The Presocratics – Heraclitus

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPGHeraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

More than anything, Heraclitus is known as the philosopher of flux. As is famously attributed to him: “One cannot step in the same river twice” (D 91). Or as he similarly notes elsewhere: “As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.”

Though it is important to understand Heraclitus as a great speculative philosopher who exceeds the Ionians in complexity, it is also important to see that he sets out similarly to the Ionians — so it is not without reason that Plato classifies all these early thinkers together as “Heracletians.” As Heraclitus says, indicating his similarity to the Ionians regarding the source of knowledge: “Whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer” (D 55). Yet, seeing and hearing are not enough. To this, as the Ionians also appear to have clearly recognized, one must add understanding. “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for those who have barbarian souls” (D 107).

While reasoning is as important as experience, it is not something that Heraclitus unhinges from experience. Heraclitus does not engage in the same abstract thought as Parmenides, speculating on the basis of an apriori logic. For him, the world around us, where one is born grows old dies, where all things change, serves as the basis of speculation. And that speculation should lead us to see the shifts and changes occur in accord with a law-like substratum. Here he posits a teaching of both logos (of word or mind or principle) and the elements. In this “All things are one.” Yet that unity contains diversity with the process: “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.” Individual objects in the world emerge and fade away out of a relationship of the transformation of elements through time.

Though Heraclitus will refer to the logos as divine, he does not speak of it as an external force acting upon a separate material. The process of the material change of the basic elements (with fire as the most basic) is not imposed by external deities, but is the order of the cosmos itself: “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.” Fire, the fundamental element, which also best symbolizes the transformation of the cosmos, transforms into the other elements in a process of continual change, where difference is fundamental, but difference persists in a process of unity.

One of Heraclitus’ fundamental themes is that this change in cosmos occurs through the balancing of oppositions. As he notes: “What is in opposition is in agreement, and the most beautiful harmony comes out of things in conflict (and all happens according to strife.)” Or more poetically, dismissing those who strive to see all conflict disappear: “They do not comprehend how being at variance it agrees with itself: it is a harmony turning back upon itself like a bow and a lyre.” This conflict between opposites is fundamental to the unfolding of the logos in the cosmos. In contrast to Hesiod who sees this conflict as a curse, Heraclitus posits that strife is not only “the father of all;” “strife is [also] justice.”

Beyond merely seeing how apparent conflicts complement one another, the “divine,” objective view of the cosmos that he stresses strives to rise above the common human-centric vision of reality.   As he notes: “Sea is the most pure and most polluted water. For fish it is drinkable and life-preserving; for people it is undrinkable and deadly.”

Part of Heraclitus project is to reconceive of the divinity. It is now the cosmos as a whole or the logos that permeates it. Specific gods are part of this, but demythologized and viewed as functions of a law-like determinate universe. He notes the tension of his time, as myths are being secularized: “The one and only wise thing is and is not willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”

While this approach to reconceiving the gods is not unique to Heraclitus, he is more radical than most in that he not only rejects the traditional views of the gods, but also the rites and ceremonies honoring them, which he sees as having a corrosive effect on human beings. As he notes of ancient rites to Dionysos: “If it were not in honor of Dionysos that they organize a procession and sing the phallic hymn, what they do would be most shameless: but Hades and Dionysos are one and the same, in whose honor people rave and celebrate the Bacchic revelry.”

It is not the honoring of the gods that determine one’s fate and well-being. Rather: “Mans character is his fate.” The responsibility for what one becomes lies with oneself.  Against this backdrop, Heraclitus notes: “the people should fight on behalf of the law as (they would) for (their) city wall.”

Heraclitus does re-conceive of the divine and of nature. One dovetails into the other. He bases his speculative reasoning on the senses but thinks it takes one beyond them. At least the knowledge that we have of him surpasses that of the Ionians by explicitly taking up not only issues of natural philosophy and metaphysics but also issues of ethics and teaching of the soul. In this, he among the Presocratics is the first to approach the systemic character of the later thought of Plato and Aristotle.

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7 thoughts on “The Presocratics – Heraclitus

  1. His observation about the sea as having the purest and most polluted is poignant and modern man has complicated it further by making it polluted for both man and fish.

  2. Dr. Arnold,

    Thank you for allowing John to reprint your essays. Heraclitus is of special interest to me due to his sayings related to the concept that everything in the universe is undergoing constant, incremental change. After browsing through your web site, it is clear that you have conducted as much or more research into the philosophy of Heraclitus than anyone alive. It is quite impressive!


  3. Jim – I’ll pass this along to Darrell. He was my best friend in grad school and one of my oldest and dearest friends. JGM

  4. Jim and Fritz: Thanks for the comments. Your note on the pollution of the waters is poignant, Fritz. Jim, yes, I have spent a bit of time with Heraclitus over the past years. He is a much more complex thinker than I originally thought. And his influence was quite wide-ranging: He was really one of the fundamental inspirations for the Stoics. Hegel said there was nothing in Heraclitus’ thought that he had not incorporated into his own. And he was the only of the early Presocratic/Pre-Platonic philosophers that Nietzsche found valuable not only in his early work but also in his later writings.

  5. “…where all things change…”

    Much does change; yet could it be that most ‘things’ do not change? Perhaps in paying so much attention to that which changes, we don’t know– or forget– this?

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