Heraclitus of Ephesus is a philosopher’s philosopher. He was beloved by such giants as Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche once wrote that “in his presence I feel more at home than anywhere else” while Socrates, when asked what he thought of Heraclitus’s treatise, apparently said:
“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.”
Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic philosopher who flourished in the 5th century BCE. Ephesus was at the crossroads between East and West at a time where civilisation was very much an Eastern affair and Europe was a primitive backwater. Rome was a non-entity and Greece was known more for sheep than for knowledge or wisdom.
But Ephesus was a Greek colony and Heraclitus was a Greek. And not just a Greek but royalty — according to some sources, Heraclitus was in line to be the king of Ephesus but he chose the path of wisdom instead.
He is known as the philosopher of riddles; the enigmatic philosopher; the gloomy philosopher and the paradoxical philosopher. His reputation as ancient philosophy’s most terse and enigmatic thinker derives from the one book he wrote in his lifetime called On Nature. He deposited this book in the Ephesian Temple of Artemis — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — and left instructions that only the wisest would be able to understand it.
Thankfully, we have a relatively large number of quotes from the Ephesian philosopher but that hasn’t prevented his philosophy from being caricatured and misunderstood since the days of Aristotle.
In this instalment we are going to explore the philosophy of this esteemed ancient thinker.
- We are going to talk about Aristotle’s interpretation of him which you’ll still hear parroted today,
- Why this limited view of Heraclitus’s work is nonsense
- Then we are going to talk about what his real philosophy was
- And its relation to other great philosophies of the East and West.
According to Aristotle’s account the Pre-Socratics were monists. That is they each believed in one fundamental essence of the world. Thales believed water was most fundamental; Anaximander believed it was the apeiron — the limitless, Anaxagoras believed it was mind and Heraclitus believed it was fire. That is the essence of these philosophies according to this view. It is a view that has all the nuance of a bull in a china shop.
This is one of the popular perceptions of Heraclitus. He’s the philosopher of fire. All these Pre-Socratics were concerned with finding out the essence of reality and Heraclitus just happened to settle on fire.
The more nuanced (though still woefully incomplete) reading of Heraclitus tells us that he is the philosopher of panta rei — that is, of constant change. This is the more popular understanding of the Ephesian philosopher that you’ll read about today.
According to Heraclitus, everything is change:
“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”
— Fragment B12
You cannot step in the same river twice — the flow of the river is constantly moving by and so it is impossible to step in the same one twice. This is undoubtedly Heraclitus’s most famous assertion and it illuminates his philosophy of fire very nicely.
Nothing better captures the ever-changing nature of reality than fire. Rocks and people change over time, rivers can change quicker, but fire is something that is constantly changing before our very eyes. The fire you see now is different from the fire five minutes ago; it is in a constant state of flux. You can see this because it is burning away the material it uses as fuel. Fire is the element of transformation; in that sense it is something magical.
The Other Half of Heraclitus
This idea of panta rei — while central — represents only half of the puzzle of Heraclitus. The traditional account of Heraclitus is incomplete. It is like the yang without the yin. This idea of panta rei is complemented by Heraclitus’s equally confounding idea of the Logos.
Heraclitus’s conception of the Logos was a big influence on Plato and, centuries later, on Christianity. The most salient example of this influence can be seen in the opening words of the Gospel of John where we find the great line:
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”
This makes even more sense when we consider that John — the author of this Gospel and of Revelations — was said to have written these works on Ephesus and so the connection with Heraclitus is unavoidable.
As for Heraclitus’s own philosophy of Logos, we find the term occurring right from the off. In the first passage of On Nature, he writes that:
“all things come to be in accordance with this logos”
And later in one of the most revealing passages he writes:
“it is wise agreeing not with me but with the logos to say that everything is one”
This is absolutely fascinating. We are a million miles now from Aristotle’s simple reduction of Heraclitus to a monist who believed that fire was the fundamental nature of reality.
This idea of the Logos is something mysterious. Unlike the more transparent idea of impermanence, this principle of Logos is “hard to grasp”. This is a theme running throughout Heraclitus’s work:
“although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”
(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 7.133)
In fact the opening line of the work hits on just this point:
“Although this logos holds always humans prove unable to understand it both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.”
— Fragment B1
In contrast to the ever-changing nature of the things we perceive then, there is this counter-principle of the Logos. This eternally unchanging principle is the matrix out of which all things come to be; it is the thing that we all live our lives in accordance with whether we know it or not:
“They are at odds with the logos, with which above all they are in continuous contact”
— Fragment B72
In my eyes it is this above all that earns him the title of the Paradoxical Philosopher. The same philosopher that is famous for being a philosopher of change is also the philosopher of the eternal unchanging.
Heraclitus and the Mystical Tradition
The comparison with Parmenides shouldn’t be overlooked. Parmenides — the other giant of Pre-Socratic philosophy — is famous for talking about the eternal unchanging Being and yet that only made up one half of his famous work also called On Nature. The other half of his work is about the changing world of becoming.
And so we can see in both Heraclitus and in Parmenides a paradoxical mysticism. In one passage Heraclitus is telling us that things are ever changing and that we cannot step in the same river twice, and in another passage he is telling us that all things are one.
This mystery of the one and the many and how they fit together is a paradoxical mysticism that seems more closely related to the Taoist notion of yin and yang than it does to the rationalist philosophy of Aristotle or anything that followed him in the Western tradition.
The comparison with Buddhism is equally fruitful. Panta rei is the Buddha’s core philosophy of impermanence. We live in Samsara — a realm of never-ending becoming. But there is a potential liberation from this becoming. There is a complement to Samsara’s impermanence and it is called Nirvana. This is a space beyond becoming. And it isn’t simply abysmal nothingness; it’s something unspeakable.
This same tension that we see Lao-tzu and the Buddha wrestling with in the East, is the same contradiction that we find Heraclitus and Parmenides struggling with in the West. Heraclitus is very much a part of the tradition of the perennial philosophy. He holds the tension of constant change on the one hand and something eternal that transcends change on the other. It’s this beautiful tension that is the philosophy of Heraclitus.
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- Curd, P. and McKirahan, R.D., 1996. A Presocratics Reader