One of the great philosophers to come before Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus was the eldest son of the leading family of Ephesus, one of the main cities of the ancient Greek world and famous for its temple of Artemis.
We don’t know a huge amount about Heraclitus, except that he avoided involvement in politics, was a bit of a loner, and at a time when it was normal for philosophers to play a part in politics, and to have their ideas communicated by speech, he focused on the written word. As a result his thoughts survived him, and his book of sayings became famous in the ancient world. Plato and others discussed him, but his influence was greatest among the Stoics.
The Fragments are a collection of sayings and statements covering the nature of the physical universe, ethics and politics, but it is Heraclitus’ metaphysical ideas have retained their power. It is these we focus on here.
The book begins with this statement:
“Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it – not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time...though all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it...My own method is to distinguish each thing according to its nature, and to specify how it behaves; other men, on the contrary, are as forgetful and heedless in their waking moments of what is going on around and within them as they are during sleep.”
What does Heraclitus mean by ‘Logos’? The literal Greek translation is ‘Word’, and it is sometimes translated as ‘account’. He is saying that what follows in the book is an account of something timeless and truthful: an unseen force, not that different from the biblical ‘Word’ or the ‘Tao’ in Taoism, that regulates and runs the universe.
Humans can only act in a right way if their actions are in attunement with the Logos. Most people, however, do not understand it, even if it is the force that regulates their lives:
“We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.”
Whoever thinks that they are a separate mind, and manage themselves as if they are an isolated kingdom, is fooling themselves. They believe their own opinions instead of seeing things in their true light. “Thinking”, Heraclitus says, “is shared by all”. Ultimately, we are all of the same mind. However, we stay blind to this fact: “Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it”. And this is the cause of our suffering.
Much of Heraclitus’ renown comes from his idea that nothing stays the same. At a time when natural science was in its infancy, and people were trying to pinpoint what was certain and stable in our universe, Heraclitus said:
“Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”
The world seems so stable and ‘there’, but when we think about it, nothing that we experience lasts. Everything is in flux. The most famous line in the Fragments is:
“You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.”
In a world that identifies with matter, this is an almost heretical thought, and put Heraclitus in contrast with another ancient thinker, Parmenides, who argued that motion and change were not real, and that reality was fixed and stable. Indeed, Heraclitus’ idea that the stability of the physical universe is largely an illusion is one we more associate with Eastern philosophy. “Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool”, he writes, “the moist dries, the parched becomes moist.”
This view of the universe as essentially energy (Heraclitus saw the element of fire as its basic physical component) that is perpetually taking on different forms has major implications for the human condition. Heraclitus was known as the ‘weeping philosopher’, because he despaired at the lot of humankind; we are conscious beings with the full range of feelings, yet we exist in a world whose very nature is conflict.
Indeed, a first reader to the Fragments can at first wonder why it gives considerable attention to war. But as Heraclitus sees it, in a universe made of matter (and competing conceptions of truth among intelligent animals), conflict is inevitable. War is the thing that sorts out human fates, making some people slaves and others free. Heraclitus notes Homer’s wish that “strife may perish from amongst gods and men”, and says that, in fact, “all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife” (my italics). Conflict, or in more abstract terms, the dynamic tension between opposites is the very nature of the universe. Yet he also says:
“Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”
Only through this tension of opposites can there emerge any order or harmony.
The hidden harmony
At a time when natural science was emerging, Heraclitus did not see his wisdom as going against science. Even if it seemed less obvious or even mystical to the wrong ears, he was simply trying to show the universe as it is, even if it seemed paradoxical to linear, atomising minds. He wrote, “The way up and the way down are one and the same”, and “In the circle the beginning and the end are common.”
It is our nature to separate things into parts, to make distinctions, but if there were a Supreme Being, is this the way it would see the universe? No, says Heraclitus: “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.” And he is not simply talking about the physical universe, but what we call ethics too:
“To God all things are beautiful, good and right; men, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong.”
This does not mean we should act however we like, rather that good and bad, right and wrong are part of a larger whole, and everything about it is right – if it is part of a whole, it cannot be otherwise.
Heraclitus seems to contradict himself on whether there is a God. The Logos is not God as such, and in some statements he sees the universe as a kind of self-perpetuating mechanism which “...has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be – an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures.” Yet elsewhere, he clearly says that there is a divine mind with an intelligent purpose, in contrast to the blindness of man:
“Man is not rational; only what encompasses him is intelligent.”
Yet it is possible to know, or at least be aware of, “the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things”. There is a ‘hidden harmony’ in the universe, hidden because all our names which might approximate it: God, Zeus, Logos etc, are our conceptions, when the essential unity is beyond words and concepts. Of the average person, Heraclitus writes, “They pray to images, much as if they should talk to houses; for they do not know the nature of gods...” The only thing stopping us from awareness of this hidden harmony is our incredulity. Our minds are so fixed on the material, that we take this relative level of reality to be everything; yet there is an absolute reality that awaits our appreciation.
Heraclitus’ statement that “all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife” can be read to mean that the world is simply chaos, or that chance determines everything. This is certainly how most humans may experience it. Indeed, Heraclitus seems to offer only a dark view of humankind in which people are largely blind, and perpetuate this blindness by reproducing.
Is there a way out? There is something that is beyond the cycle of birth, suffering and death, and it is this hidden harmony (call it Logos, God, Mind, Tao). Only in sensing it and appreciating it can we put human life into some perspective. The greatest suffering comes from believing something ephemeral to be solid and permanent. Only in accepting the flux for what it is do we give ourselves the space to see what never changes, what is timeless.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).