Born: c. 540 BC
Birthplace: Ephesus, Anatolia
Died: c. 480 BC
Location of death: Ephesus, Anatolia
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Fire-centric theory of the universe
Greek philosopher, born at Ephesus of distinguished parentage. Of his early life and education we know nothing; from the contempt with which he spoke of all his fellow philosophers and of his fellow citizens as a whole we may gather that he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. So intensely aristocratic was his temperament that he declined to exercise the regal-hieratic office which was hereditary in his family, and presented it to his brother. It is probable, however, that he did occasionally intervene in the affairs of the city at the period when the rule of Persia had given place to autonomy; it is said that he compelled the usurper Melancomas to abdicate. From the lonely life he led, and still more from the extreme profundity of his philosophy and his contempt for mankind in general, he was called the "Dark Philosopher", or the "Weeping Philosopher", in contrast to Democritus, the "Laughing Philosopher."
Heraclitus is in a real sense the founder of metaphysics. Starting from the physical standpoint of the Ionian physicists, he accepted their general idea of the unity of nature, but entirely denied their theory of being. The fundamental uniform fact in nature is constant change; everything both is and is not at the same time. He thus arrives at the principle of Relativity; harmony and unity consist in diversity and multiplicity. The senses are bad witnesses; only the wise man can obtain knowledge.
To appreciate the significance of the doctrines of Heraclitus, it must be 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 materialistic 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. "Every thing is and is not"; all things are, and nothing remains. So far he is in general agreement with Anaximander, but he differs from him in the solution of the problem, disliking, as a poet and a mystic, the primary matter which satisfied the patient researcher, and demanding a more vivid and picturesque element. Naturally he selects fire, according to him the most complete embodiment of the process of Becoming, as the principle of empirical existence, out of which all things, including even the soul, grow by way of a quasi condensation, 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 Auguste Comte. For Heraclitus the soul approaches most nearly to perfection when it is most akin to the fiery vapor 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 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 influenced by it.
Lunar Crater Heraclitus (49.2S, 6.2E, 90km dia)
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