In the days of Heraclitus, Greek philosophy was still in its infancy. But even at this early juncture, Greece had already experienced the profound intellects of such luminaries as Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Of course, there were others, but these are the ones I wish to discuss, leading up to Heraclitus and his idea of boundless depth.
This period in history is within the era Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (Ger. Achsenzeit, “axistime”). Jaspers, and other scholars of spiritual and philosophical history, believed that a great awakening of consciousness began around 800-1000 BC (Hick 113). During this time, the archetypes of Western religious and philosophical thought were established. The various theories of the arche, which the aforementioned Greek thinkers conceived in the sixth century B.C., are crucial to the understanding of Heraclitus’ idea of psyche.
Thales proposed the arche to be water. He believed water to be the cause of all things. I have read many speculative treatises as to what Thales meant. Most of them seem to literalize his statement, as if he were a modern scientist. We should examine statements from this period in a mythopoeic manner, seeing that the Greeks at this time were still very much in a mythical mode of consciousness, a kind of hypnogogic state.
The early Greeks stood at the dawn of rational consciousness. They had just stepped out of participation mystique with nature (Edinger 8).
They were attempting to understand their world by asking rudimentary scientific questions, but it would still be a long, long time before humans began to think scientifically, as we understand it today. I see Thales as being deeply introspective, as most philosophers are. Legend has it that, while gazing at the heavens one day, Thales fell into a well, hence the beginning of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. He must have been a very contemplative thinker. Thales looked into his inner recesses and perhaps thought about the sea, which he was so familiar with, being a resident of Miletus. To a coastal city and its residents, the sea is the lifeblood of the community. What better image to represent the arche? Thales intuitively recognized that man’s Being, and everything else, originates with the sea, both psychologically and biologically; the former because the sea is an archetypal image of unconsciousness, from which consciousness arises; the latter because we now know that all biological life originated in the sea. In my own view, I think the sea could be the most ancient metaphor of psyche. On an intuitive level, Thales may have been thinking of a connection between water and psyche. One thing is certain, a nexus was established at this point in the history of Western culture between water and the primordial source of all things.
Anaximander took another step toward identifying the arche with the Soul. He said the arche is the Apeiron, or the Boundless. Being a student of Thales, Anaximander was no doubt familiar with the contemplative, introspective habit of his teacher. Even though we hear much of his external accomplishments, such as being the first to construct a map (an imago mundi), little is said about his inwardness. I believe his idea of the Apeiron is a product of deep self-examination. He disagreed with Thales and claimed that the arche could not be one of the material elements. Here, I see Anaximander withdrawing the projection, at least for the source of all things, from external substances. He realizes this incomprehensible “something” is not material, even though it is the material cause. The Apeiron is boundless, infinite, eternal, ageless, indestructible, and “encompasses all the worlds.” As Thales before him, I believe Anaximander is getting a glimpse of the nature of Soul. By his recognition of the infinity of the Apeiron, Anaximander, perhaps unwittingly, pushes Western consciousness toward a quantum leap in its development, and toward Heraclitus’ idea of Soul as boundless depth. The idea of Soul was also prevalent with the early Greek thinkers, but mostly as a result of the poets and sages. At that time, Soul was viewed by the Greeks as “the life-breath or animating ‘spirit’ which departs as a ghost” at the point of death (Kahn, 126).
Next, Anaximander makes a remarkable conclusion:
And into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is meet; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time, as he says in these somewhat poetical terms. – Theophrastus, Phys. Op. fr. 2 (R. P. 16).
He now tells us that when things originate from the Apeiron, a crime is committed against it. And to make reparation for the things wrongdoing, it returns back to the Apeiron, thus satisfying some idea of cosmic justice. There is an idea of shame associated here with the coming into being, or, as I see it, the arising of consciousness from a sea of unconsciousness. Just as the author of Genesis declares Adam and Eve guilty for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Anaximander associates guilt with the differentiation of consciousness. It also reminds me of the sin of the fire-thief, Prometheus, who kindled the anger of Zeus. For some reason, when ancient man began to think of himself as an individual, a painful sense of wrongdoing accompanied his self-consciousness.
Another Milesian thinker, Anaximenes, who was a student of Anaximander, put forth his own idea that air is the arche. Here is yet another powerful image of the source of all things that can be associated with Soul. For thousands of years, air, wind, breath, etc. have been archetypal symbols of both Soul (psyche) and mind (nous), as well as spirit (pneuma). In fact, Anaximenes made the association himself. According to Theophrastus, he said,
Just as . . . our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.” — Aet. i. 3, 4 (R. P. 24).
According to classicist John Burnet, this is a point in Western thinking where the microcosm/macrocosm idea makes an appearance, which was also the Pythagorean view. Usually with this idea, psyche is microcosm while the universe is the macrocosm. Clearly, therefore, a connection is established in Anaximenes’ theory between the arche (air) and Soul.
So, we have three unique philosophers with three wonderfully different ideas of the arche, which I believe are actually symbols of Soul. These men gazed into their own inner processes and derived three creative ideas which undoubtedly speak to their own individual personalities. They describe, however, a phenomenon which is common to all mankind.
It is my contention that Heraclitus’ idea of the unfathomable depth of Soul was directly influenced by these three previous ideas, for there is an idea of infinite depth in all three. Concerning Thales’ theory, the primordial images of sea, abyss, and ocean certainly contain an element of immense depth. The archetypal sea is unfathomable. Anaximander states clearly that the arche is the Apeiron, the Boundless. An element of Anaximenes’ theory of air speaks to the airy heavens of the macrocosm and the pneumatic realms of the microcosm, which encompasses the infinity of the universe. Besides this, Cicero mentions that “Anaximenes said that air is a god, that it is infinite and always in motion” (De Natura Deorum I. 26).
By the time Heraclitus arrives on the scene, he has much prima materia to work with. Heraclitus brings the strikingly new and unusual thought of the logos of Soul as being so immeasurably deep we will never find its bounds, no matter how far we travel. We do not understand our own cavernous inner recesses. Our rationality can no more understand Soul than we can understand God. Language breaks down when one attempts to think and write about such things.
It is amazing to think there is “something” within me that has such depth, I will never discover its limits. I know the thing I am thinking of is not an objective thing at all. Heraclitus is utilizing the Greek idea of psyche to shed light on his experience of unbounded connectedness to the world. He feels it within himself. In some way, Soul has a sense of numinosity which is so perplexing and paradoxical to our rational minds, we will never fully understand it. But I don’t think Heraclitus is concerned with rational understanding. That will come later in Greek philosophy. What he is talking about is an experience within himself of the very foundation principle (arche) upon which reality is structured.
The logos of Soul and the logos of the cosmos are discussed separately, but I don’t think they are actually to be understood separately. What I think may have happened with Heraclitus is that, as he said in another fragment, “I have searched myself.” Obviously, again we are dealing with someone who was deeply introspective. What seems to occur after one gazes inward for some time is that the deep logos of Soul is recognized as being identical with the cosmic logos, which, according to Heraclitus, orders everything in our universe. And herein is the error of the people “who live as though their thinking were a private possession” (Fragment 3 in Kahn). Actually, the account, the logos, is shared among all humanity. Just as the deep logos of Soul is common among us all, so is the cosmic logos.
I originally thought that Heraclitus may have been the first depth psychologist in Western culture. I have now modified my view to include the Milesians alongside Heraclitus. All these men were acutely aware of the boundless nature of the source of all things.
Edinger, Edward F. The Psyche In Antiquity. Toronto: Inner City, 1999.
Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. New York: Cambridge, 1979.
Hick, John. Philosophy of Religion. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1990.