Heraclitus, the Stoics, and the Origins and Ethics of their Philosophy

Heraclitus and the Stoics

Heraclitus was born into a leading family in Ephesus, a city of Ionia. He ridiculed the poets and philosophers of his day, saying that they spoke in a language that was false beyond human words.

Heraclitus believed that everything is in flux, always changing, never remaining the same. This was the central concept of his philosophy.

The Fragments of Heraclitus

Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher from Ephesus, led a lonely life that earned him the nickname of “the weeping philosopher.” Nevertheless, his thought has survived in fragments. He was the first to recognize change as the fundamental essence of reality.

His famous statement that no man can step in the same river twice suggests that everything is always moving and that we must constantly remind ourselves that nothing lasts forever. Heraclitus also believed that the coincidence of opposites – for example, fire and cold – was a force to be embraced rather than feared.

Heraclitus’ language is complex, relying on puns, paradoxes, antitheses and other rhetorical devices to construct expressions with multiple meanings. He also developed a theory of luck, arguing that one’s guardian spirit (eudaimon or dusdaimon) determines whether we are lucky or wretched. For the Stoics, this theory was key to their philosophy. It taught them that it was up to individuals to interpret the world around them and to live according to its laws.

The Origins of Stoicism

Long’s breadth of scope, holistic approach, interpretive creativity, and careful scholarship are all on display here. It is especially pleasing that he devotes extensive discussions to Heraclitus’s contemporary Epictetus, who is too often overlooked in introductory books on the Stoics.

The Stoics, following Heraclitus, built on his idea of logos, developing a comprehensive philosophy of the universe and human life. They endorsed causal determinism but believed that human freedom was compatible with it. The key to human happiness was comprehensive knowledge of reality, including moral facts.

The Stoics developed an elaborate theory of causation, drawing on Heraclitus’s emphasis on opposites such as fire and air and the concept of eternal recurrence. They also developed a sophisticated system of logic that included the use of puns, paradoxes, antitheses, and parallels. They influenced the later developments of logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language (see Barnes, Bobzien and Inwood). They were not, however, Platonists, holding that only virtue is good.

The Stoics’ Ethics

Heraclitus was one of the first to use the term eudaimonia. He meant more than just a pleasant mood—it was a life fully engaged with and contributing to the common good.

He also developed a theory of matter based on four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. The elements are blended together in a constant flux and do not exist independently of each other but rather are intertwined with each other at all times (cf. Barnes, 59D).

Heraclitus’s philosophy influenced many other philosophers. Empedocles emphasized the underlying laws of change, and Democritus used Heraclitean themes on a larger scale. Heraclitus was also among the first to talk about the Logos—an unseen force, similar to the Bible’s Word or Tao in Taoism, that regulates and runs the world. He was an early determinist about causation but wanted to preserve scope for human moral responsibility by arguing for a version of compatibilism. He criticized the other Presocratic philosophers for failing to see the unity in experience and claimed that everything is a part of an eternal process whose goal is an everlasting Word.

The Stoics’ Politics

Taking Heraclitus’s fire metaphor to heart, the Stoics were strict determinists. They believed the world’s unified system of change unfolded according to God’s rational plan. They also emphasized the harmonious nature of a life guided by the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.

Heraclitus’s meta-physical ideas helped to shape the Stoics’ philosophy, notably in his emphasis on flux and the interdependence of things. The Stoics took this idea further, and developed the concept of logos or reason as a ordering principle.

Heraclitus’ physics also provided the basis for the Stoics’ psychological and action theories, including the notion of akrasia or “impermanence.” They rejected the Platonic-Aristotelian model of non-rational sources of knowledge and motivation in humans, which could potentially oppose impulses arising from assent (Diogenes Laertius, 39E). Instead they conceived of the human soul as pneuma at a particular degree of tensility that gives it a distinctive ontology. This allows them to preserve scope for moral responsibility despite being determinists about causation and a belief that the present is wholly determined by the past (more on this below, 2.5). The four incorporeal entities the Stoics acknowledge as having being are time, place, lekta, and void.

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