Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire

Heracleitus is a philosopher whose speculations are of

surpassing interest for the student of Nature Mysticism. He was

born about 540 B.C., at Ephesus, and lived some sixty years. He

was one of the most remarkable thinkers of antiquity, and the

main substance of his teaching remains as a living and

stimulating element in the most advanced scientific and

metaphysical doctrines of the present day. But taking the point
of view of the nature-mystic, he derives his special significance

from the manner of his early training, and from the source of his

early inspirations.

While still a youth, he forsook the bustle of the city for the

solitude and charm of the lovely country which surrounded his

home, and he definitely set himself to feed his imagination on

the concrete and sensuous imagery of the poets. He laid

himself open to the impressions and intuitions which such an

environment so richly provided, and thus laid the foundation for

those speculations on the nature of the universe and of life

which have rendered his influence so lasting and his fame so


He is undoubtedly difficult to understand, and his cryptic

utterances earned for him the doubtful title of the Dark. But his

champions have pointed out that his obscurity of diction was

not the outcome of pride or intentional assumption of mystery,

but of the genuine difficulty he found in giving expression to

his novel thoughts. He waxes vehement in his struggles to

subdue his language to his purposes, his vague intuitions, his

movements in worlds not fully realised; and in this regard he

can at any rate claim the sympathy of mystics of every school.

Such was the man and such his training. What was his central,

dominating thought? What was his conception of the universal

Ground of existence? It was this--Pure Fire--motion is the secret

of the eternal change which characterises all known phenomena

of every grade and kind. "All things flow" is the far-famed

aphorism which sums up his philosophy. This eternal movement

is not, however, formless, but is determined to ever-recurrent

forms, and is obedient to law and rhythm.

He taught, then, that the eternal movement which constitutes

existence is Fire. "This one order of all things (he affirms) was

created by none of the gods, nor yet by any of mankind; but it

was ever, and is, and shall be, eternal fire-ignited by measure

and extinguished by measure." But more--he held that this

Fire-motion is alive. It will be remembered that Thales had placed

the cause of motion in matter itself, not in something other than

matter; that is to say, he was to all intents and purposes a

hylozoist. Heracleitus went a step farther, and maintained that

the life in Fire-motion is _organic_, like to that which is

manifested in the plant and animal worlds. His idea of the

essential kinship of all things is very clear and complete.

He conceived, therefore, that soul is in no way fundamentally

distinct from any other of the transformations of the ever-living

Fire. And thus the problem which so grievously torments

modern psychologists, that of the connection between soul and

body, did not exist for him. And a notable corollary of his view

is this. Since man has essential kinship with his environment, he

can apprehend both the outer surface of things and their inner

law; and it is in this recognition of their inner law that his true

nature is to be found. Now if it be granted that this inner law

can be apprehended by intuition as well as by conscious reasoning

process, the corollary is one to which the nature-mystic can

of his own master principle.

The soul, as fire, depends on the cosmic Fire for sustenance, the

breath being the physical medium; and in this regard, all that

was said of Anaximenes and "Breath," or Air, will have its

place. But Heracleitus has a further thought which is in full

harmony with the nature-mystic's chief contention. He holds

that _sense perception_ is also a medium, for the outer fire is

thereby absorbed by the inner fire. The value of this thought

remains in spite of the sage's doctrine of the body. For though

the body is regarded by him as a clog on the activity of the inner

fire, because it consists of water and earth (two forms in which

the movement of the Fire is greatly reduced) it is nevertheless

akin to the soul, and is itself destined, in the course of ceaseless

change, to become Fire in its most living and active form.

Such is the central doctrine of this noted thinker, round which

all his other teaching turned. Let us now ask, as in the

corresponding cases of Thales and Anaximander, why the

particular element was chosen as the Ground of all things. The

answer to this question will furnish, as in the previous cases,

much matter for our special purpose, since the emphasis will lie

rather on the physical properties and functions of fire, than on

its more abstract ontology.

It is obvious that Heracleitus would start with a knowledge of

the speculations of his more immediate predecessors, and of the

data on which they were based--the phenomena of circulation in

nature, evaporation, mist, rain, melting, freezing, and the rest.

And we find that in this direction he merely amplified the older

systems, taking fire, instead of water or air, as his _Welt-stoff_.

He also observed, with special care, certain suggestive cases of

rarefaction by heat and condensation by cold; as also the facts

of constant decomposition and renewal in the vegetable and

animal worlds. But the phenomenon which stands out as the

chiefest determinant of his thought is one which is always

bound to act as a powerful stimulant on a thoughtful mind--that

of combustion.

The flame of an ordinary fire can still be a thing of wonder to

the man whose mind is open to receive impressions even from

the commonplace. How illusive it is!--dancing, darting,

flickering, flashing--appearing, disappearing--unsubstantial yet

active and almost miraculously potent. The effect upon the

mind of primitive man must have been keen and vivid to the

highest degree, and must have produced results of corresponding

significance upon his spiritual development.

But the deeper kind of wonder is reserved for the systematic

speculative thinker, whose attention is arrested by the

phenomena of a steadily burning flame, say that of a lamp. The

oil is sucked up into the wick and slowly decreases in volume.

At the point where the flame begins it rises in vapour, becomes

brilliant, and, in the case of a clear flame, disappears. There is

thus a constant movement from below upwards. The flame has

all the appearance of a "thing," with comparatively definite

form and continued existence, and yet is never really the same,

not for the minutest fraction of a moment. It is an appearance

born of incessant motion--let the motion stop, the flame is gone.

Where the burning is accompanied by smoke, there is an

apparent return of volatilised matter to solid form.

Now let a philosopher like Heracleitus be meditating on nature

as a circulatory system, and let him, by chance or otherwise,

bring together in his mind the phenomena of a burning lamp and

the cosmic facts for which he seeks an explanation--is it

difficult to imagine his Eureka? At any rate, Heracleitus felt that

in the phenomena of combustion he had gained an insight into

the ultimate constitution of nature. And he concluded from them

that there is no such thing as substance, properly so called, but

simply constant movement; the movement _is_ substance. The

great solid-seeming cosmos is motion; some of it visible, some

of it imperceptible; some of it rising upward to serve as fuel,

some of it falling downward, after having fed the flame, to form

the constituents of the present world. The motion is constant,

the stream ever-flowing: no "thing" is ever at rest, and, if it

were at rest, would disappear.

The marvel is that with such scanty data, Heracleitus was able

to attain to views which are in truly remarkable harmony with

the most advanced theories as to the constitution of matter.

Nowadays the very qualities of hardness and impenetrability are

being ascribed to motion--to the almost inconceivable rapidity

of the whirling of electrons within the system of the atom. Le

Bon, for example, in his "Evolution of Matter" and his

"Evolution of Forces," contends that atoms are continually

breaking down, radium presenting merely an extreme case of a

general rule, and that the final product is something which is

no longer matter. Robbed of motion, what we call matter

disappears! It eludes detection by any methods known to us, and

ceases, therefore, so far as we are concerned, to be existent.

Atoms, then, according to this modern doctrine, are complex

systems of motion; and bodies, all agree, are aggregates of

atoms. It seems to follow that the ground of reality, from the

point of view of physics, is motion. In short, as Heracleitus

taught, the world is the result of ceaseless motion. Tyndall's

doctrine of "heat as a mode of motion" is being generalised until

it covers the whole field of material phenomena. Or approach

the theory of Heracleitus from the side of modern astronomy,

the harmony between old and new is equally striking. All

substances, said he, spring from fire and to fire they are bound

to return. It does not require much special knowledge to realise

that this statement contains the pith of the latest theories of the

birth and death of worlds. From fire-mist, says the modern

astronomer, they were condensed, and to fire-mist, by collisions

or otherwise, they will return. What the particular stages may

be, what the significance of the nebula;, what the cosmic

functions of electricity, and other like problems--may be, and

will be, matter for keen debate. But the grand generalisation

remains--from fire-mist back again to fire-mist. How modern,

also, the grand unity which such a theory gives to existence as a

whole. Physics, psychology, sociology, even spiritual facts, all

come under the sway of the vast generalisation, because all

concerned with the same ultimate Reality. The most striking

parallel is found, perhaps, in the doctrine of Energy, which is

attracting so much attention at the present time, and of which

Ostwald is a champion so doughty. It embodies an attempt to

bring into one category the various physical forces together with

the phenomena of organic evolution, of psychology, and of

sociology in the largest sense. Whether the attempt is successful

or not, it is a tribute to the genius of the ancient sage, though it

seems to lack that definite element of consciousness, or soul-life,

which was so adequately recognised by its great predecessor.

Many other points in the system of Heracleitus are worthy of

the closest study. Intensely interesting, for example, is his

doctrine that strife is the condition of harmony, and indeed of

existence. Schelling reproduced this idea in his well-known

theory of polarity; Hegel developed it in his dialectic triad--

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis; and the electrical theories of

matter and force now in vogue fall easily into line with it--not to

speak of the dominant theory of evolution as involving a

struggle for existence, and as applied in well-nigh all

departments of enquiry and research. But it is enough to have

grasped the central principle of Fire-motion to prove that the

phenomena of fire have had an influence in the development of

man's intellectual and spiritual life--an influence which cannot

easily be exaggerated. Heracleitus claims an honoured place in

the line of nature-mystics.