Heraclitus is probably the most notoriously difficult of the pre-Socratic philosophers. For that matter, he’s one of the thorniest thinkers ever--period. In his own time he was known as the Riddler, and The Obscure One. Even Socrates (according to a probably apocryphal story) said that what he understood of Heraclitus’ writing was “splendid; and I think that what I don't understand is so too--but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it.”

What makes Heraclitus so obscure and problematic? Certainly the immense complexity of his paradoxical philosophy. But even more immediately than the complex content of his ideas, the reader of Heraclitus encounters a style and language that is puzzling to the point of opacity. The intentionally devious stylistic moves of Heraclitus, combined with our relative remoteness from ancient Greek ways of thinking and speaking, make Heraclitus’ Fragments a potential minefield. However, certain patterns can be observed that may not only make his language more accessible, but provide a sense of how his writing style echoes or anticipates the very content of his writings.

Getting a better understanding of Heraclitus' ideas depends upon relinquishing, to a degree, the modern, Western way of understanding language. In our own language, there is a clear demarcation between nouns and other parts of speech. In philosophy, linguistic divisions between nouns, adjectives, and verbs have produced the distinct ideas of substance, quality, and activity. However, in Heraclitus' world, these lines are blurred. There is plenty of coalescence between the qualities of things, the things themselves, and their activities. The line between subject and object also becomes difficult to see. The perceiver, in perceiving something, becomes in a significant way like the thing perceived. More specifically, the Logos that is the objective order of the universe--the "known"--is intimately connected to he who "listens" to that Logos--the "knower." These coalescences are not stated explicitly by Heraclitus, but he takes their validity as an assumption, a guiding principle that shapes his expression of thought.

All this is important to take into account, because in reading Heraclitus or reading about him, it is often unclear whether Heraclitus is discussing substances, qualities, or activities. In fact, it should be unclear, because these philosophical concepts had not yet separated. In one Fragment (50 in the Wheelwright translation), Heraclitus uses the metaphor of a popular beverage of his time, which consisted of Pramnian wine, grated cheese, and barley. The effect of this drink depended upon an even mixture of these ingredients, so obviously, this was a drink that had to be constantly stirred. If it was not, the ingredients would separate and the effect of the drink would be lost. Like all Heraclitus' metaphors and symbols, this one can be interpreted in a variety of ways. But for the purposes of coming to grips with Heraclitus' enigmatic language, it may help to think of the drink as language itself. By shifting between substances, qualities, and activities, between nouns and adjectives and verbs, between subject and object, Heraclitus is constantly engaged in stirring up language, especially the language of abstract thought, so that the constitutive parts never have the chance to settle out. This constant stirring—and stirring up—is a good image to keep in mind as one moves into the proper content of Heraclitus' philosophy, which depends entirely on the concept of flux. Because Heraclitus' view of the universe is built on the idea of endless change, it makes sense that his own language is part of this flux.

Aside from the difficulty in interpreting the word-level language of Heraclitus, something must be said about the structural format of his writings. Heraclitus' aphoristic style is dangerously cryptic, and may lead to one of two false conclusions.

  • The first falsehood is that Heraclitus speaks in sound-bite nuggets of easily digestible wisdom. His most famous fragment has the ring of a well-worn cliché: "You cannot step twice into the same river." However, looking beyond the physical size of the fragments and contemplating their rich and complex philosophical vastness should put an end to this first false conclusion.

  • The second falsehood is opposite the first: that Heraclitus is hopelessly abstruse, and no amount of discussion will ever produce any convincing or coherent account of his thoughts. That is, despite Heraclitus' claims to the contrary, there is no logos to be found in his works. While it is true that Heraclitus is intentionally obscure and that the fragmentary nature of what survives of his writings only worsens this obscurity, beneath the clutter and between the fragments, Heraclitus is putting forth a tough and flexible system of ideas that touch virtually every area of thought, including cosmology, ethics, biology, physics, ontology, and psychology.

The most prominent of the contemporary philosophers who cite Heraclitus as a major force is Nietzsche, who frequently appropriates Heraclitus' aphoristic style to put forth an account of the world that is in many ways Heraclitian, and which he certainly viewed as such. In Ecce Homo, he writes that Heraclitus is a philosopher "in whose proximity I feel altogether warmer and better than anywhere else." Without getting too deep into the Nietzsche-Heraclitus issue, which is a fascinating subject, Nietzsche praises Heraclitus’ essential concept of polemos, usually translated as war or struggle, which the Obscure One labeled "the father of all." In one dimension, Nietzsche's struggle is to rise above the "terror and pity" that threaten humankind. Heraclitus' philosophy, which Nietzsche describes as, "saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being" is "more closely related to me than anything else thought to date." He even admits that "the doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been taught already by Heraclitus." There is plenty of debate as to whether or not Nietzsche really subscribed to Heraclitus' ideas, but it is clear, at least, that he thought he did. This by itself is significant.

Sources / Recommended Reading:
  • Barnes, Jonathan, ed. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Heraclitus Seminar. Trans. Charles H. Seibert. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U.P., 1993.
  • Heraclitus. Fragments. Trans. Philip Wheelwright. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
  • Wheelwright, Philip. Heraclitus. New York: Atheneum, 1968.