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On Fire in Heraclitus and in Zeno of Citium

  • R. W. Sharples (a1)

In a recent discussion note1 C. D. C. Reeve investigates the reasons for Heraclitus assigning a primary position to fire, as contrasted with the other substances like earth and water which go to make up the physical universe. (I shall henceforth refer to these substances as ‘elements‘; the term is strictly incorrect for Heraclitus, in that the substances can change into one another, but it is a convenient form of shorthand.) Reeve considers and rejects other reasons for the primacy of fire that have been put forward, such as the symbolic associations of fire, the role of fire in governing the universe, or the claim that everything becomes fire at some time or other. Rather, Reeve argues, the primacy of fire in Heraclitus' physical theory can be explained purely in terms of that physical theory.

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1 Ekpyrosis and the priority of fire in Heraclitus’, Phronesis 27 (1982), 299305.

2 Reeve argues that air, as well as earth, water and fire, is an ‘element’, one of the basic substances of which the universe is made up, for Heraclitus; this is debatable, but it does not seem to affect the general issue.

3 Anaximander, 12 A9 in Diels H.Kranz W., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker5 (Berlin, 1934).

4 On which cf. Long A. A., ‘Heraclitus and Stoicism’, Philosophia (Athens), 5–6 (19751976), 133–53.

5 von Arnim J., Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (SVF) (Leipzig, 19031924), vol. i, no. 102; cf. Lapidge M., ‘A problem in Stoic cosmology’, Phronesis 18 (1973), 240–78.

6 SVF i. 157; Lapidge, art. cit. pp. 253 f.

7 cf. Lapidge, art. cit. pp. 267 f.; Sandbach F. H., The Stoics (London, 1975), pp. 73 f. Chrysippus made matters more complex by introducing pneuma, a combination of fire and air, as the vehicle as it were of divine influence in the sublunary sphere; cf. Lapidge, art. cit. pp. 273–8; Long A. A., Hellenistic Philosophy (London, 1974), pp. 155 f.; and Todd R. B., ‘Monism and Immanence’, in Rist J. M. (ed.), The Stoics (Berkeley, 1978), pp. 148 ff.

8 This is the solution of Lapidge, art. cit. pp. 268–73; cf. also Todd, op. cit. p. 145, and Long, art. cit. (n. 4), p. 140.

9 cf. Todd, op. cit. pp. 143–8, on the embryological basis of Zeno's cosmology, and also Lapidge, art. cit. p. 258: ‘Bodies might be less or more pure, depending on how much matter they contained, or depending on the relationship between the god and the matter’.

10 cf. Todd, op. cit. p. 145. Lapidge, art. cit. p. 258 suggests that the passive, material principle may not be present in the creative divine fire at all; but, as he recognizes, this raises problems, and it does not seem to be required by the evidence.

11 In the second part of this note I have benefited greatly from the discussion at the colloquium on Stoic physics held in Cambridge in 1977.

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
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