Is Heraclitus the greatest philosopher no one talks about? And what did this thinker mean when he said the world is made of fire?
Many scholars credit Heraclitus with writing the world’s first philosophical treatise. The trouble is, his work has been lost.
But this ancient Greek sage was not only a profound thinker – he was also a poet whose style was so powerful, it inspired generations of commentary. So, we might not have access to Heraclitus’s original treatise, but we do have quotations from it in the works of others. Scholars have called these quotations the ‘Fragments’.
These few surviving lines have been enough to heavily influence thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Martin Heidegger, all of whom studied the Fragments relentlessly.
And if some of the world’s greatest thinkers had something to learn from Heraclitus, perhaps it’s not a bad idea for us to hear what he has to say. So let’s dive right in into the mystical, mind-bending philosophy of Heraclitus. A philosophy of creation, destruction, water – and fire.
The Teachings Of Heraclitus
Heraclitus’ starting point is simple. He says we live in a mysterious world and most people have no idea just how little they understand it.
He says ‘Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know.’
Heraclitus reminds us how easily we are fooled by appearances and miss the deeper truth of things. He tells us that ‘People dig tons of earth to find an ounce of gold’. Attaining wisdom is like the digging of tons of earth, meaning it consists of removing so many false ideas, beliefs, and prejudices we have learned through social conditioning.
For Heraclitus, human society is essentially governed by ignorance. Only a select few ever go against the grain and try to find wisdom. Our culture, friends, and family feed us all kinds of foolish ideas and unhealthy models of thinking.
This reminds me of Oscar Wilde who writes that ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’
It is the job of the wisdom seeker then to develop the ability to think for oneself. Only then can he or she begin to perceive the truth behind false appearances. To all seekers of truth, Heraclitus gives one simple instruction: ‘Applicants for wisdom, do what I have done: inquire within.’ (80)
For Heraclitus, there is only one divine element in man and that is the mind. By mind, Heraclitus means the ability to understand the hidden workings of things. The mind perceives patterns, principles, and logic. It perceives what the ancient Greeks called Logos. The deep structure of reality.
The deeper insights of the mind can never be adequately expressed with words. Words refer to the surface of things, to what can be seen. But the mind has an eye for the invisible. It perceives the Logos in the depths. Heraclitus writes:
‘Of all the words yet spoken, none comes quite as far as wisdom, which is the action of the mind beyond all things that may be said.’
Because of the inadequacy of words, when the mind attempts to express the Logos, it uses language in strange ways. Heraclitus suggests that truth, expressed in words, always sounds like a paradox. Men of little understanding hear the paradox and become confused. Men of wisdom hear the deep meaning hidden within.
Perhaps this explains the mystical air of the few surviving fragments from Heraclitus. They are his attempt to speak to us of things that cannot be spoken of in any ordinary way.
So, let’s look at these peculiar fragments.
The Union of Opposites
We begin with something as simple as it is mysterious. Heraclitus writes:
‘Good and ill are one.’
Day and night, gain and loss, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong – we naturally divide the world into pairs of opposites. This helps us orient ourselves in it. But in this division, Heraclitus tells us, we lose our understanding of reality. We grasp at surface appearances and fail to see the Logos.
Heraclitus tells us what appear to be opposites in life are, first, a matter of perspective, and second, not opposites but different expressions of the same Logos.
He illustrates this in a simple yet profound line:
‘The road up and the road down are one and the same.’
The Road Up & The Road Down
Let’s peel back the layers of this one.
First, we are faced with a paradox. How can a road lead both up and down?
But of course, depending on which way you’re going, the road leads either up or down, though it is the same road!
This is obvious enough… Whichever ancient author preserved this line from Heraclitus must have seen something more in it!
What determines whether we are walking on the road up or the road down? Well, our perspective does.
This would suggest the road in some way depends on our perception of it to be either one way or the other. Before we are there to observe it, neither the road up nor the road down truly exists. Only under the light of our consciousness does the road assume form in one of these two seemingly opposite states.
You see, long before there was Schrödinger’s cat, there was Heraclitus’ road!
Observe how carefully Heraclitus has chosen this one example to drive at his point. Without you to label it, there would be no road up or down. Without up, there would be no down and vice versa. Without both up and down there would be no road to connect them. And without a road, there would be nothing for you to label.
This is how all things are connected – nothing exists without its opposite and without its context. Subject and object, high and low, here and there… all these are only separate on the surface. The mind which sees the Logos understands such opposites are part of a whole and can only exist together.
Tension = Equilibrium
In another fragment Heraclitus writes:
‘Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, goodness in the wake of evil, and at the end of daylong labor sleep.’
Health and sickness, good and evil, work and rest – these things are indeed opposed on the surface. But under the surface, in the Logos, these pairs of opposites actually give meaning to and sustain each other.
When Heraclitus called war ‘the father of all things’, this is what he meant. The world is sustained by the endless interplay of pairs of opposites which, paradoxically, give life to each other as they oppose each other.
This reminds me of that Buddhist simile of the two sheaves of reeds supporting each other. While each sheave is pushing against the other, they are in fact balanced such that they keep each other standing.
Or perhaps this might remind you of the Chinese Taiji diagram. There, two seemingly opposed forces chase each other eternally and in their cosmic dance give birth to the world of phenomena. This gives us a picture of the world as a perfectly tuned system that is simultaneously in constant tension and perfect equilibrium.
Harmony Through Contrast
Heraclitus tells us:
‘The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like the lyre and bow.’
It is the tension in the string that allows the lyre to make music and the bow to shoot arrows. Heraclitus wants us to see that the world works in the same way. The energy behind all phenomena in life arises from the constant tension between opposites.
But Heraclitus was not a dualist like, say, the Zoroastrians.
Again and again, he tells us what seem like opposites in tension are just surface appearances. The deeper truth is that only the tension exists. Eternal tension which is also its opposite, eternal rest. All things are born of this tension and all things are eventually consumed back into it.
Existence Is Fire
Have you ever sat and looked at a fire?
If so, you will know how looking into the flames, you begin to see familiar forms and images. But just as you make out one form it has already changed and become another… and then another, and another.
Looking into the flames, you see how fire creates and consumes images in one single movement.
Yet for all this richness and constant transformation – there is one single fire.
For Heraclitus, the Logos is like that.
This ancient sage understood fire much like how we understand the concept of energy today. Like energy, the fire of Heraclitus is a cosmic reserve out of which things arise and into which they perish. It is never created or destroyed but only transformed from one state into another.
One could wonder whether Einstein read much of the Fragments, which sound like a poetical expression of his most famous equation. Heraclitus writes:
‘That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away.’
The Logos, the source code of the world is one eternal cycle of creation and destruction. Ones and zeroes, beginnings and endings, change and persistence…
Again and again, Heraclitus returns to the union of opposites. To him, the world is like an optical illusion. The unwise see it one way from one direction and another way from another. But those in touch with the Logos see the hidden wholeness beneath it all.
This wholeness remains forever the same… but… only by forever changing.
Change & Identity
Think of a river flowing.
Think of a fire burning.
What do these both share in common?
Well, if a fire stops changing, it has gone out. If a river stops changing, it has gone dry.
In both cases, to remain themselves, both the fire and the river have to keep becoming different from themselves.
This points us to yet another paradoxical law of nature. That is – some things stay the same only by changing.
‘Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.’
If we look with the eyes of wisdom, we would see that change is the one thing common to all things. Like the road up becomes the road down, so too youth turns into old age and old age yields young life. Life turns into death and death makes room for new life.
As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, ‘The first shall become last and they shall become one and the same’.
In this constant whirlwind of change, nothing is static, nothing remains itself without also becoming other than itself. Change is the great equaliser. It turns all things into their opposite until all distinction becomes meaningless.
Heraclitus writes: ‘In thirty years a newborn boy can grow to father him a son who grows by then to father sons himself.’
He puts it even more bluntly. He writes: ‘The beginning is the end.’
All these pairs of opposites – tension and equilibrium, creation and destruction, change and eternity… These are not separate phenomena. They are all qualities of one and the same principle operating in the universe. The Logos.
Centuries later, St. John will borrow this profound concept in his Gospel. He will write: ‘In the beginning was the [Logos] and the [Logos] was with God, and the [Logos] was God’.
This one organizing principle is what Heraclitus means when he says that all is one. He writes:
‘One thunderbolt strikes root through everything.’
The Logos penetrates every corner of existence… For all intents and purposes, the Logos is what existence is.
Heraclitus, ‘The Obscure One’
Perhaps you now see why Heraclitus became known as the Obscure One. Here we’re dealing with a man of true philosophical genius, whose words resonate as much with modern science as they do with the ancient mystical traditions of the world.
I will leave you with one final fragment, which is in fact the first line of Heraclitus’ lost treatise. It goes like this:
‘The Logos proves those first hearing it as numb to understanding as the ones who have not heard.’
That is to say, wisdom is tough to get and you won’t find it in books or teachers. (Nor in internet articles!)
Wisdom can only be acquired by looking within because there is the only place where you can directly access the Logos.
Within you is the place where you are the Logos.
Want to learn more about the union of opposites? Have a look at what the great depth psychologist C. G. Jung had to say about it.