Ancient Greek Philosophy

Dr. Cynthia Freeland

Key Topics in Heraclitus

1. Heraclitus' Style

Heraclitus is notorious for his "obscure" and distinctive style. Many readers seem to love it or hate it. Heraclitus' stylistic devices include metaphor, simile, aphorism, pun, word play, allusion, riddles, rhythm, and sound.

Examples of puns and word plays:

Fr. 65, p. 30 plays upon the word bios (life), accent on the first syllable, and bios (bow), accent on the second syllable.

Fr. 48, p. 31 plays upon the phrases "xun noi" (with nous or intelligence) and "xunoi" (in common).

Fr. 23, -. 27 plays upon the term "haptetai" which can mean "touch" or "kindle" as in "kindling a light".

Some readers, like Jonathan Barnes, seem to suggest that Heraclitus' seemingly oracular sayings simply paper over his out-and-out contradictions. In short, Heraclitus is "fundamentally inconsistent". For an interesting discussion of whether Barnes' charge can be answered, see Timm Triplett, "Barnes on Heraclitus and the Unity of Opposites," Ancient Philosophy 6, pp. 15-23.

Someone who admires Heraclitus; style and offers a useful reference on it is Charles Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Kahn writes, "Heraclitus was a great prose artist, one of the most powerful stylists not only of Greek antiquity but of world literature" (Art and Thought, p. ix).

Kahn articulates three key assumptions about Heraclitus' style (p. 89): It manifests linguistic density, resonance, and ordering. He explains these as follows:

2. Heraclitus as Natural Philosopher

Heraclitus is an Ionian by geographical location, but is he an Ionian if by that we mean to designate a natural philosoher who proposes a physical arche for the universe? That is, is fire akin to Thales' water?

No: Marc Cohen (See his Heraclitus notes.)

Yes: Cynthia Freeland

My view of Heraclitus is not completely opposed to Professor Cohen's. Perhaps we differ more about the Milesians. He writes, "For the Milesians, what is real is fixed and permanent; change somehow had to be explained away. They understood changes as alterations of some basic, underylying, material stuff which is, in its own nature, unchanging."

While I think there is something new and different going on in Heraclitus in terms of his symbolic or oblique expression of ideas, together with his stern moral imperatives, nevertheless I still find that there are many similarities between Heraclitus' fire and the physical elements chosen by the earlier Milesian thinkers as their archai. I would tend to interpret Thales or Anaximenes as choosing an element that they see as dynamic; water is itself changing (think of rain falling or the ocean swelling in waves), as is air (think of wind or hurricanes!).


3. One List of Categories of the Fragments

As Kahn notes, every ordering of the fragments itself is an interpretation of Heraclitus, or the beginning of an interpretation. I find it useful to group the fragments into categories expressing some of his key themes or ideas. Perhaps you will also find it useful to examine fragments in the light of these categories, or perhaps you will want to suggest others of your own.

4. Heraclitus' Position on Flux

Three key interpretations of Heraclitean flux:

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