Born in the sixth century BCE, Heraclitus was an Ephesian, who, by all accounts, was not very sociable. Diogenes Laertius reports that Heraclitus refused to participate in public life in Ephesus, heaping scorn on his fellow citizens and the city's constitution; he eventually "became a hater of mankind" (misanthropesas), and withdrew from Ephesus, wandering in the mountains and eating grass and other plants. Only when he became ill did he return to Ephesus, where he died of the illness that drove him back to the city (Lives, 9. 2-4). Many of his sayings provide evidence of Heraclitus' contempt for human kind. Fr. 29, for example, says, "The best choose one thing in place of all else, 'everlasting' glory among mortals; but the majority are glutted like cattle" (Fr. 29; Clement, Strom. V. 59, 5). Fittingly, Hippolytus describes him as follows, "But Heraclitus, a natural philosopher of Ephesus, surrendered himself to universal grief, condemning the ignorance of the entire of life, and of all men; nay, commiserating the (very) existence of mortals, for he asserted that he himself knew everything, whereas the rest of mankind nothing" (Refut. 5).
Heraclitus wrote a philosophical work entitled On Nature, which he placed in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Diogenes, Lives, 9. 6). The work as a whole has not survived; what remains of it are quotations from it in the works of others. (These fragments and explanations of Heraclitus' philosophy by others have been gathered together by scholars.) According to Diogenes, Heraclitus deliberately made his philosophical work obscure, so that none but the already competent(?) (hoi dunamenoi) would be able to understand it. In what may be an apocryphal story, Euripides gave a copy of Heraclitus' book to Socrates to read; when asked his opinion of the book, Socrates replied, "The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it" (Lives, 2. 22; 9.12). Even if this story is unhistorical, it at least establishes that Heraclitus' book was reputed to be difficult to understand. It is not surprising that Heraclitus is referred to in the history of philosophy as "the obscure one" (ho skoteinos). Appropriately, Timon the satirical poet of third century CE says of Heraclitus, "In their midst uprose shrill, cuckoo-like, a mob-reviler, riddling Heraclitus" (Lives, 9.6).
Possessing only fragments of an obscure work makes the task of reconstructing
Heraclitus' philosophy difficult, if not impossible. Although there are
several summaries of his philosophy by later philosophers, Heraclitus'
interpreters at times seem perplexed about his meaning (or what they say
about his views is obscure to the modern reader). Needless to say, any
proposal for the correct reconstruction of Heraclitean philosophy must
remain hypothetical; there will always be room for scholarly debate on
Heraclitus belonged to no "school" of philosophy, nor founded one of his own; philosophically he was insular and isolated. This was not simply a result of his anti-social personality, but a consequence of his philosophical method. Although it is not fully clear, it seems that Heraclitus teaches that to understand properly one need only practice introspection. Diogenes Laertius says that, "He was no man's disciple, but he declared that he 'inquired of himself' [Fr. 101], and learned everything from himself" (Lives 9. 5; see also Plutarch, Adv. Colot. 1118c). It is illuminating to contrast this methodological statement with Heraclitus' criticism of Pythagoras: "Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus practiced inquiry (historia) most of all men, and having selected from these writings (?) made a wisdom of his own, a polymathy, a deceit" (Fr. 129; see also Fr. 40). Although the evidence is somewhat meager, it seems that Heraclitus holds that polymathy (much and varied learning) is ineffectual in bringing one to an understanding of what is, or reality; rather, as in the case of the Pythagoreans, it leads to deceit. This view probably stands behind Fr. 107: "Evil witnesses are eyes and ears for men, if they have souls that do not understand their language" (Sextus, adv. math. VII, 126). For Heraclitus, sense data are worthless ("evil witnesses"), unless one has an proper understanding of one's true nature. Understanding comes when one turns from the outward, from the objects of historia, and contemplates oneself; in so doing one discovers one's true nature, the key by which all else makes sense. (This method has parallels to Mahayana Buddhism.) As Guthrie argues, the verb used in the phrase "He inquired of himself" (oizemai) suggests a probing, a searching for what lies "beneath the surface" (A History of Greek Philosophy I. The Early Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, 418-19). One's true nature is not self-evident; only careful introspection will reveal this. This interpretation is consistent with Heraclitus' statement that "Reality [or Nature] loves to conceal itself" (Fr. 123).
Heraclitus teaches that all things are flux or change; contrary to what sense data might indicate at times, nothing is permanent, but everything is constantly becoming something else or going out of existence. In his dialogue Cratylus, Plato says that Heraclitus believes, "All things flow and nothing stands" (401d); after this, Plato says, "Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the flowing of a river, and says that you cannot step into the same water twice" (Fr. 12; Crat. 402a; see Plutarch, who adds "for fresh waters are flowing on" [Qu. Nat. 912c]). Heraclitus uses the river as a metaphor to depict the nature of all things: superficially a river may appear to be a permanent and stable entity, but closer inspection reveals that it continually changes, not being the same river from one moment to the next. As Plato puts it, "All things move like flowing streams" (Theaetetus, 161d). Aristotle comments on the extremity of Heraclitus' position: "Moreover, the view is actually held by some [i.e. Heraclitus] that not merely some things but all things in the world are in motion and always in motion, though we cannot apprehend the fact by sense perception" (Physics 253b 9). According to him, Heraclitus' assertion that all things are in motion exceeds the limits of sense perception. Aristotle also provides some further clarification of Heraclitus' philosophy, explaining that a result of the Heraclitean doctrine that "all sensible things are ever in a state of flux" is that there is "no knowledge about them" (Metaphysics 987a 32). Beginning with the assumption that knowing must have for its object the permanent and unchanging, Heraclitus probably draws the conclusion that there can be no knowledge of sensible objects since they lack permanence.
There is more to Heraclitean philosophy than the proposition that all things are in flux and, therefore, that there can be no knowledge of them. Apparently, Heraclitus, upon turning inward and probing his true self, according to his philosophical method, discovers the Logos. The Logos is the principle according to which all things change, its presence in a human being allows him or her to recognize the Logos in the flux. Three fragments in particular suggest this:
Fr. 50: Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one. (Hippolytus Refut. 9. 4 )
The Heraclitean Logos is common to all human beings, because all possess reason or Logos, although they may not make much use of it (Fr. 2). The statement that "all things happen according to this Logos" (Fr. 1) should probably be interpreted to mean that the Logos is the principle of the organization of all the things in flux. The same Logos common to all human beings gives order to the cosmos; human beings as possessing Logos are thereby able to recognize that order. This, no doubt, accounts for the fact that the flux is not random, but exhibits eternal regularity and predictability. At the risk of putting words into Heraclitus' mouth, the Logos possessed by all human beings is actually universal Logos; there is an intelligence at work amidst all the flux, which is identical to human intelligence, or, at least, human intelligence is a manifestation of it. It follows that the Logos gives unity to all things, so that all things are one or belong to one system (Fr. 1), insofar as all things change as directed by the one Logos. Hippolytus says of Heraclitus' view, "Logos always exists, inasmuch as it constitutes the cosmos, and as it pervades all things" (Refut. 9.4.). For Heraclitus, although all things insofar as they are in flux are impermanent, the intelligence pervading all things, according to which all things change, is eternal.
Heraclitus identifies the Logos with fire. Thus Logos is not an immaterial principle, spirit permeating matter, as later Idealists conceived it, but is one of the four elements, fire. The enigmatic saying in Fr. 64, "Thunderbolt steers all things" makes sense if one interprets thunderbolt as fire (Clement, Strom. V, 10, 6). Moreover, fire is not only the intelligence present in the flux, but actually is that of which all things consist. This is the meaning of Fr. 30: "This world did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an ever living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures" (Clement, Strom. V, 14, 1). (In this way Heraclitus is similar to the Milesians.) Fire, as eternal, "kindles" all things and "extinguishes" all things, being transmuted into the other elements: sea (water), earth and air. Similarly, as quoted by Clement, Heraclitus explains, "It is death for souls to become water, and death for water to become earth; and from earth comes water, and from water soul” (Fr. 36; Clement, Strom. VI. 2). In transmuting into another element, the original one "dies" insofar as it ceases to be what it is (see also Fr. 76 "Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water").(It seems that Heracltius, souls are a type of air, which is the traditional view.) Simplicius, dependent on Theophrastus, explains the mechanism by which fire becomes all things: "Heraclitus ... made fire the archê, and out of fire they produce existing things by thickening and thinning, and resolve them into fire again, on the assumption that fire is the one, underlying physis" (Phys. 23.23, DK, A5). Indeed Aristotle classifies Heraclitus as one of those philosopher who search for the first material principle (Metaphysics 984a 7). Witnessing things consumed by burning probably suggested to Heraclitus that they were being transformed again into fire. Similarly, Diogenes Laertius says of Heraclitus' view, "Fire is the element; all things are an exchange for fire and come into being by rarefaction and condensation" (Lives 9. 8). When fire is compressed, it becomes denser and is transformed into the denser elements; from these all things come into being, but then revert back to being fire. This no doubt is the meaning of Heraclitus' statement that, "All things are an equal exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods are for gold and gold for goods" (Fr. 90, Plutarch, de E. 8, 388). Thus, as Fr. 60 says, "The way up and down is one and the same" (Hippolytus, Refut. 9. 10): "the way down" is the process by which fire condenses, becomes all things, whereas "the way up" is the process by which everything becomes fire again. In the process of transmutation, however, everything is and remains fire.
Since the Logos is fire, and human beings have Logos, it follows that the reasonable element in human beings is hot and dry, since these are the qualities of fire. This explains the following two fragments:
The best soul is a dry one because the best soul is one filled with fire or Logos. Drinking too much causes the soul to become wet, so that the Logos as the dry element no longer predominates; the result is the irrational state of drunkenness.
Fire creates and is the flux, the generation and destruction of all things. According to Heraclitus, however, the cosmic flux consists of a balance of opposites. The inevitable conflict between opposites is actually the constitution of the cosmos; without this "give and take" between polarities there would be nothing. Fr. 80 says, "It is necessary to know that war is common and right, is strife and that all things happen by strife and necessity" (Origen, c. Celsum VI 442). Because all things are regulated by Logos, or fire, and since all things are Logos, or fire, there is no ultimate opposition in the cosmos; rather, in spite of what appears to be a cosmic "war" and "strife," in fact, an all-pervasive harmony and unity predominates. Heraclitus goes as far as to identify the opposites. Several cryptic fragments bear on this:
Tension resulting from cosmic polarity actually forms a unity, analogous to a bow of a lyre (Fr. 51). In fact, this permanent, cosmic tension sustains and indeed is the cosmos; as such, the tension is an expression of essential harmony, even if unapparent (Fr. 54), so that ultimately one could say that there are no opposites: hot and cold are one (Fr. 126) and day and night are interdependent (57). There are no true opposites, but only a continuum with two opposing poles. Diogenes Laertius explains, "All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream. Further, all that is is limited and forms one world" (Lives 9.8).
Heraclitus identifies Logos or fire as God; this follows from the fact that fire is eternal, being the source of all things, since whatever is eternal is by definition a deity. He says in Fr. 67, "God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger [all the opposites, this is the meaning]; he undergoes alteration in the way that fire when it is mixed with spices, is named according to the scent of each of them" (Hippolytus Refut. 9. 10). God as fire becomes all things in the same way that fire takes the scent of the spices thrown into it. Everything is a modification (through condensation or rarefaction) of this divine, intelligent fire. According to Clement of Alexandria, consistent with his general contempt for the masses, Heraclitus was critical of the polytheistic religion of his contemporaries: "the Ephesian Heraclitus, upbraiding images with their senselessness: `And to these images they pray, with the same result as if one were to talk to the walls of his house`” (Fr. 5; Clement of Alexandria, Protr. 4). It follows that what appears to be wrong in the cosmos, from God's perspective, is right, since all things are from God and are God: "To God all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have supposed some things to be unjust, other just" (Fr. 102; Porphyrius, Iliadem IV 4). In order to be rational, to conform to Logos, human beings must change their reactions to what they wrong perceive to "unjust" things or events, since all things are actually "just," insofar as they are from God and are God. One must remember that there could be no cosmos without the harmonious tension of opposites.
Heraclitus teaches that cyclically the cosmos is consumed by fire, all at once reverting back to its original nature and state, according to his view of the harmony of opposites. Hippolytus says, "But he also asserts that this fire is endued with intelligence, and a cause of the management of the cosmos, and he denominates it craving and satiety. Now craving is, according to him, the arrangement of the world, whereas satiety its destruction. 'For,' says he, 'the fire, coming upon the earth, will judge and seize all things'" (Fr. 66; Refut. 9.5). For Heraclitus Fire as God is Logos; thinking in mythopoetic terms, he explains that in a state of craving, fire brings forth all things, but when a state of satiety is reached all things are destroyed. The destruction of all things by fire is destined to occur cyclically. Diogenes Laertius gives this summary of Heraclitus' doctrine of cyclical conflagration: "And it [the cosmos] is alternately born from fire and again resolved into fire in fixed cycles to all eternity, and this is determined by destiny" (Lives 9. 8).