Heraclitus and the Divine
by Jennifer Peck '06
The emergence of the Presocratic philosophers at the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth centuries B.C. marked a period of great intellectual transition for Greece. These thinkers took a new approach to the pursuit of knowledge as they attempted to reason out their own explanations for the workings of the universe. At the same time, the Greeks were experiencing what Jaeger calls a "general renascence of the religious spirit." For the Presocratics, this religious rebirth manifested itself in a break from conventional theology, and the cosmologies they presented often rejected or simply ignored the gods of Homer and Hesiod that formed the basis of traditional Greek religion. The Milesians, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, were the earliest natural philosophers, and created cosmologies that arguably lack gods altogether. These philosophers conceived of a universe evolved through natural processes out of a single element or arche. In some ways, this arche served as a replacement for the gods, but Thales' water, Anaximenes' air, and even Anaximander's mysterious apeiron (or "boundless") is more a natural phenomenon than a divine one. Unlike the natural cosmologies of his predecessors, Xenophanes' theology was defined by its criticism of the gods of Homer and Hesiod. Xenophanes argued that the traditional anthropomorphic gods were both inappropriate and logically absurd, and instead proposed a single, unmoving, non-anthropomorphic deity.
Heraclitus' conception of the universe is a product of this scientific tradition, and like Xenophanes and the Milesians he seems to arrive at his theories through a similar process of logical inquiry. In his theological ideas, however, Heraclitus appears to be very unlike his predecessors. The Milesians, in their use of the arche as the primary cosmic constituent and origin, and Xenophanes, with his aggressive monotheism, both take a consistent theological position. By omission, the Milesians implicitly reject the traditional gods, and Xenophanes' contempt for the Homeric gods is explicit. Heraclitus' thought, however, has no such clarity and appears not to form a coherent theology at all, but rather a system riddled with contradictions and peculiarities. Although he generally seems to conceive of a universe governed by a single deity, at times Heraclitus appears to admit the traditional view of a universe with many gods, and he refers to the gods in the plural in several places, and even mentions Zeus, Hades, and Dionysus by name. Another issue that has puzzled scholars is god's relationship to the other central ideas in the fragments, most notably the logos. The logos seems to hold a position of primary universal importance usually reserved for a divine power, and in Heraclitus' thought the distinction between god and logos, if there is meant to be one at all, is not clear. Consequently, many scholars have simply concluded that Heraclitus considers god and logos to be indistinguishable. However, the intricate construction of many of the fragments suggets that Heraclitus was careful in his choice of words, so it is unlikely that he would be imprecise in his naming of such an important concept, saying 'god' or 'the wise' when he was really referring to the logos. I will attempt to resolve these apparent contradictions by showing that they stem from a misunderstanding of Heraclitus' view of the divine, and that the fragments of the book do present a consistent theory about the nature of god and its role in the universe.
In the fragments, Heraclitus describes a single force that stands apart from all else and guides the universe according to a set purpose. Heraclitus calls this force 'the god', 'the wise', 'the one', Zeus, and the thunderbolt, and he explicitly connects these four words with each other in the fragments. Fragment 41 identifies this controlling force as 'the wise' and 'the one', showing that these two names stand for the same concept in Heraclitus' thought:
The wise is one (hen to sophon), knowing the plan by which it steers all things through all. (D.K.41)
The equivalence of 'the wise' and 'the one' is reiterated in another passage, which also connects this wise one to 'the god' by associating it with the name of the traditional king of the gods:
The wise is one alone (hen to sophon mounon), unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus. (D.K.32)
Another fragment connects the concept designated by 'the wise', 'the one', 'god', and Zeus to the thunderbolt:
The thunderbolt pilots all things. (D.K. 64)
In this fragment, the thunderbolt evokes the traditional weapon of Zeus, a name that the 'wise one' ambivalently accepts in fragment 32. The piloting of this passage recalls the wise one's steering in fragment 41. Kahn believes that fragment 41 reveals that the order of the universe is meant to be "understood as a work of cognition and intention, an act of 'steering all things through all,'"and that it implicitly leads to the "idea of a cosmic god, ordering the regularity of the sun and stars, the daylight and the seasons, by an act of cosmic intelligence." Like Kahn, most scholars have interpreted these fragments about the role of this force to mean that Heraclitus believes, like Xenophanes, that there is a single, all-powerful, divine consciousness that controls all things. Hussey, for example, understands theos in its traditional sense. "But who or what is the 'god' (theos)? As implied by the word, something that is alive (its activity is the ever-living fire), intelligent, purposive, and controlling: 'Thunderbolt steers all things'." So scholars have tended to think of 'god' or 'the wise one' as a conscious and controlling divinity.
Like this wise one, the logos also holds a central place in Heraclitus' cosmos, and he describes it as "shared" and "eternal". He also speaks of the logos in language that evokes the divine, and the fragment usually considered to be the proem of Heraclitus' book begins "Although this logos holds forever (eontos aiei)...". Kahn points out in his commentary that eontos aiei is a standard phrase used to describe the "everlasting" gods in Homer; from the very beginning, Heraclitus connects the logos to the traditional idea of the gods. Given its characteristics and association with conventional divinity, it is not surprising that scholars have so often referred to the logos as "divine", identifying it with the divine consciousness Heraclitus appears to signify by 'god' and 'the wise one'. Even Marcus Aurelius inserts the explanatory phrase, "the logos which controls all things" (dioikein ta hola) into his quotation of fragment 72. This phrase echoes the wise one's "steering" in fragment 41, and the piloting of the thunderbolt in fragment 64. Marcus Aurelius thus implicitly equates the logos with the concept represented by 'the wise' and the thunderbolt. However, Kahn argues that Marcus' words illustrate the Stoic rather than the Heraclitean notion of the logos in both terminology and content, and indeed Heraclitus makes the logos and 'the wise' deliberately distinct.
The thunderbolt, 'God', 'the wise', and 'the one' are all explicitly connected in the fragments, and, I believe, stand for the same concept. The logos, however, is explicitly distinguished from this group in fragment 50:
It is wise, listening not to me but to the logos, to agree that all things are one. (D.K. 50)
So the logos is not itself one, as 'the wise' is in fragment 41 ("the wise is one..."). Like fragment 50, fragment 108 shows that it is the purpose of the logos to demonstrate what exactly the 'wise one' is:
Of all those whose accounts I have heard, none has gone so far as this: to recognize what is wise, set apart from all. (D.K.108)
The logos, then, is not the same concept Heraclitus sometimes calls the wise, but rather the key to understanding what this wise one is. So what, then, is this logos? It had the basic meaning of 'word' or 'story' in addition to general secondary senses of 'measure' and 'proportion', and by Heraclitus' time it appeared in compounds meaning 'right reckoning' or 'reasonable proportion'. Kirk, Raven, and Schofield interpret it as the "unifying formula or proportionate method of arrangement of things", and, possibly thinking of its use in the fragments on the cosmic cycle, translate it as 'measure', or 'proportion'. Heraclitus, however, stretches the word beyond its typical meaning and uses it to stand for something slightly different. Kahn translates it as 'account', 'report', and 'amount', according to the context, but he thinks of it as the "eternal structure of the world as it manifests itself in discourse". In addition to linking the logos with the traditional divinities, the first fragments of the book introduce the logos and give important clues about its meaning:
Although this logos holds forever (eontos aiei), men ever fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard. Although all things come to pass in accordance with this logos, men are like the untried when they try such words and works as I set forth, distinguishing each according to its nature and telling how it is. ... (D.K. 1)
Although the logos is shared, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession. (D.K. 2)
In these two fragments, Heraclitus tells us that the logos is eternal (eontos aiei) , shared, and that all things happen in accordance with it. The statement that men are unable to comprehend the logos even before hearing Heraclitus' discourse indicates that the logos has been there all along, and, as Kahn puts it, "can be his 'meaning' only in the objective sense: the structure which his words intend or point at, which is the structure of the world itself. ... Only such an objective structure can be 'forever' available for comprehension before any words are uttered." I agree that the logos must be the common structure of all things, and I therefore think that translating logos as 'pattern' gets closest to the sense Heraclitus intends. It is this often unseen pattern in the structure of all things that Heraclitus prepares to reveal in the rest of his book.
One such pattern that stands out in Heraclitus' extant fragments is commonly referred to as "unity-in-opposites". Heraclitus first establishes this pattern by giving examples of its occurrence in everyday life, like the observation of fragment 60:
The way up and down is one and the same. (D.K. 60)
Here the road, which always remains the same, can appear in two opposite ways, depending on the observer's perspective. His many similar observations apparently convinced Heraclitus that opposites are essentially the same and that there is never any real distinction between them. He then attempts to state this pattern, making general comments that use more abstract language in fragments like D.K.10:
Graspings: wholes and not wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one thing all. (D.K.10)
In this fragment, Heraclitus makes a general point about the unity pattern by placing words that sound the same but stand for opposite concepts next to each other, and then explaining that all things, like these examples, come from one. He then applies this pattern to make inferences about things not as easily observable, like the transition between the elements and the nature of the soul. So the logos is the pattern, and the pattern is the unity of opposites. This is why fragment 50 tells us that "it is wise, listening not to me but to the logos, to agree that all things are one", for it is by observing the common pattern in all things that we discover this universal principle of unity.
Fragment 50 also connects the unity pattern to 'the wise'. It is clear that Heraclitus intends this passage in its literal sense; all things are indeed one, and it is therefore wise to agree with the logos on this point. However, the word order places sophon and 'one' on either side of the verb 'to be', giving the phrase sophon estin hen, literally 'the wise is one'. This connection between 'the wise' and 'one' also recalls the repetition of hen to sophon at the beginnings of fragments 32 and 41. 'The wise', then, is clearly connected to the unity-in-opposites thesis through the emphasis on its 'one-ness' whenever it occurs. Theos, or 'god', is even more closely identified with the unity principle. In fragment 102, we see that the human distinctions between opposites do not exist for god:
For god all things are fair and good and just, but men have taken some things as unjust, others as just. (D.K. 102)
So theos is strongly connected to the idea of the unity of opposites. Fragment 62 clarifies the relationship, and we see that god is the principle of unity:
The god: day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger. It alters, as when mingled with perfumes, it gets named according to the pleasure of each one. (D.K. 67)
In this fragment, Heraclitus goes further than he does in other fragments that demonstrate the unity of a particular pair of opposites. With these four pairs he asserts a pattern that implies the unity of all pairs of opposites, and he calls this unity 'god'. Heraclitus says not that god is literally composed of these eight terms, but rather that god is the principle of unity that holds each pair together, "the common connecting element in all extremes", as Kirk, Raven and Schofield put it. Frankel agrees with this interpretation, but takes what I believe to be an unnecessary additional step. "Not only is war and strife identical with peace and harmony, and plenty with hunger, but also war-peace is identical with repletion-hunger, and so forth. The higher unit in which they find themselves combined is God." The pairs of opposites are indeed related in that the principle that binds each pair together is the same, but I do not think Heraclitus claims that hunger, day, winter, war, satiety, night, summer and peace are the same thing. Indeed, this would go far beyond what he asserts in the other unity fragments, which focus on the relationships between opposite pairs, and the fact that he keeps the pairs together indicates that he is probably not making this more general point. Frankel also rejects the second part of the fragment, arguing that it is the inconsistent addition of the scholiast. Kahn, however, offers what I believe to be a convincing interpretation. He believes that the verb 'it alters' denotes any change from one term to its opposite, and refers to the different manifestations of god and its subsequent naming as one opposite or the other. A pair of opposites, though a unified whole, is named differently according to its appearance, just as the same fire can be called different things depending on the incense mingled with it. "As there is one fire called by many names, so there is one divine system of unity and opposition that has just been designated by four pairs of opposites." This "divine system" is the 'god' of Heraclitus.
When Heraclitus' 'god' (along with 'the wise', 'the one', and the thunderbolt) is understood as one of the names Heraclitus assigns to the unity principle, it is possible to see that it is not the cosmic intelligence that scholars have understood it to be. It is rather the principle of the essential unity of opposites that causes things to occur as they do, not the intervention of some all-powerful consciousness. Kahn and Hussey, among others, interpret the 'steering' and 'piloting' of fragments 41 and 64 to mean that Heraclitus' god is some sort of intelligent and controlling divinity. Once the logos is identified as the unity in opposites thesis, however, it is clear that 'steering' and 'piloting' cannot be taken literally. The association of Zeus and to sophon in fragment 32, which is probably another reason why scholars have tended to think of Heraclitus' god as a similarly conscious power, shows that Heraclitus was conscious of the fact that his 'wise one' was taking the place of the traditional gods as the controlling element in the universe. The fact that it was 'unwilling and willing' to be called Zeus both shows that the match is not exact and suggests its true identity as the unity of opposites, evoking the ambivalent naming of the god in fragment 67.
Such an understanding of god also explains the problem of Heraclitus' references to the gods of popular religion. Although he emphasizes god's singularity and calls the poets an untrustworthy authority on things unknown, he makes many references to the traditional gods. Because of this, some scholars have dismissed his use of 'gods' as an emphatic device not to be taken literally. Kirk, Raven, and Schofield call one such reference a "concession, perhaps not a fully conscious one, to popular religious terminology." References to the gods appear in many fragments, however, and it is unlikely that Heraclitus would make so many simply emphatic or subconscious mentions of a concept he rejected. Fragment 53 illuminates the place of the conventional gods in Heraclitus:
War is father of all and king of all; and some he has shown as gods, others men; some he has made slaves, others free. (D.K. 53)
In this fragment, War is similar to the universal principle that appears elsewhere as god and the wise one. The phrase "father of all and king of all" parallels the Homeric formula for Zeus "father of men and gods" and recalls Zeus' identification with 'the wise' in fragment 32. Unlike god, however, War does not stand for the unity of opposites, but rather the tension between them that causes their different manifestations. It is important to notice that War, which here symbolizes the cosmic principle of tension in unity, appears in fragment 67 simply as one half of a pair of opposites. 'War' in this fragment is not the same 'war' that is opposed to 'peace' in fragment 67, but rather a word Heraclitus chooses to stand for a cosmic law that has no opposite. Similarly, though 'gods' appear in this fragment in opposition to 'men', 'god' in fragment 67 is meant in a way distinct from its typical meaning, and, like War, is used to symbolize a principle without antithesis. Indeed, in every fragment that mentions the immortals, Heraclitus pairs them with mortals in order demonstrate the unity of opposites through their tension or agreement. Fragments 79 and 24 are typical demonstrations of the unity between gods and men:
A man is found foolish by a god, as a child by a man. (D.K. 79)
Gods and men honor those who fall in battle. (D.K. 24)
In fragment 79, gods and men hold the same position of superiority in different situations, a point which is emphasized by the symmetry of pros daimonos and pros andros and the fact that daimonos (god) appears in the very center of the fragment, with an_r and andros (man) on either end. In fragment 24, gods and men are joined by their common practice of honoring men slain in battle. Both fragments point out some similarity between gods and men, which shows the unity present even in this pair of opposites. He takes this observation of unity farther in fragment 62:
Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living the others' death, dead in the others' life. (D.K. 62)
This fragment is particularly notable for its tightly symmetrical structure. The first two clauses are mirror images, reinforcing the unity of mortals and immortals, and the third and fourth clauses display a more complex verbal symmetry between living and dead, death and life. Wheelwright believes that it is meant to indicate that the gods themselves are finite and mortal, and that there occur metamorphoses of gods and men into one another. Hussey also interprets this fragment to mean that souls can manifest themselves either as men or traditional gods. Indeed, the fragment seems too abstract to be a straightforward observation of the nature of mortality and immortality, and it is possible that it is a generalization from the pattern of unity between gods and men demonstrated in the previous fragments. However, I think that Wheelwright's and Hussey's interpretations take the fragment too literally. Heraclitus' opposites are the same not because they transition between the two states, but because they are the same thing manifesting itself in different ways, like the incense on the fire in fragment 67. I therefore think it is more likely that this fragment makes the observation that, from the perspective of an immortal, mortals die during their infinite lifetimes. Similarly, the gods do not exist in the everyday world of mortals, and so appear to be like the dead. In this interpretation, Heraclitus makes no claims about the nature of immortality, but an observation that supports his unity-in-opposites thesis.
Unlike the other fragments that mention the gods, fragment 15 does not place them in opposition to mortals, but illustrates a different kind of unity:
If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless (anaidestata). But Hades (Aidws) and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia. (D.K. 15)
In this fragment, the comparison is not between gods and men, but between Hades and Dionysus. The association of Dionysus with the phallic cult casts him in his role as the god of sexual vitality, as opposed to Hades who represents death. Despite their opposition, both gods are celebrated in mortal festivals, and the wordplay between phallus (aidoioisin), shamelessness (anaidestata), and Hades (Aid_s), serves to further link the two. There is also a possible connection between Hades and Dionysus in his role as the god of wine. Fragment 36 explains that it is death for a soul to become watery, and fragment 117 says that a man's soul is moist when he is drunk. With this reference to Hades and Dionysus, then, Heraclitus links the two in order to demonstrate the unity of opposites rather than to show his support for popular religion.
The god of fragment 67, which is identified with 'the wise', 'the one', and the thunderbolt, and which represents the principle of unity-in-opposites, is therefore quite distinct from the 'gods' and 'immortals' which appear throughout the fragments. When these gods appear in the fragments, their only purpose is to reinforce the unity sometimes called 'god', and Heraclitus devotes little attention to exploring their place in the universe aside from their opposing relationship with mortals. Unlike the divine unity, which has no antithesis, these gods exist only as a manifestation of a pair of polar opposites, and so are subsumed within the cosmic order created by Heraclitus' 'god' principle. Otherwise they are of little importance to Heraclitus' conception of the cosmos, and certainly offer no competition to Heraclitus' new god figure. In their role as controlling powers, the traditional gods have been replaced by an impersonal principle that organizes all things according to a set pattern, the logos. There is an important distinction between 'god' and the logos in Heraclitus' system; the logos is the pattern present in all things, the pattern which must be observed in order to understand the principle of the unity of opposites. It is this principle of unity, not the pattern leading to its recognition, that Heraclitus calls 'god'. Though scholars seem to recognize the distinction on some level, they tend to focus on the similarities between 'god' and the logos, which leads to a loss of clarity about the roles of god and the logos in determining the ordering of the cosmos. The tendency to regard both as a sort of divine consciousness is perhaps a result of this, and obscures Heraclitus' purpose of finding a natural principle ordering things. The realization that god represents this natural principle of unity thus explains some of the apparent contradictions in Heraclitus' theological thought and allows it to be understood as a coherent whole.
Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers: The Gifford Lectures - 1936, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1948 p. 109.
Xenophanes, fr. 14, 15, 16.
Xenophanes, fr. 23, 24, 25, 26.
Heraclitus, D.K. 67, 102.
Heraclitus, D.K.5, 24, 30, 53, 62, 79, 82-83.
Heraclitus, D.K.32, 15.
In this paper I will examine the readings of Kirk, Raven, and Schofield (1983), Wheelwright (1959), Hussey (1999), Kahn (1979), Jaeger (1936), and Guthrie (1974).
Heraclitus D.K.32, 108, 64, 41, 78.
Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, Cambridge: The
Cambridge University Press, 1979
All Heraclitus quotations and translations are from Kahn unless otherwise noted.
Kahn (1979), p. 171.
Edward Hussey, "Heraclitus" in A.A. Long, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.101.
Heraclitus, D.K.1 - this is my own translation.
Kahn (1979), p. 94.
Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959 p. 69.
G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers: Second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. p. 191, 203.
W.K.C. Guthrie, "Flux and Logos in Heraclitus" in Alexander P.D. Mourelatos, ed.,The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. p. 208.
Kahn (1979), p. 104.
I have used Kahn's translation for this fragment, replacing 'account' with logos.
Hussey (1999), p. 91.
Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, p. 187.
Kahn (1979), p. 29.
Kahn (1979), p. 94.
I have again replaced 'account' in Kahn's translation with logos.
I interpret the ambiguity in this phrase as intentional and follow Kahn in taking aiei with both eontos and axunetoi.
Kahn (1979), p. 98.
See also D.K. 48, 61, 103, 111, and 126.
See also D.K. 8, 51, 53, 67, and 80.
See for example D.K.30, 36, 62, and 88.
The organization of the unity-in-opposites fragments into these three categories comes from Hussey (1979), p.93.
The doctrine of flux, which Heraclitus often symbolizes with fire, is also an important pattern in the fragments. It is closely related to the unity-in-opposites thesis, and both are central to Heraclitus' theory. In this paper, however, I will concentrate on the unity pattern because of its special relationship to the concept symbolized by 'god' and 'the wise'.
Kirk, Raven, and Schofield (1983), p. 191.
Hermann Frankel, "Heraclitus on God and the Phenomenal World" in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 69 (1938) p. 231.
Frankel (1938), p. 232.
Kahn (1979), p. 280.
D.K.23A Also see D.K. 40, 42, 56, 57 and 106 for his comments on the ignorance of Homer and Hesiod
e.g. D.K. 15, 24, 32, 79, 94.
Kirk, Raven, and Schofield (1983), p. 170.
Kahn (1979), p. 208.