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Heraclitus

c.535-c.475BC

Heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus was born in Ephesus around 535BC into an aristocratic family. His enigmatic style and the difficulty of his works led him to be characterized as 'the obscure' and 'the riddler', and his unpopularity and misanthropy resulted in his being called the dark or weeping philosopher. Only fragments remain of his great work, On Nature, and these only survive as quotations and attributions by later authors. Heraclitus postulated a universal principle, the Logos (Greek for 'reason'), through which all things are interrelated and all natural manifestations occur. He also proposed that the essence of everything is fire, and he wrote that the world is an 'eternally living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.'

In a close parallel with Taoist philosophy, he believed that all things, even the most apparently stable, are in a state of flux maintained by a dynamic equilibrium between opposites, and that these opposites have an underlying connection through the Logos. He made sense of the divergent and confused nature of the world by seeing an underlying and coherent unity in which all things have a hidden link to each other, every change is ultimately balanced by a corresponding change in the opposite direction, and in which those things which seem to be 'tending apart' are in reality 'being brought together.' Heraclitus expressed his ideas of eternal change most famously using the analogy of a river: 'You can never step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.' To Heraclitus, 'good' and 'evil' were simply different sides of the same coin, and he wrote: 'To God all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have supposed some things to be unjust, others just.' A single entity can be understood in various ways depending on viewpoint, he recognized, and he gave the example of seawater: 'Sea is the most pure and the most polluted water; for fishes it is drinkable and salutary, but for men it is undrinkable and deleterious.'

Heraclitus also stated the importance of people living together in social harmony, holding that each individual should submit himself to the laws of the universal harmony of the Logos. He considered, however, that most men failed to understand the Logos and so lived like dreamers with a false view of the world. He also attacked the beliefs and observances of the popular religion of his day. Heraclitus eventually withdrew from the world and went to live a solitary existence in the mountains. He died around 475BC.

Though out of favor in his lifetime and often frowned-upon subsequently, Heraclitus' ideas have been influential. Hegel cited him as a source of inspiration, and Heraclitus' distinction between appearance and reality, that reality can be known only through reason, has proved to be a cornerstone of philosophical thought - 'Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that do not understand their language.' Carl Gustav Jung subscribed to the idea that Heraclitus called enantiodromia (literally, 'running counter to'), namely that everything has an intrinsic tendency to turn into its opposite.



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