Who was Heraclitus?

Heraclitus (pictured on the right in Raphael’s School of Athens) was a philosopher who lived in Greece from around 535 BC to 475 BC. He is thought to have come from an aristocratic family that ruled the city-state of Ephesus. However, he abandoned politics to follow philosophy. He is one of the earliest philosophers, known by academics as the Pre-Socratics or the Ionian school, because they mainly lived on the Ionian peninsula in what is today Turkey.

What was Heraclitus’ philosophy?

All that remains of his work are fragments of a large book he wrote called On Nature. He was nick-named ‘the obscure’, and the fragments are fairly strange and cryptic. They’re more poetry than prose. Because of that, philosophers ever since his death have argued about what exactly he meant. Nonetheless, we can have a go at identifying some of his key ideas.

Go on then.

Well, the Pre-Socratics were fascinated by the nature of reality. They all tried to identify the one permanent and stable element out of which everything else is made. Some identified it as air, or water, or earth and water. When Heraclitus looked at nature, by contrast, he saw not stability or permanence, but incessant flux and transformation.

His most famous saying can be translated as: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing’. Nothing exists in and of itself in nature, but rather things come into being through opposition to other things – day exists in opposition to night, life in opposition to death. And these oppositions don’t exist as stable divisions, but rather day turns into night and back again, life turns into death and back again.

Like yin and yang?

The idea of the Logos has some similarities to Taoism's yin-yang

Yes, there are similarities with Taoism. But, as in Taoism, Heraclitus believed that underlying all that flux and transformation, there exists a cosmic law, which he called the Logos, or the Word. Here’s an obscure fragment of Heraclitus’ for you to ponder:

This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep.

Interesting…what the hell does it mean?

Heraclitus appeared to believe that beneath all natural phenomena there moves a divine law that guides all things – the Logos – and this Logos is made of a sort of sacred fire. So he was both a providentialist, in that he believed in a form of divine providence, and also a materialist, in that he believed in a sort of ‘God stuff’ out of which the Logos is made.

So what does this Logos have to do with us?

According to one interpretation (ie mine), Heraclitus human consciousness is a fragment of the fiery Logos, and we can cultivate this flame within us and bring it into harmony with the Logos.


Partly by controlling our passions, which ‘dampen’ the fire of the Logos within us. And partly by using philosophy to reflect on nature, to consider how each thing changes into its opposite, to consider the beauty of each manifestation of nature, until we let go of the dichotomies that we impose upon natural phenomena (good / bad etc) and accept the oneness of the cosmic ebb and flow of nature.

Sounds difficult.

Indeed. Heraclitus was very pessimistic about the average human’s interest in philosophy or capacity to comprehend the Logos. He was quite an elitist, and thought the masses were little better than cows, interested only in eating and breeding. In fact, towards the end of his life he despaired of human society, and left Ephesus to wander the fields outside, eating grass and sobbing. This earned him the nick-name ‘the weeping philosopher’.

An odd-ball eh? So what practical use is his philosophy to me?

Well, his philosophy is interesting because it shows that, right at the birth of philosophy, ethics was very much connected to physics. You can’t separate ethical questions about how to live here on Earth from scientific questions about the nature of the cosmos. All the Socratic philosophies we meet in the book combined ethics with physics, biology and psychology to create what physicians today would call ‘theories of everything’. We’ve lost sight of that relationship between ethics and physics today. Philosophers and scientists rarely speak each other’s languages. As the writer EP Snow put it, the sciences and the humanities have split into two cultures, and there’s a yawning chasm between them. But I hope this we’re beginning to see a convergence – between philosophy and psychology, and also between ethical philosophy and physics. This convergence can lead to some confrontations, as I explore in the book, such as when Stephen Hawking declares that philosophy is ‘dead’. But in fact, the two sides have interesting things to say to each other.

Such as?

The really interesting crossover point between physics and philosophy is consciousness. What is consciousness made of? How does it arise out of inanimate matter? What is its function? Does it have a cosmic significance? All the Socratic philosophers believe humans possess rational consciousness and free will. But some of them, such as Epicurus, believe that human consciousness is basically a fluke of nature, without any cosmic significance. Others, such as the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle, agree with Heraclitus that consciousness perhaps has some cosmic significance. They suggest that humans were put here on Earth by God to develop their consciousness until it can recognise the divine consciousness that connects all things. As Epictetus puts it, God has put man on Earth to be a spectator and interpreter of his works. So perhaps there is a relationship between the microcosmos of human consciousness, and the macrocosmos of the universe.

Far out. So what practical self-help techniques, if any, could we take from Heraclitus’ philosophy?

I’m not sure Heraclitus is the most practical philosopher, but he does teach us the benefit of ‘cosmic contemplation’ – or considering the cosmos and our connection to it. In the chapter, I discuss how astrophysics was a form of therapy for the ancient Greeks. They would ponder the stars, and even imagine themselves flying through the universe, as a way of calming themselves, soothing their anxieties, seeing their earthly concerns in a cosmic perspective.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who had a spiritual epiphany on the way back from the moon

You’ve heard the expression ‘making a mountain out of a mole-hill’. Well, this is the opposite, making a mole-hill out of a mountain, by widening your frame, zooming out, seeing a problem against the infinite expanse of the universe, and thereby getting a measure of emotional distance from it. The French academic Pierre Hadot has called this cognitive technique ‘The View From Above’. I discuss the technique with the psychologist Donald Robertson in this video. You can practice the technique yourself by spending a few minutes looking at images from the Hubble telescope, or by watching Cosmos, the beautiful documentary by Carl Sagan (it’s on YouTube, here).

And in the chapter, I begin by telling the story of Edgar Mitchell, the seventh man to walk on the moon, who experienced a sort of mystic epiphany on the flight back to Earth in the Apollo 14 space shuttle. Mitchell calls it ‘the Big Picture Effect’ – he suddenly saw how he was connected to the cosmos, and this recognition of interconnectedness was accompanied by a feeling of ecstasy. You can listen to my interview with Mitchell here.

You end the chapter by talking about the possibility of life on other planets. Tell us a bit about that here.

OK. What I suggest in the book is that there are two main ways people have imagined extraterrestrial life, and both these ways are built on a philosophy of human existence. I call them the Predator and the ET schools. According to the Predator school of thought, what drives nature is the brutal Darwinian struggle to survive and reproduce. If life has arisen on other planets, it will arise according to the same Darwinian law of survival of the fittest. This raises the possibility that life has arisen on other planets which may be stronger and better at killing than humans, and these more advanced killers could come to Earth, and eat us or colonise us or use us for sport, as we have exploited other animals. We see this view of extraterrestrials in films like Predator, Species, Aliens, and Starship Troopers.

The ET school of Sci-Fi optimistically suggests that moral consciousness is not confined to Earth

Another view of extraterrestrials, which I call the ET school, takes a more Aristotelian or Heraclitean view of human nature. It suggests that nature tends to create consciousness, and therefore there is a good chance that there are beings on other planets who may be more conscious and more morally advanced than humans – sort of like angels. These higher beings could eventually get in contact with humans, and perhaps guide us or even save us from our own self-destructiveness. You see this much more optimistic philosophy in films like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cocoon, and Contact, which was written by the astronomer Carl Sagan.

According to this Heraclitean view of the universe, it’s possible that one cosmic moral law unites all beings in all planets, and therefore we could one day have a parliament of cosmopolitans – or citizens of the universe – as is dreamt of in shows like Star Trek. I love that Carl Sagan seemed to anticipate this possibility, and even sent out a shuttle with information about Earth and homo sapiens into space. He was our first intergalactic ambassador.