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Heraclitus of Ephesus

Page history last edited by Kristen Ruccio 6 years, 9 months ago

Heraclitus, 535 BCE - 480 BCE


Partial Bust of Heraclitus i


Biography and Central Tenets of His Philosophy

Like many of the Presocratic philosophers, not much is known of Heraclitus' life.  What we do know comes chiefly from Diogenes Laertius' The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Laertius was no fan of Heraclitus and made many unverifiable claims about him. They include an account that Heraclitus' misanthropy led him to the mountains where he consumed a vegetarian diet of grass and herbs, which eventually killed him, although a physician allegedly tried to treat Heraclitus by covering him in manure.  As if this weren't enough, Laertius then claims that dogs devoured Heraclitus' dung-covered body as it lay in the street (Sweet xii). These aspersions aside, most scholars agree that Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, a Greek city that is now part of Turkey. Heraclitus was a member of the nobility who gave up his right of kingship in order to pursue philosophical inquiry (Sweet xi).


Heraclitus' philosophy is often taught as the Presocratic polar opposite of Parmenides. Parmemides posited that everything is one, which essentially neutralizes the possibility of change.  Heraclitus claims that there the only permanence of reality is change and called permanence "an illusion of the senses" ("Heraclitus"). The idea that everything carries within itself its opposite grounds all Heraclitean notions of the world.  Some examples of this are:  life carries within it the possibility of death, movement carries within it the possibility of stillness, and war carries within it the possibility of peace. Heraclitus' best-known fragment reflects this dynamism of opposites:


          A river--it is not possible to step into the same one

          twice. For other and ever other water flows on. (Brann 96)


Water flows with eternal sameness, but also changes eternally. Another foundational element of Heraclitus' philosophy centered on the idea of the logos. There are many scholars who disagree with this claim and David C. Hoffman does an excellent review of the opposing scholarship, but concludes "if Heraclitus had only claimed that all things come to pass according to his logos, then one might reasonably suppose that he was merely claiming he had constructed a discourse that explained everything, and that logos was nothing more than a reference to this specific discourse. If Heraclitus had only claimed that logos was shared by all, one might think that he was simply talking about language or 'speech-in-general,' which is shared by all people. But Heraclitus says that logos is both determinate of all things and shared by all" (7). Finally, Heraclitus defined the arche as fire. Eva Brann describes Heraclitean fire as "a terminally indeterminate element whose defining feature is measure-proneness" (63). Fire, for Heraclitus, allows for a metaphorical representation of the unending changeability of the world, but also represents the methodological apparatus we use for judging and measuring (Brann 123).


Application to the Study of Rhetoric

All three elements of Heraclitean philosophy, dynamism of opposites, structural logos, and fire as metaphor for measurement and judgment, have enormous relevance to the history and practice of rhetoric. Carol Poster finds that although "Heraclitus has not been studied frequently in rhetorical scholarship, it can be argued that his work is critically important for understanding developments in early rhetorical theory and practice, especially as background to the Gorgianic account of logos, Protagorean hermeneutics and epistemology, and the Platonic account of Protagoras in the Theaetetus" (Poster 1). If Heraclitus indeed influenced such foundational works that we focus on in the history of rhetoric (and Poster makes an excellent case for each of these influences), why would we neglect studying Heraclitus' work itself? In his reply to Poster, Jason Helms maintains that we who study rhetoric tend to relegate Heraclitus to the discipline of philosophy.  However, Helms maintains that Hercalitus' work "show(s) the philosophy/rhetoric distinction to be as false in our own day as it was nonexistent in his" (281).


The dynamism of opposites fits in neatly with Plato's conception of Dialectic. The first principle of dialectical method lies in its use for uncovering the truth at the heart of two people who hold opposing viewpoints. Helms argues that, perhaps, those who study rhetoric feel that the Dissoi Logoi does same work as does Heraclitus. Yet, Jane S. Sutton finds that Heraclitus' fragments tell us something much more complex than the contrastive arguments of the Dissoi Logoi. She writes, "The whole world is a process, a process that has no beginning and will never have an end. Wisdom entails understanding the way the whole world changes and works in constant motion. The premise of rest states the opposite" (264). This recapitulation of Heraclitus' notion of flux shows it to be both more sophisticated than the contrastive argument in Dissoi Logoi, because of the focus on process. Process as a category underscores both halves of the discipline of rhetoric and composition. Certainly, Aristotle's conception of the emotions in Book II of the Rhetorica promotes the idea that rhetors must always be aware of the complex interactions among and between opposing forces of emotions, if we are to deploy pathos in our rhetoric.  By a greater familiarity with the fragments of Heraclitus, we might understand why Aristotle chose to construct so many of the elements of his dialectical manual of rhetoric in the form of dynamic, interrelated opposites.


Although logos was a term used by many philosophers in Ancient Greece, Hoffman succinctly summarizes the major interpretations of Heraclitean logos "it is (1) universally determining ('all things come to pass in accordance with this logos'), and it is (2) 'shared by all.' [These all] meet the requirement of being both universally determining and shared by all. These explanations are (1) that logos is Reason itself...shared by all people and is universally determining (because all things happen in a rationally intelligible way), (2) that logos is a fire-like substance that is a material component of everything, (3) that logos is a universally determining law that governs all things, and (4) that logos is the structure of relationships between all things" (8).  These nuanced and complex renditions of Heraclitus' use of a fundamental principle of rhetoric indicate how much more study of his work could enrich our understanding of the history of our discipline. Certainly, Heraclitus constructed logos much more democratically than did Aristotle, since Heraclitus has it as a shared element and Aristotle focuses most of his attention on ethos and pathos, perhaps because Aristotle conceived most audiences as too ignorant to grasp a logical appeal. 


Finally, Heraclitus uses fire as the substance of being. Beyond the elegance of the metaphor, it can tell us more about the history of our discipline. Fire remains constantly in motion, but it also has a static permanence of place. Sutton argues for a more inclusive view of the sophistical fragments in the discipline of rhetoric. She writes, "sophistical fragments may well take the lead in generating a new theory of rhetoric more inclusive of the other" (257). She grounds her article in the notion that rhetoricians made a conscious decision to ground the discipline in the idea of rest, not motion, when they elected to place Aristotle's work as the foundational historical work of our discipline (265-268).  The idea of what fire may have been lost by giving Aristotle primacy, however, "haunts" the discipline, which is why the sophistical fragments remain in the parlor, even if their position lies in the periphery.


Sutton, Poster, and Helms all call for inclusion of Heraclitus in our study of the history of rhetoric. Heraclitus has influenced artists as widely varied as Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, and Salvador Dali. The maxim, "The only constant is change," echoes throughout our culture in many iterations. Plato was quite harsh on Heraclitus' disciple Cratylus in the dialogue of the same name. That does not mean that we, as rhetors, can be as dismissive of the artifacts left in the sophistical fragments, particularly those of Heraclitus, with their long-lasting cultural legacy.


If you would like to know more about Heraclitus, this YouTube video from AcademyofIdeas provides an excellent primer:ii



Works Cited and Consulted


Brann, Eva. The Logos of Heraclitus. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2011. Print.


Helms, Jason. "The Task Of The Name: A Reply To Carol Poster." Philosophy And Rhetoric 3 (2008): 278-287. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.


"Heraclitus." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. 


Hoffman, David C. "Structural Logos In Heraclitus And The Sophists." Advances In The History Of Rhetoric 9.(2006): 1-32. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.  


Poster, Carol. "The Task Of The Bow: Heraclitus' Rhetorical Critique Of Epic Language." Philosophy And Rhetoric 1 (2006): 1-23. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.


Sutton, Jane S. "Haunted By A Peacock: Discovering, Testing, And Generating Rhetoric In Untimely Ways." RSQ: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 44.3 (2014): 256-270. Communication & Mass                

          Media Complete. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.


Sweet, Dennis. Heraclitus: Translation and Analysis. Lanham: UP of America, 1995. Print.


Image/Video Sources:


i http://paganblog.net/?tag=heraclitus-of-ephesus

ii https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9CLktqAj9U




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