discovered the soul.

Anaximenes, also known as Anaximenes of Miletus, was one of the three Milesian philosophers along with Thales and Anaximander. He was born around 586 BC and died around 526 BC. He is said to have either been a younger colleague of Anaximander or one of his pupils. 

Thales, the first philosopher, said that the arche, or fundamental principle of the universe, was water. The arche of the universe is that from which everything originates. (See article #26 for a further discussion of the term arche.) Thales’s pupil Anaximander looked for a nonmaterial solution in the apeiron.  The apeiron can be considered infinite, indeterminate, indefinite, or boundless. As such, it could be considered everything or even nothing. 

Air as the Fundamental Principle of the Universe

As with many students who glean ideas from their predecessors and come up with something more innovative, Anaximenes agreed with his teacher Anaximander that the arche was infinite, but he did not believe it was indeterminate. Rather, like Thales, he agreed that the arche was also an element. But unlike Thales, he chose air rather than water as the arche. He combined some of the ideas of Anaximander and Thales and said that the arche was infinite air. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that Anaximenes had more of a compromising personality. 

The more interesting question to all of this is why did Anaximenes choose air as the arche? Remember that there were four things that the Greeks considered elements – water, air, fire, and earth; these were the four candidates for the arche. At that point, water and air had been chosen as the arche, while fire and earth were still waiting in the wings.

There was a reason Anaximenes chose air as a more formidable candidate (than even water) for the arche, the first principle of all things. To stick with my theory that Anaximenes had a compromising personality, he said that air was the element that could go either way. It could be rarified or condensed to become different substances. In this way, he was more comprehensive than Thales, who never did explain how water could change states between liquid, solid, and gas.

Anaximenes said that when air became rarified or less condensed, it turned into fire. When it became more condensed, it turned into water, and eventually if it became even more condensed, it turned into earth. Anaximenes had an explanation of how his arche, air, could give rise to all of the other elements, while Thales never had such an explanation.

Anaximenes even offered proof.  If you open your mouth wide and blow out, you will notice that the air is warm, and if you purse your lips and blow out, you will notice that the air is cool. By becoming rarified or condensed, air could give rise to the other elements that make up the universe – fire if rarified or water and earth if condensed.

The beauty of Anaximenes’s theory is that his material cause, air, was also eternal, which made it the source of eternal motion in the universe. Aristotle’s general critique of the Presocratic philosophers was that they did not account for motion in looking for a first principle of the universe in physical causes. Anaximenes was an exception to that critique. With air, which is infinite, as the material cause of the universe and the cause of all motion in the universe, he had a complete package.

Air and the Concept of the Soul

It also eliminated the need for a soul as the cause of motion, like Thales proposed, that animated that material universe. Anaximenes noticed that people who were alive were also breathing and that when they stopped breathing, they died. Like Thales, he saw a connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. He reasoned that air also animated the universe and that without air, the universe would seek to have motion. 

I find it paradoxical that in eliminating the need for a soul, he actually stumbled upon the concept of a soul. The concept of equating air with spirit or soul has a long tradition in the Christian faith. The Latin word spiritus can mean both breath and spirit. E. Michael Jones states in Logos Rising, “Saying that the soul is air is simply another way of saying that it is the spiritual element which informs the body and holds it together, a concept which reached its fullest explication when Aristotle claimed that the soul, which had ceased to be material in any sense, was the form of the body.” 

Spirit and air have had a close association in Christianity. Jesus said in John 3, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

There is another way in which Anaximenes was closer than Thales in discussing the fundamental principle of the universe. The Presocratics made a break with their predecessors by looking for a material-first principle. But such a radical shift does not mean that there was no sense of continuity with the past. What Thales did have in common with the mythological explanations of the origin of the universe was water. In almost all ancient accounts of creation, including the Hebrew account in Genesis, water played an important role. It was there at the beginning. What separated the Judeo-Christian account from other ancient accounts was that the water, though present, was not the source of the creation. The source of creation was, as Genesis states, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.” So in this way, Anaximenes may have been more correct than he realized. 

“Like our soul which rules in us, so breath and life encompasses the whole cosmos.”


“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”

-Genesis 1:1-2 


Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy (New York, Penguin Press, 2019)

Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality (South Bend, Indiana, Fidelity Press, 2020)

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus (Philadelphia, Paul Dry Books, 2011)

Also, for more on Anaximander, please check out the link below from King’s College in London from their series entitled History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps:


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