Heraclitus has only written one book, which is, like Anaximander’s, called “On Nature”. His work was divided into three discourses – first on universe, second on politics, and third on theology. His book was filled with wordplays, paradoxes and puzzles, so that expressions “would have meaning beyond the obvious”. For this Heraclitus had been nicknamed “The Riddler”. As Burnet writes: “He is quite conscious himself that he writes an oracular style, and he justifies it by the example of the Sibyl and of the God at Delphoi, who neither utters nor hides his meaning, but signifies it.” His work, therefore, was written in a way so only competent people would understand it.
He is usually considered part of the Ephesian school of philosophy, but because he is actually the only member of that school, I decided to leave him out of category.
The philosophy of Heraclitus can be described in his three central ideas – “Unity, formed by opposites”, “Everything is in a state of flux”, “Strife is justice”.
According to Heraclitus, opposites are necessary for life. There is unity in the world, but it is formed by the combination of opposites. There is a system of balanced exchanges, in which opposites are unified.
Unlike the philosophers of the Milesian School, Heraclitus believed the world cannot be identified with some one substance, but it rather is a process of continious change. He called it Logos, and symbolized it by fire. It may look like Heraclitus just substituted Thales’ water, Anaximander’s Apeiron (indefinite), and Anaximenes’ Air, but what he really meant is that the process of mingling of opposites is similar to the process of combustion – everything, like flame in a fire, is born by the death of something else – but is not identical to it. As Russell puts it: “The conception of eternity, which comes from Parmenides is not to be found in Heraclitus, but in his philosophy the central fire never dies.”
Heraclitus believed in war, and his saying “Strife is justice” is directly connected with his theory of permanent flux. “War is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free.” Only in strife do the opposites combine to produce a motion, which is a harmony. Like Anaximander, Heraclitus believes in cosmic justice, which does not allow one opposite to gain the victory over another – “God, no doubt, is the embodiment of cosmic justice”.
Heraclitus was one the first philosophers to make human values a central concern, as he thought that the nature and humans are intimately connected. He believed the laws of a city-state to derive their force from a divine law.
Regarding his attitude towards the religions of his time, it was largely hostile, but it was a hostility not of a scientific rationalist, but of a man of his own religion. Burnet wrote that if Heraclitus would not have been such a misanthrope, he could have been a great religious leader. “For him, the soul was no longer a feeble ghost or shade, but the most real thing of all, and its most important attribute was thought.”
Heraclitus argued that as summer follows winter, and day follows night, so the life should follow death. His saying “The road up and the road down is one and the same” means just that. After going down, the soul once more begins its upward journey.
He also believed that by drinking we are moisting our souls. “Dry soul is the wisest” he says, and therefore fire should also represent wisdom, which is too one of the translations of the word “Logos”. Burnet: “Wisdom is not a knowledge of many things; it is the clear knowledge of one thing only, and this Heraclitus describes, in true prophetic style, as his Word, which is “true evermore”, though men cannot understand it even when it is told to them.
Heraclitus spent a few years at the end of his life wandering the mountains, eating grass only. His contempt for mankind led him to think that only force will compel people to act for their own good. It only remains to note that this idea has found its place two and a half millenia later, in the Soviets during Stalin’s regime. Although it is highly doubtful that he ever studied Ancient Greek philosophy, or even knew the name of Heraclitus, so we should not account the Riddler as antecedent of communism.
- Bertrand Russell. The History of Western Philosophy.
- John Burnet. Early Greek Philosophy.
- Cyril Bailey. The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (Antecedents of Atomism).