Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher that lived from 535BC to 475BC. He has been often called the ‘dark’ or ‘obscure’ philosopher due to his rather cryptic and mysterious philosophical ideas which have no absolute answer to this very day. The objective of this post is to analyze Heraclitus’s central philosophical thoughts and at the same time, giving my personal viewpoints on each of those ideas. The first idea that I will analyze is something that he calls “logos”, which he defines as the rationale of the universe and everything within it. The second idea that will be examined is Heraclitus’s thought on how he believes everything is constantly changing, with the world being in a state of “flux”. Thirdly, he believed that everything in the universe is at war, in constant “strife” and struggle with each other. Lastly, he uses “fire” as his main natural element in which all of his central ideas are based off of. This “fire” will be examined to show how Heraclitus relates this element to all of his philosophical ideas.
In terms of the idea of Logos, Heraclitus identified that there was an absolute truth about everything, which he thought as an underlying current flowing across time. For Heraclitus, Logos was the world’s rationale consisting of the truth, making it the key to the nature of everything (Baird). He stated that the gap between realizing Logos and roaming in the dullness of opinions was not a matter of something unique, but of an alternative view of the same shared reality. Due to this reasoning, Heraclitus told citizens that they should discover the depths of their soul’s own “logos” rather than relying on the inexperienced view (Kahn). In addition, Heraclitus often refers to the logos as the mind of God, though it is not clear what implications this has for his theory. He also identifies logos with the mind of God because it is the governing, rational force inside nature. He does not view the logos as a personified term; instead he states that it is an entirely natural, rather than a supernatural force.
This idea of Logos was very vaguely described by Heraclitus, leading to many modern scholars in interpreting Logos to mean a variety of things such as: word, statement, law, proportion and reason among many other meanings. It seems to me that Heraclitus was trying to create a unifying idea that was salient across the universe, acting the same all through the existence of everything known and the unknown. I personally thought Heraclitus was trying to say that Logos is some kind of rational deterministic method to the actions taking place in the universe. It almost seems that he is saying that we do not possess freewill, but rather we act in the way that was already pre-determined
In addition to Logos, another of Heraclitus’s main claims is that reality is continually changing and that nothing stays the same within a given amount of time (Archimedes Lab). This is the view that everything is constantly shifting; no object retains all of its element parts, or all of its makings or characteristics, from one instant to the next. His discussions of change in general, and the river fragments(“You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you”) in particular, suggests that he thought that change and permanence could co-exist, that is, that an object could endure in spite of continually undergoing change. The river examples explains this; even though the river is continually changing, the actual river remains in the same place in which it had started, and it still called the river.
In my opinion, this idea of a constant change makes a lot of sense because it can be applied to any thing that exists within our realm of reality. For example, in our modern scientific advancements, scientists have proven that molecules are constantly moving, vibrating and shifting past each other. Yet, our eyes cannot distinguish the difference right away; sometimes it may take days to even years to physically see the difference with our eyes. However, I do not completely agree with Heraclitus’ notion in saying that an object can change, yet can continue to exist. This idea seems paradoxical since if something is constantly changing, it will eventually change into something completely different within a given amount of time. To illustrate my point, I will use Heraclitus’s river example of co-existence. If the river keeps changing in terms of the amount of water flowing through it, and if this water continually diminishes, in only a matter of time, the existence of the river will be gone; with the only thing remaining will be the Earth. It seems to me that he has stated a paradox in which either flux or no flux can exist.
For Heraclitus, the statement that ‘all things are at war’ states that people must come to realize the dynamic interaction of opposing forces as the essence of all things, both natural and cultural. Furthermore, conflicting forces are the structure of the world, and our consciousness of them as necessary of all things, is essential to both order and stability (Cohen).
Intuitively speaking, this idea has a lot of philosophical appeal because this notion of “war” between two entities does make some sense. The idea that crossed my mind concerns the presence of money and wealth. For someone to be rich there must be someone that is poor, if this scenario does not exist, there can be no rich and no poor. These two factions of “rich” and “poor” are constantly at war with each other, but need each other to relate and realize their position in terms of wealth. However, if we were to use gravity an example, what is interstellar gravity at “war” with? Gravity does not have an opposing force; it is solely under its own system. Planets all float around in the universe with gravity in between them, but it is not apparent as to what is the relative opposite of gravity.
Heraclitus held that fire is the primordial element out of which all else exists. He states that “fire is the origin of all matter as through it things come into being and things pass away”. He claims that fire itself is the sign of perpetual change because it converts a substance into another substance without being a substance itself: “This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be eternal fire.” and: “Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water”.
This idea of fire being the primordial element can be looked at in two different perspectives. In a literal sense, how is fire the origin of all matter? When a person comes into being, she is born from her mother, she does not start as fire nor does she end as fire. So in this sense this idea of fire representing life does not make much sense. But if we look at this from a different perspective, when something is born, fire can be seen to represent the “ignition” of one’s life and death can be seen as the “extinguishing” of that life. Heraclitus also relates fire to his idea of constant flux in the universe. Personally, I thought this was an excellent analogy made by Heraclitus because fire does represent a constant change. A flame never stays in the same position; it is always moving, always changing direction and always changing the substance on which the flame is associated.
Even after all of this analysis, it is truly hard to come to an absolute conclusion about what Heraclitus actually meant when he was talking about the ideas that have been mentioned throughout this paper. His sheer obscurity makes it extremely difficult to summarize his philosophical thought in a meaningful way, leaving it to the interpretation of the reader to make sense out of it in their own way. This shroud of mystery is the thing that piqued my interest, and that is why I chose to analyze Heraclitus. Hopefully my view on this great philosopher will give insight to the reader, leading them to realize that he deserves far more analysis and credit than what he has already received.
References for further reading
Archimedes Lab. “The Father of the Doctrine of Flux and the Unity of Opposites.” n.d. http://www.archimedes-lab.org/heraclitus_aphorism.html. Document. 5 July 2013.
Baird, Forrest E. “Heraclitus.” Baird, Forrest E. Ancient Philosophy. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2011. 18-21. Book.
Cohen, Marc. “Heraclitus.” 2002. http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/heracli.htm. Document. 6 July 2013.
Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. London: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Book.
Sparknotes. “Heraclitus.” n.d. Sparknotes. 5 July 2013. <http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/presocratics/section5.rhtml>.
The European Graduate School. “Heraclitus – Biography.” n.d. http://www.egs.edu/library/heraclitus-of-ephesus/biography/. Document. 3 July 2013.