Σάββατο, 21 Απριλίου 2012

The Wisdom of Heraclitus




Wisdom 1: His Method
Here we will discuss the meaning of Heraclitus' fragments, and some of the difficulties and limitations of our interpretations of his philosophy. Heraclitus, the aristocratic Ephesian, was a deep and cryptic ancient Greek philosopher, and quite a unique thinker in the pre-Socratic tradition. We hope to examine his ideas within their historical context, but he breaks from his influences enough to make him well worthy of consideration (despite lacking almost all of his original writings) for his own ideas.

We rely on many excellent scholars to inform this discussion, such as Gregory Vlastos, W. K. C. Guthrie, G. S. Kirk, Charles Kahn, Martha Nussbaum, and others. (For those following along, citations will follow the Diels-Kranz numbering of fragments. Kahn translations were used for quotes, unless otherwise noted by name.) They don't all agree with each other, so we have to sometimes mention competing interpretations (especially for his flux doctrine).

It was common for pre-Socratic thinkers to speculate that order exists behind seemingly chaotic events. They are often called "natural philosophers" because they tried to explain everyday phenomena (with their eyes focused to the sky above and the earth below), but they were still generally different from the sort of theoretical and experimental scientists we have today.

Heraclitus was not fond of some of his fellow contemporaries, but through his biting criticisms of other thinkers and other scattered fragments, we detect four preferences that characterize his own methodology:

(1) As an isolated and independent thinker, his thought has a sense of originality.  He claimed that he was not a synthesizer or gatherer of other philosopher's ideas like Pythagoras, whom Heraclitus criticizes as a leaner of "artful knavery" and polymathy (Fr. 129).

(2) He distrusted information gathered by hearsay and countered that we should get our information first hand through the senses (Fr. 55).

(3) He stressed the importance of searching within oneself, for by looking within one could find the same truths that preside over the cosmos as a whole. He has the conviction that we can best understand reality through reflection by the soul (Fr. 34) and the coherent comprehension of language (Fr. 107).

(4) He was not like other Presocratics who were concerned with geometry and pure natural philosophy, rather he was more concerned with oracular aphorisms or fragments that he believed conveyed deeper meaning (Fr. 45). His witty and paradoxical utterances form his own distinctive method in philosophy, borrowed perhaps from the Oracle at Delphi, who Heraclitus says does not instruct nor suppress the truth but gives a sign (Fr. 93).

His obscurity comes partly from his historical limitations such as the lack of certain logical distinctions, and his own methodological preferences.  Heraclitus was at a point in history where he had little equipment to distinguish between a non-physical form and a material embodiment.  Like the other Presocratic philosophers his ideas beg for such a distinction, which in part may explain his intuitive need for metaphorical language.

Heraclitus also prefers to think of reality as difficult to discover, or as he says: "the hidden attunement is better than the obvious one" (Fr. 54) and "nature is hidden" (Graham Fr. 123).  And he posits a deep enough reality within us to make us skeptical of easily discovering knowledge (Fr. 45).

Wisdom 2: Reality of the Logos, Fire, and Elemental Transformation


Like the natural philosophers, Heraclitus posits a metaphysical reality (metaphysics here just means a discussion of an ultimate reality behind many deceptive appearances) that seeks to explain the way reality works behind the scenes despite the appearance of chaotic events around us.

Heraclitus calls his ultimate reality by many different names: the Logos (Fr. 1), fire (Fr. 64, 66), and God (Fr. 102).  He does not in any of the existing fragments explicitly delineate a hierarchy between them.  Exactly how each of these three forms of reality relates to each other is a mystery, but we do know that each of them has intelligible and directive qualities.

Kirk notes in his epilogue that Heraclitus most likely "used different terms according to differing moods and in different contexts -- e.g. fire in meteorological-cosmological contexts, god in synthetic ones where he is accepting traditional thought-patterns, Logos in logical-analytical ones". So we have to be careful not to strain our interpretations by trying to make Heraclitus' three types of oneness fit into a seamless, somewhat artificial framework.

A. Logos


He makes use of the word "Logos" differently from context to context, but in metaphysical contexts it translates as word or account, and some translators prefer "formula of things" or "language of reality" as a closer approximation of his meaning (Kirk, Grabowski).  The precise definition of the Logos lurks far out of our reach, but we have a few hints as to his meaning.

He describes the Logos as either eternally true or eternally existent, and common to everyone. Since everything must work in accordance with it, it brings order to the world and allows us to justify our knowledge (Fr. 1, 2).  It's arguable that he also elevates the activity of strife or flux itself as an ordering mechanism. For the most part, he speaks of the Logos in cases where he is concerned with knowledge and truth, yet he identifies fire as the most important "material" manifestation of the Logos.

We should point out that the distinction between material or nonphysical is not a distinction that Heraclitus or anyone else at this point in history made. But as interpreters often think of the Logos as a language of reality or the way in which things are arranged and ordered, they come close to making such a distinction.

We also find the same tension in the Pythagoreans, who made no distinction between form and matter, but spoke of numbers as the fundamental reality in such a way as to lead Aristotle to the view (perhaps mistakenly) that Plato's Forms, which are clearly specified as nonphysical, only differ in name from the Pythagoreans' numbers.  In a similar way, it is as if Heraclitus' fragments are predisposed for a distinction between a formal rule (Logos) as the arrangement and basis of material things and the material things themselves (the elements).

B. Fire


Heraclitus describes fire in three parts as the "ever-living order", "same for all", and not made by any god or man (Fr. 30).  He probably chose fire as one of his most important metaphors because it was the best of the recognized elements to fit into his scheme of change and unity: the fire flickers and appears stable as it consumes and gives off energy.  Fire has the advantage, as Aristotle notes, that it moves on its own and needs no external cause to explain its motion.

But he is not like his predecessors, such as Anaximander, who saw one type of matter as the only reality. Instead he thought of his cosmic fire as the most important element and the manager of all things, which he states with the image of the divine fiery thunderbolt: "The thunderbolt pilots all things"  (Fr. 64).

His scheme posited three elements, which are sea (probably water), earth, and prester (might be translated "lightning flash" or "whirlwind", but in this context it probably means something fiery such as fire), that are directed by the cosmic fire.

Heraclitus adds that all transformations between materials, and generally everything, are an equal exchange for fire: like "goods for gold and gold for goods" (Fr. 90). None of the three elements are in a completely steady state as they are said to be cycling in transformations into and out of one another always in an equal exchange.

For example, if part of sea transforms into earth, then an equal amount of earth would then have to transform back into sea (Fr. 31b).  Kirk clarifies the elemental transformation cycle such that one-third of the sea changes to earth, one-third of the sea reverts to fire, and the other one-third remains sea (Fr. 31a).

A problem arises of how to reconcile the fragments in which Heraclitus considers everything a cosmic fire (see Fr. 30) when he also believes that there are three distinct elements (including fire in its elemental manifestation). How can one consider everything the cosmic fire if some parts of it are not fire?

To attempt to solve the problem (if it is solvable) we can follow Kirk and view the cosmic as "a fire like a huge bonfire, of which parts are temporarily dead, [and other] parts are not yet alight."  In this view, the cosmic or pure fire steers and manages the processes of equal transformations of the elements without necessarily being them at every moment (Fr. 64, 66, 90).

By implication I think we might say the same about the Logos such that it provides an arrangement for the balance and flux in the cosmos without needing to do all the work, that is, control each part of the cosmos at every moment. We will see below that motion and internal tension may be said to create order on a smaller scale on their own (in that Logos would be redundant, and merely stand for the truth of the way reality works through the cosmic fire and its various manifestations).

Wisdom 3: Flux and Balance in all Things


We will now examine some of Heraclitus' most fascinating intuitions.  Heraclitus presents us with three basic intuitions about the nature of reality: (1) everything is in a state of flux (even while sometimes stably persisting through time); (2) the harmony of opposite qualities create order and unity through strife; (3) possibly a third: time is important as another mechanism to the harmony and ultimate flux of things.

A. The Flux Doctrine: Stability Comes with Chaos


The most famous statement of the flux doctrine in Fr. 91b is the traditional, "One cannot step twice into the same river."

One may be tempted to interpret the fragment to mean that everything is in constant chaotic flux without order or balance. Some scholars, like Kirk, make such an interpretation and then dispute the authenticity of the quote. But other scholars, including Vlastos, defend it and argue that the flux doctrine is not fatal to the persistence of an object over time.

If the fragment is ambiguous and allows Kirk's interpretation, then it means that one cannot step into the same river and the river is never the same. However, this interpretation is equivalent to the view of Cratylus of Athens, a popular disciple of Heraclitus, who, as Aristotle notes, said one could not step into the same river once (Vlastos).  

However, the fragment in question avoids this conclusion by saying that one cannot step into the same river twice. The fragment has two equal parts: one cannot step twice into the same waters and the river is the same. It most probably follows that the river has an identity and stays the same (in addition to its flux).

The second river-statement, Fr. 49a, is the paradoxical: "Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and we are not."  The meaning is the same as in Fr. 91b since the fragment places both identity and change as two essential aspects of the river.

The authenticity of this fragment is controversial.  Kahn dismisses Fr. 49a as a forgery since it looks to him as a refinery or combination of other fragments made by the source Heraclitus-Homericus.  But Vlastos argues that what he calls the "yes-and-no" (step and do not step) form of writing in Fr. 49a is highly likely for Heraclitus for which there is no obvious precedent.

Since the river is meant as a metaphor, it seems intuitive that humans have identity and flux just like a river, so the meaning of "we are and are not" is similar to "being able and not able to step" into the same river. Despite Kahn's objection, the fragment at least seems consistent with Heraclitus' meaning.

We have a frequent problem interpreting Heraclitus' fragments, for one scholar may believe in the validity of a fragment and therefore differently construe the overall philosophy of Heraclitus accordingly.  They must weigh the authenticity of sources, the possible intent of Heraclitus, coherence with other fragments, Heraclitus' probable use of language, and the accuracy of accounts from early commentators such as Aristotle and Plato.  Guthrie, for example, makes an extended effort to validate Plato as a sound source in both reliability and emphasis, while Kirk believes that Aristotle is a better source for our knowledge of Heraclitus.

Kirk centers his interpretation on a conception of change in which balance and order (Logos) are essential to the river fragment and in which Heraclitus intends no underlying flux as the cause of the balance.  He believes that the earliest source, Plato, paraphrases Heraclitus placing too much emphasis on change and disorder, which future commentators then mistook as Heraclitus' actual meaning.  So he argues that Heraclitus did not imagine change on the minute or generalized level that Plato imagines.

Yet we can point to a fragment that might demonstrate that Plato captures the correct meaning of Heraclitus' flux doctrine (as Guthrie and Vlastos contend).  During Heraclitus' life time there was a drink called a kykeon, sometimes translated as "potion", consisting of wine, barley, and grated cheese (Guthrie).  The three parts of the potion-drink had to be constantly stirred or else they would break apart, so Heraclitus perhaps uses this image as a metaphor for what happens if motion were to cease: "Even the potion separates unless it is stirred" (Fr. 125).  From this fragment we get the only explicit evidence that Heraclitus intends observed motion as essential to the identity of things (like rivers, people, etc.).

B. The Harmony of Strife and Opposite Qualities


The question also arises as to whether or not Heraclitus imagined change in places where common sense tells us that there is none.  We look at a rock at one moment and only notice a motionless peaceful rock, but after a few years of weathering the rock may undergo significant changes.

The first hint that Heraclitus gives is stated in the following: "The ordering, 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" (Fr. 30).

If the fire in this fragment emphasizes fire in its symbolic meaning (that is, fire as an underlying reality and primary substance), then we cannot directly observe it kindling and going out in measure by perception.  Several take this fragment to mean a cosmic fire, as Heraclitus was not a monist (Kirk & Raven).  Hence, we can infer two characteristics evident at the imperceptible level according to Heraclitus: like a river, (a) the cosmic pure-fire is eternal and in harmony, (b) and it constantly undergoes change.

His bow fragments provide additional evidence that Heraclitus thought of an imperceptible flux functioning in things: "They do not comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself; it is an attunement turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre" (Fr. 51).

Unlike water flowing in a river, the idle strung bow, we assume, is resting motionless.  We must infer internal change by an investigation that when the taut string is cut the wooden bow will straighten out; hence, the inference is that the two parts were pulling against each other the whole time.

We agree that Heraclitus did not imagine minute material vibrations as modern scientists do, but instead he inferred a struggle or strife going on within seemingly peaceful objects.  As we apply the flux doctrine to undetectable changes in a thing, we have essentially a "harmony of opposition" or "conflict doctrine".  We have both the inner war occurring within the bow and fire (and as a metaphor for everything in general), and the outward change in rivers and potion-drinks.

We can summarize the relevant flux fragments as follows: (a) the river fragments demonstrate that observable identity and change are essential characteristics of things; (b) the potion-drink fragment gives us the notion that observable motion or flux causes order; (c) the cosmic fire and the bow fragments tell us that Heraclitus inferred flux not only as something that is observable but also that it occurs at the imperceptible level as well. 

But he also used poetic words like "strife" and "war" to describe these instances of flux and internal tension. We can point to a couple fragments that demonstrate that Heraclitus thinks strife is the chief cause of order: "all things work in accordance with Strife" (Fr. 80) and "War is the father of all" (Fr. 53). We might summarize Heraclitus' flux argument by saying that the inward tugging and pulling of the bow is an instance of strife, but strife is the fundamental cause of its balance and identity.

Hence, strife seems to be inclusive of both the outward observed motion of a river and the internal tension of things like bows.  Since motion and internal tension are both implied as causes of order in particular arrangements (as in the potion and bow fragments), they seem fundamental for order and unity to arise in Heraclitus' picture.  Therefore, we can consider strife as the basic principle or mechanism for unity and balance in a thing.

Guthrie nicely phrases the consequence of this strife or flux doctrine: "There was law in the universe, but it was not a law of permanence, only a law of change, or, in something more like his own picturesque phraseology, the law of the jungle...."

Nietzsche colorfully says something similar as well: "The Things themselves in the permanency of which the limited intellect of man and animal believes, do not "exist" at all; they are as the fierce flashing and fiery sparkling of drawn swords, as the stars of Victory rising with a radiant resplendence in the battle of the opposite dualities."

Wisdom 4: Harmony of Oppositions Everywhere


Heraclitus knew nothing about particle bonds, but his harmony of opposites is similar to the way we currently think particles interact and are propelled by forces, except opposite qualities harmonize things together propelled by strife (that is, by motion and internal tension).

Heraclitus uses oppositions in several different contexts, but they allow him to advance many interesting critical parts of his thought. They show him questioning our hostility towards injustice, the arbitrary distinction between many of our words, and the existence of an all good God.

(1) In one group of fragments, Heraclitus notes how the existence of a term's opposite is necessary for us to account for the term's meaning and true nature; for example, without injustice, justice would presumably become meaningless (Fr. 102), and if one torpidly engorges oneself all the time, then satiety is meaningless since one does not have the contrast with displeasure and hunger (Fr. 111). 

Some would like a world without any pain, agony, or war. But then would pleasure, happiness, and peace lose their meaningfulness?

(2) He also describes types of oppositions in which two terms, e.g. day and night, are only different in that they occur at different times and states of affairs, but are one in that they refer to the same world (Fr. 57).  Another good example is his contention that waking and sleeping are the same and only different in that they succeed one another: a person goes to sleep and follows by waking up; therefore, he concludes that the sleeping is the "same" as the waking, that is they both refer to the same person (Fr. 88).

Perhaps he thinks that these arbitrary labels cloak an underlying unity in the world. A unity that is best characterized with our senses and self-reflection, rather than our blind acceptance of arbitrary categories, labels, and ideal distinctions. As with the first type of duality, he mistrusts popular attempts to divide the world, say, into good and bad with mere blunt words, which miss the unity and dependence they have on each other (specifically on their opposites).

(3) He observes other types of opposition that unite together in oneness, not by succession or time, but by being united in a metaphysical substance such as God.  For example, he says that God is both "day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger," and later humans label or baptize them different names to distinguish them from one another.  But they are fundamentally united together in that they, war and peace, are both equally a part of God (Fr. 67).

In this regard, one can note that Heraclitus disagrees with those who would only assign good intentions to the divine and godly realm, for he does not think that peace alone could exist or be meaningful without its opposite (so both are necessary and divine).

Another similar example is where two perceivers interact with the same thing but attribute it opposite qualities.  For example, the salty sea is both pure and foul because it is healthy and good for fish, but for men it is "undrinkable and deadly" (Fr. 61).  This implies that a sea has the ability to produce both opposite effects to those who make use of it, and it can have positive and negative traits depending on the perspective of the thing that interacts with the sea.  Humans might think of sea water as negative since it can have a bad effect on them, but animals that need the sea for their survival experience the sea in positive terms.

This list of oppositions is not complete, but it is sufficient for a picture of some of his interesting uses of his harmony of oppositions.

Wisdom 5: Time and Degrees of Identity


The harmony of oppositions also suggest the importance of Heraclitus' third major intuition of reality concerning the nature of time.  We can interpret the passage of ever new waters in a river also as the passing of time.  And the amount of change that one interprets, whether a constant flux at the imperceptible level or a more conservative conception of change, means little to the passage of time.  In the end most everything dies in a transformation into other elements.

An essential unity captured by the passage of time consists in temporal oppositions, such as "day and night are one" (Fr. 57).  Heraclitus did not view this type of opposition as a conflict between things, which he implies in his explanation of their oneness in the following: "For these things when they have changed are those, and those when they have changed are these" (Fr. 88).  

He says day and night are the "same" because they alter in attributes or succeed one another, not because they are in conflict or have an exact identity with each other. We could say that these are like a binding bridge to tie the kosmos together, connecting it together by time, degree of change, and necessity.

However, taking a long term view that time ultimately destroys all things (in a cycle of elemental transformations), we can say that the most essential aspect of being or reality is activity. Although in outward balance and harmony, everything in existence necessarily changes over time and in the end transforms into something else, so we commonly find ourselves talking about a "becoming" rather than a "being".

Why speak of something's true nature if time and necessity will eventually wash it away?  If we take the question to an extreme, we can only talk about an essential nature or identity of something when we discuss the Logos or cosmic fire itself, that is, if we want certain unbending truths.

But depending on how much flux we attribute to the river example we will find that the river stays constant enough for us to place our foot into it, and, we can imagine, it will not be so different the next time.

Difference is often seen as either the identity of the river is lost and becomes completely "different" or it is not, but here we refer to degrees of difference.  The problem of degrees weighs heavily as we try to decipher Heraclitus' intentions in his riddling fragments.

Does hot turn into cold instantly or slowly?  Is hot a degree of coldness and cold a degree of warmness?  That Heraclitus thought of the problem in degrees is difficult to tell since his poetic method is phrased in either-or language.

Judging from his some of his fragments on opposites, we can suggest that Heraclitus could think in degrees (the way in-between) even though he wrote mostly in either-or oppositions; for example, he notes that the way up and the way down is one and the same because the way between them is the same (Fr. 60).

Wisdom 6: The Rational Psyche


As we now turn to man as a microcosm, we find that few scholars disagree on the view that the cosmic fire is analogous to the psyche.  In a fragment on transformations of elements Heraclitus uses the word soul where we would naturally expect him to write fire (Fr. 36).

By placing soul on the same level as the cosmic fire, he superimposes chunks of his philosophy to the sphere of humans. He namely thinks that a person's psyche becomes like the world-ordering fire.

Nussbaum argues that Heraclitus is the first known philosopher to describe the psyche as a central unity that accounts for the use and evaluation of language, while also representing the life-activity of the person. 

Heraclitus criticizes Homer's depiction of humans mainly learning information through sudden intuitions. He thinks this would leave the soul thoughtless and subjective and, more importantly, shut off from the common Logos (preventing us from regularly attaining knowledge).

We would be able to say that animals have similar mental abilities as humans if we just include body parts (eye, ear, etc.) as significant to knowledge.  But Heraclitus emphasizes the importance of language in human reasoning, which is peculiar to humans.

Heraclitus describes the soul's use of language and reason as its rational agency (and also the part of the soul that is similar to the cosmic fire). Since the soul uses the same type of rational language of the Logos, it is able to seek knowledge of the Logos (or the formula of things).

Wisdom 7: Anonymous Soul


Any interpretation of his remarks on immortality need to refer to his cosmological fragments.  Heraclitus may or may not advocate the immortality of the soul.  If he does then the immortality we receive is not like anything that one typically desires of an afterlife.  That is, if we assume that most people want to preserve their identity, including their life memories and experiences in the hereafter.

But in Heraclitus' cosmology we have no way of distinguishing one soul from another.  We discussed that the cosmic fire is one reality that transforms between many different elements. After the soul dies and transforms, it is lost to the many parts of the cosmic fire. And some elements in it are not very soul-like, such as water and earth.

We can say that the general material and rational language of the soul survive (the "language of nature" and any part of us that became knowledgeable about how reality might work). The reality of the Logos, which the soul may come into contact with, persists past the death of the soul. But we have no way of saying that our individual traits or miscellaneous memories survive.

It's an interesting question whether Heraclitus would go as far as Spinoza, and suggest that we share a sense of immortality when we understand eternal laws of nature. In any case, the immortality would be as interesting as grasping the flux doctrine intellectually. It's just not something to write home about; it's something to take a philosophy seminar on! You would lose your lifetime achievements, personal identity, and unique experiences.

Nussbaum additionally argues (based on textual and historical analysis) that in fragments where Heraclitus mentions the soul living after death, he might be referring to the fame of the individual in the minds of future generations.

Therefore, on this interpretation we can account for the reason why Heraclitus praises fame: the courageous soldier in battle gets honor from the gods and men (Fr. 24) and greater deaths get better destinies (Fr. 25).  We can also understand why the gods honor men, for the gods are immortal and cannot risk their lives, so they cannot attain virtue through battle (Nussbaum).

Other interpreters take the opposite view and believe that the only way to account for Heraclitus' use of soul is to provide for some sort of immortality, but such an interpretation is incoherent with the necessity of change, strife, and elemental transformations that we adopted earlier. The soul must transform to some other non-soul-like substance, such as water or earth.

Wisdom 8: Strife is Good, from a Certain Point of View!


Heraclitus rebels against Anaximander's moralizing account of nature, which claims that materials pay a price for their transgressions against the peaceful order of things.  Heraclitus instead believes that strife is just, good, and desirable (Fr. 80), for balance and order can not exist without conflict. So we cannot condemn the necessity of strife.

Aristotle also remarks in Eudemian Ethics (1235a25) that Heraclitus chided Homer for his poetic wish to end conflict, since there would be "no harmony without both high and low notes" (Fr. A22). 

This may be startling and ghastly for some to conceive: war is right and good and unavoidable.  Most people are in the nature of advocating peace and harmony, but they, says Heraclitus, should look within peace.

We should emphasize that Heraclitus would possibly say that a rock is at "war" when it is sitting motionless and idle, apparently doing nothing.  So, here, we find "the Riddler" devising his own personal vocabulary and outlook on life that we might expect from such an original, isolated and independent thinker, and at the same time as a result of his philosophical views.  He prefers his own reflective vision of Logos over the language of the commoners.

Wisdom 9: Moral Exceptionalism


Another key aspect of Heraclitus' ethical views is that he advocates a noble moral outlook.  He would choose the best person from the crowd instead of several average types (Fr. 49), and this implies that he makes a qualitative distinction between people.

In other fragments, e.g. where he envisions the punishment of whole cities for the sake of a defiled better man among them (Fr. 121), we also find that he does not endorse an equalizing ethical code that grants all people the same moral status.

But at the same time he wants us to live in accordance with the law of one and to defend the walls of our cities, so he does not believe in leaving one's society in moral chaos; therefore, he echoes the entire ancient Greek culture that tended to think of balance and measure as best.

Wisdom 10: Temperance


Heraclitus symbolizes the right road to attaining truth as the "dry soul" (Fr. 118) and the wrong way as the "wet soul" (Fr. 117).  He thinks that a dry soul should live a temperate life (Fr. 112) and avoid the bestial pleasures of the body (Fr. 4).

Nussbaum argues that his reasons for rejecting the life of a wet soul: "the shamefulness of the wet state of psyche consists, apparently, in a loss of self-direction, self-awareness, self-control."

Heraclitus does not, however, distinguish between the amount of "wetness" we are allowed or how much "dryness" we should desire, so we have no way to tell if Heraclitus advocates a completely "dry" life or a moderate one.

Final Remarks


Heraclitus might have counseled that while our soul is still active in us, we can work on achieving a greater amount of self-knowledge and knowledge of the Logos, but it is not easy to grasp and some parts of it may always remain out of our reach (and most men fail to grasp it altogether).  Things tend to keep their secrets.

Possibly he believes that we can come closer to an understanding of it with the proper use of language and reason (by solving its riddles, we could say). And we have a better chance if we use the other methods outlined in the introduction (self knowledge, sense perception, etc.).

His aphoristic method compacts a lot of meaning into each of his fragments, and they can be unpacked in many different ways.  Heraclitus' philosophy is like Zeus' thunderbolt that strikes to the root of its spectators from a distance, and strikes deep enough to lend to multiple interpretations (none of which are perfectly resolved by any two scholars).

But we can hope that by careful analysis of his time, language, history, and influences, we can reason along with his intended meanings and transmit his wisdom to the future. Deep thinkers tend to get misunderstood and dismissed with contemptuous rhetoric, but rare thinkers are a cherished commodity in the marketplace of ideas. Heraclitus will be difficult to ignore.

He would probably council us to exert our own rationality in considering his wisdom, and put aside the urge to dismiss his meditations with contemptuous political correctness, mere rumors or cultural habits, or academic pseudo-knowledge that all too often lacks critical reflection.

Works Cited (Main Sources)


Guthrie, W. K. C.  "Heraclitus."  History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 1.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.  403-492.

Kahn, Charles H.  The Art and Thought of Heraclitus.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Kirk, G. S. & Raven, J. E.  The Presocratic Philosophers.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Kirk, G. S.  Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Nussbaum, Martha C.  "Psyche in Heraclitus."  Phronesis 17 (1972): 1-16, 153-170.

Vlastos, Gregory.  "On Heraclitus."  The American Journal of Philosophy 76 (1955): 337-368.

Additional Works Cited (One Citation or Less)


Benardete, S.  "On Heraclitus."  The Review of Metaphysics 53 (2000): 613-633.

Grabowski, Frank.  "Issues Surrounding Logos in Heraclitus, Fragment B56."  Michigan Academician 32 (2000): 267-282.

Graham, Daniel W.  "Does Nature Love to Hide?"  Classical Philology 98 (2003): 175-80.

Haxton, Brooks.  Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus.  New York: Viking, 2001.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Early Greek Philosophy: and Other Essays.  Trans. Mugge, Maximillian A.  Edinburgh: The Darien Press, 1911.

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