"The ordering, the same for all, no god or man has made, but it was, is and will be: fire ever-living, being kindled in measures and going out in measures.' (Heraclitus fr. 30.) Discuss.


In Greek, this fragment is recorded (in the Diels-Kranz collection of Presocratic sources)(1) as -

"κόσμον τόνδε, τὸν αὐτὸν ἁπάντων, οὔτε τις θεῶν οὐτε ἀνθρώπων ἐποίησεν, ἀλλ' ἦν ἀεὶ καὶ ἔστιν καὶ ἔσται πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα."

Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens -- circa 2nd century CE)(2), the source of this fragment, quotes fragments B30 and B31 in the same context.(3)  His complete text reads (Stromata V, 104, 1)(4) -

"Now that [Heraclitus] recognized that the world which is uniquely characterized by the totality of substance is eternal, is evident when he says:

The world, the same for all, neither any god nor any man made; but it was always and is and will be, fire ever-living, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures. [B30]

And that he believed it to be generated and destructible is indicated by the following words:

Turnings of fire: first, sea; of sea, half is earth, half lightning flash. [B31a]

He says in effect that, by reason and good which rule everything, fire is turned by way of air into moisture, the seed, as it were, of creation, which he calls sea; and from this, again, come earth and heaven and what they contain.  He shows clearly in the following words that they are restored again and become fire:

Sea is dissolved and measured into the same proportion that existed at first. [B31b]

And the same holds for the other elements."

According to Diogenes Laertius (circa 3rd century CE)(5), a biographer of Greek philosophers, in the sixth century BCE, Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote a philosophical work entitled "On Nature".  None of the original work has survived.  Only about 130 disjointed fragments remain as quotations in the works of others.  Also according to Diogenes, Heraclitus was a misanthrope who had a very low opinion of the intelligence of others.  He made a point of writing in an obscure and complex fashion, making extensive use of poetical metaphors and plays on words, so that none but the already knowledgeable could understand him.  As a consequence, it is very difficult to tease a coherent interpretation out of the little that remains of his text.

For example, a quick search of Internet resources indicates that first two words of Fragment 30 ("κόσμον τόνδε") have been variously translated as "the world", "the ordering", "this order", "this world of beauty and order", "this world-order", "this universe", "the cosmos", and "the cosmic order". 

In this passage, he [Heraclitus] uses, for the first time in any extant Greek text, the word kosmos ["κόσμον"] "order" to mean something like "world."(6)

Now "κόσμον" for Heraclitus, in the early fifth century [BC], must still have retained much of its basic meaning of "order ", "regularity "; it cannot just mean "world" in our practical sense, and is perhaps best translated as "organism".(7)

It is debateable, therefore, whether Heraclitus is referring in this fragment to what we would call our Universe, or whether he is referring to what elsewhere he calls "logos" ("λόγον") -- traditionally interpreted as the guiding rationality, or organizationing principle, of the Universe.  Many interpreters of Heraclitus, especially those with a Christian theological focus, prefer the association of "world-order" to "logos" to "fire".  Other more linguistically oriented interpreters suggest that the employment in ancient Greek of "κόσμον" should be kept distinct from that of "λόγον".  Either way, it is at least clear in this fragment that whichever interpretation is preferred, Heraclitus maintains that it is eternal, never having been created, and never to be destroyed.  This is distinct from the later Stoic (and early Christian) interpretation of Heraclitus as suggesting that the world will experience cycles each ending in a fiery conflagration.

Heraclitus' philosophy is that of change. Against his philosophical predecessors' idea of the world as a fixed unity, Heraclitus presents the idea of the world as process.  But the process is an ordered one, governed by fundamental principles.  There is a "logos" which establishes all things and regulates all things.  Thus, universal change is accompanied by an eternal unchanging governing canon.  This eternal guiding reason, through all its visible changeability, Heraclitus symbolized by fire.

Various interpreters of this fragment place the punctuation surrounding "ever-living" in different places -- the passage in Clement is ambiguous to this extent.  Some suggest that the "ever-living" is a modifier of "fire", as it is presented in the essay title.  Other interpreters suggest that it is a continuation of the previous phrase.  Most interpreters of Heraclitus, especially Plato and Aristotle, the founders of the "traditional" view, understand the reference to "fire ever-living" in this fragment to mean that Heraclitus believed fire to be the basic underlying "substance" (Aristotelian "material cause") of the sensible world, in the same manner as his Ionian predecessors Thales (water), Anaximander (aperion), and Anaximenes (air).  On this view, it is understood as supporting the interpretation that Heraclitus' is saying that fire is both a living thing (and hence has some intelligence as all living things were presumed to in that age) and is eternal, and that all things contain fire in some measure, with the constant changes that the world experiences arising from the waxing and waning of the measure of fire within each thing.

On the alternative interpretation, the Greek is understood as a continuation of the description of the world-order as "it was, is, and will be, ever-living". 

This (τόνδε) order (κόσμον), which is the same (τὸν αὐτὸν) in all (ἁπάντων) : things no-one (οὔτε τις) of gods (θεῶν) or men (ἀνθρώπων) has made (ἐποίησεν) ; but (ἀλλ᾽) it was (ἦν) ever (ἀεὶ), is (ἔστιν) now and ever, shall be (ἔσται) an everliving (ἀείζωον). Fire (πῦρ) fixed (ἁπτόμενον) measures (μέτρα) of it kindling and fixed measures (μέτρα) going out (ἀπο­σϐεννύμενον).(8)

This removes the living and eternal attributes of fire as a thing, and invests those qualities in the "world-order".  And it is also more consistent with some of the other uses of "fire" within the Heraclitan fragments.  In fragments 66 and 90, for example, it is not at all clear that fire is being considered as the underlying substance from which all things arise -- as would be the traditional interpretation. 

(Fr. 66) "Fire in its advance will judge and convict all things."(9)

(Fr. 90) "All things are exchanged for Fire, and Fire for all things as wares are exchanged for gold, and gold for wares."(9)

Here it would seem that Heraclitus is considering fire to be the universal standard or "coin of exchange".  All things are measured / judged against the standard of fire, and exchanged for fire, they do not consist of or grow out of fire.  On this view, the second sentence of the fragment is Heraclitus using the metaphor of fire as a symbol of the ever-lasting but ever changing world-order -- being kindled in fixed measures and extinguished in fixed measures.

For Heraclitus, the great truth is that the unity of the world-order depends on difference, opposition and change, since the universe is in a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium of opposites in a constant flux between opposites.  There are two views on how this is to be understood.  The traditional view of Heraclitus's philosophy is that all things are flux or change.  This comes from Plato and Aristotle.  In Plato's Cratylus (401d ff) he says that Heraclitus believes "All things flow and nothing stands".  And that "Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the flowing of a river, and says that you cannot step into the same water twice".  Aristotle further explains that as a result of Heraclitus' doctrine that "All sensible things are ever in a state of flux" there is "no knowledge about them" (Metaphysics 987a 32).  The traditional view is that all things are changing, in all respects, all the time.  Hence Aristotle's argument that knowledge is impossible.  You can't really know anything, if that which you are trying to know has changed by the time you comprehend it.

But again according to other interpretations, in Heraclitus' view the dynamic equilibrium ("κόσμον", or "λόγον") of the cosmos is maintained by the observance of measure ("μέτρα").  The preservation of the whole world-order depends upon the observance of measure in all things.  In this view, all things may change, but not all at once, and not in any direction at all.  Things have properties that exist at a point along a continuum expressed as pairs of opposites.  Things therefore change with respect to those properties only by waxing or waning along that continuum.  Hence the water may flow, but the river is constant.

This interpretation of measure and change is closely coupled to the understanding of Heraclitus's use of "logos"

The meanings of "λόγον" may be collapsed broadly into two groups: (1) those with the sense of oratio where the accent lies on expression or verbalization, and thus the translations "word," "story," "tale," "account," "discourse," etc.; and (2) those with the sense of ratio, that which is expressed or verbalized, and thus the translations "idea," "reason," "principle," "measure," etc.(10)

"Measure" is therefore of as critical importance as is the guiding "logos" that governs all things.  Measure must be changed for measure, else the equilibrium collapses.  Day changes into night, and vice versa.  The "logos" ensures that the measures are equal.  The fragment quoted in the essay title supports this rather than the traditional interpretation of Heraclitus' "Philosophy of Flux".

So as with all of what little remains of the thought of Heraclitus, there is plenty of room for debate as to the proper interpretation.


(1)   http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/archives/20020801/index.html

(2)   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clement_of_Alexandria

(3)   http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/archives/20020801/B30/index.html

(4)   http://www2.forthnet.gr/presocratics/heracln.htm

(5)   http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/dioglaer.htm

(6)   Graham, Daniel W., "Heraclitus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

(7)   Kirk, G. S., "Natural Change in Heraclitus", Mind, New Series, Vol. 60, No. 237. (Jan., 1951), p 38.

(8)   http://philoctetes.free.fr/uniheraclite.htm

(9)   http://philoctetes.free.fr/heraclitefraneng.htm

(10)  Miller, Ed. L. "The Logos of Heraclitus: Updating the Report", The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, No. 2. (Apr., 1981), pp. 161-176.


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