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Heraclitus – Change and more anti-Homer

Xenophanes influenced a Greek named Heraclitus (herakl-EYE-tes), who is estimated to have been born around 540 BCE. He was from an aristocratic family like other philosophers – with time to work at writing. He was from Ephesus, another city on the coast of Asia Minor. He received attention from many others, and what we know of his ideas come those who quoted him.

Like Xenophanes, Heraclitus despised traditional religion. Homer, he believed, deserved to be flogged. He realized that knowledge was not simply a collection of facts. He knew what every modern psychologist knows: pieces of information arriving through the senses are processed by the brain, and sense experience was not enough: people were dependent upon their intelligence. He is reported to have said that eyes and ears were poor witnesses if one had a barbarian soul. Names, he is reported to have said, encourage us to look at the world in a fragmentary way and to obscure the whole. And he tried to construct a view of the whole according to what to him seemed reasonable and fit together – coherence rather than isolated facts.

Unlike Pythagoras, Heraclitus believed in a continuum between the world of change visible in materiality on earth and the world one can see in the night sky. Heraclitus sounds like Anaximander in his belief in change and pairs of opposing forces. He is quoted as saying "You cannot step twice into the same river." Change, he seems to have believed, comes through a unity of opposites – force and counter force. Change, he appears to have written, is the work of conflict, and conflict is a permanent and integral part of nature, in the physical world and in human society. Conflict, he believed, creates both development and decay. He said that the ever-presence of conflict made wars inevitable and that humans were unable to harmonize their differences through reason. But, in seeing conflict as pervasive, he introduced objectivity and compromise as ideas for a court of justice.

Heraclitus saw chance as an element in development and that beauty comes from things let loose by chance. Combining his belief in conflict and harmony, Heraclitus believed in a single unchanging law that governs all change, and he believed in a supreme god who presided over the universe and was the mover behind all things.

Fire had been held in awe by the ancients and had been seen as a spiritual force, and Heraclitus also saw soul or spirit in fire. Fire, he observed, was an element that was always changing and yet was always the same. Humans, he concluded, were flames while things were processes.

About a creator, Heraclitus, wrote,

... neither a god nor man has made it. It always was, it is, it will be: an ever-living fire.

Heraclitus was an elitist. He believed in government by aristocrats, and he intended his writings to be read only by a worthy minority. Common people, he believed, were incapable of philosophy. He has been described as hating the Athenians and his fellow Ephesians. With common people perhaps in mind he is quoted as saying, "Pigs delight in the mire more than in clean water."

He believed that clarity about oneself led to appropriate behavior toward others and that the search for enlightenment could lead to a sound mind and virtue.


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