PATER ETHICÆ: Heraclitus and the Birth of Ethics


A certain coldness fills Ionian philosophy.  These founding fathers of philosophy greatly concern themselves with the underlying connection of the universe and with the connection between the mind and the world, but they ignore the implications of their considerations in the realm of personal life, which forms moral philosophy.  Pythagoras discusses the proper life for man, but he does not base it upon his philosophical system.  It remains for Heraclitus of Ephesus to extend his metaphysical and epistemological system to man’s life and to form conclusions on how man ought to life from his system.

Pythagoras’ concern with right living stems from his belief in metempsychosis, while his concern with metaphysics stems from his conviction that numbers form the cosmos.  No link exists between these two branches of his thought, and the presence of two Pythagorean schools proves this disjuncture.  The ἀκουσματικοί followed Pythagoras as a divine sage, condemning all innovation; this naturally placed them at odds with the μαθηματικοί, who embraced Pythagoras’ passion for research and developed much of his thought into the system which history calls “Pythagorean.”  This system is characterized by the rigid mathematical order of numbers, while the sayings which the ἀκοθσματικοί revere contain ludicrous prohibitions and injunctions, viz. “Do not stir the fire with a knife.  Rub out the mark of a pot in the ashes.  Do not wear a ring.  Do not have swallows in your house” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 58C6).  Pythagoras prohibited the breaking of bread because of the judgment of Hades, because it brings cowardice in war, and that the whole universe begins from breaking bread (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 53C3).  If the ἀκουσματικοί with their strange moral code considered the μαθηματικοί fake Pythagoreans, one can easily see that Pythagoras’ system of living and his metaphysics have nothing in common.

Heraclitus’ ethics come from his metaphysical concept of the λόγος.  The λόγος serves as a governing principle for the universe (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 30).  As the governing principle of the universe, it naturally governs men.  All men, therefore, have an obligation to seek the λόγος, as he says “it is necessary to follow what is common…the λόγος is common” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B2).  Professor Khan states that Heraclitus links right thinking with self-knowledge, which is knowledge of the λόγος (Khan 1989, 121).  Having linked knowledge of the λόγος with right thinking, Heraclitus declares the necessity of right thinking: “it belongs to all people to know themselves and to think rightly”( Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B116) and “right thinking is the greatest excellence, and wisdom is to speak the truth and act in accordance with nature while paying attention to it” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B112)  Thus one can see that how Heraclitus links his metaphysics with the individual man by seeking the fundamental law of the universe in his own life.

Heraclitus reinforces this point by linking human law with divine law.  He states, “those who speak with understanding must rely firmly on what is common to all as a city must rely on law” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B114) while earlier he says “the λόγος is common” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B2).  He continues in the same fragment to say, “All human laws are nourished by one law, the divine law” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeve 2011, 22B114).  The word which he uses for nourish, τρέφω, indicates not only nourishment, but also containment (Liddell and Scott 1996, s.v. “τρέφω”) Therefore, he declares that human law has a sense of origination and containment within the λόγος.  Having linked the two, it is no small extension, in view of the earlier exhortations to follow the λόγος, to see that Heraclitus considers man obligated to conform himself to human laws.  Professor Wheelwright also declares, “The one divine Nomos is not essentially different from the one divine Logos” (Wheelwright 1968, 87).  Heraclitus seems to prove Professor Wheelwright’s veracity when he says, “The people must fight for the law as for the city wall” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B44).  One cannot fight for something unless he has submitted himself to it.  By linking human law with divine law and by entreating men to obey it, Heraclitus further joins his metaphysical constructs to his ethical concepts.

Heraclitus also speaks of dry souls, and he links these with the λόγος.  He considered fire to be the closest physical representation of the λόγος, so the man who lived closest to the λόγος would be the driest.  The lesser things are wet, because water is farthest from fire; furthermore, he states, “for souls to become water is to die” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B36).  He then states, “The dry soul [is] wisest and best” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B118).  If the dry soul is wisest and if the wise soul is the one which conforms itself to the λόγος, which has been proven above, then the dry soul is the best soul.  With this conclusion in mind, Heraclitus condemns drunkenness (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B117), since the drunk is both literally and spiritually wet.  This also enables him to forbid greed (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B110), since a desire for material things, which are earthy and wet, will moisten the soul, or draw it away from the pursuit of the λόγος.  These views of the soul lead Heraclitus to startling conclusions about the nature of matter.

Since Heraclitus considers moisture as drawing souls away from the λόγος, he can condemn anything material.  He declares the passions, which originate in the body, something to be condemned because he views material things as wet and thus harmful to the soul.  He even condemns the body without the soul as “more fit to be thrown out than dung” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B96).  Since a passion is directly linked to the body, he considers hubris as more dangerous than fire (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B43).  If material things are harmful to the soul, he logically states that the best man seeks immaterial things (Wheelwright 1968, 22B85).  One can easily see that Heraclitus’ language of “wet” and “dry” souls enables him to link his moral exhortations to the rest of his philosophy.

To prove how essential he considers the pursuit of the λόγος, Heraclitus condemns men and practices which do not lead men to the λόγος.  He declares that Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus, because they did not have insight into the λόγος, had no worth (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B40).  He singles out Pythagoras for his “evil trickery” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B129), which led men away from the λόγος in pursuit of arcane ἀκούσματα.  In his eyes Homer and Archilochus deserve flogging (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B42).  He despises Hesiod, whom he says could not distinguish day from night, (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B57) but claimed to give the causes for many things in the Theogony and the Works and Days.  In the end he rejects all received knowledge, saying, “The knowledge of the most famous persons…is but opinion” (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B28).  He threatens nightwalkers, Magi, Bacchoi, Lenai, and all members of secret rites with dire punishment because they lead men away from the λόγος in the pursuit of worthless opinion (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B14).  He holds bacchanalia in contempt because they lead men to worship of fleshy things (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B15) and declares that those who try to purify themselves with blood are as foolish as those who would try to purify themselves with mud (Cohen, Curd, and Reeves 2011, 22B5).  All these criticisms lead towards Heraclitus’ opinion as a misanthrope, but they prove the importance with which he placed the pursuit of the λόγος.

Heraclitus continues to earn his reputation for misanthropy when he speaks of the average man who ignores the pursuit of the λόγος.  He compares such people with men sleeping and deaf, lacking intelligence and understanding (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B1; 22B34; 22B104).  He calls the man a fool who chases every new way of thinking (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B87).  He calls that the common masses who do not seek the λόγος cattle (Wheelwright 1968, 22B29), comparing men who speak about that which they do not know with dogs (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B97).  Such strong statements leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth, but shock sometimes accomplishes what reason will not.

The close reader of Heraclitus will find a few statements which seem to indicate moral relativism, which would destroy the system of ethics which he develops elsewhere in his corpus.  In the first place, statements placing human opinion in disrepute can be easily explained by the above arguments.  In the second place, Heraclitus often says that a thing may seem so in one case, but not in the other, viz. “The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to men undrinkable and destructive,” and “to god all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some unjust and others just” (Cohen, Curd and Reeve 2011, 22B61;22B102).  Yet to use these statements to destroy the entire moral philosophy which Heraclitus so painfully constructs reveals a fundamental error in interpretation. One can interpret them as Thomas does, that all things are good inasmuch as they are joined to the divine (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q.6, iv, co.); for Heraclitus this divine would be the λόγος.  Leading from this, Professor Dortor states, “Heraclitus shows us that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reflect not properties of the things themselves, but only how things match up with our particular appetites and needs” (Dortor 2013, 40).  Thus one realizes that Heraclitus is no more a relativist than Thomas.

From these examples one can readily see how Heraclitus extends his philosophical system to human life and its right conduct.  Looking at the history of philosophy leads one to realize that he first does this, and Pythagoras only seems to do so.  In his corpus, Heraclitus has not only provided metaphysical and epistemological insights, but also ethical insights.


Aquinas, Thomas.  1920.  The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.  Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  Rev. ed.  Accessed 21 September 2013.

Cohen, S. Marc, Patricia Curd, and C.D.C Reeve, eds.  2011.  Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle.  4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Dortor, Kenneth.  2013.  “The Problem of Evil in Heraclitus.”  In Early Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics and the Emergence of Reason, edited by Joe McCoy, 36-54.  Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, edited by Jude P. Dougherty, vol. 57.  Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Kahn, Charles H.  1989.  The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary New York: Cambridge University Press.  (Orig. publ. 1979.)

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott.  1996.  A Greek-English Lexicon.  9th ed. Edited by Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie.  New York: Oxford University Press.  (Orig. publ. 1843.)

Wheelwright, Philip.  1968.  Heraclitus.  New York: Atheneum.  (orig. publ. 1959.)

This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s