“For souls (psychai) it is death to become (be born as) water, for water it is death to become earth; out of earth water arises (is born), out of water soul (psyche)” (Kahn, 102; cp. R, S, D 36)
Rather than viewing soul as immaterial, as a dualist would, Heraclitus here underlines his understanding of soul as part of the material world. There is a continuity between “the realm of the pysche” and “the realm of elemental transformation” (K, 238). Clearly, he is discussing soul as related to his teaching of the elements. Kahn maintains that his teaching here reshapes the view of the elements to focus it on human life and mortality. There has been much discussion among commentators about whether Heraclitus hints here at soul being akin to fire or air. A widespread reading previous to Kahn was that Heraclitus identified the soul with primordial fire. This is the position for many of those who think that Heraclitus only acknowledged three elements — fire, water, and earth. Kahn argues, however, that this argument mistakes this fragment as well as fragment 38 as a full statement of his elemental teaching. This does not align with the view of Heraclitus prevalent among ancient authorities; and there isn’t textual evidence that this is his full elemental teaching (K, 239).
Kahn provides two main arguments for interpreting Heraclitus as viewing pysche as identified with aer. One is simply that it is not plausible to maintain that fire is born out of water. Water evaporates as steam or condensation, identified with forms of air. For another, air or breath was identified by many in the ancient world who influenced Heraclitus as soul. Aristotle, after Heraclitus, was among those early interpreters who later described soul as “exhaltation,” which Kahn describes as “something like smoke of steam or mist” (239).
A further question relevant to this fragment is what it might tell us about Heraclitus’ views on the afterlife. As Kahn writes: “Heraclitus replaces the Homeric picture of the descent of human psychai into the underworld with his own account of the elemental ‘way down’ to water and earth, after which the same stages are repeated in reverse order as the ‘way up'” (K, p. 238). A related question concerns whether this transmutation is merely of what we might characterize as a “cosmic soul” or whether there is a transmigration of individuals. The Heraclitian monistic position is more logically compatible with the view that there is no individual transmigration. But various fragments (see D63, D98) complicate this view. Heraclitus in fact appears inconsistent or unresolved on this question. Robinson suggests the possibility, as a way to deal with textual inconsistencies, that he thought most souls become one with cosmic processes, but some great souls achieve individual immortality (cp. D36, D63, R, 105). This view makes sense of the diverse statements Heraclitus makes about the afterlife. But it lacks any adequate rational justification.