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Heraclitus – detail from The School of Athens, by Raphael

The philosopher Heraclitus, who lived between around 540-480 B.C., is said to have deposited a copy of his book in the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, although his sayings are now known only from quotations and paraphrases by later authors, of which around 130 survive.  These are conventionally numbered in accordance with a system devised for all the Presocratic philosophers by the German scholars Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz.

Heraclitus was the first western philosopher that we know of to give serious thought to the nature of man’s inner world or soul, for which he had to invent a new vocabulary.  He did this by taking existing words with rather mundane meanings and giving them a whole new significance.  Heraclitus greatly increased the breadth of meaning of ψυχή (soul, or mind), introduced the word κόσμоς (cosmos) as a term for the entire ordered universe, and adopted λόγος , which previously appears to have meant simply an account or story – something told –  to refer to the intelligence behind (and perhaps not different from) the κόσμоς.  The λόγος later became the Word of St John’s gospel.

There is a story told by Diogenes Laertius that Euripides gave a copy of Heraclitus’ book to Socrates, and a while later asked what he thought of it.  “The part I understand is excellent” declared Socrates, “and I dare say the part I do not understand is too; but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it”.  The tale, unfortunately, is probably apocryphal, but it does illustrate why Cicero labelled Heraclitus ὁ Σκοτεινός: the dark, or obscure, one.  His sayings are full of word-play and double meanings, intended, it seems, to force us to think deeply about them.  Heraclitus himself predicted that he would not be understood; not, it seems, because he had an unfathomable teaching, but because he advocated perceiving the logos within the cosmos, rather than mere learning.  This requires an elevated state of being, “a “dry soul” he called it, which gives access to νόος (νοῦς in Attic Greek), or insight.

Graham Blackbourn, MSc

Fragments 6, B12, B50 and B101 | Unity lies behind Change
Contributed by Graham Blackbourn