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.
(I reposted this article as Post 51 in order to answer objections to the comments below by an astute reader. If you will go there, you will find an interesting and enlightening exchange.)
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.1
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.2 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.3 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.4
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.”5 In fact, he saw the majority of human beings as dimwitted. He stated:
“The majority of people have no understanding of the things with which they daily meet, nor, when instructed, do they have any right knowledge of them, although to themselves they seem to have.”6
And he said of great thinkers like Pythagoras that they, despite their great learning, “lacked understanding.”7 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.8 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.9 (If your favorite is not in this list, please discuss it in the comments below.)
- “No man ever steps into the same river twice.”
- “The way up and the way down are one and the same path.”
- “Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”
- “For Fire, everything is an exchange and Fire for everything, just as for gold, money and for money, gold.”
- “All things come out of one and one out of all things.”
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 Cratylus (402a), 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.10 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.11 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.12 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.13 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.
I will leave you with a Heraclitus quote:
“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river – and it is not the same man.”14
Finally, consider the following question:
Do you think that characterizing Heraclitus as the “philosopher of flux” mischaracterizes him? Please leave your comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
*Also, this article has been reposted as Post 51. If you check the comments below, you will see that a reader named Al left some interesting comments to which I have responded in the repost. If you would like to join in that conversation, please see Post 51.
From Amazon: “In the sixth century b.c.-twenty-five hundred years before Einstein–Heraclitus of Ephesus declared that energy is the essence of matter, that everything becomes energy in flux, in relativity. His great book, On Nature, the world’s first coherent philosophical treatise and touchstone for Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius, has long been lost to history–but its surviving fragments have for thousands of years tantalized our greatest thinkers, from Montaigne to Nietzsche, Heidegger to Jung. Now, acclaimed poet Brooks Haxton presents a powerful free-verse translation of all 130 surviving fragments of the teachings of Heraclitus, with the ancient Greek originals beautifully reproduced en face.”
- Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, p. 38, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981
- Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/heraclit
- Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus
- Jones, Christopher P., “How to Read Paintings: The School of Athens by Raphael,” Feb. 12, 2020, https://christopherpjones.medium.com/how-to-read-paintings-the-school-of-athens-by-raphael-60f1ca0592c6
- Graham, Daniel W. “Does Nature Love to Hide? Heraclitus B123 DK.” Classical Philology, vol. 98, no. 2, 2003, pp. 175–179. JSTOR
- Levin, Noah, “Heraclitus (Fragments),” Sourced from NGE Far Press, Humanities LibreTexts, sourced from NGE Far Press, updated March10, 2021, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Philosophy/Ancient_Philosophy_Reader_(Levin)/01%3A_The_Start_of_Western_Philosophy_and_the_Pre-Socratics/1.04%3A_Heraclitus_(Fragments)
- Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), section on ‘Knowledge,’ https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus;Levin, Noah, “Heraclitus (Fragments)”
- Chitwood, Ava. “HERACLITUS Αἰνιϰτὴς HERACLITUS AND THE RIDDLE.” Studi Classici e Orientali, vol. 43, 1995, pp. 49–62. JSTOR
- Levin, Noah, “Heraclitus (Fragments)”
- Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 3.1 ‘Flux”
- Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 3
- Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, pp. 58-60, Paul Day Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011
- English, Robert B. “Heraclitus and the Soul.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 44, 1913, pp. 163–184. JSTOR
- Levin, Noah, “Heraclitus (Fragments)”
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
Heraclitus, Fragments, Brooks Haxton, translator; forward by James Hillman, Penguin Books, N.Y., 2003
Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Plato, Cratylus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Independently Published, 2020
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