Essay on Heraclitus’ Logos

Assess the importance of Logos in Heraclitus’ thought.
From even a cursory review of the fragments of discourse attributed to Heraclitus, it is uncontroversial to assert that the logos as a concept is of integral importance to his philosophy, since he uses the term so copiously; why it is important, however, is not as immediately clear. The understanding of the nature of the logos and consequently the understanding of its role in his thought varies between commentators. To understand the importance of the logos in Heraclitus accordingly requires an examination of the term and the place it might have in his wider philosophy. As such, the main body of this essay constitutes an examination of this kind: the first section will explore the etymology, uses and various translations of the term logos with a view to establishing its meaning, or meanings, 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 can literally mean ‘something spoken’, a ‘saying’, ‘word’, ‘sentence’ or ‘oration’. It can also mean ‘thought’, ‘intention’, ‘idea’ or ‘illocution’. It derives from lego, meaning ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’ (lexis, meaning ‘word’ or ‘phrase’, is also derived from 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 to varying 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 the term can be identified with the traditional Biblical usage of logos as meaning ‘the Word’, i.e. the Word of God. In this theological sense, the logos is equivalent to God’s divine ‘plan’ or God’s law; hence, as all things happen in accordance with the logos (kata logos), they are in accordance with the Word, God’s law or God’s will:
Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, 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 things are one”, Heraclitus says... that the universe is the Word, always and for all eternity, he says in this way: “Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending, both before they hear it and when first they have heard it. For although 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 each thing according to nature and say how it is.”

This interpretation suggests that the logos is the divine will of God and the universe is the manifestation of this will. This seems to fit with Heraclitus’ other descriptions of the logos’ relation to the universe. However, Hippolytus’ interpretation of logos is biased towards a Christian conception of God and creation, 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 his other uses of the term, it isn’t clear that Heraclitus’ idea of the logos is consistent with the personal, monotheistic idea of God found in the JudeoChristian 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. At times he describes the logos as a ‘shared account’ of reality, a view which everyone holds but which they mistakenly think to be their own opinion: “But although the account is comprehensive, most men live as if they had a private comprehension of their own”; “Thinking is common to all”; “Speaking with comprehension one should rely on what is comprehensive of all”. This suggests that the logos is an objective account of human experience, as reason and logic are objective as they rely on a priori deduction. However, this would be inconsistent with the view of Sextus Empiricus that Heraclitus is an empiricist; he says, “Those things which are learned by sight and hearing I honour more”. He seems to think that the comprehensive account is not arrived at through rational deduction, but through the senses. The logos is accessed via signs and subtleties of the perceived world: “the lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign”. Even so, it will not be detected by people who do not understand it – one must look inwards at their own nature to acquire the necessary understanding of the message received through the senses. It is an unapparent 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 in the 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 suggests that Heraclitus “deliberately plays on the various meanings of logos”. This seems likely; the logos represents law, thought and an account of physical reality all at once, rather than being restricted to any single meaning. Heraclitus was known for equivocality in his writing, and it would be consistent with his character to take advantage of the diversity in the usage of the term in order to convey its mystery and its pervasive nature. For example, in order to convey the creative power 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.” So perhaps all of the meanings and uses that have been considered are correct in some way, to the extent that they do not contradict one another. The part this concept has in Heraclitus’ extended philosophy set out in the fragments of his works On Nature will now be explored. The logos seems to reveal a unity in nature to Heraclitus. The apparent existence of opposites and plurality are purportedly illusory; that people distinguish them from each other is a mistake. “It is wise”, he says, “listening not to me but to the account, to agree that all things are one”. He speaks often in paradoxes, stating that “immortals are mortals, mortals immortal”. He seems to reconcile these opposites with his claim 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 as an account shared by all men, so the logos is important in that it is that which unites all things, including human thought. The idea of the logos as divine law has great importance in Heraclitus’ political thought. He claims that “all human laws are nourished by the one divine; for it is as powerful as it wishes, and it suffices for all, and it prevails”; the laws that humans make have their root in the logos, the natural order. People ought to live by their laws dutifully since they ultimately come from the logos – “The people must fight for the law as for their city wall”. However, Heraclitus apparently acknowledges that the divine law is superior to human law and it is necessary to listen directly to the logos rather than human law: “It is law also to listen to the counsel of one”; “One alone is wise, unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus” (here he identifies the logos with a god, though he suggests that this being is both unwilling and willing to be identified with Zeus, indicating a peculiar scepticism for the religions of his society – his idea of God is perhaps closer 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 no comprehension of themselves doubtlessly inspires his elitism, misanthropy and opposition 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 obscure language 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 popular singers and they take the crowd as their teacher, not knowing that most men are bad and few good.” Thus Heraclitus – which is why [Timon] called him ‘the reviler of the mob’.

Most people do not comprehend the logos, and do not appreciate the superiority of the unapparent truth over what is immediately visible. Even extensive learning does not provide this comprehension, he claims, otherwise his predecessors, such as Pythagoras, would have understood it. Only through introspection can one discover the proper way of comprehending the divine account; “I inquired into myself”, he says, and often emphasises the virtue of self-knowledge and self-control. People do not understand the unity of opposites either: “They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself – a backturning harmony”. Thus Heraclitus is led to think that the vast majority of people are foolish and unaware of the truth, and therefore are undeserving of political power. The epistemological significance of the logos is clear in Heraclitus’ thought. It is the unapparent source of true knowledge as opposed to the deceptive account offered by the apparent. Heraclitus claims that people can genuinely know truth by accessing the logos (though only a few people are capable of this); this runs contrary to the claims made by Xenophanes that “the certain truth there is no

man who knows, nor shall ever be, about the gods and all the things whereof I speak”. The development of the logos as the source of truth is perhaps a reaction to Xenophanes’ arguments. One of the most significant aspects of Heraclitean philosophy is the theory that the universe and everything in it are in constant flux, expressed by the phrase ‘panta rhei’, ‘everything flows’ (the attribution of this phrase to Heraclitus is likely apocryphal since it does not appear in any of his surviving quotations). Heraclitus believes that the universe is not something which has a beginning or an end, but is constantly undergoing creation and conflagration; he believes that fire is the fundamental principle of matter and the primordial element from which the other elements arise, since fire is both creative and destructive: “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.” This is inextricably linked with his theory of the unity of opposites and the creative power of conflict. Fire as a fundamental principle seems to be separate to the logos in Heraclitus’ natural philosophy, but it is perhaps a manifestation of cosmic justice as it represents conflict and rebirth. Nevertheless, it is not clear what role the logos has in Heraclitus’ theory of flux; it may be that it is the only permanent aspect of the universe, the substratum beneath the constant change. So, while Heraclitus claims the Sun is new every day since it is nourished by ever-changing flame, one might conjecture that the permanence and order of the Sun’s movement represents the divine law of the logos in his analogy. Similarly, “in the same rivers ever different waters flow”, and “we step and do not step into the same rivers” – Heraclitus may be trying to convey the changing nature of the universe while emphasising that the logos remains the same through the analogy of a river, as a river is still the same river though its waters are constantly being replaced. Some fragments seem to suggest that Heraclitus identifies the logos with fire itself: “The thunderbolt steers all things” – as if fire is the divine law which manages universal flux. However, Heraclitus’ writings tend to use fire in a different context from the concept of logos, and he does not explicitly describe them as the same thing. He does state that people whose souls are drier, since they contain more fire, are wiser, while people with moist souls are foolish: “A dry soul is wisest and best”; “A man when he is drunk is led by a beardless boy, stumbling, not knowing where he goes, his soul moist”. Whether this amounts to an opinion that fire is the logos within the soul is a possible interpretation. In conclusion, the importance of the logos in Heraclitus’ thought is extensive. It features throughout his natural, political and theological philosophy, and its role can be summarised as follows: it is the source of unity and order in the natural world, and all things happen in accordance with it; it is the divine law which nourishes human law; it is the hidden truth or wisdom which can be seen by the senses but only understood through self-knowledge, hence it sustains a relationship between the subjective and objective, the rational and the empirical. The logos inspires Heraclitus’ politics, specifically his misanthropic elitism and belief in the importance of law. It also has epistemic significance, in that it is the

only true source of knowledge and allows people to comprehend the divine. The logos can be understood as the persistent law which seems to guide the constant change of the universe; though everything is in flux, the logos persists and is nourished by change. Finally, the logos might be indentified with fire, which Heraclitus regards to be the primordial element and fundamental principle (arche). Though the word logos itself has a variety of meanings, making its specific significance for Heraclitus at first ambiguous, he undoubtedly utilises this ambiguity to express the way in which the logos is all-encompassing, providing an underlying unity to the apparent disharmony of reality.

Barnes, J. (1987). Early Greek Philosophy (2001 2nd revised ed.). (J. Barnes, Ed., & J. Barnes, Trans.) London: Penguin. Russell, B. (1946). History of Western Philosophy (1961 2nd ed.). London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Zeyl, D. J. (1997). Encyclopaedia of Classical Philosophy (1st ed.). (D. J. Zeyl, D. T. Devereux, & P. K. Mitsis, Eds.) London: Routledge.

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