Heraclitus (c. 530-475 BCE) is considered among the greatest of the Presocratic philosophers. Flux and time play particularly important roles in his thinking. Even though the fragments of his book On Nature had an enormous impact upon such diverse philosophers as Plato, G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, not much is known concerning the particulars of his life. However, we do know that he was born in Ephesus, came from an old aristocratic family, and looked unfavorably upon the masses. According to Apollodrus, he was about 40 years old in the 69th Olympiad (504-501 BCE).
Relativity of Time
The most influential aspect of Heraclitus’ thinking about time is the concept of the Great Year or the eternal recurrence of everything, an idea that was taken up later by Zeno of Citium (the founder of the Stoa) and Nietzsche. However, within his philosophy, Heraclitus also clarifies other aspects of time. He was clearly aware of the relativity of time. When he explains that the sun is needed for the alteration between night and day to occur, it becomes clear that he was conscious that daytime and nighttime are dependent upon certain conditions. A certain time exists only within a specific framework or paradigm. If the framework changes, then the concept of time within it changes, too. We would not have daytime within a world without the sun. Time is dependent upon a specific perspective, and many distinctions concerning time cannot be drawn from only a cosmic or universal perspective.
Unity of Opposites
Heraclitus criticized Hesiod for not having the best knowledge concerning daytime and nighttime. Only the masses regard Hesiod as a wise man, but truly he was not. According to Heraclitus, daytime and nighttime are one, which Hesiod had failed to realize. From a global perspective, one cannot distinguish daytime and nighttime. One has to be a participating spectator in order to employ the distinction meaningfully. Even though the distinction in question works well from a pragmatic perspective, this does not imply that it is correct. From a universal perspective, the distinction between day and night is not supposed to make any sense, as God is supposed to represent the unity of opposites; that is, God is supposed to be the unity of day and night, as well as summer and winter.
Time as Metaphor
Even though opposites do not exist, Heraclitus himself employs opposites. Concerning time, he clearly holds that there are people who are connected to the night and others who are linked to the day, and he attributes different values to these two types of paradigms. According to him, only the night-roamers are the initiated ones. They have wisdom and they do not belong to the masses. The masses are uninitiated and are connected to the day. Even though, from a global perspective, night and day are one, nighttime and daytime stand for something different. Here, they represent people who are either initiated or uninitiated into wisdom.
Time and Order
Only the initiated know what time really is. Time is a type of orderly motion with limits and periods. Heraclitus also specifies in more detail what he understands as order concerning time, and he explains that it is important that the same order exists on various levels. However, time cannot be reduced to only one aspect of order, as Heraclitus also identifies time with a playing child; that is, time is the kingdom of a playing child. Even though the aspect of order is necessary for games, there is more to the process of playing a game, as there are also the aspects of playfulness, freedom, and chaos. To stress also the important disorderly element represented by time, Heraclitus attributes to this concept his idea of the unity of opposites. Wherever there is order, there has to be chaos. However, that chaos is relevant might only mean that even though there is one certain order in the universe, we cannot securely predict the future.
Even though everything is necessary, from our perspective anything can happen, as it is impossible for us to foresee the future.
Time Is Cyclical
According to Heraclitus, the order of time is the cycle. Periods and cycles appear at various levels of existence. There is the world cycle or Great Year, but there is also a human cycle, the cycle of procreation. Human beings are born, grow up, and give birth to other human beings so that the cycle of human life can start again, which happens approximately every 30 years. In this way, a man becomes a father and then a grandfather. However, the most important idea in the philosophical reception of his thought is Heraclitus’ world cycle, referred to as the Great Year, or the eternal recurrence of everything. Analogous to human lives, there is a period or a cycle in the progression of world history. The world is supposed to be an ever-living fire that is kindled and extinguished in regular cycles. One cycle represents a Great Year, which has the (surely metaphorical) duration of 10,800 human years. By presenting the Great Year in his philosophy of time, Heraclitus also reveals an option for an immanent type of immortality. The concept of the Great Year is of relevance on various levels. It may be analyzed from a metaphysical, natural philosophical, scientific, ethical, and religious perspective.
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner
See also Eternal Recurrence; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Maha-Kala (Great Time); Nietzsche, Friedrich; Plato; Presocratic Age; Time, Cyclical; Universes, Evolving
Kahn, C. H. (2003). The art and thought of Heraclitus: A new arrangement and translation of the fragments with literary and philosophical commentary. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sorgner, S. L. (2001). Heraclitus and curved space. In Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja (Ed.), Proceedings of the Metaphysics for the Third Millennium Conference (pp. 165-170). Loja, Ecuador: Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja.
Wheelwright, P. (1999). Heraclitus. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.