Notes on "Selected Heraclitus Fragments," on This Website
Created August 23, 2001 by Dr. Jan Garrett Minor Revision: September 26, 2008
The parenthesized references correspond to the parenthesized numbering in Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, which I have excerpted for my History of Philosophy I students on a related web page.
Note that Heraclitus distances himself from the poets, esp. Homer (43, 119)
Heraclitus use of the phrase "the god" (ho theos) appears to have three different meanings, which also occur elsewhere in ancient Greek philosophical writings. Translators sometimes render "ho theos" as "God," thereby introducing misleading associations with the traditional unique God of monotheistic religion. Note that Heraclitus does occasionally refer to the gods (hoi theoi) in the plural.
GOD = UNIVERSE (36)
GOD = CONTROLLING LAW OF THE UNIVERSE (28,65)
A GOD = A PRIVILEGED OBSERVER (61, 97). Heraclitus seems to believe that there are immortal, or at least very long-lived, living beings who are superior in wisdom to human beings but not identical to the divine thought that steers the universe or to the universe as a whole.
Basic Ideas of Heraclitus (in More Prosaic Language)
- Reality conceals itself to the naive observer (10),
. . . but it gives clues to the investigator (11)
Paradoxical language that can be interpreted mirrors reality. Heraclitus may have something like a correspondence theory of truth: that true speech mirrors reality. In this case, since nature itself is paradoxical (contrary [para] to popular opinion [doxa]), Heraclitus' style can express that reality by mirroring it in paradoxical language (statements that seem contradictory). Such language might be truer in his view than, say, prose.
- It is most important to grasp the hidden harmony in all things (47)
- Understanding requires great effort (7)
...and right interpretation of surface appearances (4)
- The key insight is that all things are unified and interconnected (1)
- Nobody before me seems to have grasped this, and when I try to explain it most people either fail to get it or loose the insight very quickly (2,18,92,93,95,96)
- The unifying principle of nature is the Logos, the thought by which all things are steered (19,91a)
- It is immortal and can be called divine / Zeus (28,65)
- The key to cosmic unity is that opposites (a) become each other, or (b) depend on each other, or (c) coexist in true descriptions of one and the same thing (36,52,57,67,69,70,78,104)
- Conflict and tension are essential to natural and social reality (43,44,45,62)
- Change is everywhere but the universe and its cosmic plan endure (20,83; see also 61)
- Fire is the key to the material nature of the universe (21,22,36)Possibly it is understood as a fundamental reality that undergoes transformations into earth, water, and air, while somehow remaining present as basic fire, much as in Anaximenes' thought air is transformed into fire, water, and earth, while somehow remaining present as air.
Also, fire understood as a flame can serve as a metaphor for the preservation of pattern or lawfulness in spite of, or because of, oscillation and transformation.