Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
79. Strife and "Harmony" 81. The Wise

From Chapter III., Herakleitos of Ephesos

80. Correlation of Opposites
There are several Herakleitean fragments which form a class by themselves, and are among the most striking of the utterances that have come down to us. These assert in the most downright way the identity of various things usually regarded as opposites. The clue to their meaning is to be found in the account already given of the assertion that day and night are one. We have seen that Herakleitos meant, not that day was night, or night was day, but that they were two sides of the same process: namely, the oscillation of the "measures" of fire and water, and that neither would be possible without the other. Any explanation that can be given of night will also be an explanation of day, and vice versa; for it will be an account of what is common to both, and manifests itself now as one and now as the other. Now this is only a particular application of the principle that the primary fire is one even in its division. It itself is, even in its unity, both surfeit and want, war and peace (fr. 36). In other words, the "satiety" which makes fire pass into other forms, which makes it seek "rest in change" (fr. 83), and "hide itself" (fr. 10) in the "hidden attunement" of opposition, is only one side of the process. The other is the "want" which leads it to consume the bright vapour as fuel. The upward path is nothing without the downward (fr. 69). If either were to cease, the other would cease too, and the world would disappear; for it takes both to make an apparently stable reality.

All other utterances of the kind are to be explained in the same way. If there were no cold, there would be no heat; for a thing can only grow warm if, and in so far as, it is already cold. And the same thing applies to the opposition of wet and dry (fr. 39). These, it will be observed, are just the two primary oppositions of Anaximander, and Herakleitos is showing that the war between them is really peace, for it is the common element in them (fr. 62) which appears as strife, and that very strife is justice, and not, as Anaximander had taught, an injustice which they commit one against the other, and which must be expiated by a reabsorption of both in their common ground.100

The most startling of these sayings is that which affirms that good and evil are the same (fr. 57). This does not mean that good is evil or that evil is good, but simply that they are the two inseparable halves of one and the same thing. A thing can become good only in so far as it is already evil, and evil only in so far as it is already good, and everything depends on the contrast. The illustration given in fr. 58 shows this clearly. Torture, one would say, was an evil, and yet it is made a good by the presence of another evil, namely, disease; as is shown by the fact that surgeons expect a fee for inflicting it on their patients. Justice, on the other hand, which is a good, would be unknown were it not for injustice, which is an evil (fr. 60). And that is why it is not good for men to get everything they wish (fr. 104). Just as the cessation of strife in the world would mean its destruction, so the disappearance of hunger, disease, and weariness would mean the disappearance of satisfaction, health, and rest.

This leads to a theory of relativity which prepares the way for the doctrine of Protagoras, that "Man is the measure of all things."101 Sea-water is good for fish and bad for men (fr. 52), and so with many other things. At the same time, Herakleitos is not a believer in absolute relativity. The process of the world is not merely a circle, but an "upward and downward path." At the upper end, where the two paths meet, we have the pure fire, in which, as there is no separation, there is no relativity. We are told that, while to man some things are evil and some things are good, all things are good to God (fr. 61). Now by God, or the "one wise," there 'is no doubt Herakleitos meant Fire. There can hardly be any question that what he meant to say was that in it the opposition and relativity universal in the world disappear. It is doubtless to this that frs. 96, 97, and 98 refer.

Burnet's Notes


100. Chap. I. § 16.

101. Plato's exposition of the relativity of knowledge in the Theaetetus (152 d sqq.) can hardly go back to Herakleitos himself, but is meant to show how Herakleiteanism might give rise to such a doctrine. If the soul is a stream and things are a stream, then of course knowledge is relative. Perhaps the later Herakleiteans had worked out the theory in this direction.

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