Heraclitus

Life, On Nature, Wisdom, Social Philosophy, Legacy

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Heraclitus was a sixth century philosopher of Ephesus who is regarded as the source of the influential thesis that everything is (in) change or flux: this was expressed in the claim that "Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow .... It scatters and ... gathers ... it comes together and flows away ... approaches and departs"(fr. 12 and 91), popularly rephrased as "you cannot step into the same river twice". Heraclitus was an Ephesian nobleman and possibly renounced the kinship to his brother, in favour of his educational career. The title of his book is unknown, and only exists in fragments taken from other authors. This makes the construction of his philosophical arguments a matter of much dispute: Heraclitus has been called the "the Dark" philosopher because of the obscurity of his extant texts, their apparent contradictions and pessimism of the views which are expressed.

LifeBack to the Top

c535 Heraclitus born in Ephesus to the family of Androclus

c515 Parmenides of Elea born

c500 Publication of Heraclitus's book

c490 Zeno of Elea born

c475 Heraclitus died

c470 Parmenides writing; Socrates born

On NatureBack to the Top

In Heraclitus's cosmology, the Logos is the governing principle of all things, and remains the same for all things. It is never defined but has various attributes. It is compared to an eternal fire, not made by god but independently eternal. It is an object of possible knowledge, operating according to regular patterns: its first transformation is into fluid, but all things return to it for regeneration into something else. Crucial to this account is the transformation of opposites, in constant strife: Heraclitus uses the image of lyre to explain how strife is able to combine the opposition of forces in the world. "Harmony lies in the bending back, as for instance of the bow and of the lyre". Thus the opposition results in a unity, although it may not be apparent.

WisdomBack to the Top

Heraclitus's theory of knowledge wavers between elitism and conventionalism. He argues that wisdom is universal, likely in the sense that all could have it, but distinguishes those who speak with intelligence, and those who believe themselves to have unique knowledge: these people are deluded. He believed that the conventional wisdom should be upheld as one abides by law, but this is partially because it is an instance of the divine law or logos, which is the explanation of all things and divine. The divine is the source and container of wisdom, of which "human nature" is devoid. Wisdom's material source is fire. Heraclitus is ambiguous about the senses: he says that sight is preferable to hearing, but also that both are bad "witnesses".

 

Social PhilosophyBack to the Top

Heraclitus moral and social philosophy emphasise temperance and patriotism. Like Socrates, he exhorts humans to know themselves and act with understanding. One should not indulge one's desires because these harm the soul. Rather one should understand human nature, so one does not act as those who are "asleep", functioning without awareness. In one's political life, Heraclitus recommends fighting for the laws as one would fight for a wall in the defense of the city.

 

LegacyBack to the Top

The legacy of Heraclitus is profound: his belief in the dynamic nature of the physical world influenced Plato to argue that knowledge of it would therefore be impossible, but since knowledge is possible, it must be of something else: the unchanging transcendent forms. The theory of oppositions as a prerequisite for change was adapted by Aristotle in his own account of the physical world and the notions of fire and night as cosmic forces may have influenced Empedocles to hypothesise love and strife. In more recent philosophy, the strife of opposites was emphasised by Hegel, who argued that out of the opposites, a new synthesis inevitably arises in the progress of the universe and its contents. Opposites to Aristotle, Hegel

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