Heraclitus: Influence
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Heraclitus : Biography


The influence of Heraclitus' ideas on other philosophers was extensive. His reputed 'flux' doctrine, as disseminated by his follower Cratylus, helped to shape Plato's cosmology and its changeless metaphysical foundations. The Stoics looked back to Heraclitus as the inspiration for their own conception of divine fire, identifying this with the logos that he specifies as the world's explanatory principle. Later still, the neo-Pyhrronist Aenesidemus invoked Heraclitus as a partial precursor of scepticism. Heraclitus appears to have spent his life in Ephesus, which had been founded as a Greek colony some 200 years before his birth. According to ancient biography he was an arrogant and surly aristocrat, given to eccentric behaviour, but these anecdotes are largely a fictional construction built out of his own words, in which the tone he adopts in relation to other people is contemptuous. Rather than viewing this as a psychological trait, it is better to treat it as an extreme instance of the way early Greek poets and sages claimed authority for their work. Heraclitus, however, is exceptional in the explicit contempt he expresses for such hallowed authorities as Homer and Hesiod, and also for the contemporary intellectuals Xenophanes, Hecataeus and Pythagoras. He may have been on bad terms with his fellow citizens for political reasons, including perhaps support he received from King Darius of Persia, and it is likely that he was opposed to the democratic constitutions some Greek communities were beginning to adopt.

Although Heraclitus presents himself as uniquely enlightened, he was clearly familiar with the leading thinkers of his time. He draws attention to the relativity of judgments and the difference between humans and animals in ways that recall Xenophanes' critique of religious beliefs. He almost certainly knew and rejected Pythagoras' doctrine of the transmigration of souls (see Pythagoras). His cosmology is both indebted to and a criticism of Milesian science: the criticism appears particularly in his denial of the world's beginning, but his focus on the law-like processes of nature has clear affinities with Anaximander's celebrated doctrine of cosmic justice.

Heraclitus' work does not survive as a continuous whole. What we have instead is a collection of more than 100 independent sentences, most of which are ad hoc citations by authors from the period AD 100–300. Plato and Aristotle rarely cite Heraclitus directly, but their interpretations of him, which are influenced in part by their own preconceptions, shaped the ancient tradition of Heraclitus as exponent of universal flux and of fire as the primary material. Interpretation of Heraclitus is further complicated by the work of his professed follower Cratylus, and still more so by the way Stoics and Pyrrhonists looked back to him as a precursor of their own philosophies. This afterlife is important as an indication of Heraclitus' complexity and capacity to influence a range of very different thinkers, but modern interpretation of him rightly treats it as secondary to the evidence of his own words.


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