Greek Philosophy
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Heraclitus

   Heraclitus, along with Parmenides, is probably the most significant philosopher of ancient Greece until Socrates and Plato; in fact, Heraclitus's philosophy is perhaps even more fundamental in the formation of the European mind than any other thinker in European history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Why? Heraclitus, like Parmenides, postulated a model of nature and the universe which created the foundation for all other speculation on physics and metaphysics. The ideas that the universe is in constant change and that there is an underlying order or reason to this change—the Logos—form the essential foundation of the European world view. Everytime you walk into a science, economics, or political science course, to some extent everything you do in that class originates with Heraclitus's speculations on change and the Logos.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that the ancient Greeks considered Heraclitus one of their principal philosophers, precious little remains of his writings. All we have are a few fragments, quoted willy-nilly in other Greek writers, that give us only a small taste of his arguments. These passages are tremendously difficult to read, not merely because they are quoted out of context, but because Heraclitus deliberately cultivated an obscure writing style—so obscure, in fact, that the Greeks nicknamed him the "Riddler."

In reading these passages, you should be able to piece together the central components of Heraclitus's thought. What, precisely, is the Logos? Can it be comprehended or defined by human beings? What does it mean to claim that the Logos consists of all the paired opposites in the universe? What is the nature of the Logos as the composite of all paired opposites? How does the Logos explain change? Finally, how would you compare Heraclitus's Logos to its later incarnations: in the Divided Line in Plato, in foundational and early Christianity? How would you relate Heraclitus's cryptic statements to those of Lao Tzu?

Translations of Heraclitus are by Richard Hooker 1995.
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LOGOS AND THE UNITY OF OPPOSITES

FRAGMENT 1
(quoted in Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians )
Men have no comprehension of the Logos, as I've described it, just as much after they hear about it as they did before they heard about it. Even though all things occur according to the Logos, men seem to have no experience whatsoever, even when they experience the words and deeds which I use to explain physis, of how the Logos applies to each thing, and what it is. The rest of mankind are just as unconscious of what they do while awake as they are of what they do while they sleep.

FRAGMENT 50
(quoted in Hippolytus, Refutations )
Listening to the Logos rather than to me, it is wise to agree that all things are in reality one thing and one thing only.

FRAGMENT 10
(quoted in Aristotle, On the World )
Things which are put together 1are both whole and not whole, brought together and taken apart, in harmony and out of harmony; one thing arises from all things, and all things arise from one thing.

FRAGMENT 88
(quoted in pseudo-Plutarch, Consolation to Apollo )
As a single, unified thing there exists in us both life and death, waking and sleeping, youth and old age, because the former things having changed are now the latter, and when those latter things change, they become the former.

FRAGMENT 51
(quoted in Hippolytus, Refutations )
They do not understand that what differs agrees with itself; it is a back-stretched connection such as the bow or the lyre. 2

FRAGMENT 54
(quoted in Hippolytus, Refutations )
The unapparent connection is more powerful than the apparent one.

FRAGMENT 67
(quoted in Hippolytus, Refutations )
God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger; he changes the way fire does when mixed with spices and is named according to each spice. 3

CHANGE

FRAGMENT 12
(quoted in Arius Didymus, )
On those who step in the same river, different and different waters flow . . . 4

FRAGMENT 80
(quoted in Origen, Against Celsus )
It is necessary to understand that war is common, strife is customary, and all things happen because of strife and necessity.

HUMAN WISDOM AND LAW

FRAGMENT 41
(quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Book IX)
Wisdom is one thing: to understand with true judgment how all things are steered through all.5

FRAGMENT 44
(quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology )
It is necessary for those who speak sensibly to rely on what is common to all, just as a city must rely on its law, but even more so; all human laws are nourished by a single divine law 6 ; for it rules as far as it wishes and is sufficient for all and is still left over.

Translated from the Greek by Richard Hooker 1995
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ENDNOTES

1. That is, anything that is composite, anything that has parts or constituent elements.
2. This is one of the most difficult and important fragments. In the first clause, Heraclitus talks about anything which differs (literally, anything "pulled apart"), that is, paired opposites, such as hot-cold, summer-winter, etc. These opposites, however, can also be seen as agreeing with one another (literally, "put together"); that is, these paired opposites can be viewed as one, unified whole. The second clause explains that there is a connection between these opposites which allows you to see these opposites as a single thing, just as there is a connection between the opposite ends of a bow or lyre (that connection is the string joining the two ends) which creates a single thing (a bow or lyre) out of the two opposite ends. What does Heraclitus mean by a "back-bent" connection? In ancient Greece, both bows and lyres were made out of wood, which when strung was bent in the direction opposite to the natural bend in the wood (in the case of a bow, this made it more powerful; in the case of a lyre, it created more tension on the string). Perhaps Heraclitus means that the connection between the two opposites is not immediately evident: check out the next fragment which argues that unapparent connections are stronger than the more apparent ones.
3. Tough passage. God consists of all the opposite pairs in the universe: this is what Heraclitus means in the first clause. The second clause is a bit more difficult: a fire, when it is mixed with spices, is named after the spice since that is the smell we perceive. The fire remains unchanged; it, in fact, remains constant. What changes is our perception of the fire. This is the nature of God: he underlies all change in the universe as a single, unchanging thing, but what we perceive (like the smell of spice coming from the fire) is constantly changing.
4. This is the most famous passage in Heraclitus. This curious riddle implies two things: 1.) that the world is in constant change (different and different waters flow); 2.) the world is one unified whole (the river) which is constant yet contains this perpetual change.
5. This little difficult tidbit is actually fairly easy to understand: Heraclitus is saying the real wisdom consists in understanding how the world works, how all things are governed. The world is governed, of course, by the Logos, so the only wisdom in humans is understanding the Logos.
6. The Logos.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-18-96