JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Heraclitus of Ephesus

§ 13.

Heraclitus, surnamed "The Obscure" (ho skoteinos), the most brilliant portion of whose career extended from B.C. 504 to B.C. 500, was a member of a noble family of Ephesus. His theory is hylozoistic, but his doctrine of the continual flux of all things gives special prominence to the restless activity of nature. We possess only fragmentary remains of his treatises Peri phuseôs.

2. Heraclitus holds Fire to be the ultimate principle of all things, but understands by the term an ethereal fire. This ether he, at the same time, regards as a divine spirit, which has knowledge of all things, and directs all things. In his view, therefore, the activity of the primal principle of all things is not a blind exercise of force, it is guided by reason, for he considers the eternal Fire-Spirit to be Reason, logos. He seems to have reached this conception from a consideration of the order and regularity prevailing throughout the universe. Reason is not, however, with him a transcendental entity; it is merely a determining attribute of the eternal material basis of things -- of Fire. On this point he is distinctly at variance with the later philosopher of nature -- Anaxagoras.

3. With regard to the origin of the world, Heraclitus teaches that by condensation all things are produced from Fire, and that by rarefaction all things return to it again. The process of condensation he describes as the way downwards (hodos katô), the process of rarefaction as the way upwards (hodos anô). The way downwards leads to Water and Earth, and so to Death; the way upwards leads to Air and Fire, and thus to Life. On the way downwards, too, lies Evil, and hence all things in the region of the earth are filled with evils; on the way upwards lies Good. Both sides of the dual process are, however, everywhere found in conjunction.

4. The forces at play in this dual process, and which initiate and maintain it, are, on the one hand, Strife and Hatred, on the other, Concord and Peace. By Strife and Hatred things come forth from the Primal Fire; by Harmony and Concord they return thither, Strife, or Enmity is, thus, the parent of all things (polemos patêr pantôn); the power of Peace and Concord, on the other hand, brings things into union, and guides them back to the principle from which they emanated. Both forces must, therefore, be regarded as cosmical powers, indwelling in the Primal Fire. The world itself is nothing more than the Deity differentiated.

5. In this theory, the whole course of nature is merely a continuous movement in a circle; the cosmical force Strife, brings things forth from the Primal Fire by the downward way; and then the cosmical force, Concord, restores them to the Ethereal Fire again. From such assumptions these conclusions are deduced: --

(a.) All things in the world are in perpetual flux; there is nothing permanent, nothing persistent. Everything is moving in a current (panta hrei). We cannot step twice into the same stream, says Heraclitus. No thing is at any one moment exactly the same thing that it was the moment before. The rotation of beginning to be and perishing is uninterrupted; -- AII things pass.

(b.) The world has come forth from the Primal Fire because of the preponderance of Strife over Concord; but the time will come in which Concord shall gain the ascendency, and then the world shall be absorbed again into the fiery Ether. Not that the process will then be at an end: Strife will again become predominant, and a new world will arise, to be consumed again as before. And so the round of changes goes on for ever. The Deity, in sport, is ever constructing worlds, which it permits, in due time, to end in fire, only, however, to renew them again.

6. The Soul of man is of the nature of fire; the driest element is the wisest and the best; it shoots through the body as the lightning through the cloud. The Soul is, as it were, a wandering spark shot forth from that Universal Fire or Universal Reason, which encompasses heaven and rules all things, and it is maintained only by constant accessions from the source whence it came. It derives no advantage from its union with the material body; the birth of man is a misfortune, inasmuch as he is born only to die. It is only when the soul returns again to the Primal Fire that its true life begins.

7. Man is possessed of the gift of Reason only in as far as he is united with the Universal (Divine) Reason, and shares therein. Hence it is only in his waking hours that he is really a rational being; during sleep he is an irrational being, for his share in the Universal Reason is then limited to the mere function of respiration. These notions lead Heracitus these further conclusions: --

(a.) The senses are deceptive, they are worthless for the attainment of truth; truth is in the reason alone. Hence the estimate of the individual is not the standard of truth; that alone is true which all acknowledge as such, for that alone is an object of knowledge to the Universal (Divine) Reason. Herein lies the criterion of truth. Divergence of one's own opinion from the universal reason is to be avoided, for in this is the source of error.

(b.) The Divine Reason is the universal immutable law as well of the physical as of the moral world. All human laws are upheld by the Divine law, "for this can do all that it wills, and it satisfies all and overcomes all" (Stob. Serm. 3. 84). The people should, therefore, defend the law as the wall of a fortress, and stifle sell-asserting arrogance as they would a conflagration.

(c.) The summum bonum of man is Contentment (euarestêsis) or Equanimity, a condition of mind arising from the conviction that events happen precisely as they have been predetermined by the supreme law. For "it is not best for men that what they wish should come to pass. Sickness makes health a pleasure and an advantage; hunger, in like manner, prepares for satiety, and labour for rest" (Stob. Serm. 3. 83, 84). Contented resignation to the universal and necessary course of events is the secret of human bappiness.

<< ======= >>