A Date with Heraclitus

This is your brain on fire

J.P. Williams
6 min readJan 25, 2023
Original photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash. Altered by author.

Philosopher William James said the question of whether the world is one or many isn’t one most people lose sleep over.¹ If you’re prone to philosophy, however, you might find the topic to occupy at least some of your daylight hours. One of the earliest thinkers to address this question was Heraclitus of Ephesus, whose sole known work survives only in pieces. The Fragments of Heraclitus presents a view of the world more alluring and less abstruse than the topic might at first suggest.

Fragments on Fire

Heraclitus of Ephesus flourished around the 5th century B.C. His fragments are a short, quick read, yet they contain everything necessary for an introductory lecture on Heraclitus’ thought. The very first fragment provides his answer to the question of the one and the many:

“It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the universal Reason, to confess that all things are one.” (Fragment I)²

Specifically, they are one in substance. Whereas Thales of Miletus had speculated that all things were one as states of water and Empedocles that the world was many as combinations of the four elements earth, air, water and fire,³ Heraclitus was ahead of the latter in proposing fire, but only fire. He doesn’t, however, have in mind common fire:

“This world, the same for all, neither any of the gods nor any man has made, but it always was, and always shall be, an ever living fire, kindled in due measure, and in due measure extinguished.” (Fragment XX)⁴

This “living fire” is metaphorical, according to G.T.W. Patrick’s introduction to his translation of the fragments.⁵ That’s because Heraclitus is driving at something otherwise ineffable. The primal substance flares up and dies down — inhales and exhales, rises and falls, flexes and relaxes (as I remember a college professor putting it) — and the cosmos as we know it is what happens between low points in the cycle.

That’s because world and everything in it never ceases activity. Everything at all times is in flux. Even if you’ve never studied Heraclitus, you know some Heraclitus due to echoes in common speech of one of his most well-known expressions of change:

“Into the same river you could not step twice, for other and still other waters are flowing.” (Fragment XlI)⁶

“Universal reason” governs this change.⁷ Heraclitus called this logos (λόγος).⁸ Like the Way of Taoism, it’s how the one spools into many and back into one and how all things interact along the way, separating and combining. Heraclitus sometimes describes this as “strife”⁹ and sometimes as a “harmony of oppositions.”¹⁰

This makes for some paradoxical statements. According to Heraclitus, day and night are the same.¹¹ Good and evil are the same.¹² Mortals and immortals are the same.¹³ This is because, in his view, they are all just different states of the same living fire:

“Living and dead, awake and asleep, young and old, are the same. For these several states are transmutations of each other.” (Fragment LXXVIII)¹⁴

Heraclitus. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Fire Down to Earth

Philosophers have long wrestled with the tensions in Heraclitus’ thought. The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics made of his fire a divinity and placed a spark in each of us, and today’s object-oriented ontologists define the structure of objects as a quadruplicity: real object, sensual object, real qualities and sensual qualities.¹⁵ Sometimes the philosophers have focused on harmony, think Leibniz’s monads acting in concert, and sometimes on strife, as was Nietzsche’s tendency. Their work has taken up the ancient preoccupation with substance and woven it in new forms into the history of ideas.

I’m no great thinker in that history. Nonetheless, we all get to ponder, and when I ponder the question of the world as one or many, I tend to view it as depending on perspective. I assume this is the answer most people come up with, to the extent that anyone ever troubles themselves over such questions. In fact, it’s almost a boring answer: The world is both one and many and it is neither, depending on what you’re looking at and how you’re looking at it.

Think about it. My son just made an apparatus for demonstrating pendulum waves. It was the only one in his class to function properly. Yet I may also see it as many, a contraption cobbled together by fifth-graders from disposable chopsticks, tape, thread, washers and cardboard. This refusal to settle the matter one way or another is an example of what philosopher and activist Cornel West calls the “American evasion” of philosophy.¹⁶ However, it’s not merely an evasion, because each answer affords insight and utility.

And that brings us back to William James. In Pragmatism, he summarizes this approach as follows:

“The world is one, therefore, just so far as we experience it to be concatenated, one by as many definite conjunctions as appear. But then also NOT one by just as many definite DISjunctions as we find.”¹⁷

James pursues the matter in more detail than I ever have, listing the ways the world is one and many. It is one in that we speak of it as one thing,¹⁸ its parts are continuous in time and space,¹⁹ and it is bound within spheres of influence,²⁰ among other ways. The world may, however, also appear to us as disconjoined, and James cautions against jumping to conclusions in choosing a single perspective supposed to cover everything.²¹ “It is neither a universe pure and simple nor a multiverse pure and simple,” he states,²² and to me that’s just common sense.

Or maybe not. After all, I doubt it would satisfy Heraclitus. The man who wrote in Fragment XXVI, “Fire coming upon all things, will sift and seize them”²³ was clearly after something less a trick of thought and more an immanent, perhaps even divine force. Thus, the question remains open and, as our response to it changes across time, more fruitful than if we had a final answer.

[1] William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907/2012), 75. Retrieved from Pragmatism — Kindle edition by James, William. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
[2] G.T.W. Patrick (trans.), The Fragments of Heraclitus (Digireads.com Publishing,2013), Kindle edition, location 1314. Retrieved from The Fragments of Heraclitus — Kindle edition by Heraclitus, Patrick, G. T. W.. Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
[3] Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2005), 242.
[4] The Fragments of Heraclitus, location 1188.
[5] Ibid., location 502.
[6] Ibid., location 1216.
[7] Ibid., locations 1163, 1164.
[8] Ibid., location 138.
[9] Ibid., location 1228.
[10] Ibid., locations 1224, 1239.
[11] Ibid., location 1210, 1211.
[12] Ibid., location 1240, 1241.
[13] Ibid., location 1255.
[14] Ibid., location 1263.
[15] Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Pelican, 2018), 80.
[16] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
[17] James, Pragmatism, 86.
[18] Ibid., 77.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 78.
[21] Ibid., 80–81.
[22] Ibid., 86.
[23] The Fragments of Heraclitus, location 1198.

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J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.