Ancient Philosophers: Heraclitus

(540-480 B.C.)

Ancient Philosophers: The Philosophy of the Early Greek Naturalists

by Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty

Heraclitus, called the Obscure because of his manner of expressing his thoughts in a paradoxical and enigmatic form, was born in Ephesus, an Ionic colony in Asia Minor. Of royal or noble stock, he lived alone and deprecated vulgar knowledge and vulgar methods. He lived between the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., but the exact dates of his birth and death are not known. He wrote one work, Peri physeos, in verse, of which only large fragments are extant.

The preceding thinkers of Ionia and of Italy had sought to reach a principle distinct from becoming and from multiplicity, a principle which at the same time would be the ultimate reason for that same becoming and multiplicity. For Heraclitus this search for a principle distinct from becoming is vain, for becoming is itself the first principle of reality, the essence of things. Everything that exists, including man himself, exists because it is in a continuous process of passage from one state to another. If this passage should cease, reality would be annulled. “All things flow, everything runs, as the waters of a river, which seem to be the same but in reality are never the same, as they are in a state of continuous flow.” This is the central point of the doctrine of Heraclitus.

This process of becoming finds its origin in Fire, an animated and primordial element, not to be confused with empirical fire. Because of its unstable nature Fire most closely corresponds to becoming. The process which this primordial element underlies is the so-called stairway down and the stairway upward. Thus Fire is changed into water and this latter into earth (descending steps). Through the Great Year (of unknown duration) the earth will be transformed into water and the water into Fire (ascending stairway).

The laws of becoming are antitheses, the passage from one state to its contrary (the law of contraries). “Struggle is the rule of the world, and war is the common mother and mistress of all things.” We would not wake up if first we did not sleep, and vice versa; the same is true of everything else that exists. Construction and destruction, destruction and construction — this is the law which extends to every sphere of life and of nature. Just as the same universe (cosmos) arose from the primordial Fire, so must it return to it again. Thus the root of Heraclitus’ teaching is found in the double process of life and death, of death and life, which forever is developed and developing.

Since for Heraclitus everything originates from Fire, the human soul is a small particle of this Fire, and in the universal palingenesis (rebirth) will return to Fire. Nature is animated because the first principle, Fire, is animated (hylozoism).

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Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American adopted these projects beginning with the republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.