The Doctors of Soul: Heraclitus

The Doctors of Soul: Heraclitus

Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (after 1602–1634) 

The philosophy of Heraclitus is one of the most fascinating examples of thinking in the ancient world. It is possible that he was influenced by Eastern philosophies seeping into the Mediterranean region. He was certainly inspired by the Pythagorean and Milesian thinkers. He was rumored to be a pupil of Xenophanes. He lived circa 540-480 B.C.E. He is our first Doctor of Soul.

Heraclitus understood the world to be a place where nothing remains fixed; everything is in flux and is constantly being transformed. To Heraclitus, there is no difference between up and down. This is totally antithetical to the Western mindset. In our culture, we think of the way up as success and the way down as failure. This motif can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Where did we get the idea that down is evil and up is good? For example, up is heaven, down is hell; “human development” is good, degradation is bad; maturation is positive, infantile behavior is negative; etc. I think it has much to do with viewing Being in a linear fashion, whereas, at least in my view, it is really cyclical in nature.

One of the main aspects of his teaching is that “opposition brings concord,” and “out of discord comes the fairest harmony” (qtd. in Wheelwright 77). What he means by this apparent contradiction is that both positive and negative realities are required in order for harmony to exist. Justice is exhibited by the striving of one thing against another, for in this striving there is agreement or harmonia. He points to the bow and the lyre to illustrate his point. The strings of a bow and lyre require tension in order to operate harmoniously. If the bowstring were not tightened, an arrow could not be gracefully flung toward its target. Similarly, if the lyre strings were not tightened there would be no beautiful music. There is harmony in the shooting of an arrow with a bow, and in the music of a lyre, just as there is a certain harmony in the world. The discord which we experience is merely the process whereby unanimity arises. Heraclitus teaches that the consensus is not obvious, but concealed, for “hidden harmony is better than the obvious” (qtd. in Wheelwright 79).

Heraclitus believed that fire, which he seems to identify with God, or the world process, is the source of all becoming. “It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and retires. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (qtd. in Wheelwright 70-71). To him, fire was the perfect symbol to describe reality.

Regarding the soul, or psyche, Heraclitus believed it is impossible to ascertain its limits, in the sense of our understanding the depths of the soul. He said, “You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning” (qtd. in Wheelwright 72). Here, we have a connection from the ancient world with what we in the modern world call depth psychology, of which Jung’s Analytical Psychology and James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology are obvious examples. Depth psychology is based on the theory of the unconscious mind, i.e., that there are things in the mind which we are not consciously aware of. Sometimes our conscious minds will thrust something which is too painful to bear into the unconscious. These things can then fester in the unconscious, affecting our conscious attitudes. For example, certain emotions can be repressed and can influence behavior, many times causing mental distress. The main point here is that Heraclitus recognized the boundless depth of the human psyche some twenty-five hundred years before Freud and Jung brought these truths to light in the modern world. He was the first to associate depth with soul.

As in the Heraclitean doctrine, Jungian psychology stresses the existence of a conflict of opposites, or enantiodromia. This is a term which Heraclitus used to describe the endless to and fro process of the eternal flux. The opposites are at war with each other, but in this conflict there is harmony, for both positive and negative need one another. Jung based his theory of compensation on this principle, claiming that the conscious attitude, at times, must be balanced by gaining awareness of certain unconscious processes. According to Jung, “Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago” (Jung 346). A good example of what Jung means lies in an explanation of his doctrine of the anima and animus.

For Jung, all human beings have both male and female characteristics. For instance, all men have a female element abiding in their unconscious minds. Similarly, all women have an unconscious male element. One’s conscious attitude is usually dominated by those characteristics belonging to whatever sex one happens to be. The opposing characteristics, if not recognized by the conscious mind, can bring about many problems in the conscious attitude. For instance, a man who is not aware of the anima may experience irrational moods, peevishness, and bad temper. (Bennet 122). A woman who represses the male characteristics may, for example, not respect the feelings of others because she is overly rational (Bennet 130). For men, Jung called the female image anima. For women, the male image is the animus. These are Latin words which both mean “soul.” Anima is feminine; animus is masculine. If one set of characteristics is dominant, the opposite will manifest itself in dreams, hinting at how the conscious attitude should be adjusted so that balance can be restored to the psyche (this accords with Jungian psychology, not Archetypal psychology).

Another area where Jung was influenced by Heraclitus is in his personality typology. Again, he utilizes the Heraclitean principle of enantiodromia to explain why people have different personalities. He begins with the distinction between what he terms introverts and extroverts. Basically, the introvert is characterized by a flow of energy inward; the concentration is on the subject. The extrovert’s energy flows outward, into the world; the concentration is on objects and other people. Every person has both characteristics within them, just as in the anima/animus doctrine. One of the two, however, will dominate the conscious attitude.

Each of these basic attitude types consists of four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. As in the introvert/extrovert distinction, one of the opposites will be dominant. For instance, someone may be an extrovert who is thinking-oriented instead of feeling-oriented. This person might also be guided more by his intuition than his senses. Another may be an introvert who is feeling oriented, and who relates more to sensation. Using this procedure, Jung was able to study human beings in a more precise manner. The Myers-Briggs Personality Test, used by psychologists today, is based on Jung’s typology.

Heraclitus gives us the idea that soul comes into existence out of water. I don’t take this literally. I don’t think his worldview includes a finite moment of creation for soul, or anything else in nature. This view may have been influenced by Thales’ assertion that all things originate with water. But Heraclitus gives us something else to think about: “water comes into existence out of earth.” This would make absolutely no sense if we take it in a literal fashion. What if we say, “Water comes into existence out of Soul” and “Soul comes into existence out of water?” If we take dry earth as a metaphor for soul, this seems to be a valid statement. Here again is a cyclical mode of thought. It is in line with Heraclitus’ cosmology. Soul is in constant, cyclical motion, exchanging dry for wet, wet for dry, hot for cold, cold for hot, etc. Soul is at the foundation of human existence; our lives are energized by the endless unrest.

Heraclitus brings this 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 may 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.


Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. New York: Cambridge, 1979.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966.

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