“Heraclitus somewhere says that all things are in process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a river he says that you would not step twice into the same river. – Plato, Cratylus (402a)1
Last time we began our examination of early Greek descriptions of ultimate reality with the thoughts of Pythagoras and his followers, who propose numerical harmony and mathematics as fundamental. Today we move on to the fragmentary materials available by one of history’s most fascinating and obscure philosophers, Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE). His metaphysics comes down to the following ideas: fire, flux, logos, strife, and the unity of opposites. At the most basic level, “all things are constituted from fire and resolve into fire.”2 By this he means that “Fire is an element, and all things are in exchange for fire coming about by rarefaction and condensation.”3
Fire also reflects the second idea, flux, or the continual, if gradually, changing nature of everything in the universe. However this change is not random, but measured and guided by logos, an ill-defined term meaning “both discourse and contents, both the truth about things and the principle on which they function.” Perhaps the closest English modern word is formula, though it is important to recognize its physicality in the word fire.4 This flux and logos is embodied in strife among opposites that ultimately form a unity. These opposites fall into four overlapping categories: (1) logical – for example the same road leads up and down or the place of a point at the beginning and end of a circle, (2) fundamental – sea water is sustaining to fish, but poisonous to humans, (3) perceptual – for example; health and disease or hunger and satiety, and (4) connective – as in a harmony of notes. A balance of the constituent opposites provides for the continuation of strife that underlies the flux and generates the world.
One consequence of Heraclitus’ metaphysics is his belief that there are souls, possibly in everything, and that they are guided by the logos. In place of immortality, an afterlife, or metempsychosis he notes life and death as opposites are, in fact, alternate states of the same phenomena and somehow continuous5 much like night and day. Another consequence is a kind of divinity arising from the uniting of the opposites, although on God he is obscure: “referring to ‘the one wise thing’ which ‘is willing and unwilling to be called Zeus,’ he doubtlessly means that Fire or Logos is supreme but lacks the personal attributes attached to Zeus in cult and myth.”6 Last for Heraclitus, like Pythagoras, the universe is limited in extent, but cycles indefinitely.
As in the case of Pythagoras, much of Heraclitus is mirrored in modern interpretations of ultimate reality. His fire may be Einstein’s energy interchangeable with matter or even the folded strings of energy postulated in superstring theory. His flux becomes our entropy, his strife of opposites our positive and negative matter, and his logos our physical laws. His view of life and death equates to our recycling of matter and energy and his idea of soul is not unlike recent theories of panpsychism. The philosophy of Heraclitus is also quite similar to that of Laozi where logos becomes Tao and the identity of opposites is also highlighted. All in all, we cannot help but be amazed by the sophistication and mystic truth reflected in his thinking.
1Allen, Reginald E., Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1966. Page 42.
2Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 54.
4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 3, page 477.
5Ibid., page 479.
6Ibid., page 480.