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Heraclitus: Biography, Quotes & Theory

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Heraclitus is well known as a philosopher on the cutting edge in his time. His theories concerning law, justice, and metaphysics changed the way many western philosophers viewed the universe, preparing the way for the philosophical and intellectual changes in the late BCE and early CE periods.

Heraclitus: Philosopher on Fire

Heraclitus was a philosopher who lived and wrote circa 500 BCE. He was not only a philosopher, but a critic of other philosophers whom he saw as lax and uninformed in the more metaphysical, or spiritual, parts of philosophy. This was especially true as it related to the shared human experience and how each person is interconnected in myriad ways with others.

Heraclitus was also convinced that there was a Logos or eternal Word and that all things including humanity were bound together by this Logos. This was an important philosophical leap since most philosophy up until this point consisted of physical explanations for morals and justice. Heraclitus instead looked for a metaphysical explanation that tied all of the reasons and experiences together, thereby formulating a unified theory of good and evil and the shared human outlook.

An ancient line engraving of Heraclitus with an inscription regarding humanity.
Heraclitus line engraving

The Life of Heraclitus

There is little history and much anecdote to describe the life of Heraclitus, but what is known is generally agreed upon by historians and philosophers. He lived and wrote in Ephesus which was under Persian control. The primary religious center of Ephesus at that time and for centuries to come was the Temple of Artemis (Diana). This was also where many agree he stored his writings as it was a protected space and there were not libraries in the region at that time.

Heraclitus also held a position of political prominence as he was named the de facto King of the Ionians, a position he passed to his brother. Politically, he also supported aristocracy versus democracy as evinced in his writings. He also suffered from a condition known at that time as dropsy which today would be diagnosed a swelling caused by fluid collecting under the skin or edema. Heraclitus most likely passed away in 475 BCE.

A representation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Most likely the location where Heraclitus stored and protected his writings.
Temple of Artemis

The Sage Sayings of Heraclitus

Many thoughtful sayings populate the writings of Heraclitus. As what many consider an original thinker, Heraclitus broke new ground in western thought with his grasp on metaphysics and human nature. This higher level of understanding and thought led him to theorize from an abstract point of view, further bolstering his singular ability to state universal truths while maintaining a solid grasp on more traditional philosophical relationships.

Heraclitus centered much of his thought around what he called the Logos or Word. This metaphysical construct is an eternal force that is existent in and of itself. 'Although this Word is common the many live as if they had a private understanding.' This quote emphasizes Heraclitus' understanding of the Logos as something or someone who stands outside of the thoughts and understanding of mankind. The apostle John borrows Heraclitus' understanding and expands upon it in John 1:1 when he states, ''In the beginning was the Word...'' equating Jesus with the one who is outside of humanity, but who enters into the human story.

Heraclitus also connects the nature or character of human beings, singular and as a group, to an unseen internal spirit. He uses this understanding when he states, ''The character of man is his guardian spirit'' thus elevating the way people live to a metaphysical reality in which humanity is guided by something other than physical experience or reality.

Papyrus fragments of Heraclitus manuscripts.
Heraclitus papyrus

Heraclitus' Theories

Most of the theories of Heraclitus revolve around how people know things and the changeable nature of reality and the universe. These two theories are linked together by a common understanding that the universe is always changing, yet humanity somehow changes along with it, seemingly linking human beings with it in an almost mystical, yet logical way.

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