War is the Father of All: The Fire-Philosophy of Heraclitus

Heraclitus... flourished about 500 B.C. Of his life very little is known, except that he was an aristocratic citizen of Ephesus. He was chiefly famous in antiquity for his doctrine that everything is in a state of flux, but this, as we shall see, is only one aspect of his metaphysics. Heraclitus... was a mystic, but of a peculiar kind. He regarded fire as the fundamental substance; everything, like flame in a fire, is born by the death of something else. "Mortals are immortals, and immortals are mortals, the one living the other's death and dying the other's life." There is unity in the world, but it is a unity formed by the combination of opposites. "All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things"; but the many have less reality than the one, which is God.

From what survives of his writings he does not appear as an amiable character. He was much addicted to contempt, and was the reverse of a democrat. Concerning his fellow-citizens he says: “The Ephesians would do well to hang themselves, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless lads; for they have cast out Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying: 'We will have none who is best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere and among others.'” He speaks ill of all his eminent predecessors, with a single exception. "Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped." "Of all whose discourses I have heard, there is not one who attains to understanding that wisdom is apart from all." "The learning of many things teacheth not understanding, else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus." "Pythagoras . . . claimed for his own wisdom what was but a knowledge of many things and an art of mischief." The one exception to his condemnations is Teutamus, who is signalled out as "of more account than the rest." When we inquire the reason for this praise, we find that Teutamus said "most men are bad."

His contempt for mankind leads him to think that only force will compel them to act for their own good. He says: "Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows"; and again: "Asses would rather have straw than gold."

As might be expected, Heraclitus believes in war. "War," he says, "is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free." Again: "Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away." And yet again: "We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife."

His ethic is a kind of proud asceticism, very similar to Nietzsche's. He regards the soul as a mixture of fire and water, the fire being noble and the water ignoble. The soul that has most fire he calls "dry." "The dry soul is the wisest and best." "It is pleasure to souls to become moist." "A man, when he gets drunk, is led by a beardless lad, tripping, knowing not where he steps, having his soul moist." "It is death to souls to become water." "It is hard to fight with one's heart's desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul." "It is not good for men to get all that they wish to get." One may say that Heraclitus values power obtained through self-mastery, and despises the passions that distract men from their central ambitions.

The attitude of Heraclitus to the religions of his time, at any rate the Bacchic religion, is largely hostile, but not with the hostility of a scientific rationalist. He has his own religion, and in part interprets current theology to fit his doctrine, in part rejects it with considerable scorn. He has been called Bacchic (by Cornford), and regarded as an interpreter of the mysteries (by Pfleiderer). I do not think the relevant fragments bear out this view. He says, for example: "The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries." This suggests that he had in mind possible mysteries that would not be "unholy," but would be quite different from those that existed. He would have been a religious reformer, if he had not been too scornful of the vulgar to engage in propaganda.

The following are all the extant sayings of Heraclitus that bear on his attitude to the theology of his day.

The Lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign.

And the Sibyl, with raving lips uttering things mirthless, unbedizened, and unperfumed, reaches over a thousand years with her voice, thanks to the god in her.

Souls smell in Hades.

Greater deaths win greater portions. (Those who die then become gods.)

Night-walkers, magicians, priests of Bacchus and priestesses of the wine-vat, mystery-mongers.

The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries.

And they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man's house, knowing not what gods or heroes are.

For if it were not to Dionysus that they made a procession and sang the shameful phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamelessly. But Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honour they go mad and keep the feast of the wine-vat.

They vainly purify themselves by defiling themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped into the mud were to wash his feet in mud. Any man who marked him doing this, would deem him mad.

Heraclitus believed fire to be the primordial element, out of which everything else had arisen. Thales... thought everything was made of water; Anaximenes thought air was the primitive element; Heraclitus preferred fire. At last Empedocles suggested a statesmanlike compromise by allowing four elements, earth, air, fire and water. The chemistry of the ancients stopped dead at this point. No further progress was made in this science until the Mohammedan alchemists embarked upon their search for the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life, and a method of transmuting base metals into gold.

The metaphysics of Heraclitus are sufficiently dynamic to satisfy the most hustling of moderns:

"This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out."

"The transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind."

In such a world, perpetual change was to be expected, and perpetual change was what Heraclitus believed in.

He had, however, another doctrine on which he set even more store than on the perpetual flux; this was the doctrine of the mingling of opposites. "Men do not know," he says, "how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre." His belief in strife is connected with this theory, for in strife opposites combine to produce a motion which is a harmony. There is a unity in the world, but it is a unity resulting from diversity:

"Couples are things whole and things not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one."

Sometimes he speaks as if the unity were more fundamental than the diversity:

"Good and ill are one."

"To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right."

"The way up and the way down is one and the same."

"God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each."

Nevertheless, there would be no unity if there were not opposites to combine: "it is the opposite which is good for us."

This doctrine contains the germ of Hegel's philosophy, which proceeds by a synthesising of opposites.

The metaphysics of Heraclitus, like that of Anaximander, is dominated by a conception of cosmic justice, which prevents the strife of opposites from ever issuing in the complete victory of either.

"All things are an exchange for Fire, and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares."

"Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water."

"The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinys, the handmaids of Justice, will find him out."

"We must know that war is common to all, and strife is justice."

Heraclitus repeatedly speaks of "God" as distinct from "the gods." "The way of man has no wisdom, but that of God has. . . . Man is called a baby by God, even as a child by a man. . . . The wisest man is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man."

God, no doubt, is the embodiment of cosmic justice.

The doctrine that everything is in a state of flux is the most famous of the opinions of Heraclitus, and the one most emphasised by his disciples, as described in Plato Theaetetus.

"You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you."

"The sun is new every day."

His belief in universal change is commonly supposed to have been expressed in the phrase "all things are flowing," but this is probably apocryphal, like Washington "Father, I cannot tell a lie" and Wellington's "Up Guards and at 'em." His works, like those of all the philosophers before Plato, are only known through quotations, largely made by Plato or Aristotle for the sake of refutation. When one thinks what would become of any modern philosopher if he were only known through the polemics of his rivals, one can see how admirable the pre-Socratics must have been, since even through the mist of malice spread by their enemies they still appear great. However this may be, Plato and Aristotle agree that Heraclitus taught that "nothing ever is, everything is becoming" ( Plato), and that "nothing steadfastly is" ( Aristotle).

The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Chapter 4

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