7. Heraclitus
From Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1958)

Of the life of Heraclitus of Ephesus we know very little. He seems to have written his work about 500 B.C. and is said, instead of publishing it, to have deposited it in the temple of Artemis in his native city. He writes disparagingly of other philosophers and is clearly convinced that he has discovered something which had eluded everyone up to his time. His style is prophetic and even in antiquity he was known as "the Dark." How wide, various and deep was his outlook may be indicated by the fact that when we read today the fragments which have survived we are reminded sometimes of a Hebrew prophet, sometimes of an oracle, sometimes of William Blake, sometimes of T. S. Eliot and sometimes of such modern thinkers as Hegel, Marx or Bertrand Russell. Indeed it seems in this case a mistake to attempt to explain the thought before the reader has had an opportunity of feeling the impact of the remarkably original style in which it is expressed. The following quotations are again from Burnet and I have kept his numbering:

1. It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word, and to confess that all things are one.

4. Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand not their language.

7. If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.

10. Nature loves to hide.

16. The learning of many things teacheth not understanding, else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hekataios.

19. Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which I all things are steered through all things.

20. This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.

21. The transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half g of the sea is earth, half whirlwind. . . .

22. All things are an exchange of Fire, and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares.

24. Fire is want and surfeit.

25. Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.

25. Fire in its advance will judge and convict all things.

29. The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes, the hand-maids of Justice, will find him out.

41,42. You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.

43. Homer was wrong in saying: "Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!" He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away. . .

46. It is the opposite which is good for us.

47. The hidden attunement is better than the open.

61. To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right.

62. We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away [?] through strife.

69. The way up and the way down is one and the same.

70. In the circumference of a circle the beginning and end are common.

71. You will not find the boundaries of soul by travelling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it.

80. I have sought for myself.

81. We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.

91a. Thought is common to all.

91b. Those who speak with understanding must hold fast to what is common to all as a city holds fast to its law, and even more strongly. For all human laws are fed by the one divine law. It prevails as much as it will, and suffices for all things with something to spare.

95. The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

98,99. The wisest man is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man.

100. The people must fight for its law as for its walls.

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.

125. The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries.

126. And they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man's house, knowing not what gods or heroes are.

127. For if it were not to Dionysus that they made a procession and sang the shameful phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamelessly. But Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honour they go mad and rave.

It is clear from these few extracts that we are in the presence of a confident and original thinker. Heraclitus has been called, not without reason, "the first mental philosopher." His "Word" is something different from "inquiry." Mere knowledge is not enough for him. He claims to be able to see into the nature of things and to have discovered a universal law, something that is "common," so long as one is "awake." This law is, for the first time, connected with man's own nature ("I sought for myself") and also with something which Heraclitus calls "God." (Fragments 98, 99 are a neat answer to Xenophanes.) Here he seems to reject both the easy pantheism of Xenophanes and the mysticism of "the religious revival" as exemplified by Pythagoras. His "Word" is neither purely theoretical nor a form of expiation or otherworldliness. It is very definitely "engaged." It is not "the Word" of St. John, but it is nearer to this than are the mathematical or magic symbols of the Pythagoreans.

There is without doubt a peculiar grandeur about his vision of the world and, though it is expressed enigmat-ically enough, it has influenced and stimulated thinkers and poets from his day to our own. For this reason Heraclitus is perhaps all the more difficult to understand. It is likely, for instance, to confuse rather than to enlighten us if we try to explain the dictum "Hades and Dionysus are the same" by imagining that Heraclitus was interested in the same " considerations as those of Blake when he wrote "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." We shall be on safer ground if we proceed rather more historically and assume that Heraclitus must certainly have begun to think about the problems which had been raised by earlier thinkers, in particular the thinkers of Miletus. He too must have begun by asking himself what is the fundamental "stuff" of which everything is made. He too was looking for the unity be-hind variety and change.

His originality is in coming to the conclusion that the unity is variety, that what is fundamental is not a "stuff" but a process. The images he gives of this process are those of a river or of a flame. Of these things it is possible to say both that they do and they do not persist. One cannot step into the same river twice, yet it remains a river. Nothing exists statically. There is no "stuff." Yet the process, or movement, of existence continues forever and identifiable shapes are visible in the stream or flame.

This is a different way of looking at things altogether from that of the Milesians. Anaximander certainly speaks of an "eternal motion" and explains change by the "reparation" which things make to each other for their "injustice." But he and the others are always thinking of some underlying "stuff" (even if it is called "the unlimited") which is in motion. If there were no motion, the "stuff" would still be there, though in an undifferentiated state. Heraclitus, on the other hand, as is made quite clear by fragment 43, believes that without motion, or "strife," nothing would exist at all. So far from accepting Anaximander's view of "reparation" and "justice," he proclaims (fragment 62) that "strife is justice."

His fire, therefore, cannot be understood in at all the same way as the water or air of the others. True that he uses some phrases which recall the "scientific" preoccupations of the Milesians. His fire has its intake and its outgiving; it has to change into earth and water and then change back again into itself. But these detailed explanations are insignificant compared with his grand idea of the universe as subsisting not on any kind of "stuff" or material, but on motion or on "an attunement of opposite tensions." As we have seen, he believes that man too is part of the general law of the universe. The state of man depends on tension and the right mixture of opposites.

One may find, of course, some kind of analogy in modern science, which regards matter as involving incessant motion and energy for its very existence. (Even "the one" if the atom is "many.") And there are other analogies , with some modern philosophical theories, e.g., the theory of Russell that a "thing" is really "a class of events" — an idea explicitly intended by Russell to eliminate the notion of substance. But it is impossible to say to what extent Heraclitus thought and argued at all in the same way as a modern scientist or philosopher. Again it should be said that the distinctions between science, philosophy and religion could scarcely have been present to his mind. "Dark" indeed he is. No doubt he would have considered it natural that his "darkness" has been the source of so much illumination. He had not discovered "the Law of Contradiction" (that was the achievement of Parmenides); he declared however that such a law cannot aptly be applied to a consideration of the universe or of the soul.

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