Heracleitus and Pythagoras

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 2, The Life of Greece. Read more WillDurant.com

At Ephesus, whose temple to Artemis Diana was among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Heracleitus, three hundred years before Plato, expounded, in enigmatic apothegms, a philosophy of evolution that must have delighted Hegel, Darwin, Spencer and Nietzsche.

Two ideas fascinated him: change is universal, and energy is indestructible and everlasting. Nothing is, everything becomes; everything is always ceasing to be what it is, and is becoming what it will be; “all things flow” (panta rei), and “you can never dip your foot in the same water in a flowing stream”; the universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless “Becoming.”

Here, in a sentence or two, is half the philosophy that Hegel expounded in 1830 A.D.

But under the flux, Heracletus saw a never-diminished reality which he called “Fire,” by which he seems to have meant “force” or “energy.” The individual soul is a passing tongue of the endlessly changing flame of life. Man is a fitful moment in that flame, “kindled and put out like a light in the night.”

God is the eternal Fire, the omnipresent energy of the fluent world. In the universal flux anything can in time change into its opposite; good can become evil, evil can become good, life becomes death, death becomes life.

Opposites are two sides of the same thing; strength is the tension of opposites; “Strife” (competition) “is the father of all and the kin of all; some he has marked out to be gods, and some to be men; some he made slaves and some free.”

In the end, Heracleitus concluded, “strife is justice“: the competition of individuals, groups, institutions, states, and empires constitutes nature’s supreme court, from whose verdict there is no appeal.


He was born on the Aegean island of Samos about 580 B.C. and traveled inquisitively in Gaul, Egypt, the Near East, and India. He never recovered from India: he accepted the theory of karma – retributive rebirth; one story tells how he stopped a man from beating a dog, saying that he recognized in its cries the voice of a dead friend.

He was over fifty when he settle in Crotona, where his lectures drew enthusiastic students of either sex. He organized the most faithful of his followers into a communistic community pledged to avoid meat, eggs, and beans, to purify their bodies with abstinence and self-control, and to purify their minds with science and music. He gave geometry its classic form two centuries before Euclid; and he himself formulated the theorem that bears his name.

He discovered the numerical relations of musical notes, as on the strings of a harp. Since all bodies moving through space produce some noise, each planet in its orbital motion must make regular sounds; these constitute the “music of the spheres,” which we never hear because we hear it all the time.

He was the first, says Diogenes Laertius, “to give the name of kosmos to the world,” because of the order and beauty of the stars. Kosmos – ie, “order” – became a guide word to Pythagoras: virtue is order in our desires and in our relations with the community; and right government is the maintenance of order in the state.

This, Pythagoras though, could be best provided by an educated aristocracy, preferably of Pythagorean graduates. Plato followed Pythagoras in and other ways. The Greeks, when they spoke of “the philosopher,” meant Pythagoras.


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