It was in Ionia that the Greek-speaking world of the sixth century B.C. jostled with the ancient kingdoms of Asia’s westernmost region. Phrygia, Lydia, Caria, and the other principalities of Asia Minor were Greece’s portal to the Asiatic interior. The empire of Persia, herself irrigated to fertility by various Asiatic streams, retained a power and influence that lapped the shores of the Aegean Sea.
It was no accident that Ionia, the doorstep of Europe, was the place where the swirling currents of international commerce, competing religions, and military conflict blended to produce new and vigorous currents of thought. Geography and the spirit of the age demanded fresh perspectives on the world. Out of this fructifying interchange of ideas and commerce, a great flourishment in speculative inquiry took place in Ionia between 600 and 400 B.C. It was the first such event in European history. Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, Pherecydes of Syros, Xenophanes, Melissus of Samos, Leucippus, Democritus of Abdera—all of them were more or less from Ionia, and all of them sought rational explanations for the origin and condition of the universe.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that Gautama Buddha in India and Lao Tzu in China also flourished in this period, for revolutions in ideas have ways of spilling across cultural and geographical boundaries. Intercultural contacts in ancient times were more common than is generally appreciated; but we cannot say with certainty the extent to which the Ionian awakening was nurtured by imported ideas. Yet whatever foreign nutriment it may have received, Ionia’s achievement was a native phenomenon. It was a product of the Greek-speaking world; and we should not ascribe to others a credit that properly belongs to the Greeks themselves.
We have lingered on these preliminaries to provide our subject with historical context. No thinker springs into existence out of nothing; the soil, air, and water that nourished him existed long before his germination. Tradition places the birthplace of Heraclitus at Ephesus on the Ionian coast. He was born around 535 B.C., and died around the age of sixty. Diogenes Laertius, that precious source for so many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, says that he flourished in the 69th Olympiad. He apparently came from an aristocratic family, but abandoned his patrimony to pursue the study of wisdom. He had an exceptional mind as a youth, but was sufficiently prone to depression for posterity to nickname him “The Weeping Philosopher.” He chafed against the inherited knowledge foisted on him by religion and social custom. Finally, embittered by the society of men, he chose to live as a hermit, and abandoned himself to misanthropy. A cruel legend has given him an undignified death:
Finally he became a hater of his kind and wandered on the mountains, and there continued to live, making his diet of grass and herbs. However, when this gave him dropsy, he made his way back to the city and put this riddle to the physicians, whether they were competent to create a drought after heavy rain. They could make nothing of this, whereupon he buried himself in a cowshed, expecting that the noxious damp humor would be drawn out of him by the warmth of the manure. But, as even this was of no avail, he died at the age of sixty. [Diog. Laert. IX.1; trans. by R.D. Hicks]
Before this, however, Heraclitus recorded his philosophy in the sole work ascribed to him, On Nature. He deposited the work in a temple dedicated to Artemis, but it has not come down to us intact. All that survives of his treatise are about one hundred thirty cryptic apophthegms; and upon this maddeningly vague gnomology rests Heraclitus’s philosophical reputation. Like many mystics before and after him, he chose to be obscure, for ambiguity could both serve as protection from persecution and as a device to discourage the unworthy. It is not clear whether his book was simply a collection of maxims, or whether it contained a more detailed exposition of his thought.
Diogenes Laertius tells us that On Nature was divided into three parts: one on the universe, another on politics, and a third on theology. Even attempting to place his fragments in a logical order is problematic, for scholars cannot reconstruct the flow of his arguments. We are very fortunate, however, to have the recent work by André Laks and Glenn Most, who translated and edited Heraclitus’s fragments (as well as comments by other ancient authors) for the Loeb Series in 2016 under the title Early Greek Philosophy, Volume II. Quotations from Heraclitus in this essay will refer to this work, unless otherwise indicated.
In the age before experimental science, natural philosophers were limited, or liberated, by their own observations and the logical inferences that could be drawn from them. And it turns out that this was enough, for Heraclitus ranks among the most influential thinkers of European history. But what were his ideas? What do his fragments communicate? Write Laks and Most: “Heraclitus is the early Greek philosopher who in antiquity became the object of the largest number of divergent interpretations—of which the most celebrated one remains that of Plato, who attributes to him a conception of becoming in perpetual flux—and even today he continues to fascinate and divide his readers.” Fortunately our trusted biographer, Diogenes Laertius, summarizes the essentials of his worldview. We will now relate them.
The first of his principles is fire. “All things are in exchange for fire, and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.” It is likely that Heraclitus meant “fire” in both a literal and metaphorical sense; perhaps we may better understand his meaning if we read “fire” as “energy.” This places him in agreement with modern physics. “When the fire has come upon all things, it will judge them and seize hold of them,” he tells us, in a comment that sounds traceable to the fire-judgments of Persian Zoroastrianism. “This world order, the same for all, none of the gods or humans made it, but it always was and is and will be: fire ever-living, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures.” In fact, fire is the mother of all things: “Turnings of fire: first sea, then half of the sea, earth; and the other half, lightning storm…It spreads out as sea and its measure reaches the same account as it was before it became earth.”
The second pillar of his thought is the prevalence of flux and change. Nothing remains the same for any appreciable length of time; things are always transposing from one interpretation to another. One gets the impression that Heraclitus found this discovery deeply unsettling. “It is always different waters that flow toward those who step into the same rivers.” Perhaps here is an articulation of the principle of conservation of energy: “Cold things become warm, warm becomes cold, wet becomes dry, parched becomes moist.” Unlike his predecessors, Heraclitus urges us to look beyond what things are, to what they may be becoming: here is a significant advance in scientific theory that would have to wait another two thousand years for its implications to be fully appreciated. Heraclitus more than occasionally sounds like a religious mystic: “A human being, in the night, lights a lamp for himself, [dead], his eyes extinguished; living, he touches on a dead man when sleeping; when awake, he touches on a sleeping man. Elsewhere, he says: “Immortals mortals, mortals immortals, living the death of these, dying the life of those.” For Heraclitus, change itself is the nature of the Divine Essence.
The two preceding tenets of Heraclitus’s philosophy lead us to his third principle, which has been called the “unity of opposites,” or the inevitability of conflict. Contraries clash and synthesize in an unrelenting process of strife, reconciliation, and strife again. He announces: “Cojoinings: wholes and not wholes, converging and diverging, harmonious dissonant; and out of all things one, and out of one all things.” “They do not comprehend how, diverging, it accords with itself: a backward-turning, fitting-together, as of a bow and a lyre.” “The way upward and downward: one and the same.” Life itself is a product of this constant strife between opposites; death is as much a beginning as it is an end. War itself is inevitable and part of the normal rhythm of life: “One must know that war is common, that justice is strife, and that all things come about by strife and constraint.”
Perhaps anticipating that an awareness of these impersonal cosmic forces would depress his readers, Heraclitus urges us to perceive a sense of divine order behind all the strife and change. It is an idea that anticipates Philo of Alexandria’s concept of the logos which, eventually, would make its way into Christian theology. “For god, all things are beautiful, good, and just, but humans have assumed that some things are unjust, others just.” “The wisest human being will seem to be a monkey compared to a god in wisdom, beauty, and everything else.” Our own poor powers of comprehension cannot approach those of the divine mind: “The human character does not possess judgments, but the divine one possesses them.” Heraclitus, being at heart a scientist, has little to say about ethics. Yet he does offer us a few morsels: “A dull-witted man tends to be alarmed by every account.” “Justice will seize hold of those who fabricate lies and of those who bear witness to them.” “Those who search for gold dig up much earth and find little.” “Character, for a human, is his personal deity.”
An amusing tradition says that Euripides gave a copy of Heraclitus’s book to Socrates in Athens. When the great playwright asked the moral philosopher his opinion of it, Socrates tactfully answered, “What I understand is splendid; I think that what I did not understand is also splendid; but it needs a Delian diver [i.e., someone who could not easily be drowned in deep water].” Even in antiquity, Heraclitus was a frustrating thinker to grapple with. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, lodged an oft-heard complaint:
For it is hard work to punctuate Heraclitus’s statements, because it is unclear with what [a given term] is connected, with what follows or what precedes, as in the beginning of his book. For he says, “And of this account that is always humans are uncomprehending,” and it is unclear if “always” is to be punctuated so as to go with the one or the other.
Perhaps Heraclitus—chuckling at posterity as it wrestles with his obscurities and ambiguities which continue to provoke intense debate—has had the last laugh, and is the one who should be called The Laughing Philosopher, instead of Democritus. Yet when the final account is tallied, it cannot be doubted that Heraclitus’s ideas exerted enormous influence. The Stoics accepted nearly every word of his cosmology. It was from him that the Stoic school conceived the concept of a divine fire that would one day consume the universe, and trigger its rebirth. And in Heraclitus we arguably find the first glimmerings of a conception of a logos, or a divine rule, that would eventually, like a meandering brook gurgling down the centuries, trickle into Christian theology. Plato venerated Heraclitus’s physics and felt compelled to comment on them. Heraclitus’s ideas on conflict, change, and the unity of opposites found rebirth in the philosophies of Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, among many others.
An honest critique of our subject must voice some objections. We miss in Heraclitus the practical concern for the needs of men and society that we find in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He cares very little for ethics, human relations, and the need for virtue. The study of Heraclitus’s fragments makes us acutely aware of the great divide that separates the pre-Socratic from the post-Socratic philosophers. The pre-Socratics were essentially speculative scientists, focused on examining the arcane laws of heaven and earth; but it was Socrates—and by extension, Plato’s Academic school—who brought philosophy down from the clouds, and forced it to inhabit the world of man. As Cicero says in Tusculan Disputations:
Socrates, however, was the first man to summon philosophy down from the sky, place it in the cities, and introduce it into the home: he forced it to ask questions about human life, moral problems, and the dilemmas of good and evil. His versatile techniques…have spawned many different philosophical schools with opposing doctrines. [V.4]
The Socratic revolution in philosophical thought cannot be underestimated; he remains one of the great dividing-lines in the history of ideas. But perhaps this criticism is unfair, and we should not fault Heraclitus for not doing what he never intended to do. He had the courage to resist the pretty explanations of the universe offered by Homer and Hesiod; and he was willing to elevate fire and change above the sterile altars of the Olympian pantheon. His exile from society may have been forced, instead of voluntary. Fate has also played a role in our estimation of Heraclitus the Obscure. For there is no doubt that had his book survived intact, we would be able to resolve many of the ambiguities that torment us about his doctrines. At times there is a certain wisdom in literary ambiguity: with speculative thought, words must be permitted some latitude of interpretation that can expand and contract with the passage of time. It may be no accident, in fact, that the philosopher Diodotus called Heraclitus’s On Nature “A helm unerring for the rule of life.”
Read more about the different schools of philosophy in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, which is available in audiobook, paperback, Kindle, and hardcover: