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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 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 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. 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 back-
turning 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.

Bibliography
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.