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The ordering (kosmos), the same for all, no god or man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.

…I have so far characterized the new Ionian cosmology by three fundamental features: (1) a geometric model for the heavens, (2) observation and numerical measurement of astral cycles, and (3) the interpretation of physical change as a conflict of elemental powers within a periodic order of reciprocity and symmetry recognized as just. To these must be added a fourth, less original feature: the tendency to explain the present state of affairs by deriving it from some initial situation or first beginning. In place of Hesiod’s theogony, the natural philosophers give us cosmogony. The reports on Anaximander and the quotations from Anaxagoras show that Ionian cosmology began, like Hesiod and the book of Genesis, ‘in the beginning’. It described the emergence of the world order as a gradual process of generation or development from an archē, a starting point or ‘what came first of all.’ And there is some evidence to suggest that Anaximander, like Empedocles and the atomists later, applied the principle of symmetry to foresee a reversal of the cosmic process, so that the earth which had emerged from the sea would sink into it again, and perhaps the whole world process might begin anew.

These four principles characterize the original Greek conception of the natural world as a kosmos, an orderly arrangement whose structure can be rationally understood. For the early cosmologists, as later for Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, this conception entailed a fifth principle to which I have alluded: the idea of the cosmos brought with it the idea of the cosmic god. Although this new theological view, with its radical departure from the traditional notion of the gods, is first clearly attested in the surviving fragments of Xenophanes, it seems likely that here too Anaximander was the precursor. For we are told that he described his primary cosmic principle, the apeiron or Boundless, as eternal and unaging, which is to say divine. And he said of this divine principle that it ‘circumscribes all things and steers them all.’

Now if Heraclitus shows little interest in the geometric model for the heavens or the scientific explanation of nature in detail, his thought is nevertheless penetrated by the new conception of the cosmos. Although not himself a physikos or natural philosopher proper, his own system can only be understood as a response to the world view of the Milesian physicists. This will appear most clearly if we compare his doctrine of Fire with the latest Milesian cosmology, that of Anaximenes.

In place of the indeterminate Boundless of Anaximander, Anaximenes proposed the more definite physical form of aēr as starting point for the cosmic process. Before the word come to denote atmospheric air, aēr had meant ‘mist’ or ‘vapour’; and Anaximenes must have chosen this principle because of its close association with the atmospheric cycle of evaporation and condensation. He appears to have taken that cycle as the paradigm for understanding physical change in general and explaining the origin of the world order: all things are derived from aēr by being condensed through cooling or by being rarefied through heating. This doctrine of Anaximenes, restated in later conceptual terms by Diogenes of Apollonia in the next century, was taken by Aristotle as the pattern for the material monism which he ascribes to most of the early physikoi. Thus Thales is said to have derived all things from water, as Anaximenes and Diogenes derived everything from air. And Heraclitus is named as having chosen fire as the starting point. This interpretation of Heraclitus’ doctrine by analogy with that of Anaximenes is more fully stated in the Theophrastean doxography in Simplicius:

Heraclitus produces all things from fire by thickening and rarefaction and dissolves them back into fire, maintaining that this is the underlying nature or substrate of things. For Heraclitus says all things are an exchange (amoibē) for fire.

The last sentence of this report is a paraphrase of XL (D. 90): ‘All things are requital (antamoibē) for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’ Thus Theophrastus, following the example of Aristotle, understood Heraclitus’ doctrine of fire as the statement of a physical theory along the lines of Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia, but differing from them by the substitution of fire for air. And in doing so, Theophrastus was both right and wrong. For the assertion that all things are exchanged for fire must have been intended as an allusion to Anaximenes’ doctrine; just as statements like ‘for water it is death to become earth, but out of earth water arises’, or the listing of sea, earth and lightning storm as ‘reversals’ of fire and the statement that ‘sea pours out, and it measures up to the same amount it was before becoming earth’ can only be understood by reference to Ionian theories of elemental transformation. Such texts provided a prima facie case for grouping Heraclitus together with the natural philosophers. Theophrastus’ mistake (continued in the tradition, both ancient and modern, that treats Heraclitus’ doctrine of fire as a physical theory of the same sort as Anaximenes’) lies in ignoring the poetic and paradoxical nature of these statements concerning elemental change, and thus treating the mode of expression as irrelevant to the meaning. To make such a mistake is to disregard the hint that Heraclitus himself had given in speaking of the oracle which ‘neither declares nor conceals but gives a sign.’ The sign, in Heraclitus’ case, is the very form of his discourse, the nature of the logos which he has composed as an expression of his own view of wisdom, in contrast to that piling up of erudition which he despises as polymathiē, ‘the learning of many things’, in the work of his predecessors. It is precisely in the use of such words as antamoibē ‘requital’ and tropai ‘turnings’, ‘reversals’, as in the description of elemental change as a cycle of ‘birth’ and ‘death’ with the soul (psychē) placed both at the beginning and at the end of the cycle, that Heraclitus gives the sign of his own deeper meaning. These signs, and the riddling nature of his whole discourse, were systematically ignored by Theophrastus and the doxographers who followed him. Theophrastus could only regard the paradoxical style of the work as the symptom of some mental derangement, some melancholia, which caused Heraclitus to express himself ‘sometimes incompletely and sometimes in inconsistent fashion’.

We come closer to a correct reading of the signs with a Hellenistic critic named Diodotus, who declared that the book was not about the nature of things (peri physeōs) after all but about man’s life in society (peri politeias), and that the physical doctrines serve only as illustration. This is an overstatement, but it points in the right direction. Diels came still closer to the mark when he observed that Heraclitus was interested only in the most general conceptions of Ionian physics, and that his real starting point was ‘I went in search of myself.’ Once he had encountered the law of the microcosm within himself, ‘he discovered it for a second time in the external world’.

I believe that Diels was right in locating the central insight of Heraclitus in this identity of structure between the inner, personal world of the psyche and the larger natural order of the universe. The doctrines of fire, cosmic order, and elemental transformations serve as more than illustrations; but they are significant only insofar as they reveal a general truth about the unity of opposites, a truth whose primary application for human beings lies in a deeper understanding of their own experience of life and death, sleeping and waking, youth and old age. In Heraclitus’ view such an understanding of the human condition is inseparable from an insight into the unifying structure of the universe, the total unity within which all opposing principles — including mortality and immortality — are reconciled. It is this insight and this understanding which Heraclitus prizes as wisdom (sophia) and which his whole discourse struggles to express. The war of opposites, the cosmic fire, the divine one which is also wisdom itself or ‘the wise one’ — all these provide the framework within which human life and death are to be understood, and to be understood means to be seen in their unity, like day and night. The ignorance of men lies in their failure to comprehend the logos in which this insight is articulated, the logos which is at once the discourse of Heraclitus, the nature of language itself, the structure of the psyche and the universal principle in accordance with which all things come to pass. Heraclitus’ grasp of this insight would have been impossible without the new, philosophic conception of cosmic order; and this sets him apart from the older Wise Men. But he belongs with them in the concern for wisdom as an insight into the pattern of human life and the limits of the human condition. What they did not see — and could not see before the birth of natural philosophy — is that the pattern of human life and the pattern of cosmic order is one and the same.

Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus.


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