Heraclitus: The Pre-Socratic Weeping Philosopher and His Most Eminent Doctrines
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Pre-Socratic philosopher who lived during the 6th century BC. Heraclitus wrote a book which recorded his philosophical thoughts. This book, which was deposited in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, has not survived in its entirety. Nevertheless, more than 100 fragments have endured the passage of time.
Through these fragments, Heraclitus’ philosophical thoughts are more directly approachable by modern scholars than those of his predecessors, such as Thales and Anaximander. Heraclitus’ philosophical thoughts were wide-ranging, and included cosmology, moral thoughts, religion, and politics.
Heraclitus’ Life and Personality
Heraclitus was born around 540 BC, and was a citizen of Ephesus, an ancient Greek city on the Ionian coast of modern day Turkey. According to the biographer Diogenes Laertius, Heraclitus’ father was a man by the name of either Blyson or Heraceon.
Strabo writes that the family of Androclus, the founder of Ephesus, were entitled to hold a kingship, which was both hereditary and, possibly, largely honorary. Heraclitus was a descendant of Androclus, though he had “yielded to his brother the title and privileges of royalty”.
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Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, birthplace of Heraclitus. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
According to Diogenes, Heraclitus was “above all men of a lofty and arrogant spirit”, and was known for the contempt he held against his predecessors. For example, in one of his fragments (also quoted by Diogenes), Heraclitus wrote that “Abundant learning does not form the mind; for if it did, it would have instructed Hesiod, and Pythagoras, and likewise Xenophanes, and Hecataeus.”
Apart from other philosophers, Heraclitus is recorded as hating basically everyone else. According to Diogenes, “And at last becoming a complete misanthrope, he used to live, spending his time in walking about the mountains; feeding on grasses and plants.”
Heraclitus (with his face in the style of Michelangelo) sits apart from the other philosophers in Raphael's School of Athens. ( Public Domain )
Due to these habits, Heraclitus suffered from dropsy (a less technical term for edema). When the philosopher returned to the city, he “asked the physicians, in a riddle, whether they were able to produce a drought after wet weather”. They, however, did not understand what Heraclitus was trying to say, and could not prescribe any medication for him. Therefore, Heraclitus “shut himself up in a stable for oxen, and covered himself with cow-dung, hoping to cause the wet to evaporate from him, by the warmth that this produced.”
Example of the legs of a person with edema. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This self-medication not only failed to cure Heraclitus, but actually resulted in his death. It has been claimed that this anecdote of Heraclitus’ death is probably an invention based on the philosopher’s own writings. In one of his fragments, it is written that “it is death for souls to become water”. In another fragment, Heraclitus expounds his doctrine of exhalations or evaporations, in which fire turn into water and vice versa . These fragments are said to be the bases for the story of Heraclitus’ death.
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One of Heraclitus’ best-known doctrines is that things are always changing (universal flux), characterized, for instance, in the second fragment mentioned in the previous paragraph. Heraclitus wrote that “The turnings of fire: first, sea; and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…. Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio ( logos) it was before it became earth.” In other words, water from the sea changes into both fire (by means of a fiery waterspout, which is a hurricane funnel illuminated by lightning) and earth.
Crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. ( Public Domain ) Some believe that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. This perception led to him being known as the "weeping philosopher," as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher.”
Another well-known Heraclitean doctrine is that of the unity of opposites. This doctrine may be separated into several groups. One group speaks of objects that have contradictory properties from different points of view. For example, in one fragment, it is written that “The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive”.
Another group deals with opposites which, whilst being in opposition to each other, are each necessary for the recognition of the other. For instance, “Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger [does the same for] satiety, weariness [for] rest.”
Yet another group deals with opposite qualities that occur successively. For example, “Cold things grow hot, a hot thing cold, a moist thing withers, a parched thing is wetted.”
These doctrines along with his cryptic statement that "all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos" (literally, "word", "reason", or "account") have been the subject of numerous interpretations over the years.
Heraclitus (1628) by Hendrick ter Brugghen . ( Public Domain )
Featured image: A 17th century painting of Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse. Photo source: Public Domain
Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: Life of Heraclitus [Online]
[Yonge, C. D. (trans.), 1853. Diogenes Laertius’ The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: Life of Heraclitus .]
Graham, D. W., 2015. Heraclitus. [Online]
Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/#UniOpp
Graham, D. W., 2016. Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 B.C.E.). [Online]
Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit/
Marvin, C., 2000. Heraclitus of Ephesus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/phil/philo/phils/heraclitus.html
McKirahan, R. D., 2010. Philosophy Before Socrates. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.