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 the book of Acts, St. Paul was humbled by a divine voice and a bright light on the road to Damascus.1 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, yet humbled prophet.
Heraclitus proclaimed in a stark and astonishing comment:
“Listening not to me, but to the logos…”2
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.”3
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
What is the significance of this? Well, 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 stressed 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.4 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 philosophical thought. 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 Unmoved Mover, 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. 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.”5
“One thing is the Wise – to understand the maxim by which the thunderbolt steers all things.”6
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 – A Foundational Philosopher
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 Christian theologians.
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. The problem of the One and the Many is, one one hand, a horizontal problem. How do we reconcile the Many that we see with the Unity of the universe? How do we reconcile the many and diverse species and individual dogs with the concept of “dog”?
The vertical axis is similar, how do we reconcile God’s transcendence with His immanence? These two attributes of God seem mutually exclusive, yet He is both as revealed knowledge tells us. The answer to these two problems is found at the intersection of the horizontal axis of the One and Many and the vertical axis of Transcendence and Immanence. I will discuss that more in my post on Philo of Alexandria. For now, I just wanted to introduce the concept. It was Heraclitus who got the ball rolling on this issue by introducing the idea of the One and Many.
Nietzsche on Heralitus
When studying the Presocratics, I often like to consult the writings and lectures of Nietzsche. He was intrigued and passionate about them, and his passion comes through in his discussions. Unlike most other modern philosophers, he breathes life into them and his insights are thought provoking. With Nietzsche, I don’t get the feeling that I am learning about these philosophers with cold objectivity.
I see Heraclitus’ submission to the Logos as a sign of humility that he is just a conduit through which the truth comes. Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees Heraclitus having “the highest form of pride” as Heraclitus alone, of all people, grasps the truth and even brings this idea “into a sublime pathos by involuntary identification of himself with the truth.”7 Consider the following description of Heraclitus by Nietzsche, who gives us a larger than life dramatic rendering of the man. Nietzsche’s descriptions of the Presocratics are much more intriguing than the often dry and pedantic descriptions of many modern philosophers!
“The self-glorification of Heraclitus contains nothing religious; he sees outside himself only error, illusion, and absence of knowledge – but no bridge leads him to his fellow man, no overpowering feeling of sympathetic stirring binds them to him. We can only with difficulty imagine the feelings of loneliness that tore through him: perhaps his style makes this most obvious, since he himself uses language that resembles the oracular proverbs and language of the Sibyls.”8
Most prophets in the ancient world were mere men and women who were chosen, for some unknown reason, to be mouthpieces for the divine. Nietzsche seems to think that Heraclitus viewed himself as closer to the divine than the human, revealing his transcendent truth in a condescending manner, being repulsed with the human race in general.
What is fascinating here as well is Nietzsche’s use of übermensch in describing Heraclitus, since übermensch is Nietzsche’s signature concept. He states in the same chapter that when comparing Pythagoras with Heraclitus, Pythagoras übermensch consisted in him being an incarnation of Apollo, whereas Heraclitus’ consisted in his own self-glorification.
Finally, Nietzsche states that Heraclitus created a new image of the wise (sophos), and that there are three pure paradigms in philosophical history of the wise – Socrates, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus. Socrates is the wise man as religious reformer. Pythagoras is the wise man as the eternal investigator of all things, and Heraclitus is the wise man as proud, solitary searcher of truth. In your search for wisdom, which of the three do you resemble if any?
Consider the following quotes from Heraclitus:
“Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.”
“Humankind does not have such insights; the divine has them.
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“In this extraordinary meditation, Eva Brann takes us to the fierce core of Heraclitus’s vision and shows us the music of his language. The thought and beautiful prose in The Logos of Heraclitus are a delight.”—Barry Mazur, Harvard University
- Acts 9:1-9
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 15, Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 15-17
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Parmenides,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Jun. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Parmenides-Greek-philosopher
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 67
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, p. 65
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, translated by Gregory Whitlock, p. 55, University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, June 5, 2006
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
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, translated by Gregory Whitlock, University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, June 5, 2006
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