Life of Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus of Ephesus was an important philosopher of the pre-Socratic period, whose main philosophical thesis is that reality is constantly changing.

His exact date of birth or death is not known, but it is assumed that he lived between the 6th and 5th century B.C. in the city of Ephesus. He is believed to have been an aristocrat from Ephesus and a descendant of the founders of this city.

Diogenes Laertius tells that Heraclitus was a private man with a strong temper, refused to participate in public life, criticized the citizens of his own city, and made fun of Greek philosophers and poets. His misanthropy led him to live isolated in the mountains.

It is said, according to an ancient source, that the Greek citizens asked him to draft laws for the city, but he immediately refused, preferring to play with the children in the temple of Artemis.

Being a haughty person, the Greeks made up many stories to ridicule him, so it is difficult to determine what is true and what is not about his life.

The works of Heraclitus

The main work attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus is called On Nature. Some fragments of this work remain, in the form of aphorisms. The content of these aphorisms is quite enigmatic, difficult to understand, and this earned Heraclitus the nickname of the Obscure Philosopher.

His intention in writing his work in an obscure manner was to attract only readers of prestige and influence, and to keep away those disgusting and mocking readers who believe they are reading something easy, when in fact they understand nothing.

According to Diogenes, the leading historian of the ancient philosophers, Heraclitus’ work was divided into three parts, or three themes:

  • On the Cosmos;
  • Politics;
  • Theology;

The Philosophy of Heraclitus

Heraclitus’ philosophy was greatly influenced by the philosophers of Miletus (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) who defended the thesis of universal dynamism.

For Heraclitus, everything is constantly changing. There is nothing in the world that has any ontological stability. That is why he said, πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rei), that is, everything changes, everything flows. There is not even one being that is fixed and immovable.

For him, it was not possible to bathe in the same river twice, for the waters would not be the same, indeed, nor would the person be the same. In one of his obscure fragments, he states:

Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and we are not.

In the field of ideas, his main opponent was Parmenides, who advocated a contrary philosophy, that is: nothing changes!

Another philosophical thesis of Heraclitus, which derives from universal dynamism, is the thesis of the harmony of opposites.

The harmony of opposites

According to Heraclitus, all change implies the transformation from one opposite to the other. For example, a cold thing becomes hot, and the hot thing cools down again; a healthy person becomes sick, and vice versa.

The world is characterized by this war of opposites. He said:

War is the mother and queen of all things

But this war is also peace, harmony. Everything changes into its opposite and in this the harmony consists, it is as if reality is reconciled with itself. He affirmed:

Everything that is characterized as opposition is reconciled, from different things the most beautiful harmony is born, and everything is born through contrasts.

It is in the war between opposites that we find the meaning of things. Hunger gives meaning to satiety; sickness shows the value of health; tiredness shows how sweet rest is. If there were no injustices, he said, we would ignore the very notion of justice.

The most beautiful cosmic harmony is like a bunch of things thrown together

The thesis on the harmony of opposites led Heraclitus to be considered the father of dialectics.

Heraclitus on God

The concept of God for Heraclitus follows his philosophical thesis of the harmony of opposites. For him, God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, etc. In one of the fragments, he says:

To God everything is beautiful and good and just; men, however, judge some things as unjust and others as just.

Fire as Arche and the nature of the Logos

Heraclitus conceived fire as the arche, that is, as the essential principle of the cosmos. Things would be transformations of fire.

This world, equal to all, none of the gods and none of the men made it; it always was, is and will be an eternal and living fire, rising and fading in just measure.

The reason for this is that fire seems to be in constant motion, it is life that is maintained by the death of the fuel, it transforms everything into ashes, it is necessity and satiation. This fire is like lightning that governs the cosmos, so it is also Logos (reason, intelligence).

The notion of Logos in Heraclitus is interpreted as constituting reality. Although all things appear to be multiple and distinct, they are united in a large complex and coherent system, in which men themselves are integrated.

Only one thing is wise: to know the thought that governs everything through everything.

Among other things, the Logos is the organizing principle of opposites; it is through the Logos that opposites harmonize, in a proportional and balanced way.

The explicit notion of Logos, that is, reason/intelligence in Heraclitus, is quite innovative compared to the philosophers who preceded him, in whom the notion of reason is found only implicitly.

The theory of the soul

For the Obscure Philosopher, the human soul is fire.

The wise man possessed a drier soul, while the fool had a wet soul.

His philosophy of the soul coincides with the Orphic ideas. Heraclitus seemed to advocate the idea that bodily life was the death of the soul, and the death of the body, life of the soul.

He also advocated rewards or punishments after death.

Cite This Work

Vieira, S. (2021, August 29). Heraclitus. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/heraclitus/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Heraclitus.” Filosofia do Início, August 29, 2021. https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/heraclitus/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Heraclitus.” Filosofia do Início, 29 Aug. 2021, https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/heraclitus/.

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