Heraclitus (540 BCE - 480 BCE) is certainly the most important and influential pre-Socratic philosopher. His significance is undisputable even though all we have of his work is a few more than a hundred sentences. This relative scarcity and fragmentation of material in no way consigns his thoughts to a mere collection of unconnected and tangent ideas. Heraclitus’ philosophy has a clear essence and focus. That ‘everything is flux’, that ‘all things are one’, and the ‘unification of opposites’, are the fundamental and lasting ideas of Heraclitus, as well as the very heart of his philosophy of dynamic equilibrium.
Heraclitus argued that there was an objective truth about everything, an underlying current flowing across a time, and on to the next one. This constancy he called Logos, which was not a personal subjective thought of his, rather, he thought of himself as merely conduit of it. Logos, for Heraclitus, was the world’s rationale, its determining formula, the truth, and thus the key to everythings nature. Logos, as such, was accessible because it was within everything, even that derogatorily called ‘common’ or ‘public’. The gap between realizing Logos and raveling in the banality of opinions was not a matter of something other, but of a different perspective on the same ‘common’ reality. Heraclitus, therefore, was understandably opposed to the naïve empiricism of his time, and pleaded that men come to discover the ‘depth of the soul’s own logos’. The obscurity and ambiguity of Heraclitus’ style is widely acknowledged as intentional, that is, it is believed that Heraclitus’ style was intended to provoke his audience to discover the logos in and by themselves.
What the exact topic of Heraclitus’ philosophy is, is a question debated since his contemporaries, and a question which has seemingly found no decision to this day. Claims range from saying that he was a moralist, a psychologist, an ontologist, a critic of society, cosmologist, or that his philosophy concerned itself with everything from the universe to theology to politics.
The central idea of Heraclitus’ thought is undoubtedly the unity of opposites. Moreover, Heraclitus claimed that all things are one. This ‘unity of all things’ is based on the fact that there is a common formula, i.e. logos, which is at work in everything to which we attribute temporal and spatial identity and continuity. Heraclitus should not be misunderstood as denying the phenomenal difference between day and night, hot and cold, up and down, and even death and life, rather, his claim is that each opposite is inseparable from its other, and that they depend on one another for their own identity. In other words, if one of the pair is removed the other immediately disappears.
Heraclitus’ famous phrase that ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’ should be understood as the claim that things which seem to have a stable identity, in fact depend upon a continual interchange or succession of their constitutive parts, or outright antagonistic forces, for their identity. The statement that ‘all things are one’, has two particular consequences: first, from a divine perspective, the contrary evaluations accorded to sets of opposites are transcended, and second, that human discrimination between pairs of opposites are ultimately arbitrary. The first of these consequences was certainly endorsed by Heraclitus, the second however, was held only with qualification, namely, that the point is that humans must adjust those of their views which are purely subjective, and bring them into accord with the objective truth of the way things are. In short, people must come to realize the dynamic interplay of opposing forces as the essence of all things, both natural and cultural. Moreover, conflicting forces as the structure of the world, and our awareness of them as constitutive of all things, is essential to both order and balance.
Although Heraclitus, as judging from the fragments, did not focus on cosmology, many of his ancient interprets, including Aristotle, claimed that this was his main focus. The basis for such a reading of Heraclitus is in virtue of his repeated reference to fire, for example All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods’, or ‘ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures’. In short, Heraclitus continually refers to an ‘ever-living fire’ which is not only transformative of all else, but functions almost like a universal currency. From such pronouncements, interpreters have induced that Heraclitus proposed the following doctrines: that fire is the underlying principle of everything, i.e. all things; or, that the world as a whole is a endlessly repeating process of temporal cycles, all of which begin from and end in fire; or, that particular phenomena are both constituted by and determined into fire by condensation or rarefaction. Regardless of which of these, if any, are correct inductions of Heraclitus’ thought, it is next to impossible to deny that fire held the dominant position in Heraclitus’ thought, as the primary principle or element, or the most explanatory phenomenon. Fire, for Heraclitus is not only the most dynamic element, but also the most self-regulating one. It consumes all the material surrounding it, and by consuming it, it also changes it. As such we can say that fire lives by destroying another, or that it destroys itself in creating something else. Fire, as such, is therefore more than a river the most emblematic example of both ‘all things are one’ and ‘everything is in flux’, but also perhaps of logos and the ‘unity of opposites’.
The question which often arises regarding Heraclitus is whether he identified fire with the god he occasionally referred to, and moreover, whether either or both of these were material manifestations of Logos. The Stoics believed that Heraclitus both identified fire with god, and saw them as manifestations of logos. Consequently, we can think of Heraclitus as perhaps the first to think the universe as an automatic field of counterbalancing forces, and yet still affirm the existence of some teleology.
Prior to Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus proposed that cultivation of the psyche was the prerequisite for the good life; where psyche is understood as not merely as the life of human being, but as signifying mind and intelligence. To live authentically, Heraclitus taught, one must interpret empirical phenomena correctly, namely, as an expression of logos. Moreover, the full use of the psyche’s capacity involved that one also ‘inquires into oneself’. Therefore, for Heraclitus there was an inside-outside relationship between logos and psyche, that is, there was an intimate relationship of identity between the formula of nature’s processes and the mind’s thinking through and understanding that formula.
Heraclitus forges a relation between these two manifestations of logos, by referring to fire in his comments on the psyche. While fire and dryness are related to life, excellence and intelligence, death and drunkenness are related to water and moisture, as he states: it is ‘death for souls to be come water’, while a drunk ‘has a soul that is moist’. He, therefore, again arrives at the conclusion that fire is most the constitutive of nature and understanding. The vitality of life, moreover, is also drawn from the ever-living fire, and a soul of fire contributes not mere life to humanity, but ‘light and intelligence’.
Heraclitus’ aim is, as mentioned before, to awaken drunken souls and entice them to rethink their beliefs about religion, society, death and life. He also makes a firm distinction between those who seek and attain immortal fame, and those who revel in mindless satisfactions. Heraclitus also stresses man general inability to come to terms with his own mortality, that is, with death. In accordance with these diagnoses, Heraclitus prescribes the realization that men are intelligent but mortal instances of the cosmic life of ever-lasting and ever-changing fire. The influence of Heraclitus’ though is rather extensive, especially in, but not restricted to, the ancient world. His influence is felt in Parmenides, Cratylus, Plato, Aristotle, and even the Stoics. In more recent times, perhaps the greatest influence of Heraclitus can be found in the Young Hegelians of the 19th century.