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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

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The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

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Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

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The Peripatetic School

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The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 4 - Heraclitus

Life of Heraclitus

Nearly contemporary with Parmenides was Heraclitus of Ephesus, who flourished not earlier than 500 B.C., nor later than 450 B.C. He belonged to the nobility of the place. He was in temperament aristocratic, melancholy, and meditative; and gave up public office for contemplative retirement, holding the world in contempt. Mostly self-taught and independent in his views, he studied and freely criticised those of others, and was probably the profoundest of the early Greek thinkers.


  A work of his entitled On Nature won for him, by the crudity of its style and, also, we may suspect, by the depth and paradoxical character of its contents, the sobriquet of The Obscure. Diogenes Laertius relates that Socrates, when asked what he thought of a certain work of Heraclitus, replied, "What I have understood is good; and so, I think, what I have not understood is; only the book requires a Delian diver to get at the meaning of it" (1).

Heraclitus's First Principle

Heraclitus is sometimes treated as a Hylicist and Hylozoist. He did, it is true, assume a physical principle (fire) and affirmed the universal presence of life in matter. The central point in his speculations, however, was not the universal material source of things, but the universal process of things. Emphasizing the aspect of change in Nature, he held that existence was an absolute process, a continual flux: πάντα χωρεϊ, "all things flow," is his real first principle. Instead of affirming, as did the Eleatics, Only Being is, he affirms or seems to affirm, Only not-Being is; Becoming or not-Being is the object of his thought. But what is Becoming? Is it mere change? Another of his dicta runs, All is and also is not: Becoming, that is to say, is the union of Being and not-Being. Being and not-Being are involved one in the other. Our human bodies, for example, undergo a process of growth and decay: we live and die continually, —live because we die, die because we live. Moreover, what we call the actual death of the body is but the birth of a new life: "Both life and death are in our life and our death"; "While we live our souls are buried in us, but when we die our souls are restored to life. Time —to take another example— cannot be conceived as now existent or now not. In time as in all reality, continuity and discontinuity, Being and not-Being are inseparable. Opposite qualities co-exist in the real, not merely in the phenomenal, as the Eleatics declared. "Strife is the father of all things". "Unite the whole and the not-whole, the consentient and the dissentient, the consonant and the dissonant and there arises one from all, all from one". There is a continual conversion of the Many into the One, and vice versa. The harmony of the One and the Many, which the Pythagoreans asserted but did not explain, is brought about through the notion of Becoming, —activity, life.

Physical Doctrine of Heraclitus

Now the omnipresent element or medium in which this process is realized and which is hardly to be distinguished from the process itself is, according to Heraclitus, fire, which in its purest form is spirit. By a process subtler than the "condensation" of Anaximenes, fire is transmuted into air, air into water, water into earth; air, water, and earth being, though "opposites," but stages in the in-volution of fire. This is called the "downward way". The two "ways" are inseparable or organic members of one process. This process must be conceived, not as a mechanical process, but as a vital organic process, in which opposite forces are held as one. In the vast process by which the visible universe is maintained there is alternately a kindling and an extinguishing of the elemental fire.

The Soul and Reason

The human soul is but a mode of the universal fire. The dry soul is best; moisture in the soul obscures reason. By respiration and the action of the organs of sense, the soul is nourished with the universal fire. "Souls enter the body from a higher state of existence, and after death, when they have proved themselves worthy of their privilege, they return as dæmons into a purer life (2). Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to those who have "barbarous souls". The senses deceive by giving the appearance of fixedness to things not fixed. The reason is the real source of knowledge. By reason man ceases to be a dreaming individual and becomes a waking universal. It is by participation in the universal reason, the κοινός λόγος, that we know and do that which is true and right.


It is obvious that Heraclitus attained to a riper and richer conception of nature than any of his predecessors had attained to. The Eleatic notion of the One and the Pythagorean notion of the harmony of the One and the Many are realized more perfectly in the Heraclitean doctrine, in which they are subordinate, than in those theories in which they are principal. Heraclitus recognizes no phenomenal world, however shadowy, as separate from, and irreconcilable to, the realm of Being, and the One and the Many are not, in his notion, merely in harmony, they are the same thing, by virtue of the power of motion, or life, and reason18. And if the material source of things is to be found among the "elements" fire, air, earth, and water, certainly it must be that which is subtlest and capable of the most manifold transformations. There is, even in this latest age of the world, beauty in the Pythagorean conception, a certain loftiness and splendor in the Eleatic; but there is infinite vigor and pregnancy in the Heraclitic. There does not appear immediately in the after-course of Greek speculation an intellectual mid-wife —to borrow a Socratic metaphor— skilful enough to bring to the birth its entire significance.


(1) Lives of the Philosophers (Bonn's Class. Lib.), p. 65.

(2) Zeller's Pre-Socratic Philos., Vol. II. p. 87.

(3) The philosophy of Heraclitus has been called "the philosophy of the logical law of the identity of contradictories".



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