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.1 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.”2 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.”3
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.4 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.”5
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?6
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?
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. Heraclitus said:
“Unapprehending even when they’ve heard, similar to the deaf. The proverb is witness to their being “absent though present.”
Therefore he concluded:
“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.”7
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.”8 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.9 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.10 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.”11
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.”12
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.13
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.”14
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.”
The following quote is from Heraclitus:
“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.”
St. Augustine said:
“Lord, grant that I may know myself, that I may know Thee.”
Now consider the following question:
Heraclitus had a dim view of humanity, stating that most people choose to remain ignorant. Do you agree? Please leave your comment below.
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, pp. 10-13, Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 201; Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/logos
- “Logos,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Logos
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, pp. 11-12
- “G.W. Carver,” National Peanut Board, https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/more/gw-carver/#:~:text=As%20the%20%E2%80%9CFather%20of%20the,popular%20that%20even%20Franklin%20D.
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 21
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 22
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 24
- Jackson, A. V. Williams. “ORMAZD, OR THE ANCIENT PERSIAN IDEA OF GOD.” The Monist, vol. 9, no. 2, 1899, pp. 161–178. JSTOR
- Ivry, Alfred, “Arabic and Islamic Psychology and Philosophy of Mind”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/arabic-islamic-mind
- From John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, third ed., 1920, chapter 3, http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/stoa/stoaherac.htm
- Peter Pesic. “Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the ‘Torture’ of Nature.” Isis, vol. 90, no. 1, 1999, pp. 81–94. JSTOR
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, pp. 25-6
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 126
Bibliography and Sources:
Aristotle, On the Soul, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, England, 2018
Aristotle, The Metaphysics, Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, New York, 2004
Aristotle, Physics, David Bostock, author, translated by Robin Waterfield, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2008
Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011
Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981
Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009
McCabe, M.M.; Adamson, Peter, Lecture 5 “Old Man River: Heraclitus,” History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, King’s College, London, Dec. 28, 2010, https://historyofphilosophy.net/xenophanes