Miscellaneous Encyclopedia Articles by Anthony F. Beavers

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 500-480 BC), also known as "the Riddler" and "the Obscure," was the eldest son of a leading aristocratic family. He was a loner with a general distaste for mobs. Consequently, he had no pupils, though a small book that he wrote had a rich tradition of its own and attracted many followers; the Stoics recognized it as the source of their doctrines. All that survives of this book is a series of quotations that scholars have been able to extract from other sources -- see the Fragments of Heraclitus -- and that reveal an enigmatic and oracular style, perhaps adopted by Heraclitus to protect its true contents from commoners. Owing to its obscurity, the book engendered many anecdotes about its author, most of them intending to malign him, and so it is difficult to know much about his life and character that is reliable. It is equally difficult to discern the details of his true thought.

Aristotle tells us about three of Heraclitus' ideas; the first is that, like earlier Milesian philosophers, he located the first principle of all things in a natural element, in this case, fire. (See Metaphysics 984a and 1067a.) Secondly, Heraclitus affirmed the notion that the same thing may both be and not be, thereby violating the law of non-contradiction. Aristotle writes, "The doctrine of Heraclitus, which says that everything is and is not, seems to make all things true" (1012a) and "Perhaps even Heraclitus himself ... would have been compelled to admit that opposite statements can never be true of the same subjects; as it is, he adopted this theory through ignorance of what his doctrine implied" (1062a). In these passages, Aristotle is referring to Heraclitus' doctrine of the identity of opposites, which gets a more charitable reading from Guthrie, who recognizes three distinct ways that Heraclitus identifies opposites. The first is "reciprocal succession and change, as of qualities or things which are at opposite ends of the same continuum like day and night, summer and winter, hunger and satiety" (445). Fragment 39 seems to be meant in this sense: "Cold things become warm, and what is warm cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moisted." Furthermore, Fragment 69, "The way up and the way down is one and the same," calls attention to the continuum (the way) that unifies the opposite poles of up and down. Secondly, Guthrie indicates some opposites that are relative "to the experiencing subject" (445) as in Fragment 52: "The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive." Thirdly, "In the sphere of values, opposites are only appreciated in relation to their opposites" (Guthrie 445) as in Fragment 104: "It is not good for men to get all they wish to get. It is sickness that makes health pleasant; evil, good; hunger, plenty; weariness, rest."

Plato makes positive use of the first of these modes of identifying opposites in the "Cycle of Opposites" argument for the immortality of the soul. (See Phaedo 70c-72e.) Heraclitus writes, "And it is the same thing in us that is quick [that is, alive] and dead, awake and asleep, young and old; the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former" (Fragment 78). Plato identifies this "same thing" as the soul, preserving Heraclitus' analogy between the two opponent pairs being awake and being asleep, and being alive and being dead. (See Phaedo 71c-d.)

The third idea that Aristotle attributes to Heraclitus is a doctrine of radical flux that renders it impossible to have knowledge of the sensible world and that caused others (namely, Plato and his friends) to develop a "theory of forms" to justify the possibility of knowledge in an otherwise Heraclitian world:

The theory of Forms occurred to those who enunciated it because they were convinced as to the true nature of reality by the doctrine of Heraclitus, that all sensible things are always in a state of flux; so that if there is to be any knowledge or thought about anything, there must be certain other entities, besides sensible ones, which persist. For there can be no knowledge of that which is in flux. (1078b)

According to the traditional view, Plato was aware of this doctrine of flux, but because he tended to oppose the views of Heraclitus to those of Parmenides, he confused the flux doctrine of Heraclitus with the more radical doctrine of Cratylus. Though in the passage above, Aristotle makes this mistake -- elsewhere he manages to avoid it -- Plato, quite plausibly, recognized that while Heraclitus affirmed the ever-changing nature of the cosmos, he also believed in the identity of processes. A river is a process, indeed the same process, though the river is different now than it was a moment ago. At least Plato wrote a similar view into Socrates' speech on love in the Symposium:

... [E]ven in the life of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval which elapses between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is under going a perpetual process of loss and reparation -- hair, flesh, bones, blood, and the whole body are always changing. Which is true not only of the body, but also of the soul, whose habits, tempers, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, never remain the same in any one of us." (207d-207e)

Unlike his follower, Cratylus, Heraclitus recognized some stablity in an ever-changing cosmos that permitted him to say that "It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word [Logos], and to confess that all things are one" (Fragment 1); this is a rather explicit claim of identity.

Scholars do not know much about Heraclitus' political views; he seems to have been profoundly anti-democratic, yet he was unwilling to engage in politics. In one anecdote, his refusual to accept the rule of Ephesus, leaving it to his younger brother, is used as proof of his arrogance. (See Diogenes Laetius IX, 6.) Charles Kahn aptly summarizes what we do know about Heraclitus' politics:

... Heraclitus, who discovered in what is shared or common to all (to xynon) the essential principle of order in the universe, recognized within the city the unifying role of the nomos, the structure of civic law and moral custom which protects the demos as the city wall protects all the inhabitants of the city [Fragment 100]. The only political attitude which we can safely extrapolate from the fragments is a lucid, almost Hobbesian appreciation of the fact that civilized life and communal survival depend upon loyalty to the nomos, the law in which all citizens have a share [Fragment 91b], but which may be realized in the leadership of a single outstanding man. (3)

These themes appear thoughout Plato's Republic, though it is difficult to determine the extent to which they are adopted from Heraclitus.

Selected Bibliography

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Kahn, Charles. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Written for Exploring Plato's Dialogues