Heraclitus of Ephesus


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Heraclitus of Ephesus

 

Born circa 544-540 B.C.; year of death unknown. Ancient Greek materialist philospher who formulated in an unsophisticated way a series of dialectical principles relating to being and consciousness.

Heraclitus wrote the essay “On Nature,” which is known today only from excerpts cited in the writings of other authors. His style is poetic and figurative, and his symbols convey many levels of meaning. The ideas expressed in the fragments that have survived often seem enigmatic; even in ancient times Heraclitus was called obscure.

Heraclitus belonged to the Ionian school of ancient Greek philosophy. He believed that fire was the principle of all things. The ancient Greeks held that fire was the thinnest, lightest, and most volatile cosmic element and that all things could be produced out of fire by the process of condensation and turned back into fire by the process of rarefaction. This world fire alternately blazes up and dies down. According to Heraclitus, neither gods nor humans created the world.

Heraclitus’ dialectic is a concept of unending change and becoming; he believed it to be a process within the limits of the material cosmos and a mutual basic succession of the cosmic elements—fire, air, water, and earth. He introduced the well-known image of the everchanging river: the same river cannot be entered twice because at every moment it becomes a completely new river. Becoming is realized only through the continuous change from one entity to its opposite, through the unity of the opposites that have already been formed. For Heraclitus, then, life and death, day and night, good and evil are brought together. Opposites are in a state of perpetual struggle, so that “discord is the father of everything, the ruler of everything.” Relativity is also a part of Heraclitus’ understanding of the dialectic (the relativity of the beauty of gods, men, and apes, or of human deeds and misdeeds, for example); still, he did not lose sight of that unity, or whole, within which the struggle of opposites takes place.

Throughout the history of philosophy, Heraclitus’ principle of Logos has prompted the greatest debates. Logos is variously interpreted as god, fate, necessity, eternity, wisdom, universality, and law; Logos may also be understood as a type of world-regulating and world-ordering principle, a principle of universal law and necessity. In Heraclitus’ concept of Logos there is a unification of fate, necessity, and reason.

Heraclitus’ theory of consciousness begins with external perceptions. The eyes and ears are the best witnesses, and of the two, “the eyes are more accurate witnesses than the ears.” However, only thought, which is common to all and can reconstruct the nature of all things, can bring about wisdom, that is, a knowledge of everything contained in everything.

The Marxist-Leninist classics emphasized Heraclitus’ materialism and dialectics. Lenin called Heraclitus “one of the founders of dialectics” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 309).

WORKS

Translations of fragments in Russian:
Nilender, V. In Geraklit Efesskii. Moscow, 1910. (With the Greek text.)
Makovel’skii, A. O. In his book Dosokratiki, part 1. Kazan, 1914. Pages 147-80.
Materialisty Drevnei Gretsii. Moscow, 1955. Pages 41-52.

REFERENCES

Dynnik, M. A. Dialektika Geraklita Efesskogo. Moscow, 1929.
Istoriia filosofii, vol. 1. Moscow, 1957. Pages 72-82.
Losev, A. F. Istoriia antichnoi estetiki. Moscow, 1963. Pages 345-90.
Kessidi, F. Kh. Filosofskie i esteticheskie vzgliady Geraklita Efesskogo. Moscow, 1963.
Ramnoux, C. Vocabulaire et structures de pensée archaïque chez Héraclite. Paris, 1959.
Wheelwright, P. Heraclitus. Princeton, N. J., 1959.

A. F. LOSEV