1902 Encyclopedia > Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus of Ephesus
Greek natural philosopher
(fl. c. 500 BC)




HERACLITUS of Ephesus, one of the most subtle and profound of the metaphysicians of ancient Gfreece, has only of late years had his true position assigned to him in the history of philosophy. To this the obscure and epigram-matic character of his style and the fragmentary condition of his works have in the main contributed, together with the fact that not only his immediate disciples but also his critics, including even Plato, have systematically laid stress upon those features of his doctrines which are least indicative of his real point of view. The true position of Heraclitus is that of the founder of an independent metaphysical system, which sought to get rid of the difficulty, so prominent in the Eleatic philosophy, of overcoming the contradiction between the one and the phenomenal many, by enunciating, as the principle of the universe, "Becoming," implying, as it does, that everything is and at the same time, and in the same relation, is not.

The descendant of a family of leading importance in Ephesus, Heraclitus was born about 535 B.C. His cast of mind was so intensely aristocratic that, filled with contempt for the councils and capacities of his fellow-citizens, he made over the hereditary office of /Sao-iAeus, which had fallen to him in right of his birth, in favour of his younger brother, and betook himself to a life of solitary meditation. The date of his death was probably about 475 B.C.

To appreciate the significance of the doctrines of Heraclitus, it must he borne in mind that to Greek philosophy the sharp distinction between subject and object which pervades modern thought was foreign, a consideration which suggests the conclusion that, while it is a great mistake to reckon Heraclitus with the material-istic cosmologists of the Ionic schools, it is, on the other hand, going too far to treat his theory, with Hegel and Lassalle, as one of pure Panlogism. Accordingly, when he denies the reality of Being, and declares Becoming, or eternal flux and change, to be the sole actuality, Heraclitus must be understood to enunciate not only the unreality of the abstract notion of being, except as the correlative of that of not-being, but also the physical doctrine that all phenomena are in a state of continuous transition from non-existence to existence, and vice versa, without either distinguishing these propositions or qualifying them by any reference to the relation of thought to experience. "Everything is and is not;" all things are, and nothing remains. With Heraclitus the principle of con-tinuity is opposed to the principle of discretion taught by the Eleatics, and consequently for him " Being and Nothing," as well as " Union and Separation," are logically and physically incapable of distinction. This being so,he naturally enough selects Fire, accord-ing to him the most complete embodiment of the process of Be-coming, as the principle of empirical existence, out of which all things, including even the soul, grow by way of a quasi conden-sation, and into which all things must in course of time be again resolved. But this primordial fire is in itself that divine rational process, the harmony of which constitutes the law of the universe. Real knowledge consists in comprehending this all-pervading harmony as embodied in the manifold of perception, and the senses are "bad witnesses," because they apprehend phenomena, not as its manifestation, but as " stiff and dead." In like manner real virtue consists in the subordination of the individual to the laws of this harmony as the universal reason wherein alone true freedom is to be * found. '' The law of things is a law of Reason Universal, but most men live as though they had a wisdom of their own." Ethics here stands to sociology in a close relation, similar, in many respects, to that which we find in Hegel and in Comte. For Heraclitus the soul approaches most nearly to perfection when it is most akin to the fiery vapour out of which it was originally created, and as this is most so in death, '' while we live our souls are dead in us, but when we die our souls are restored to life." The doctrine of immortality comes prominently forward in his ethics, but whether this must not be reckoned with the figurative accommodation to the popular theology of Greece which pervades his ethical teaching, is very doubtful.

The only extant work, purporting to have been written by Her-aclitus, which can be regarded as genuine, is the treatise llepl (pvcreas, which has come down in a fragmentary condition. It has "been edited by Bywater (Heracliti Ephesii Reliquice, Clarendon Press, 1877). The Epistles are in all probability spurious.

The school of disciples founded by Heraclitus flourished for long after his death, the chief exponent of his teaching being Cratylus. A good deal of the information in regard to his doctrines has been gathered from the later Greek philosophy, which was deeply influ-enced by it.

By far the most complete exposition of his system is that of Lassalle (Die Phi-losophie Herakleitos des Dunkeln von Ephesos, Berlin, 1858), although his interpretation is decidedly too strongly dominated by modern Hegelian conceptions. See also Hegel, Gesch. d. Phil.; Zeller, Gesch. d. Phil. d. Griechen; Beniays, Die Heraelitisehen Briefe, Berlin, 1869; and Schuster, Herallit von Ephesns, Leipsic, 1873.







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