What is the Heraclitean logos that people do not comprehend?


According to Diogenes Laertius (circa 3rd century CE)(1), a biographer of the ancient Greek philosophers, in the sixth century BCE, Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote a philosophical work entitled "On Nature".   Also according to Diogenes, Heraclitus was a misanthrope who had a very low opinion of the intelligence of his fellow Ephesians.   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.  

They say that Euripides gave Socrates a copy of Heraclitus' book and asked him what he thought of it.   He replied: "What I understand is splendid; and I think what I don't understand is so too - but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it."
                        (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, II 22).

None of the original work has survived.   Only 139 disjointed fragments remain as quotations in the works of others.   As a consequence, it is very difficult to tease a coherent interpretation out of the little that remains of his text.   There continues a considerable debate amongst the experts as to which fragments are the best guides to the original text, and what ought to be the proper interpretation of Heraclitus'philosophic musings.(2)

What is the "Logos"?

A scholarly survey of the relevant literature reveals that -

"The meanings of "λόγου" ["logos"] 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 [as in "governing law"], " "measure," etc."(3)

An examination of the extant fragments shows that only six of the remaining pieces include the word "λόγου" ("logos").   In addition, only another five can be considered to provide additional information on the meaning of "logos".   (See the appendix to this essay for the complete text of these eleven fragments.)   Most of the English translations of these fragments are reasonably consistent.   But there is sufficient variation in translation that a coherent interpretation of this material is problematic for anyone not conversant with the ancient Greek language.   Unfortunately for such efforts, the early Greek commentators on the philosophy of Heraclitus tended to use the same word as he did ("logos"), without providing any significant explanatory details as to what exactly is to be understood by it.

Frg. 1 - The logos ever exists. Alternative translations -- the logos is "always true", "eternally valid", or "as I describe it".   Also -- the logos always exists.   Everything happens in accordance with this logos.   Another alternative translation -- "all things come to pass"in accordance with this logos.(4)

The standard interpretation is that the Logos is the eternal guiding principle of the Universe.   Heraclitus' philosophy is that of a universe in constant change.   Against his philosophical predecessors'idea of the world as a fixed unity, Heraclitus presents the idea of the world as process.   For Heraclitus, the great truth is that the unity of the world-order ("logos") depends on difference, opposition and change.   The universe is in a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium of opposites in a constant flux between opposites.   But the process is an ordered one, governed by fundamental principles.   Thus, universal change is accompanied by an eternal unchanging governing canon.   Hence the "logos"to establish all things and regulate all things.

Frg. 2 - The logos is common to all men.

Frg. 45 - The soul has (or possibly possesses, exemplifies, participates in) logos.  

Frg. 115 - The logos of the soul is growing.

The standard interpretation of these three fragments is that the logos is part of the soul, and is what makes the soul boundless and eternal -- just as Frg. 1 describes the logos itself.

Frg. 50 - The logos is not the word of Heraclitus.   It is one.

This fragment is key in refuting those translations that choose to understand "logos"as "word"or "discourse".   It especially refutes the Christian theological habit of understanding "logos"as "the Word of God."This fragment is also reveals Heraclitus'fundamental notion that "all things are one"despite the constant change.   The guiding principle is one unified thing.   Picture as an apt analogy, the efforts in modern physics to come up with a "Grand Unified Theory" -- one unified conception that explains and governs all that exists and all that changes in the Universe.   In a sense, we can view the struggle in modern physics as an effort to identify the "logos".

Frg. 72 - All people are estranged from the logos, and it seems alien to them.  

Frg. 89 - The logos is accessible to those awake, but not to those asleep.   The logos (world-order) is one and common.

In light of Heraclitus'renowned disdain for the intelligence of his fellow man, this passage is interpreted to support the notion that "logos"means something like "the Truth".   Since, in Heraclitus'view, most people are ignorant, they do not understand the truth of how the Universe is constituted and works.   It is accessible and instructive for those who pay attention.   But most people are as sleepers dreaming of their own private worlds.

Frg. 66 - Fire is synonymous with logos.

Considering that in Frg. 1 it is maintained that all things happen in accordance with the logos, the standard interpretation of this fragment is the equation of fire with logos.   This interpretation is important because of the related fragments that speak to the participation of fire in the changes that are pervasive in the Universe.   The traditional understanding is that fire is also to be seen as Heraclitus'Aristotelian material cause -- all things consist of fire in various forms, as is described in Frg. 90.   But it is unclear whether the "fire"of which Heraclitus speaks is to be understood as a fundamental material out of which all things come (and to which all things return), or as the driving force that motivates all change, or simply as an analogy -- fire, like the "logos"is something that remains the same whilst simultaneously undergoing continuous change.

Frg. 30 - The world-order is described as "fire".   Therefore world-order is synonymous with logos because fire is also synonymous with logos.

The term "world-order" ("κόσμον") is being used as synonymous with logos.   Both are described as everlasting and common to all.   The concept of "κόσμον"is semantically analogous to a law or principle that all things happen in accordance with.   This passage reinforces the interpretation of logos in Frg.1 as "guiding principle"rather than "word"or "discourse".

Frg. 64 - Since Frg. 1 states that all things come to pass in accordance with the logos, this fragment is presumed to equate the thunderbolt with the logos.  

How this can be interpreted is problematic unless it is taken to be a poetical reference to fire.   If this is the presumption, it supports the interpretation of Frg. 30 that fire, and "world-order"are to be considered synonymous with "logos".   Of course, this reasoning is somewhat circular, since Frg. 30 and Frg 66 are the only reasons for a poetical presumption in the first place.

The traditional interpretation of "logos"is that of the guiding rationality, or organizing principle, of the Universe.   This eternal guiding reason, this principle of world order, through all its visible changeability, Heraclitus also called "world-order", symbolized by fire.   Everything that we can learn about what meaning Heraclitus intended to invest in his word "logos"has to be extrapolated from this extremely sparse data.   As a result there is plenty of debate over the best modern understanding of the word.

Why do people not understand the "Logos"?

To address this part of the essay's title question, we need to understand the historical context in which Heraclitus was writing.   Heraclitus of Ephesus (ca. 535 BCE -- 475 BCE) wrote the text from which the remaining extant fragments were taken at the dawn of western philosophical tradition.   Beginning with Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BCE -- ca. 546 BCE), and the early Milesians, was the dawn of the scientific approach to understanding nature.   It was the dawn of an explanation for events that draws on fundamental natural principles and rules, rather than the will of supernatural spirits.

In the millennia preceding the birth of this new way of looking at the world, the attitude of people towards the world around them was characterized as "Animism".   Animism is a simplistic belief that is a very natural extrapolation from our familiarity with our own actions.   When Mankind first started to ponder the mysteries of the Universe, he naturally drew upon that portion of the Universe he knew the best - himself.   This sort of reasoning, by analogy with human action, leads directly to the hypothesis that everything that happens in nature, happens because some consciousness wills that it happen.   (I have a small step ladder in the kitchen that I swear just waits for me to try to fold it up so it can pinch my fingers.   And when I hit my thumb with the hammer, it is not me that I cuss, it is that stupid malevolent hammer.)

As the internal logic of an Animist belief is explored, certain logical consequences are almost inevitable.   If the bounty of the harvest is the effect of some conscious will, then it would make more sense to invest time and effort in influencing that conscious will, instead of in investigations into biology and agronomy.   Investigations into biology and agronomy (the physics of cause and effect) might even be regarded as treading on the territory of the conscious will involved.   We are, after all, territorial animals.   So it would be in keeping with the reasoning by analogy with human actions, to assume that the conscious will that governs nature is also territorial in some way.   The result of a wide spread belief in Animism is, therefore, a social focus of attention on the placation and appeasement of the conscious will(s) involved.   Prayer, supplication, and offerings of various sorts, accompanied by elaborate rituals, are the hallmarks of an Animist social culture.   This is not, of course, a description relevant only to ancient history.   All religions even today, are essentially Animist in origin and in current nature.   The last three millennia of recorded history are replete with examples of how still existent Animist belief structures have struggled against the scientific view-point proposed by the early Greek philosophers.

In proposing a non animist view of the reality that surrounds us, therefore, Heraclitus was proposing a view of nature that was directly contradicting the established traditional animist mindset, and directly challenging the then extant religious belief system.   It is no surprise, therefore, that Heraclitus would be moved to exclaim that people did not understand his "logos", even after he explained it (Frg 1).   Or that people, in their ignorance, would continue as if they had their own private communications link to the gods of their choice (Frg. 2).   Or that people live in a dream world (Frg. 89) when they ignore the "logos".   Or that people are generally estranged from the guiding principles of reality (Frg. 72).   It is no surprise that in a social environment dominated by an Animist view of nature, a suggestion that nature was governed and organized by guiding principles and rules rather than conscious wills would be poorly received and generally misunderstood.

In modern times, in our "westernized"and "technicalized"culture, we are the intellectual descendents (most of us at any rate) of the scientific viewpoint born in ancient Greece around the time of Heraclitus.   So for us, the challenge of understanding the "logos"of Heraclitus is a challenge of teasing out a coherent interpretation of the little that remains of his writings.   It is not (generally) the challenge of understanding the concept of a non-animist guiding principle for the Universe.   So it is reasonably safe to claim that while Heraclitus had to battle against a fundamental incomprehension in his own time, he would not have the same problem (at least to the same extent) today.   Although, of course, animism still reigns supreme within every religious belief structure.   But in the "westernized"culture, we at least pretend that the scientific view-point has precedence.   And so at least pretend that we do understand the Heraclitan "logos".


Notes & References

(1)     Diogenes Laertius, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL=<http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/dioglaer.htm

(2)     Vlastos, Gregory.   Studies in Greek Philosophy: Volume 1 -- The Presocratics, Daniel W. Graham Ed., Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1993.   ISBN 0-691-01937-1.   Pgs 127-150.

(3)     Miller, Ed. L. "The Logos of Heraclitus: Updating the Report", The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, No. 2. (Apr., 1981), pp. 161-176. URL= http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0017-8160%28198104%2974%3A2%3C161

(4)     Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd Ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908, pp. 146-156.

Graham, Daniel W., "Heraclitus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =                                         <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2007/entries/heraclitus/>.

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

Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E., Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1957.

Minar, Edwin L., The Logos of Heraclitus, Classical Philology, Vol. 34, No. 4. (Oct., 1939), pp. 323-341.

Appendix - The Logos Fragments

These fragments, and their English translations, are can be found on the Internet at   <http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/archives/20020801/>   which in turn has drawn its Greek text primarily from Diels, Hermann - Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. (ed. Walther Kranz.   Berlin, 1951), and its English translations from Burnet, John.   Early Greek Philosophy (London, 1920).   I have made some minor adjustments to highlight the appearance of "λόγου" ("logos") in the text.   The fragment numbering is from the traditional Diels and Kranz scheme.]

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