Heraclitus was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, born in circa 540 in Greek colony of Ephesus, in Ionia, Asia Minor, where he is said he have spent all of his life, and died there circa 480 BC. He was known as “The Obscure” or “The Riddler,” due to his difficult, elliptical, and paradoxical style of writing. The fragments of his philosophy have survived only through citations by other classical authors in the form of some 100 proverbial sentences. By expounding the nature of things, he intended to observe the anthropological consequences for human life. Heraclitus aimed at true wisdom and moral virtue, which is based on the knowledge of nature even if not limited to it. For instance, he advised humans not to fear conflicts and opposites and regard these as normal conditions of life. In his writings, he basically claimed, in opposition to Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras, that everything is derived from fire, rather than from air, water, or earth. For Heraclitus, the eternal fire was not only the primary material and cosmic principle, out of which and to which all phenomena arise and return, but moreover, it was the symbol of universal and constant flux by which everything could be explained.
By Heraclitus’s flux doctrine, exemplified in his famous aphorisms Panta Rhei, or “Everything is in flux,” and “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you,” he opposed ideas such as those of Parmenides, who argued that change is an illusion and that everything is fundamentally static. Heraclitus further associated fire with god, soul, life, and intelligence. Fire is not destructive; it is a transformative force, the source of life and the light of thought and knowing.
Another of Heraclitus’s aphorisms, “All things are one,” shows that he was also in search of an ordering principle of the world. The multivalent idea of Logos, meaning “the word,” “the god,” “the law,” “the reason,” “the mind,” “the rule,” “the common,” and so on, served him in this respect as the cosmic uniting formula for all change, differences and opposites. Logos also served as the moral law for human beings. To understand the world, human beings must listen to the Logos of nature as well as the Logos within their selves. The human psyche must inquire into itself, which is one of the most difficult things, in order to become wise and cultivated. Moreover, Logos can serve as the guidance for moral human action. This is the way to avoid the relativity of values and acquire genuine human dignity.
Heraclitus attacked many human prejudices, including fear of death and desire for the afterlife. According to him, human beings should consider themselves as a very unique but integral part of nature. Their uniqueness consists precisely in their intelligence, allowing them to live an examined life. Thus, Logos provides the unity of nature and the human world. Heraclitus’s influence on later philosophers, such as materialists, pantheists, and dialecticians, has been substantial.
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