Category: Persons

Heraclides of Pontus

A 4th cent. BC philosopher, one of the first students of Plato in the Academy; an intellectual of great independence of thought, he made original contributions to many fields of natural philosophy.

Life and deeds

Heraclides was born to a prominent family in Heraclea Pontica on the Bithynian coast of the Black Sea. At a young age he entered Plato’s Academy; apparently he became a person of authority there, for during Plato’s third journey to Sicily, he remained in Athens and was appointed head of the School. He was also a candidate for the position of scholarch along with Xenocrates in 339 BC. After 339 Heraclides returned to Heraclea and, according to Diogenes Laertius (Lives V, 86-94), he became actively involved in the political life of his homeland. Anecdotal testimonies also speak of some sort of apotheosis for Heraclides after his death.

Diogenes describes Heraclides’ studies at Athens as a progression from the Pythagoreans and Plato to Aristotle. This is why he categorizes Heraclides as a Peripatetic philosopher, and discusses his life along with that of other Aristotelians. All the available evidence on his philosophy, however, confirms his Platonic origins. The list of titles of his work is quite extensive. These titles reveal that he composed dialogues (e.g. Cleinias, Protagoras), trearises on natural philosophy (Against Democritus, Of Celestial Phenomena), and works of literary criticism (On passages in Euripides and Sophocles, Solutions of Homeric Problems); some of the titles are more peculiar (Abaris, On the Cessation of Breathing, Of things in the Underworld), suggesting that Heraclides had a penchant for mysticism.

Philosophy

The most noted contribution of Heraclides to later thought is his view on the movement of the Earth. Heraclides probably attempted to interpret an obscure passage from the Timaeus (40b-c), where Plato describes the Earth as “ειλομένην” or “ιλλομένην” on the axis of the cosmos. The spelling and meaning of this participle constituted an unsettled issue already for ancient commentators – it could either mean “compressed” or “moving”. Heraclides apparently opted for the second interpretation, and described the Earth as rotating on its axis at the center of a sealed and fixed universe. In this way one could “save the appearances” of celestial phenomena.

As a Platonist, Heraclides probably participated in the discussions over the value of the Theory of Ideas. We have no knowledge of the specifics of his view; we only have Plutarch’s testimony, who claimed that reading Heraclides’ Zoroastres or Of things in the Underworld one would be hard pressed to find many common elements with Plato’s tenets. He did remain true to Platonic tradition, though, on the issue of the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. His contribution was that he attributed a materiality of sorts to the immortal soul: according to Heraclides, the soul is made up of light, or “ether”, and descends from, and has its domicile in, the Galaxy.

Heraclides, like his contemporary Xenocrates, seems to have espoused a form of atomism. He describes his elementary particles as “ανάρμους όγκους”, which means “masses without joints” – this probably denotes a contrast with Democritus’ atoms. Sextus Empiricus contrasts Democritus’ atoms, which are described as “απαθή” (=unaffected, impassible), to the masses of Heraclides, which are dubbed “παθητοί” (=subject to external influence or change). Perhaps the difference has to do with the fact that Heraclides’ atoms, like the elementary solids in the Timaeus, are subject to reciprocal transformations.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Dorandi, T. ed. Filodemo. Storia dei Filosofι. Platone e l’Academia . Naples, 1991.
  • Gottschalk, H.B. Heracleides of Pontos. Οξφόρδη, 1980.
  • Wehrli, F, Herakleides Pontikos, Die Schule des Aristoteles, Heft 7. Βασιλεία, 1953.
The establishment of a Platonic Academy in Florence by the Medici

The establishment of a Platonic Academy in Florence by the Medici

The Platonic Academy of Florence is often discussed; it was...

Iamblichus: the defense of theurgy

Iamblichus: the defense of theurgy

Αfter Plotinus, the most prominent representative of...

Georgius Gemistus (Plethon)

Georgius Gemistus (Plethon)

Byzantine philosopher (circa 1360-1454), perhaps the most...

Plato and the Chaldean Oracles

Plato and the Chaldean Oracles

A collection of oracles with theological, cosmological and...