Heraclitus- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter (4)

Yesterday we looked at how Pythagoras sought to explain the world through numbers. Reducing things to numbers reduces them to unchanging facts, or at the very least, to unchanging patterns. Heraclitus believed that nothing ever stayed the same, and it is this which we shall look at today.


Most of what we know of Heraclitus comes from Plato and Aristotle’s writings. We know that he was an Ionian, from Ephesus, and that he can be traced to roughly 500 BCE, which would have been the most fertile period of his teaching. Another way we can date him is by his engagement with Xenophanes, who Russell explains briefly.


Xenophanes cast a critical eye upon the idea of God as represented in religious scripture and art. The idea that the Gods of Homer seemed so much like humans was too good to be true. He argued that we simply imagine God in our image. One of the few things we can attribute to him is his statement ‘if horses believed in God, then God, to them, would look like a horse’. One solid tenet of Xenophanes’ philosophy was to cast doubt that we could ever have any such thing as theological certainty.

He rejected Pythagoras’ theory of the transmigration of souls. He mocked the idea that a human soul could migrate into an animal. We can deduce from this that he believed in souls, but that souls are linked to bodies, then either disappear, or migrate straight to an afterlife. Heraclitus took the same views as Xenophanes in regards to both the doubt of transmigration and of God in human form.

The other thing we know about him was his cosmogony. We have seen a few hypotheses regarding what substances the world is made from. He believed the world to be a mixture of earth and water.


Heraclitus rejected the idea that the world was earth and water. He believed that it was made of fire in various conditions. In a similar way to Anaximenes (who lived around the same time) who believed everything was made from air, he believed that fire turned into the different substances of the world by existing under different conditions such pressure and temperature. He believed that fire turns into water, and water divides equally into earth and wind. These all eventually turn back into fire, and the whole process is cyclical. He was the last person to comment on this topic until Empedocles, who reduced earth to the ‘four elements’- earth, wind, fire, and water.

He believed the human soul to be of a pure fire. Whilst he, with Xenophanes, rejected Pythagoras’ view of Transmigration, he stood with Pythagoras on the belief that we could affect our souls’ place in the universe by how we lived. With Heraclitus, it was a question of being noble. An ignoble soul was ‘wet’, reducing the strength of the flame, whilst a noble soul was ‘dry’, helping it to burn. It is worth noticing that souls, under his view, were made from the primal substance of the world, and that the primal substance naturally turned into water. Heraclitus saw the soul as best when it remained ‘dry’. We must therefore see that Heraclitus saw the soul’s endeavour as that of working against the nature of the earth. This is a classic example in religion of the earth and the afterlife moving in different directions.

Doctrine of opposites

Everything is in a constant state of fluctuation, the only thing which remained constant was the burning of the primordial fire, from which all else comes.

From this position, Heraclitus believed that the world must be comprised of opposites, such as how fire begets water. The opposites in the world contain each other, and are one and the same. Examples of this are good and bad, up and down, light and dark, right and wrong. Opposites never dominate each other, they simply fluctuate in balance. Therefore, there is never any situation where all is good or bad, but instead, good and bad become impermanent states. This reflects Anaximander’s cosmology, where the substances of the universe fluctuate, but eventually balance out too.

God, he asserted, contains all opposites as a perfect unity. He talked of ‘God’ and ‘Gods’ separately, and it is commonly believed that when he said ‘Gods’, he was referring to the Gods of his religion, but when he said ‘God’, he was talking about cosmic order. It is debatable whether or not ‘God’, the unity of all opposites, and the primordial fire which constitutes everything, are one and the same or distinct in some way.

Heraclitus asserted that everything changed. Tomorrow we will look at Parmenides, who believed that nothing changed. We will also look at a philosophical problem relating to language.

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To read the other posts in this series, click HERE

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