The Philosophy of Heraclitus
Heraclitus rejects the traditional, cosmological approaches of his Milesian predecessors. He teaches that flux is not destructive of constancy, but is, paradoxically, a necessary condition for it.
He also rejects monism. Instead, he presents a universe of high-level, orderly structures that supervene on the underlying material flux. He calls them logos.
Heraclitus is the first philosopher to argue that knowledge is a process. He asserts that the world is always changing and cannot be understood by a simple mind, but only through a continuous process of re-evaluation and synthesis.
He also emphasizes the importance of the Logos, a unified pattern that enlightens the cosmos. He compares the human soul to a deaf person who hears without understanding; such a person has “barbarian eyes and ears” (B17). In contrast, the wise person perceives things correctly by processing information in a unified manner.
Heraclitus also stresses the importance of moderation. He advises his readers to eat and drink moderately, for the excesses of these substances harm the body and soul. He claims that the only healthy way to die is in battle, since dying from natural causes leads to a corrupted soul. He also urges his readers to avoid entangling themselves with other people, as this is the source of all evil.
A key point in Heraclitus’ philosophy is that the universe is an indivisible whole, a unity of opposites. He also claims that this world is rationally structured, if we know how to discern its shape. This is why he presents his ideas as verbal puzzles. Heraclitus wants to convey a sense of the unified whole through a series of inductive clues.
A clue to the unity of opposites is provided by the second word in Heraclitus’ phrase: “to” (or “for”) man. The word links together two disparate concepts, namely character and deity. It implies that our luck (eudaimon or dusdaimon) depends on our ethical stance, and that we are at the mercy of a divine overseer.
Heraclitus’ strange method of expression has led to many different interpretations of his work. Theophrastus, who knew his writings, commented that they seemed only half-finished, a hodgepodge he attributed to the author’s melancholy. Diogenes Laertius, however, claims that Heraclitus’ cosmology, politics, and ethics are closely connected.
Heraclitus takes a structural approach to philosophy. His fragments are filled with layers of meaning and complexities that must be discovered in insights or solved like riddles. He is a metaphysician and an ancient materialist who sees the world in flux, with harmony and justice emerging from strife and change.
His most famous philosophical idea is the concept of lo;gov, “the coincidence of opposites,” which he defines as the belief that everything is always changing (i.e., flux). He also believes that fire is the fundamental element that gives rise to all other things.
In the antiquity, Heraclitus’s ideas were popular and controversial. He was a critic of the Milesian philosophy that had preceded him, and he advocated the theory of flux and the identity of opposites. Modern critics such as Barnes argue that Heraclitus’s doctrine of the concurrence of opposites is logically inconsistent, but Heraclitus defends his position with sophisticated arguments that demonstrate that the oppositions are interconnected, but not identical.
Despite its apparent complexity, Heraclitus’ philosophy is accessible to anyone with an open mind. His wordplay and cryptic, oracular epigrams have made him notorious since antiquity. Heraclitus only wrote a single work, and only fragments survive. He was criticized by his contemporaries for his pessimistic philosophy and his method of expression, which involves solving verbal puzzles.
Heraclitus’ philosophy was an important influence on Parmenides, Empedocles and Democritus. He may have influenced Plato’s rejection of Ionian philosophy and the Stoics’ adoption of his physical principles.
Heraclitus believed that the universe was in constant flux, and that the world’s stability rested on a principle of unity and change. He saw the identity of opposites as a key aspect of this principle. He also believed that the universe was constructed in a series of hierarchies, with lower-level materials supervening on higher-level ones. This is known as Heraclitus’ doctrine of “the One and the Many.”