Investigating Heraclitean fire

The mystery of the role of fire in Heraclitus's aphorisms has beguiled and delighted generations of readers.


Incarcerated as we are by the unfortunate events of this year, few advantages to our current predicament are obviously apparent. One advantage of spending more time at home is a unique opportunity for intellectual self-improvement. We can finally take down those Dostoevsky novels that wear years of dust over their portly spines. We can at last come to our own conclusions about the premises in Kant’s revered Critique of Pure Reason; and, of course, the King James Bible has always needed a deeper examination than time in the pre-Covid world ever permitted. However, these laborious works might prove too taxing on a curious yet uncommitted mind. If succinctness and sagacity are your standards, then look no further than the famed fragments of Heraclitus. Due to the oral circulation of literature in Heraclitus’s time, his arguments are distilled into memorable aphorisms. What remains of his work shouldn’t take more than an hour to read, but his attractive acuity demands a lifetime of reflection.

Born heir to Ephesus, one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient world, Heraclitus left his leisurely life of assured privilege to live in the surrounding hills and to think uninterrupted on the source, constitution and disposition of all things. His treatise, On Nature, that he bequeathed to the famous Temple of Artemis gained a cult following and his works, which remain only as fragments, influenced the thought of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Spengler and Jung and was admiringly quoted by Plato, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelias on numerous occasions.

Early natural scientists and philosophers attempted an ontological explanation of life that unifies the disparate and disconnected composites of our worldly experience. For Heraclitus, the everlasting order of the universe consists of an endlessly ongoing process of becoming, of conflicts and collisions between opposites, collisions that effect continual change and ensure inexorable renewal. Heraclitus’s most famous fragments like ‘the sun is new again, all day’ and ‘you cannot step twice into the same stream’ succinctly posit this central thesis. Through understanding the flux of everything, we discover the essential tension between opposites that constitutes the cosmos. For Heraclitus, what is truly constant is change and only change.

His philosophical contemporaries regularly sought to reduce the world to substances. For Thales it was water, for Anaximenes it was air, for Empedocles it was four indivisible elements; for Pythagoras it was a numerical revelation. Heraclitus chose a different path. He had little interest in a material explanation for the state of things. He also avoided the questionable metaphysics of his rival Parmenides. He instead used the term ‘fire’ to express not so much the substance at the base of all life as the behaviour of that substance. With earth and sea (water), fire is one of the several matters that make the world, but ultimately it has a higher role than the rest in Heraclitus’s thought. It represents the flow of matter. It describes the evolution, dissolution and reanimation of meaning. It is his literal exponent for the extempore habits of energy and features in his Fragments as the governing element of all existence.

However, fire is not a metaphysical essence like the elements put forward by his peers. His fire is a sign that discloses the climate of the noumenal realm. It is an illustrative device, but one which inevitably invites a great deal of confusion. In many ways, the fragmentary remains of his work makes it difficult to penetrate deeper into the meaning Heraclitus intended for this flickering symbol, but intuition allows us to gauge the profound gist of his ambitious proposition.

Heraclitus is often considered a curiously modern thinker. His disposal of linear comprehensions of time in fragments such as ‘Any day stands equal to the rest’ and ‘moving forward and moving back are one and the same’ anticipate the dramatic reappraisals of temporal-spatial constituencies by postmodern philosophers. Einstein’s iconic formula, E=mc2, is also in alignment with Heraclitus’s idea of energy being the essence of matter. And TS Eliot in his Nobel Prize winning collection, The Four Quartets, not only opens his final poem with two Heraclitean quotations, but he thematically relies heavily upon the relationship Heraclitus opined between temporality and eternity, structure and chaos and the regenerative intersection of affiliated opposites.

Heraclitus’s fire is a coursing force that consumes and encompasses everything. Scholars still spend their professional hours assessing and deciphering this strangely attractive explanation for a mysterious material that ties and tethers all life together. His elliptical use of fire to portray an imperative ingredient for existence may be wrought with obscurity but unlike much of pre-Socratic philosophy, his fiery theories still have an enlightening effect.


Harry Cluff