Heraclitus is one of the most underappreciated philosophers of the ancient past. Known as the "obscure" philosopher, he spent his life contemplating the human soul, God, cosmology, metaphysics and the meaning of life itself. His sharp tongue made him controversial among his contemporaries, but revered by his successors. His ideas deeply influenced other philosophers, sparked heated intellectual debates centuries after his death. Even today, his ideas can help us make sense of the world and, perhaps, bring us closer to the truth.
[There is more to unpack regarding Heraclitus' philosophy, but this article focuses on his most essential contribution: the Logos]
The Unholy Mystery
Heraclitus was born rich. He hailed from a noble family in Ephesus in the 6th century B.C. But unexpectedly, he rejected the perks of the higher classes, and instead lived as a hermit with a simple vegetarian diet. Heraclitus was tormented by the blissful ignorance of his kinfolk. Instead of pursuing virtue and wisdom, humans would spend their precious lives invested in nothingness - mere vanity, chatter and gossip. How could humans of such intellect and potential waste their days like that? It was an unholy mystery to him. "The weeping philosopher", as he was known, sobbed over the appalling apathy of the masses.
But when the tears dried up, Heraclitus was not afraid to ventilate his frustrations. He would rail against their ignorance and rant at them for their lack of integrity. Clearly incompatible with contemporary society, he was accused of misanthropy (hating your own kind) and went into voluntary exile in the mountains.
Everything Flows - a denial of noncontradiction
Some of his most radical ideas was his denial of noncontradiction. The Law of noncontradiction states that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same space at the same time. For example, "X is the case" and "X is not the case" cannot both be true. Heraclitus rejected this law, thereby introducing a high degree of mystery into his thinking. To him, "to be" and "not to be" is the wrong way of thinking, because "being" is not static, but ever-changing. Everything is always changing. Panta rhei, as he would say, everything flows.
Confusing, certainly. But his analogues help: "You can never step in the same river twice," he explained, because the river is never the same, but always flowing and taking different shapes, containing different minerals, fish and organisms. All of existence is like this, Heraclitus affirmed. It is like fire - yes, it exists, but it is never static. A fire is never like another, nor never like itself. It is always something new. It is not "a being", but " a becoming".
Of course, we need to define what is and what isn't - otherwise we would never be able to organize ourselves or the world (this was Aristotle's critique). But Heraclitus seemed to emphasise the importance of maintaining the mystery of existence, and not become too limited by our own definitions. Our minds are, after all, limited in understanding and computing the world.
The Logos - searching for God
This way of viewing the world took Heraclitus towards more fundamental questions. What moves the cosmos onwards? And for what purpose? In an age of gods and men, Heraclitus understood that there must be an even more supreme force behind all existence. A primary mover, an universal order, a formula, a measure. To him, it was quite obvious that the cosmos - and all metaphysics - is governed by a set of laws or a formula. But from where does this formula derive its effect? Is there a Supreme Mind governing all things?
Out of nothing, comes nothing. Hence, if we exist, then there must have been something. That something is a sort of "first mover", the "first thing" to ever exist or spark existence. And it is because of that first "thing" that all things exist. All things are related to the same formula, if you will. All of nature is governed by it. We all derive our existence from the same source or formula.
One can interpret this scientifically (laws of physics), but also metaphysically. Heraclitus noted that all human beings do the same follies and strive for the same, unknown summit. Their lives look different from person to person, yet they are, at the end of the day, the same. Take a tragedy. A tragedy looks different in each case, but it is still a tragedy with the same human tears and headaches. A love affair looks different in different lives, yet it is a love affair, involving the same emotions and attachments as always. There is a mysterious similarity at play.
So what is this formula? This primary mover?
For once, it must be One. This is logically obvious. The beginning of all things can only be One. It may derive into many parts, but its origin is always One. Secondly, it must be eternal as it is clearly not bound by time, but pre-dates time itself. Thirdly, it must be the eternal truth, because "that which always exists contains the eternal order of things, the eternal truth" (quote from E. Zeller's commentary on Heraclitus). It must be the original "version" of everything. The Truth of what all things ought to be like. Think of it as the "DNA of the cosmos". The recipe - the truth - of everything, held within this One Eternal ..."thing".
Heraclitus called it the Logos - a word of immense depth, but directly translated as the "Word".
As the concept goes, the Logos is common to all, yet manifests itself differently to each. It is abstract, yet true reality.
And if the Logos is the formula that contains the truth about everything (the "DNA of the cosmos"), then by searching for the Logos, we obtain what we would call Wisdom.
Let us quote Heraclitus directly: “Wisdom is one thing: to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things [aka, the Logos]"
Let that sink in.
“It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Logos, and to confess that all things are One.” (Heraclitus)
Logos is Wisdom, the pinnacle to wisdom. To understand that everything relates to everything and stems from the same source, is a very advanced realization. Then, to latch on to this wisdom, recognizing its supreme existence and following it ("hearken to my Logos"), is the greatest wisdom.
On a last note, Heraclitus had one more notion on the Logos:
He held that because the Logos is the Truth of all things, it is also the inevitable Judgement of all things. If the Logos is the formula that contains the "original" of everything, then everything must be measured in relation to the Logos.
Fire & Water
Heraclitus believed that, one day in the distant future, the entire cosmos would be consumed by fire.
To understand the depth of his thoughts here, we must recognize the importance of fire. Fire, to Heraclitus, is the divine element. It is the principle element by which all other elements derive. It is what motivates movement, change and action. Fire created the cosmos, and Fire is what will destroy the cosmos.
Speaking mystically, Heraclitus believed that the aim of a human was to fill his soul with fire. He believed that the soul was a mixture of fire and water. Fire is the noble elements, while water is the wicked ones. Humans should strive to fill their souls with fire in order to breathe in the Logos. Conversely, humans should dry out the waters in their souls by mastering their desires, and abstaining from their mammal lusts. This is, of course, extremely difficult: "It is hard to fight with one's heart's desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul."
Though Heraclitus did not expand on this imagery (we only have fragments of his writings), I imagine his logic continued in this manner: when the cosmos is consumed in fire, as it inevitably must, souls filled with water will evaporate, while souls filled with fire will join the universal fire.
The Heraclician Impact
Heraclitus' impact was significant. His ideas and concepts were so dense and profound that they became a source of immense debate, controversy and further thinking. Pythagoras received criticism from Heraclitus, though their philosophies often went in parallel. Plato was deeply inspired by Heraclitus, particularly his ideas on Divine Perfection. Aristotle, though appreciative of him, disagreed with Heraclitus' denial of noncontradiction, perhaps finding it too abstract.
Heraclitus' philosophy pointed in many ways to Christianity, which rose 6 centuries later out of Jerusalem. Christians sometimes used the word "Logos" to define the enigmatic and undefinable person of Jesus Christ. St. John, Christ's Apostle, opens his Gospel as such: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all mankind. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it..." (John 1:1-5). To Christians, this Word of God - the Logos - is Jesus Christ. John 1:4 reads: "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." The Logos, incarnate (applied) to human form, is therefore the Perfection of human nature.
This was a radical idea. Heraclitus never treated the Logos as personal. He suggested it to be a formula - something, not someone. By claiming that the Logos had Personhood, Christians maintained an extraordinary understanding of who God is.
The authentic fragments of Heraclitus' writings. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fragments-Penguin-Classics-Heraclitus/dp/0142437654