The Doctrine of Logos in the Philosophy of Heraclitus
The Greek word for “word” is logos, which also translates as reason, law, or account. Heraclitus uses it to refer to the unified pattern that connects all things.
Scholars have interpreted the fragments to suggest that Heraclitus believes, like Xenophanes, in a divine consciousness that controls all things. This interpretation risks a descent into radical subjectivism.
What is the logos?
Heraclitus believed that the logos was a divine principle that ordered and regulated all of existence. He also established a practical framework regarding human relations to this logos. The doctrine of logos, as presented in Heraclitus’ fragments, may lead to a form of radical subjectivism concerning personal identity and the identity of natural objects.
The logos is the principle that unites opposites. It is the pattern that must be observed and recognized for all things to have meaning. Heraclitus’ concept of the logos differs from a traditional god figure in that it is not a controlling power, but rather a universal principle that organizes all things.
Heraclitus describes the logos as fire, which is a very appropriate metaphor, since it is the arche of all things that is both transcendent and immanent. Heraclitus’ use of this metaphor is probably deliberate, as it is the same word used by his predecessors Plato and Aristotle to refer to reasoning or the law.
What is the arche?
The arche is the first principle from which all things derive. It is an unchanging, eternal, intangible substance. It cannot be viewed or touched, but it is believed to be the cause of all change. The arche is also described as the one, true, and universal. It is a concept that has been adapted from the earliest cosmogonies, through the physical theories of Pre-Socratics, and Plato’s metaphysics before being formalized as part of ancient Greek philosophy.
Heraclitus used the word logos (along with thunderbolt and the wise one) to describe this unchanging, eternal force that guides the changing cosmos. Kahn and Hussey believe that although this force is sometimes referred to as God, it is not the same as the divine intelligence of Christianity.
Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes used the arche as water, because it is the most common element in all things that float. Anaximander, who was Heraclitus’ contemporary, preferred air as the arche, since it can be modified to become water through condensation and fire through rarefaction.
What is the thunderbolt?
While Heraclitus may seem a philosopher of nature, some scholars believe his theory has profound implications for the human condition. Indeed, the opening words of his book (DK22B1), ‘In the beginning was the logic, and the logic was with God and the logic was God’, suggest that he is concerned with both nature and human experience.
Heraclitus’s use of logos — literally “word” — is a key aspect of his thought. Scholars have suggested that Heraclitus’s use of this term, often translated as account or description, is similar to the Tao from Chinese philosophy, rta from Indian philosophy, Aum from Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, or Maat from Egyptian cosmology.
Another key aspect of Heraclitus’ use of logos is his emphasis on the unity of opposites. He claims that all things are interconnected and that nothing exists or happens in isolation. This is often interpreted as a form of pantheism.
What is the wise one?
Many scholars, such as Kahn and Hussey, interpret the words “the wise one” and “the thunderbolt steers all things” from fragment B51 to mean that Heraclitus believes like Xenophanes that there is some all-powerful divine consciousness that controls the world. However, if Heraclitus’ ‘god’ (along with the logos) is understood as representing the natural principle of unity in opposites, it becomes clear that this is a different idea than a cosmic intelligence.
For Heraclitus, all that exists is in flux and everything changes, including us. He believed that there is only a small group of people who are connected, coherent, and awake to the patterns of logos. Everyone else is asleep, and the world they live in looks strange to them. This is a profoundly radical concept. It is what made Heraclitus a heretic to the ancient Greeks. It also led to the development of a philosophy called logos. Philo Judaeus and the Middle Platonists would later interpret this doctrine in religious terms.