Heraclitus: Writings & Contribution to Science

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who focused on the importance of conflict, the constant nature of change, unity in opposition, and the role of these things in studying the cosmos. In this lesson, you will learn about his life, writings, and major beliefs.

Heraclitus: Lover of Conflict, Friend of Few


Heraclitus, as painted by Johannes Moreelse.


Knowing that a conceited, ''holier than though'' attitude does not get you far in life, people are encouraged to practice humility and acceptance. However, a philosopher living in 500 BCE from Ephesus (modern-day Turkey), Heraclitus must have missed these lessons growing up! Heraclitus was known as the ''dark'' philosopher because his writings were difficult to understand and because he thought that the world revolved around conflict. Since he saw conflict as so important to humanity, he encouraged it wherever he went. As you can imagine, this did not help him make many friends!

Heraclitus wrote only one book, which was lost. Therefore, our only understanding of his beliefs come from quotes of Heraclitus' work that other Greek philosophers used in their own writing.

Before getting into Heraclitus' philosophies, it is important to understand the lens through which he viewed the world. Heraclitus said that anyone who was not actively examining and reflecting on the purpose of life was ''asleep.'' To Heraclitus, he was the only person amongst his contemporaries who was truly awake. The purpose of his writing was to awaken others. Heraclitus spoke in complicated ways to try and force people to think and wake up.

The four main focuses of his philosophy are: flux, unity of opposites, fire and cosmology. Let's examine the views of Heraclitus in each of those areas!

Life is Flux

The Greek phrase Panta Rhei, which translates to ''Life is Flux'' means that the world is constantly changing. Heraclitus saw change as the only constant in the world. This is the first, and most basic principle of his philosophy. Understanding this helps gain a better understanding of the rest of his beliefs.

Unity of Opposites

Heraclitus believed that the human condition can be summarized as a series of things, people, and experiences coming together and then pulling apart. Although this may sound like he was a proponent for chaos, he wanted people to live in unity, which he believed came only through conflict. With this understanding, he encouraged people not to avoid strife, but to embrace it. He believed that things were created through opposition and were constantly changing (a connection to his philosophy on flux). Suffering is created since humans inherently dislike strife and try to stay away from it.

Heraclitus used the word logos (which means ''the word'' or '' to speak'') to describe the force behind everything. Logos is what gives thoughts to humans. However, Heraclitus believed that most people refused to recognize logos in their life, and therefore missed its message.

Part of the unity of opposites describes how perception changes somethings purpose. The example Heraclitus used was salt water. He stated that the ''sea is the purest and most polluted water: for fish drinkable and healthy, for men undrinkable and harmful.'' Saltwater will kill humans, but is vital for fish! Another way he described the unity of opposites was when he said, '' the way up and the way down are one and the same. Living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are the same.'' Moving up and down are on the same spectrum, they simply go in opposite directions. Although they are different, they are unified in what they are in their most basic form.

Fire

Heraclitus saw fire as the force that united everything. He called world order an ''ever-living fire kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.'' The world was created when air (pure fire) turned into the ocean as rain and then the ocean turned into earth. This cycle goes both directions and is what creates equilibrium. To Heraclitus, everything on earth is a manifestation of fire.

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