Harmony in contradiction

Heraklits metaphysics and the origin of philosophical dialectics


Copyright: Eugen-Maria Schulak
Lecture held on May 22, 2006, in front of the ruins of Ephesos at the occasion of the founding of the "Property and Freedom Society".
Translation: Karl-Erwin Lichtenecker


Heraklit (Heraclitus of Ephesus) developed his ideas around 500 before Christ, at a time, when the Greek culture still was bound by myths. Philosophy was developed by solitary individuals, around whom sometimes small groups built. These sometimes had contact, however, hardly achieved a public audience. But slowly the new thinking was integrated into the archaic world. Anyhow, philosophy was not a public issue. Not until one hundred and fifty years later, when Athens was promoted as the center of the Greek culture, knowledge was collected in established schools and became the basis of European science and education.

As the first son of the highest-ranking family of Ephesos, Heraklit was obliged to the nobility and to participate in politics. Nevertheless, he rejected the office of the priest-king, that was predetermined for him, in favour of his brother. He despised the new democratic constitution due to the fact that the most virtuous of the nobility were banished and the plebs had the power to decide. Disappointed, he left the political scene. Then people met him frequently in the temple, where he sometimes played dice with the youth of his city. When people looked at him with curiousity, he called: "Why are your surprised, you incurable mob?" Finally, so the legend, Heraklit left his city and lived alone in the mountains, eating grass and roots. Before this, he had dedicated the book he had written to the Goddess Artemis and laid it down in the temple shrine. Ill, suffering from dropsy, he returned years later to Ephesos and died lonely and in pain.

Because his book was unique in content and style, it soon obtained fame and became one of the most frequently quoted books in the ancient world. Fully aware of his importance, Heraklit wrote about the past with disdain: He called Homer and Hesiod liars, Pythagoras a babbler, who had stolen his ideas from others. He even criticised Xenophanes, even though he had adopted his religious thoughts. The purely mental nature of God, which is totally unrelated to the nature of man, and the breaking with the traditional religious beliefs, that both had been expressed by Xenophanes for the first time, were of vital importance for Heraklit as well. Xenophanes was Ė with the exception of Anaximander Ė the only one, who influenced Heraklit and allegedly he also was the only presocratic philosopher Heraklit knew personally.

From Heraklitís book, which was originally written in Ephesos, today there only one hundred and thirty fragments exist. With the exception of the introduction, its sequence can no longer be reconstructed. Nevertheless a connection exists, since some topics recur in nearly all fragments, and thus some basic ideas form a continuous line. The style is already remarkable. Often Heraklit talks in pictures, which are impressive, but nevertheless also mysterious. Nearly each of his sentences forms a closed ensemble that can be interpreted for itself. Almost all contents of his teachings are formulated in concise aphorisms, which, due to the density of his thoughts, caused people to call him "the dark one". Plato wrote, that it is said, that Euripides gave the writings of Heraklit to Sokrates and asked him "What do you think about it?". Sokrates answered: "The things I understood are splendid, I am convinced, also, what I did not understand is splendid, but it would take a Delian Diver."

Heraklit regarded the divine as a mental phenomenon. He called it "Logos", which means "word", "meaningful word", "reasonable speech", "reason", "rationality", "world reason", "world law" and sometimes also "lightning", "fire" and "fate". All these words mean the same to him, namely the regulative force, "that steers all things through all things" (Burnet Fr.19), which is the common principle, the connection in the processes of nature. Where barbarian souls assume the action of arcane gods or of chaos, the philosopher recognises the order. And he recognises the order, because he understands himself as a part of it and uses it actively by using his own reason.

Already in the introduction to the book, which was passed down by coincidence, the Logos was described as a central value. Full of passion Heraklit praises the divinity of thinking, which, however, only a few are able to conceive: "Though this discourse [Logos] is true evermore", he wrote, "yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, although all things happen in accordance with the account I give, men seem as if they had no experience of them, when they make trial of words and works such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its nature and explaining how it truly is. But other men know not what they are doing when you wake them up, just as they forget what they do when asleep." (Burnet Fr.2) "Though wisdom is common, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own" (Burnet Fr. 92).

Heraklit is convinced that "all things are one" (Burnet Fr.1), because in the long run "all things" - the outside nature as well as thinking itself - are occurring on the basis of the Logos. This Logos is an inherent force in all things, a logic, that "steers all things through all things" (Burnet Fr. 19). This legality one has to discover in his thinking and to state in clear words. But one has to watch out, because this Logos manifests itself in each thing in a different and mostly hidden way. "Nature", Heraklit said, "loves to hide" (Burnet Fr.10). The work of thinking has therefore always to consider the hidden structures. Heraklit was deeply conscious of the fact that this work had just begun in his days.

The unity of this mental principle presents itself in the material world as contradictory. The things of this world become a whole only through their oppositeness, they are only united by their contrast. If one really wants to understand anything in this world, one must learn to think in contradictions, because everything that exists in the material world is only there in contrasts, can be reduced to contrasts, and only gets clear within contrasts. And if one has understood something thoroughly once, then this is the moment, when one penetrates the contradiction: the inherent law is recognised. And suddenly there is an order within what seemed to be chaos, one that one has to became aware of. Whether this order is divine or human, Heraklit himself is probably not sure of: "Wisdom is one only. It is willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus" (Burnet Fr.65).

"Logos" is therefore the sense, that forms the structure for the contradiction, which seems to govern opposite events. "It is cold things that become warm, and what is warm that cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moistened" (Burnet Fr. 39), this transforms into that one, and that one into this. Principles fight each other but they are one nevertheless, because they have comprehensible structures and a law works within them, which is the law, that is the world-reason, the Logos. Indeed, cosmos is a battle-field of contrasts, but if one understands how they work, then one looks through all the contradictions and sees that they are a necessity. The connection is made, which releases a view on the whole: "The reluctant unites and from the opposite tunes the most beautiful harmony develops, and everything happens by strife. It is opposition that brings things together" (Burnet Fr. 46).

The controversy, in words and in works, in discussion and also in war, is that act, by which the contrariness becomes recognisable for us for the first time. In the course of arguments and fights the order and the structure, respectively, the background of the action, gradually become apparent. Finally, in the ideal case, the connection, quasi the sense, becomes apparent for the philosophical spectator. In the course of dialectic processes, thinking therefore moves towards unity. At the end of this course, which is learning and recognising, clarity exists about what has happened.

"We must know", Heraklit wrote, "that war is state or condition and justice is strife, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife" (Burnet Fr.62). Therefore also justice is not thinkable without the merging of reluctant interests. Everything that can become an object of human cognition, the material and the social world, exists as something that is united from contrasts. Aristoteles reports that Heraklit blamed Homer for his verse: "Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!" (Burnet Fr.43). Because "there cannot be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male principles, which are in opposition". "Men do not know", so Heraklit in another fragment, "how that, which is drawn in different directions, harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension, like that of the bow and the lyre" (Burnet Fr. 45). Tensions, as for instance between bow and string, finally dissolve by means of artful skills into harmonious oscillations.

On the basis of several descriptive pictures Heraklit specifies the unity of opposed interacting parts, for example the screw, the way and the circle: "The straight and the crooked path of the fullerīs comb is one and the same" (Burnet Fr.50); "The way up and the way down is one and the same" (Burnet Fr.69); "The beginning and the end of the circle are common" (Burnet Fr.70). In this context, the famous river fragments can be seen, too: "You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh water is ever flowing in upon you" (Burnet Fr.41,42); "We step and do not step into the same river; we are and are not" (Burnet Fr. 81).

The world is therefore an eternal process, movement and change, war and perishability, shape its appearance; "War is the father of all and the king of all" (Burnet Fr.44). Nevertheless there is Logos in everything, "... and ever shall be an everliving Fire, fixed measures of it kindling and fixed measures going out" (Burnet Fr.20). So everyone has the chance to ignite a fire inside himself, "the ability of self-awareness and reasonable thinking". Humans, as a component of the world which is structured by the Logos, have the ability to understand the whole process gradually. It is by no means easy to solve all the mysteries of nature, but since the Logos works without exception in everything, we can unravel nature and ourselves by virtue of the Logos. But this ability is rare indeed. "For what thought or wisdom have they?", Heraklit asked. "They follow the poets and take the crowd as their teacher, knowing not that there are many bad and few good. For even the best of them choose one thing above all others, immortal glory among mortals, while most of them fill their bellies like beasts" (Burnet Fr.111).

Heraklitís teachings were often discussed in the ancient world. Plato, the Stoics, the Sophists, and the Sceptics proudly quoted him, with regard to their own philosophy. The philosopher from Ephesos especially inspired the poets among the philosophers: Goethe, Novalis and Hölderlin, Nietzsche and Heidegger were deeply impressed by Heraklit. The only one, however, who directly took over this view of the world, was Hegel. His thinking re-emphasised the theory of the man from Ephesos and formed the basis for modern dialectic philosophy.

"What is reasonable is real, and what is real is reasonable" (Hegel), reason and reality, Logos and material world are one for Hegel in the long run. But both appear for Hegel as well as for Heraklit as contradictory and split. However, how can the real be reasonable and the reasonable be real? Because the contradiction is something that the reason always seeks to avoid? For Hegel this happens in two ways: On the one hand, within the spirit of God, the real is actually identically to the reasonable, eternally and without contradiction: In the idea of God the Logos exists undivided. On the other hand, in the world and also in thinking, which both are reflections of the idea of God, the contradiction, as a consequence of these reflections, is exactly this movement, which makes the reality of humans actually reasonable. In other words: Only the divine idea is truthful, real and reasonable. If God realises his idea by creating the world and the humans, his idea necessarily splits into innumerable contradictions. That is the price for their realisation. Their fragmentation is the result of their transformation in the material world. But this contradiction still contains the divine, although hidden, and offers a tremendous chance, because contradiction is fight, is progress and process. Thanks to the strength of the contradiction, the world and the thinking can develop. As a result of the contradiction, Godís idea, the Logos, becomes visible for us humans in the course of time.

Hegel thinks, that the more accurately one could formulate the contradictions in everything in the course of history, the more the knowledge increased and the more it was possible to understand the world in its entelechy. Hegel talks in this regard about "reconciliation", about "abolition" of the contrasts, about the development of truth. If a philosophical system could formulate all contradictions and could transform them into useful knowledge, then the idea of God, the Logos, would actually evolve. The clarity, which up to then had always remained hidden, would show itself. The reality would then become reasonable also for us. The highest task of the reason is therefore the synopsis and the combination of the disintegrated, its return to the one divine idea. And that is exactly what Hegelís philosophy intends: "The truth is the whole. The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is what it is in very truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual subject, or self-becoming, self-development." (Hegel).

If our thinking moves within contradictions, that is that it "contains opposed regulations in itself", then "the recognising and understanding of an object", Hegel says, can mean only so much, as "to be conscious of a concrete unit of opposite regulations". Our thinking has to absorb the contradictory as a whole and to process it from its contradictoriness towards a whole. Only thus the reality can become also for us, what it already is anyway: reasonable, inherently reasonable or better: divinely spiritual and mental.

Ultimately, metaphysics is creative philosophy: Its value is that of a work of art, its nature is the unity of creed and cognition, its aim is the fusion of the human and the cosmic. It is the quest for the core that contains everything and is the source of everything, the quest for the abstraction that has freed itself from all things and that will solve all things. Metaphysics is the striving for the ultimate word that enlightens everything through everything; the desire for a sculptured word, which releases the view on the whole. It is the longing for the homogeneity; the fantasy that our thinking on one point flows together; the desire that this makes then the world finally plausible and explainable. It is the furious, excessive question about the eternal one, unfounded one, resting in itself and itself affirming absolute. Metaphysics is philosophy at the edge: Heraklit founded it, Hegel was the last classical representative. With tears of anger and enthusiasm Heraklit roars down the valley: "All things are one!" (Burnet Fr.1).