Heraclitus of Ephesus

The passing of time takes its toll on the understanding and comprehension of Ancient philosophies. But the rummage…the unconcealment  of what was hidden from our eyes, the recollection of what once was – not of a «commonness» but of an essence of knowledge – always leads us to thinkers of times gone. Should one ponder whether philosophy is nothing but an eternal return to these times, one would realize that this «return» is never wholesome. As a return, it never is fully able to grasp what once was plainly put; nevertheless, it grasps change. Perhaps a misconception, there we shall envision a growing inward discontent in the «beating», as if were, of philosophy, lest we free Kronos  to devour past known aspects of human understanding, reason and life.

This article is meant as a stepping stone. That there is no such thing as a finished way to understand Heraclitus, or any other member of the pre-Socratic era, it is to be proposed from such inquiries. Here, and throughout the development of such text, we will dwell into the intrinsic conditions and prepositions of such a system of knowledge that is unveiled before the reading of such philosophers. One should bear in mind that to read the pre-Socratics is to read the actuality of a transition from myth to reason. Be aware. Ancient philosophy ought to be seen differently.

Heraclitus’s taste, and distaste, with his own society led him to turn away from the very public life his peers actively engaged in. Betrayed by the patricians of his city-state, he saw life inside the political realm as the mediation of inflexible opinions. Our philosopher in question, then, decided to lead an isolated life – delivering himself into ironic thinking: distanced and prideful. He developed critical thought according to his way of life. His style was based on maxims – made in such a manner to confuse others, obliging them to stop and listen his own enigmas. He was a master of riddles and of obscurity, reflecting a rebellious condition.

No all-powerful feeling of compassionate emotions, no desire to help, to heal, to save, stream forth from Heraclitus. He is a star devoid of atmosphere. His eye, flaming toward its inward center, looks outward dead and icy, with but the semblance of sight. All around him, to the very edge of the fortress of his pride beat the waves of illusion and of wrong-ness. Nauseated, he turns from them. [1]

Nevertheless, he was proud of his own style. Complex, aristocratic: expression of a logos that originated itself from Nature – from physis. A truthful knowledge was to be pronounced, one who would be listened from Nature itself. Moved by intuition, nevertheless; espousing passive signs to be deciphered and interpreted. Inspiration directed him with the capacity of intuition and of seeing himself as a «friend of wisdom». His philosophy is brought to life under such conditions.

The myth that depended on an oral tradition, which in turn built upon a social tradition too, was turned into a writing tradition. But Heraclitus remains as a force; our philosopher portrays himself in such a manner to «wave» knowledge’s direction, not to determine that of which one seeks… A form of intuition would consist in imagining the world as a battlefield, where equivalent forces confront each other. This fight was to be inferred as the rule of Life – or even Life itself. Man could only accept such natural force if were they wishful of Nature’s conformity.

Logos was conceived neither as private reason nor private discourse. It was not to be understood as either an activity of the mind or a mental faculty. Of this, it corresponded with physis itself – reason that was intrinsic to Nature itself: emanating from it as a voice, waiting to be heard and to be seen through the eyes of a seer. Heraclitus, in such condition, appeared as an interpreter of logos. Translating visual and audible signs in riddles brought about from physis. And, by teaching, Heraclitus proclaimed struggle to be the father and king of all. What is would only be because of struggle. Thus, existence as such is struggle within-itself and through-itself.

One must realize that war is shared and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict. [2]

Heraclitus placed himself in opposition to Anaximander. For the latter, discord and war were injustices, to be expiated from the order of time. For the former, instead, discord and justice are both the reigning Laws of Nature. Dissension, contention…discord: in its breast resided Nature’s harmony. How could one judge Nature for embracing discord? Convergence-divergence were both to be understood as an occult harmony of what is (in its existence). Conflicts, tensions, oppositions inhabit the world constituting all that is. Let us dwell, briefly, in the understanding of the word conflict itself. What does it tells us: struggle between things. Becoming perpetuated beings, forever changing; opposites intruding its own existence in paradoxical means. Conflict, we hear – so listen we must. For it is not a force of outside means, but an all together force permeating what is as a whole. “Conflict is justice…”, Heraclitus writes: becoming has no “morality” of its own; no ethics to be concerned of. It is universal; it is what it is. Let us go on.

What is of concern to those who know would be precisely not to judge such a Law, accepting and living life in harmony with Nature. Time, then,  orders everything that changes. It restrains whiting itself its opposite; without the Night, there is no Day; without Life there is no Death….such order was Universal. Change and transformation are represented as becoming. Its condition as an object of understanding and acceptance, by «showing» itself to the eyes of the philosopher, acquires a degree of neutrality:

Lifetime is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child. [3]

Everything changes. Becoming is unremitting! These are the Laws of Nature, by which Heraclitus would be known for professing. Universal mobility. Becoming is the totality of what is… a process! Struggles and opposites would lead him to the fundamental intuition of becoming: what comes, which refers to what is and is not at the same time; it stops being something to be something else in another instant. The passage of time delineates the passing of is to past and future – all together. Eternity becomes becoming itself: continuous, incessant changing of everything. Restful eternity and permanency were nothing but illusions. Faithful to logos, he would exclaim:

One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs. [4]

The waters are never the same; the beings are never the same: for becoming never ceases its continuity – beings are bound to a reflexive stream of already-changing is. Appearance may appear as the same, but it is yet inflicted by this very timeless change – to go beyond common opinions (Doxa), built around appearance, having unconcealed what is (Alethea) that emerges from logos. Heraclitus’s conception of physis contemplates everything that is which enunciates all that will come, moving away from what has been. There is no night which does not enunciate, within itself, the coming of the morning by biding farewell to the evening; there is no evening, too, which does not enunciate the night by bidding farewell to the morning; no adolescence calling upon youth, while saying goodbye  to childhood; and not even youth which does not welcome the joys of maturity while it bids farewell to adolescence…

Everything that exists is in flux with itself and changes through itself. The enunciation and the farewell are one and the same. One who is young ceases to be so to become old; the night becomes day; day becomes, too, night. Continuous transformation: nothing remains identical to itself. Properly from logos, Heraclitus reaches another maxim: the multiplicity of existence is nothing but an expression of an actual unity. The seer proclaims totality itself is one! From contrary diversity of what is in actuality, our thinker propels the multiplicity of beings into the unity of movement. Perpetually changing.

Coming out of the plurality of beings, we arrive in an ever-changing totality. Thus, we reach the conclusion in which becoming is the Universal law and the totality of what is. To such a degree it becomes possible to reaffirm actuality and existence as one and the same;  the push – the movement – relentlessly extends multiplicity into unity. Change, then, becomes an expression of such unity, for everything changes. Becoming is what rules the cosmos. Thusly, when Heraclitus wrote that actuality was unity, one could and should understand it by its very nature: becoming suggests itself as a Universality of Nature.

However, if everything ought to become something other than itself, one must understand that becoming is already contained within everything. Each «thing» already precludes its ever-changing opposite; each «thing» in accordance to such opposite already is, in itself, multiple. Sweetness encompasses heretofore bitterness; day, the night…. A primordial unity, following this, superseded through becoming is already intrinsically manifold. The One is multiple; the Universe is  multiple; all that is is multiple. Change does not abolish multiplicity by itself; rather it is predicated as a substance of the Universe. Such is the case of existence. Multiplicity of what is doesn’t discard the movement of unity itself.

But here we should take a step back: physis ought to be understood as a play between forces. Indeed, a primordial play of itself with itself – always leading to a unity of creative force. Reason was this primordial unity of physis – reason of the multiple and multiplicity of the One. Fire would become the representation of such force:

The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out. [5]

Fire… everliving. Not «hot» or  «cold» fire – but primordial fire! Such fire was to be thought as pure of movement; one so powerful that was able to create heterogeneity – actuality from which everything is to be created from: kindled eternal flame. Ignited and extinguished without ever ceasing to be, in accordance to its conformity. Allegiance to the measure is the way in which this primordial fire distributes quantitatively and proportionately in everything. However it is always in conformity with limiting measure as well: it creates restrictions to things, not allowing it to exceed or lack as such.

Specifically, fire is both the measurer and delimiter. It distributes and creates the right measure for each and every thing. This also enables a harmonious relation for the existing oppositions; by being continuously ignited and extinguished, becoming is safely secured as permanence, as the measure and length of each “thing” and, at the same time, as the transition from each measure to another one. Law and change! Igniting and extinguishing changes All. The exhalations of fire impose a principle of moderation. Such principle is determined through a war of the same opposing measures, but a war not compromised of violence nor tyranny, since in Nature the opposites are always compensating each-other and building a universal justice. Thus, physis revolves itself as a fair, rational, and harmonious ordering! Physis and logos are to be identified with one-another as the primordial fire itself. If from such a fire all that exists had come from, to this same fire all must return. Becoming is turned into a circle:

The death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water. [6]

Everything is already its opposite; the way up is at the same time the way down. The principle coincides with itself, forming a circle. Heraclitus, therefore, thought the world being directed to a final erosion, a final conflagration. But the end, he professes, is a re-encounter inward a gigantic fire: existence’s regenerative principle.

We can, at such moment, point towards the idea of an eternal recurrence of what is born and of what fades away. The changing world would be judged and taken by fire in an immense «cosmic» burning. Afterwards, however, there would come about a resurgence of a new period of time – bringing about a new ever-changing world; the end would match a new beginning. The cosmic abrading would purify and restore existence itself; the apotheosis of a new world – a fire that formulates itself through the exposition of the opposites: lack and satiety; lack signifies the world’s organization, but satiety is its appeasing. When all that is enters this conflagration within the primordial fire, the lack takes satiety’s place. Thereupon the eternal recurrence imbues physis with an eternity.

An instant of satiety – and again it is seized by its need, as the artist is seized by his need to create. Not hybris but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being. [7]

Alethea becomes equally available for all, through Nature. Nonetheless, the condition for its access resided in men’s capacity to rid themselves of opinions. This appears as a major maxim of Heraclitus. His disdain for poetry and the common sensical discourses of his own period appear as a prelude to the fight of Socrates and Plato against the Sophists to come… But here, Heraclitus opposes Truth to Opinion. Alethea against doxa. Reason’s purpose is to lead man through a path of wisdom. It establishes a fundamental distinction (Alethea-doxa) within the field of knowledge. Nature’s fundamental truth can only be comprehended when one has distrusted one’s own opinions, silencing them. Through precisely this silence, one can unveilunconcealwhat is hidden in the heart of Nature – unveiling truth altogether. As the fire eternally burns, transforms and changes, Heraclitus proclaims: “Being is becoming!”

For the world forever needs the truth, hence the world forever needs Heraclitus, though Heraclitus does not need the world. What care he for fame! Fame among “forever flowing mortals” as he exclaims scornfully. His fame concerns humanity, not him; the immortality of humanity needs him, not the immortality of the man Heraclitus. What he saw, the teaching of law in becoming and of play in necessity, must be seen from now on in all eternity. [8]

V. S. Conttren

  1. NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1962, pp. 67.
  2. KAHN, Charles H. . The art and thought of Heraclitus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Fragment  LXXXII, pp. 67.
  3. Ibid., Fragment  XCIV, pp. 71.
  4. Ibid., Fragment  LI, pp. 53.
  5. Ibid., Fragment  XXXVII, pp. 45.
  6. Ibid., Fragment  XLI, pp. 47.
  7. Nietzsche, 1962, pp. 62.
  8. Ibid., pp.68.

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