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Essay on Heraclitus' Logos

Essay on Heraclitus' Logos

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Published by Will Harrison
A non-assessed essay intended to assess the importance of the 'Logos' in Heraclitus' thought. This was submitted for a module on ancient philosophy in the first term of my Philosophy V700 undergraduate course at Warwick University.

Marked: 80/100 (1st)
A non-assessed essay intended to assess the importance of the 'Logos' in Heraclitus' thought. This was submitted for a module on ancient philosophy in the first term of my Philosophy V700 undergraduate course at Warwick University.

Marked: 80/100 (1st)

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Published by: Will Harrison on Dec 07, 2009
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08/25/2011

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Essay on Heraclitus’
Logos
Assess the importance of 
Logos
in Heraclitus’ thought.
From even a cursory review of the fragments of discourse attributed toHeraclitus, it is uncontroversial to assert that the
logos
as a concept is of integralimportance to his philosophy, since he uses the term so copiously;
why 
it isimportant, however, is not as immediately clear. The understanding of the natureof the
logos
and consequently the understanding of its role in his thought variesbetween commentators. To understand the importance of the
logos
in Heraclitusaccordingly requires an examination of the term and the place it might have inhis wider philosophy. As such, the main body of this essay constitutes anexamination of this kind: the first section will explore the etymology, uses andvarious translations of the term
logos
with a view to establishing its meaning, ormeanings, for Heraclitus; the second section will investigate the role of the
logos
in his philosophical theories on nature (his conjectures about the universe,politics and theology).
Logos
has many different translations and uses in the Greek language. It canliterally mean ‘something spoken’, a ‘saying’, ‘word’, ‘sentence’ or ‘oration’. Itcan also mean ‘thought’, ‘intention’, ‘idea’ or ‘illocution’. It derives from
lego
,meaning ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’ (
lexis
, meaning ‘word’ or ‘phrase’, is also derivedfrom this). Usually the term is translated as ‘account’, a record or narrative of events. The extensive range of meanings and uses of the word
logos
has lead tovarying explanations of its meaning from Heraclitus’ interpreters.Hippolytus, in his
Refutation of All Heresies
, like other commentators translates
logos
as ‘account’, though he is apparently convinced that Heraclitus’ use of theterm can be identified with the traditional Biblical usage of 
logos
as meaning ‘theWord’, i.e. the Word of God. In this theological sense, the
logos
is equivalent toGod’s divine ‘plan’ or God’s law; hence, as all things happen in accordance withthe
logos
(
kata logos
), they are in accordance with the Word, God’s law or God’swill:
Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated andungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice. “Listening not to me but to the account, it is wise to agree that all thingsare one”, Heraclitus says... that the universe is the Word, always and for alleternity, he says in this way: “Of this account which holds forever men proveuncomprehending, both before they hear it and when first they have heard it. Foralthough all things come about in accordance with this account, they are like
tiros
as they try words and deeds of the sort which I expound as I divide eachthing according to nature and say how it is.”
 This interpretation suggests that the
logos
is the divine will of God and theuniverse is the manifestation of this will. This seems to fit with Heraclitus’ otherdescriptions of the
logos
’ relation to the universe. However, Hippolytus’interpretation of 
logos
is biased towards a Christian conception of God andcreation, as his agenda in the
Refutation
is to discredit heresies – in this case,
 
the heresy of Noetus, who he presumed to be influenced by Heraclitus. From hisother uses of the term, it isn’t clear that Heraclitus’ idea of the
logos
isconsistent with the personal, monotheistic idea of God found in the Judeo-Christian tradition.Another interpretation of the term
logos
, as meaning ‘logic’, ‘reason’ or‘thought’, can also be arrived at from Heraclitus’ writings and from its usage. Attimes he describes the
logos
as a ‘shared account’ of reality, a view whicheveryone holds but which they mistakenly think to be their own opinion: “Butalthough the account is comprehensive, most men live as if they had a privatecomprehension of their own”; “Thinking is common to all”; “Speaking withcomprehension one should rely on what is comprehensive of all”. This suggeststhat the
logos
is an objective account of human experience, as reason and logicare objective as they rely on
a priori
deduction. However, this would beinconsistent with the view of Sextus Empiricus that Heraclitus is an empiricist; hesays, “Those things which are learned by sight and hearing I honour more”. Heseems to think that the comprehensive account is not arrived at through rationaldeduction, but through the senses. The
logos
is accessed via signs and subtletiesof the perceived world: “the lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither declares norconceals, but gives a sign”. Even so, it will not be detected by people who do notunderstand it – one must look inwards at their own nature to acquire thenecessary understanding of the message received through the senses. It is anunapparent truth underlying the obvious; “nature loves to hide”, he says, and“the hidden attunement is better than the obvious one”. This implies that the
logos
is perhaps, to Heraclitus, the hidden cause behind the apparent order inthe natural world. This would fit well with Hippolytus’ interpretation of the
logos
as divine law.In Donald Zeyl’s Encyclopaedia
of Classical Philosophy 
, K.F. Johansen suggeststhat Heraclitus “deliberately plays on the various meanings of 
logos
”. This seemslikely; the
logos
represents law, thought and an account of physical reality all atonce, rather than being restricted to any single meaning. Heraclitus was knownfor equivocality in his writing, and it would be consistent with his character totake advantage of the diversity in the usage of the term in order to convey itsmystery and its pervasive nature. For example, in order to convey the creativepower of conflict, Heraclitus plays on the multiple meanings of 
bios
, which means‘bow’ and also ‘life’: “Thus the word for the bow is
bios
, its deed is death.” Soperhaps all of the meanings and uses that have been considered are correct insome way, to the extent that they do not contradict one another. The part this concept has in Heraclitus’ extended philosophy set out in thefragments of his works
On Nature
will now be explored. The
logos
seems toreveal a unity in nature to Heraclitus. The apparent existence of opposites andplurality are purportedly illusory; that people distinguish them from each other isa mistake. “It is wise”, he says, “listening not to me but to the account, to agreethat all things are one”. He speaks often in paradoxes, stating that “immortalsare mortals, mortals immortal”. He seems to reconcile these opposites with hisclaim of unity in the
logos
with a kind of duality; each thing would not exist
 
without its opposite: “Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger satiety,weariness rest”. It has already been stated that Heraclitus regards the
logos
asan account shared by all men, so the
logos
is important in that it is that whichunites all things, including human thought. The idea of the
logos
as divine law has great importance in Heraclitus’ politicalthought. He claims that “all human laws are nourished by the one divine; for it isas powerful as it wishes, and it suffices for all, and it prevails”; the laws thathumans make have their root in the
logos
, the natural order. People ought to liveby their laws dutifully since they ultimately come from the
logos
– “The peoplemust fight for the law as for their city wall”. However, Heraclitus apparentlyacknowledges that the divine law is superior to human law and it is necessary tolisten directly to the
logos
rather than human law: “It is law also to listen to thecounsel of one”; “One alone is wise, unwilling and willing to be called by thename of Zeus” (here he identifies the
logo
s
 
with a god, though he suggests thatthis being is both unwilling and willing to be identified with Zeus, indicating apeculiar scepticism for the religions of his society – his idea of God is perhapscloser to an embodiment of order and justice than a personal God).His belief that the
logos
is hidden and difficult to access by people who have nocomprehension of themselves doubtlessly inspires his elitism, misanthropy andopposition to democracy. That he regards those who do not understand the
logos
as ‘
tiros
’ (savages) is telling. It is thought that he wrote in such obscurelanguage as a way of ensuring that only the worthy would comprehend it.Proclus makes Heraclitus’ distrust of common people explicit:
 The excellent Heraclitus rightly excoriates the mob as unintelligent and irrational.For “what thought or sense”, he says, “do they have? They follow the popularsingers and they take the crowd as their teacher, not knowing that most men arebad and few good.” Thus Heraclitus – which is why [Timon] called him ‘the revilerof the mob’.
Most people do not comprehend the
logos
, and do not appreciate the superiorityof the unapparent truth over what is immediately visible. Even extensivelearning does not provide this comprehension, he claims, otherwise hispredecessors, such as Pythagoras, would have understood it. Only throughintrospection can one discover the proper way of comprehending the divineaccount; “I inquired into myself”, he says, and often emphasises the virtue of self-knowledge and self-control. People do not understand the unity of oppositeseither: “They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself – a back-turning harmony”. Thus Heraclitus is led to think that the vast majority of peopleare foolish and unaware of the truth, and therefore are undeserving of politicalpower. The epistemological significance of the
logos
is clear in Heraclitus’ thought. It isthe unapparent source of true knowledge as opposed to the deceptive accountoffered by the apparent. Heraclitus claims that people can genuinely know truthby accessing the
logos
(though only a few people are capable of this); this runscontrary to the claims made by Xenophanes that “the certain truth there is no

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