Heraclitus vs. "Heraclitus"
An inquirer into the thought of Heraclitus faces an unfortunate dilemma at the outset: which Heraclitus?
He is difficult to interpret and understand. That cannot be helped. But there are certain mis-representations of Heraclitus in the philosophical tradition since Plato, which were not corrected until the 20th century, and even today continue to distort what his thought is really about. Consult any history, textbook, or encyclopedia (including Wikipedia), and you are likely to find his name associated with ideas debunked by scholarship of the last two centuries. And that makes the proverbial obscurity of Heraclitus more obscure than it needs to be.
The purpose of this essay is to correct four false or misleading images of Heraclitus in the tradition: (1) “weeping philosopher”; (2) misanthropic recluse; (3) Ionian cosmologist; and (4) philosopher of universal flux. The last of these, because of the enormous influence of Plato, is the most significant.
(1) “Weeping Philosopher”
The trend of thought we ought to pursue is to make the common failings of the crowd not odious but ridiculous, and emulate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. Heraclitus wept whenever he went out in public, and Democritus laughed: the one thought all our behavior pitiful, the other silly. (Seneca, On Tranquility, ch. 15, tr. Moses Hadas)
The Romans loved weird tales, such as this one, also told by Juvenal. The source of the “weeping philosopher” legend is a remark by Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus attributing melancholia to Heraclitus.
Theophrastus says that out of melancholia part of Heraclitus’ writings are unfinished, part inconsistent. (Diogenes Laertius, IX, 6)
But melancholia in the sense intended by Theophrastus—for he was Aristotle’s student and successor as head of the Lyceum—had nothing to do with sadness. Here is a passage from Aristotle, in which different types and causes of akrasia (lack of self-control) are classified:
It is the quick and the excitable [melancholikoi] who are most liable to the impetuous form of unrestraint, because the former are too hasty, and the latter too vehement to wait for reason, being prone to follow their imagination. (Nicomachean Ethics, VII.7, 1150b25)
What Theophrastus meant is that Heraclitus was impetuous, impulsive, excitable. Not sad, morose, or depressed. So the Roman tradition, which dominated Europe through Shakespeare and Montaigne by way of Seneca and Juvenal, describing Heraclitus as “the weeping philosopher,” is an absurd legend.
(2) Misanthropic Recluse
Heraclitus attacked the Ephesians for banishing his friend Hermodorus…[fragment D 121] And when the Ephesians asked Heraclitus to make laws, he scorned the request because the city was already in the grip of a bad constitution. He would retire to the temple of Artemis and play knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood round him and looked on, he said “Why are you surprised, you worthless people [kakistoi]? Isn’t it better for me do this than to govern the city with the likes of you?” Finally, he became a hater of mankind [telos misanthropesas], and wandered on the mountains, and lived there, eating herbs and grasses. But this gave him dropsy…He buried himself in a cow stall, expecting that the noxious damp humor would be drawn out of him by the warmth of the manure. But it didn’t work, and he died. (Diogenes Laertius, IX.2-3)
Dying in a pile of cow shit: this is hard to beat as a damnatio memoriae, the destruction of someone’s posthumous reputation. It illustrates what the ancients found most offensive in Heraclitus: his supposed rejection of the home city, the polis, as the source and object of all value, honor, and duty. But did Heraclitus actually forsake Ephesus and the life of a citizen? There is no evidence that he did, unless we read more into the Hermodorus fragment than is warranted:
What the Ephesians deserve is to be hanged to the last man, every one of them, and leave the city to the boys, since they drove out their best man, Hermodorus, saying ‘Let no one be the best among us: if he is, let him be so elsewhere and among others.’ (D 121, tr. Kahn)
What comes through in these words is an Olympian disdain for envy and small-mindedness. But that does not imply that he forsook the polis. And in fact Heraclitus writes passionately of the common good, and of a city’s need to defend its integrity: “The people must fight for the law as for their city wall” (D 44, tr. Kahn).
The stories of misanthropy and reclusiveness have no basis in fact. According to many classical scholars of the 20th century (Reinhardt, Kirk, Hussey, Kahn), Diogenes Laertius is passing on material that had been written in the era of Alexandrian biography, for which the standards of truth were not high:
All that could be was culled from classical sources, the rest was supplied by the imagination, whether roaming freely over the traditional semi-mythical patterns of Famous Lives (humble origins, strange diets, capture by pirates, eccentric deaths, and so on) or more strictly confined to the elaboration of themes suggested by the subject’s extant writings. (Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, G.S. Kirk, 3)
I do not mean to deny that Heraclitus was misanthropic in any sense of the word. He does denounce human beings as “forever axynetoi,” meaning unaware, uncomprehending, unconscious, i.e., of Heraclitus’ basic insight: the logos (fr. D 1). He thought we are flawed as an intelligent life form. Furthermore, he is pessimistic about the intelligence of “the many,” hoi polloi, and perhaps pessimistic about the future of his own civilization. But such views are common in the history of philosophy, and are not what is usually meant by misanthropy.
(3) Ionian Cosmologist
I first heard the name Heraclitus in a Catholic college, where the history of early Greek philosophy was being taught from an Aristotelian perspective. Aristotle took the earliest Greek thinkers (Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Heraclitus) to be materialists:
Of the first philosophers, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, and the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications)—this they say is the element and this the principle of things…Thales…says the principle is water…Anaximenes and Diogenes make air prior to water…while Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus say this of fire… (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.iii, 983b)
The idea of a basic material principle (arche), and of a material substrate (hyle, hypokeimenon), is pure Aristotle, who in this passage is forcing earlier thinkers into his own procrustean bed. At a minimum, therefore, the framework of Aristotle should be discarded by anyone seriously inquiring into the philosophy of Heraclitus.
What else can we say?
i) Heraclitus was not primarily a cosmologist.
The project of ancient cosmology was to formulate a theory of the structure, nature, or origin of the observable universe. It is no doubt one among many concerns of Heraclitus in the genuine fragments; but it is not the only one, nor is it the most basic and fundamental part of his thought. The principle themes in Heraclitus, simply stated, are the logos; that all things are one; and that unity persists through opposites, through multiplicity, and through change. These themes are metaphysical. They are not essentially cosmological, although Heraclitus did develop an account of the observable cosmos in terms of what he calls “fire everliving”:
The ordering [kosmos], the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures, and in measures going out. (D30, tr. Kahn)
ii) The “fire everliving” expresses the idea of process, not a materialist theory.
The fire of ordinary experience is not “everliving,” so a materialist interpretation of Heraclitus’ cosmology does not work. Cosmic fire is better understood as a process. Other fragments mentioning fire elaborate the cosmic process as consisting of “turnings” and “exchanges,” to and from land, sea, lightning, dry, wet, hot, cold, etc. Particularly interesting from our modern scientific perspective is the crucial idea that this process occurs according to “measure.” The cosmos is in constant process of change, but it is a lawful, balanced process, not a whirling chaos.
iii) Heraclitus was not part of a school or tradition.
Aristotle’s narrative situates Heraclitus among a school of Ionian cosmologists, whose concern was to explain the observable world in terms of a material principle. Certainly he was aware of Milesians such as Anaximander, and was influenced by the intellectual climate generated by their radical break with the mythical worldview of Homer and Hesiod. But Heraclitus’ relationship to the Milesians is not obvious, since he never mentions them specifically. More importantly, the fragments reveal a thinker who struck his own path, and made no secret of it. In this regard, the modern practice of lumping him with “the pre-Socratics” is unfortunate. He was independent and original.
4) All is Flux, Nothing Abides
We come at last to the idea for which Heraclitus is best known—amazingly! for it was never his idea—universal flux.
Heraclitus says somewhere that all things give way, and nothing abides; and, likening all of reality to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step twice in the same river. (Plato, Cratylus, 402A)
Plato’s dialogue portrays a self-styled “Heraclitean” named Cratylus, who lived in the late 5th century, and hence two or three generations later than Heraclitus.
Cratylus denied the possibility of any kind of sameness through time. To make his point, he foisted on to Heracltius the remark that “you could not step twice in the same river,” apparently for the sake of trumping it with his own claim that one could not even step once into the same river. (Edward Hussey, “Heraclitus,” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy)
The paramount concern for Plato was the possibility of knowledge about an unchanging, eternal dimension of reality. The theory of forms for which he is most famous was meant to resolve this issue in the affirmative. To Plato, Cratylus and Heraclitus represented the denial of the question. “You cannot step twice in the same river” amounted to saying that real knowledge is impossible.
It is almost certain that Heraclitus did not author the river proverb that appears in Plato’s Cratylus. For one thing, its language and style are foreign to him. Furthermore, there is a separate river text which, by contrast, does cohere stylistically and philosophically with the genuine Heraclitus fragments: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and again different waters flow.” (D 12, tr. Kirk). Or, in my translation,
on them who step
The words and images of the two river texts are largely the same: river, stepping, flowing, the waters always moving and always being different. But on closer inspection, it is evident that the philosophical themes at the core of each are not the same. Most scholars agree that Cratylus passed on a creative rewording of what Heraclitus actually wrote.
Heraclitus’ text expresses the theme of sameness and difference juxtaposed, pressing against each other. The human and the river are “the same,” while the waters that flow over them are “different and again different.” (It is grammatically ambiguous in the Greek whether sameness is being predicated of the men stepping, of the rivers, or of both: my translation reflects the third possibility). Again, unity in and through opposite realities is a central theme for Heraclitus.
I have already mentioned the “everliving fire” as a conception of unceasing cosmic process, changes, turnings. This must have been the basis on which the so-called “Heracliteans” evolved their peculiar vision of an essentially chaotic universe. It is not a trivial conception, and it resonates with much of modern culture. For example, when Montaigne inaugurated modern subjectivity in his Essays, he meditated at length on the perpetual instability and mutablity of the self. Plato’s anxieties about the possibility of knowledge mirror those of Montaigne.
But “you never step twice in the same river,” however captivating it may be, is not Heraclitus. It is all scattering, with no gathering, no unity. The real Heraclitus, undistorted by Cratylus and Plato, had quite a different vision of reality (D 10, my translation):
Whole, Not whole
Why was Heraclitus so distorted over the centuries? Partly, it was bad luck:
As a philosophical pioneer, whose insights outrun his technical equipment, he has suffered the predictable fate of being misunderstood. The loss of his book at the end of the ancient world caused his long eclipse, which was aggravated by the long domination of the history of ancient philosophy by Platonic and Aristotelian texts and assumptions. (Both Plato and Aristotle were more indebted to Heraclitus than they admitted; both treated him with condescension). Against these obstacles, the canonization of him by Stoics and some early Christian writers hardly helped. It ensured the survival of precious information but dipped it in an alien dye, adding an extra layer of misunderstanding. (Edward Hussey, “Heraclitus,” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy)
On the other hand, considering the surviving fragments as a whole, it seems that Heraclitus did not want to be understood easily, in familiar terms. No writer ever violated more flagrantly the spirit of Anthony Trollope’s precept, that author and reader “should move along together in full confidence with each other” (Barchester Towers). After Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Greek thought became predominantly logical, rhetorically profuse, and painstakingly literal, trends which marked off Heraclitus as something foreign, aloof, and overly mystical. Many people today find him challenging or unappealing for those same reasons. But at least let us discard the traditional distortions and take him on his own terms.
- Authentic fragments are cited according to the Diels-Kranz (“D”) edition.
- Translations, unless my own, are taken from C.H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge, 1979).
- The most important work in English on which this essay is based is G.S. Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, 1954).