Heraclitus laughs

This essay on ancient Greek philosophy is not really on ancient Greek philosophy, of which I know little. It is about the ways of thinking we all choose between, or, some, not. Or some, not to think at all, creatively, merely in a reactionary, what’s in it for me, manner. As we think, we live. The title refers to Ninotchka, and to the effect my efforts would have on Heraclitus.

Philosophy as we know it began life as a dissatisfaction with ancient Greek organised religious belief. The gods on Mount Olympos, the underworld powers of Hades, the immortal soul that travelled with the body throughout its life; all these were a solace to ancient peoples. But religious belief had then, as it does today, many weaknesses that render it at times an unreliable guide. In ancient times religion had a stronger connection with social realities than it did to personal morality; the Olympian gods at least were magical figures much of the time, rather than religious; superstition flourished, as it does today, and was used as a substitute for religion, sometimes unwittingly.

The first philosophers tried to jettison all the stories of mythology, all the magical practices, all the stories of origins in which a god was involved. They were, however, essentially religious in their attitude to enquiry. They asked a question they thought was basic. What do we really know? Or rather, what is it we think we experience? This subjective examination of the self had only ever been seen before in some of the Upanishads.

Many Greek philosophers are associated with the introduction of more exact methods of measurement, and are also founders of what we call science. But the search they made was primarily for the nature of what we know or experience. They were likely looking for god, but made sure that god, with all the associations of traditional religion, and consequent misconceptions, wasn’t mentioned. Generally, they found an answer to their questions, in two ways. Firstly, they sought to explain the substance of what we can experience. Then they sought to explain the process this substance was undergoing, to result in time, and change. Generally, there seemed to be three qualities: the data our senses provide; our ability to organise this data, or reason; and change or movement.

There has really not been much development from this approach except two associated viewpoints. Firstly, the question of how reliable our sense data, or our interpretation of it, is. This is a question of the fact of our very existence. One answer is to say, “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Another is to say, all is illusion, concepts created by the mind. Secondly, the question of what we experience, and reason from, we have learnt to realise, is limited by the range of our senses. Just think of another animal species, a mosquito or an elephant or a giant squid, and we can understand these others are likely living in a very different world than the one we know. Imagine if our sense of vision, for instance, was extended to reach the sub atomic range. We would see the activities of atoms and their components, the building blocks of the universe (as far as we know). We would also be aware of our brains reassembling all this into a comprehensible world in which we could operate.


Prophets, sages, wise men or priests were much the same in ancient times, and our glib assumption that early thinkers were “the first scientists” ignores much we know about them. A priest was then a secular figure, and a sage could be a politician as well as a theorist. Perhaps this is why Thales of Miletus is mentioned both as a sage giving advice to King Croesus of Sardis, a canny trader using his predictions of weather patterns to make a fortune on the markets, and as a great teacher. He lived about 600 BC to 550 BC.

Miletus, Thales’ native city, was originally founded by Minoan Crete, was conquered by the Hittites, then, as Hittite power declined, occupied by Greek invaders from the Caucasus area. To add to the multi culturalism of the city’s traditions, Thales was said to come from a Phoenician family. In Thales’ lifetime Darius unified the Persian tribes, conquered the Medes, and established an empire that covered most of the land mass south of the Black Sea. Miletus was at times part of his empire. There is at least the possibility that Thales’ role was to introduce some non Greek – Persian, Cretan, Hittite or Phoenician – ideas to the Greek peoples of the area. Darius had created empire, or kosmos, from chaos in the political sense, and that had an effect on Thales’ thought and that of his contemporaries. A few kilometres NE of Miletus lay Ephesos, a great religious centre, where the Great Mother Kybele was worshipped, but where also Christianity took root, Saint Paul, John the disciple and Mary the Mother of God were all associated with Ephesos. The Greek cities were at first part of the Lydian empire, both just south of Sardis, then had a fragile independence during the battles between Croesus and Darius, finally being incorporated into the Persian Empire.

Phoenicia was home to the Great Mother and goddess of sex and procreation Astarte, known as Aphrodite when she moved to the mixed settlements of Greeks and Phoenicians on Cyprus. As Aphrodite moved to the West she took some Middle Eastern ideas with her. Hesiod’s story of the castration of Uranos by Kronos, and the generation of Aphrodite as his sperm fertilised Ocean, is one such story. Other ideas, such as cosmogonies (birth of the world), also moved West. Many of the early cosmogonies, including Hindu ones, show the basis of all as water, a primal ocean on which float the mountain and the tree of life which constitutes the world. In Babylonia for example the world was formed of the waters of Apsu, and Tiamat. In Genesis the spirit of god hovered over the face of the waters before he created the world.

Cosmogonies, no matter what their form, are motivated by the same primal forces as science, though they are of course radically different in development. The question that needs answering from this mode is, how am I existing? How am I, and the world, in being? From this stems the awareness of the external world, which may or may not be illusion. So the command of god in the Hebrew scriptures “Let there be light!”, answers the same question as the Big Bang Theory. Both could be described the same way, both have no answer for a consequent origin. There may have been another world before god created this one, there may have been another god created by the need to create a previous world. The Big Bang may have been preceded by another universe. Universes, and gods, may be serial. We may be attempting to explore one of a series of worlds, as we are exploring one of a series of galaxies.

We think that if we can explain the beginning of how we experience the world (as foetus, as protozoa, as reasoning beings, as elemental particles part of a universe) we may be able to account for our existence. We are trying to surpass our biological limitations, creep back into immortality.


The problem early Greek thinkers had with the god theories of origin was that gods, Greek gods especially, gave rise to many more questions than answers. If the gods created the world, who created the gods? If the Moirai, Fates, ruled the universe, how did they come into being? Was Chaos really the supreme power? Why were the gods depicted as human beings with eternal life? Was “rule” a misapplied human concept? If god is eternal, how could it create temporal creations? How did change begin?

This is the real problem. Because of the limitations of our senses, and of the concepts the brain uses, we cannot imagine a god unless that god is to a certain extent a human being. The falseness of this was pointed out by Xenophanes, a religious teacher who came from Kolophon slightly to the north of Ephesos and who lived a generation after Thales. Xenophanes tried to dehumanise god by describing it as one, present everywhere, all powerful and eternal. Xenophanes, like modern theologians, was limited in what he could say about god, describing god in terms of qualities which are incomprehensible to human beings. But it was worth the effort. Animals, he pointed out, would have gods in their own form, just as humans have gods in human form. This line of investigation brings up the sense in which god is useful to mankind, or therapeutic, a different line of enquiry to the nature of our experience investigated by Thales.

What Thales tried to establish was an underlying pattern of matter from which all the forms of matter comprehended by the senses have their origin. Influenced perhaps by Middle Eastern cosmogonies he thought this underlying substance was water. The experience of the Sumerians had been that water created the world. They had dug channels from the Euphrates and Tigris into the desert, and created a civilisation, a world, by so doing, though a world subject to the damage of flood if not consistently maintained. Water and earth created mud, dried mud or clay more permanent structures. Dust and moisture (the breath of god) formed adam. Thales’ enquiry would have meant he thought that water is in some way without form, so it pre existed matter, and then underwent change, so it took on the many forms of materials comprehended by the senses. Strictly speaking, the measurement of how change from substances takes place (as in e= mc2) is science, and enquiry as to the origin of such change, of first causes, is religious, but historically, in Thales’ time, both religion and science were not separate. Perhaps in quantum physics, they are not separate either.

The attitude of approach of some, at least, non superstitious religious people in Thales’ time was likely that there was an underlying substance from which matter was formed, and that matter they called god. By meditating on the power and immensity of such an underlying substance they would have sought to be aware intuitively of the power, and perhaps purpose, of the natural world, and the place of mankind, and self, within it. By calling the underlying substance water, Thales at once enabled himself, and those who followed him, to engage more effectively in the way change in matter was apprehended by the human senses. It became possible eventually to see the world as a combined creation of, on the one hand, matter and change, and on the other, concepts within the brain created (or again, pre-existent) by that very investigation.


A contemporary of Thales in Miletus, and influenced by him, was Anaximander, who was concerned, among many activities such as creating an early map of the world, and helping in the foundation of one of the many colonies of Miletus, with the nature of elemental changes. Thales was interested in the substance which underlay the changing forms experienced by the senses, and called it water. Anaximander went one step back, and asked what had existed before the changing forms of water. His term was, ‘the indefinite’, that which cannot be defined. It sounds very similar to the cosmogonies of ancient civilisations. In traditional mythologies, god had imposed order (kosmos) on chaos. Mind created matter. Thales and Anaximander thought in much the same way. The indefinite was replaced with water. A small step, yet a great leap forward for mankind, for these neutral terms could be examined without preconceptions, without importing human motivations and procedures into the examination. It was a seeking after wisdom. The complexity of establishing the contribution made by the enquirer to this apprehension of changing forms of matter by the process of their observation was yet in the future.

Anaximander’s thoughts went further than Thales in that Anaximander thought both that the indefinite was eternal, and continuously creating; and that the changes wrought in the examinable universe, which consisted of multiple worlds, could be measured. All change, he thought, was measured by the operation of invariable laws.  Anaximander, with one foot still in the religious camp, was pointing the way in which science would develop. It’s worth noting that the dichotomy between rationalism (philosophy and science) and mysticism (faith and religion) we tend to take for granted was not in existence in the days of these early philosophers. They were both, and continue to be for that matter, ways in which the human mind recognises the universe (including itself). One is not better than the other, both are susceptible to misuse. The human mind naturally uses both modes. In so far as it doesn’t, it is handicapped. For all these men it was a short journey between Miletus and Ephesos.

Anaximenes of Miletus was a scientist in the modern sense, though his beliefs were not similar to those we hold today. A contemporary of Xenophanes of Kolophon, slightly younger than Thales and Anaximander, Anaximenes saw the basic substance of the world as air, and its permutations forming all substances into dry and moist materials, from which stemmed the four basic elements of fire, water, earth and air. In talking of all ancient science, it should be remembered it was mainly theoretical, except in the sphere of geography and geometry, for which there were practical applications. A scientist (the term was of course not used then) was a theorist, much like Albert Einstein was, without his immense mathematical resources.


Heraclitus was born about 550 BC. Thales and Anaximander had died by then. He was a native of the city of Ephesos. He felt very strongly the changing nature of the world. He famously said, “You cannot step twice into the same river”. More obscurely, he may have said you both could, and could not, step twice into the same river, which is more Taoist but could just as likely be a transcription error. He also said, the wise man expects the unexpected. He was known in ancient times as the weeping philosopher because of his pessimism about mankind, though there is no basis in fact for any biographical knowledge we have of him except his idea that the many did not see, would not listen, and worshipped idols.

The indefinite of Anaximander that produces the sensible world and originates all changes has become in Heraclitus’ philosophy logos, the organising principle, what we think of as reason, or perhaps will. All matter consists of opposite qualities, and the reaction of these opposites causes constant change. Logos of course was the term used by John of Ephesos for god in the fourth gospel.

Heraclitus has been often compared to a Taoist. The Tao that can be known is not the Tao, it has been written. Heraclitus commented on how the logos acted within all matter, but men could not see this action of the logos. For him there too was a basic element, fire. The universe was a constantly changing fire, which generated all the matter comprehended by mankind, and was eternal.

The opposing qualities in matter are what enable us to know them, Heraclitus thought. Change creates conflict, conflict gives rise to definition, definition to self knowledge, wisdom and unity. We know justice by experiencing injustice just as we know night by experiencing day. The conflict within matter which created unending change was a defining conflict, which made matter more perfect. In that sense Heraclitus was an evolutionist, and perhaps influenced by the ideas of Zarathustra.

Heraclitus also had some thoughts on morality, or at least on good or bad. For him, god knows change and purification, only man knows good and evil, and these perceptions were a result of his inability to see the logos. Good to many men is what is gained, bad is what is lost, but no man truly knows what is gained or what is lost. One of Heraclitus’ main ideas is the difference between the wise man, who examines the world and its signs, and the many, who live unexamined lives.

The ideas of these early philosophers/prophets/sages/scientists are not known first hand. Their works have not survived except in a handful of fragments. What we know of them is quoted by much later writers, and we have no idea how accurate these were, or how reliable the information was that they passed down. They were examples of evolving thought, like Marx’s theories, not dogmatic systems, and invite comment.

I think their ideas were part of a cultural drift from east to west, from as far away as India, more certainly Persia and the Middle East, to Greece, mainland and ‘Greater Greece’ in Italy and Sicily. I think they have a valuable lesson to teach in that they embraced both faith and rationalism, intuition and measurement, and were not seen as the either/or choice our own culture does. There is much to learn about the world and our place in it, and foolish not to use all the resources of the mind we can. The trap of modern thought is in dichotomy. Either Thomás de Torquemada or Richard Dawkins, either kill to save souls or throw the baby of faith out with the bathwater of superstition. Both Torquemada and Dawkins are analogues, identical responses to difficulties of comprehension. Both could learn from Heraclitus. It is only a few kilometres from Miletus to Ephesos.

A moment reading the first few pages of Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology (The Masks of God vol III) clarified most of all I have been so confusedly saying. East of Persia man and the world are merely part of the ineffable divine which form the only reality. West of Persia the dualities of man and god, created and creator, require mediation. God in some form or other becomes man, and man becomes individual. The divine in man becomes the soul, and a battleground between good and evil. A battle from which the scientist withdraws. The good news is that we are humans, of both east and west, and all these modes of seeing the world are ours to command. We should not choose one, but practise all.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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