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

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 universals also known as the problem of the one and the many.1 (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,2 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.3 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.4 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.5 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.6 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?7

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.8 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.9 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.10

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.11 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, 330-232)12 and third (Chrysippus of Soli, 280-207)13 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.14 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.15 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.16 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. 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.17 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 as “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.

The following quote on the logos is from Marcus Aurelius:

“Wisdom is knowing the logos that extends through the whole of matter, and governs the universe for all eternity according to certain fixed periods.”18

Consider the following question:

How does the problem of the one and the many relate to the endless harangue of calls for “diversity?” Please leave your comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

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  1. Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. “What Is the Problem of Universals?” Mind, vol. 109, no. 434, 2000, pp. 255–273. JSTOR
  2. Chroust, Anton-Hermann. “Aristotle and the ‘Philosophies of the East.’” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 18, no. 3, 1965, pp. 572–580. JSTOR
  3. Macintosh, David, “Plato: A Theory of Forms,” Philosophy Now, 2012, https://philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms
  4. Zeyl, Donald and Barbara Sattler, “Plato’s Timaeus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/plato-timaeus
  5. POWERS, NATHAN. “PLATO’S DEMIURGE AS PRECURSOR TO THE STOIC PROVIDENTIAL GOD.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 2, 2013, pp. 713–722. New Series
  6. Duignan, Brian, “Plato and Aristotle: How Do They Differ?” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/story/plato-and-aristotle-how-do-they-differ
  7. Jones E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 215-217, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  8. Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, pp. 107-110, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2011
  9. Aristotle, The Metaphysics, 984a, pp. 13-4, Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, New York, 2004
  10. Emlyn-Jones, C. J. “Heraclitus and the Identity of Opposites.” Phronesis, vol. 21, no. 2, 1976, pp. 89–114. JSTOR
  11. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Zeno of Citium”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zeno-of-Citium
  12. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Cleanthes”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Mar. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleanthes
  13. Kirby, Jeremy, “Chrysippus of Soli, 280-207.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/chrysipp
  14. Pigliucci, Massimo, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/stoicism
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. “Logos,” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy/philosophy-terms-and-concepts/logos

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 Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2011

Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981

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

Holiday, Ryan and Hanselman, Stephen, Lives of the Stoics, Portfolio Publishers, New York, September 29, 2020

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

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

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

Internet Sources:

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

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