The story

Heraclitus: Life Is Flux


Heraclitus of Ephesus (l. 500 BCE) famously claimed that “life is flux” and, although he seems to have thought this observation would be clear to all, people have continued to resist change from his time to the present day. Heraclitus was one of the early Pre-Socratic philosophers, so named because they pre-date Socrates, considered the Father of Western Philosophy. The early Pre-Socratics focused on identifying the First Cause of creation – that element or energy that set all of creation in motion and sustained it – and were known as “natural philosophers” because their interest was in natural causes for previously-held supernatural phenomena as explained by the will of the gods.

His Eastern contemporary, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, l. 563 - c. 483 BCE), recognized the same essential aspect of life: that nothing was permanent and the observable world was in a constant state of change and understood that this was the cause of human suffering: people insisted on permanence in a world of impermanence. The Buddha encouraged people to accept the essential nature of life and detach themselves from the false idea that anything they held to could be permanent. Heraclitus had the same message but with a significant difference: one could attach one's self to anything, as long as one understood it was fleeting.

The difference between the two philosophers is that Heraclitus encouraged active engagement while Buddha suggested enlightened disinterest. Buddha taught a path of gradual detachment from the mutability of the world leading to the understanding and recognition that one could live one's life fully without craving for what one lacked, fearing what one might lose, or mourning what was past. Heraclitus encouraged people to embrace change as the fundamental essence of life and live in it, even celebrate it, with total awareness of what one had and would inevitably be lost.

Although their central focus differs, their goal is the same: to awaken those who cling to what they know through fear and ignorance and allow for their movement toward a higher, more vibrant understanding of life. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, this same focus would be developed in the 20th century CE by the iconic Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (l. 1875-1961 CE) who emphasized the importance of the process of self-actualization – comparable to the state of awareness encouraged by Heraclitus and the Buddha – by which one could let go of childish fears and limitations to live a more mature and fulfilling life.

Heraclitus' Philosophy

Heraclitus seems to have written a number of important works but, of these, only fragments remain preserved by later writers. The early Pre-Socratic interest in identifying the First Cause began with Thales of Miletus (l. 585 BCE) and continued on through his student Anaximander (l. 610-546 BCE) and then Anaximenes (l. 546 BCE), all of whom inspired later philosophers such as Heraclitus.

Heraclitus claimed all of life, and the very nature of life, was change & transformation embodied & illustrated by the energy of fire.

Thales claimed the First Cause was water because water could assume various states – heated it became air (steam), frozen it became solid (ice), and so on. Anaximander rejected this and claimed the First Cause had to be a cosmic force (which he called the apeiron) far beyond any of the elements of earth, because its essence had to be a part of all of the elements of creation. Anaximenes suggested air as the fundamental element because, like Thales' water, it could assume different forms such as fire (when rarefied), water (through condensation), and maintained life.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

All three of these claims recognized change as an essential aspect of the First Cause. Even so, Heraclitus rejected all three as insufficient because, it seems, they lacked an observable, transformative quality; water, the apeiron, and air could initiate transformation but not complete it. He claimed instead that the First Cause was fire – a transformative energy – because all of life, and the very nature of life, was change and transformation embodied and illustrated by the energy of fire. Fire transformed raw meat into cooked food, cool air into warm, wood into ash, darkness to light and so, he claimed, was clearly the First Cause.

Heraclitus is said to have born to an aristocratic family of Ephesus but, whether he actually was, is said to have maintained a superior attitude toward others throughout his life. His philosophy is said to have developed from this attitude as he believed that most people he encountered were beneath him and were, in fact, spiritually and intellectually asleep. It could well be, however, that Heraclitus was simply an astute observer of the human condition and recognized that most people were, in fact, asleep in their lives – as he says - surrendering their own judgments to popular opinion and betraying their dreams in the interests of others. Heraclitus seems to have phrased his philosophy in such a way as to wake people up and force them to confront their own spiritual laziness and emotional lethargy.

It is unclear, owing to his phrasing and the few fragments left of his writing, what his philosophy consisted of outside of the claim that life is constant change, but it seems he advocated for complete awareness of existence in the form of simply paying attention and remaining critical of other people's definitions or declarations of truth. He regularly criticized his fellow philosophers and earlier writers, doubted the opinions of professionals in any area, and believed he understood best how to navigate the path of his own life.

He is probably best known for his oft-misquoted assertion, "You can't step into the same river twice" which is usually directly translated as "In the same river we both step and do not step, we are and are not" (Baird, 20). What Heraclitus meant is that the world is in a constant state of change and, while one may step from the banks into the bed of a river one has walked in before, the waters flowing over one's feet will never be the same waters that flowed even a moment before. In the same way, moment to moment, life is in a constant state of change and, in his view, one can never even count on the certainty of being able to walk into the same room of one's house one moment as one might the next.

Buddha's Philosophy

According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was a Hindu prince and, shortly after his birth, a sage prophesied that he would grow up to become either a great king or powerful spiritual figure. His father, monarch of the kingdom of Kapilavastu, wanted a successor and so tried to shield his son from any suggestion of human suffering which might incline him toward the spiritual path. The king's plans failed, however, once Siddhartha became aware of sickness, old age, and death. He renounced the throne and embraced the life of a spiritual ascetic, eventually attaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha.

His enlightened state allowed him to realize, like Heraclitus, that life was flux and that the majority of humanity did not realize this. People suffered constantly, he understood, because they continually insisted on pleasurable aspects of life as permanent states when the nature of these things was fleeting. People wanted to hold on to loved ones, to jobs, to objects, to homes as though they would last forever when there was no way, owing to the nature of these things, that such could ever be. He advocated acceptance of what he called the Four Noble Truths (establishing that life is suffering caused by craving) and a path of detachment – the Eightfold Path – a spiritual discipline which allowed for gradual detachment from the ignorance which held one captive to the illusion of permanence in life.

The significant similarity between the Buddha's philosophy and that of Heraclitus was that Heraclitus advocated no such detachment but intended the same goal. To Heraclitus, one could fully embrace all of the mutable aspects of life and enjoy them fully; just as long as one understood that they were, in fact, ephemeral and could not last. In the same way, Buddha taught his followers that they could enjoy whatever they pleased in life as long as they realized it was ephemeral and without lasting meaning.

Life is Flux

In making his famous statement about the river, Heraclitus was simply illustrating the basic truth that life is constant flux as expressed in his famous phrase Panta Rhei (“everything changes” or “life is flux”). Heraclitus maintained that the very nature of life is change; change is not an aspect of life but life itself and to resist change is to resist life. He also claimed that there was a natural force, associated with transformative fire, which moved all things in rapid succession according to their nature and this was known as the logos.

The logos, which infuses all things, operates naturally as 'change', but humans resist this natural flow & cause themselves to suffer owing to their ignorance.

The logos (Greek for “word”), which infuses all things (but did not create the world nor could bring about its end), operates naturally as 'change', but humans resist this natural flow and, because of this, cause themselves and others to suffer owing to their ignorance of the nature of life. Heraclitus wrote: "To the Logos all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have supposed some things to be unjust, others to be just" (DK 22A32).

In the light of awareness, Heraclitus said, all things were good because all things were natural (a view which would influence the later development of Stoicism, as would the concept of the logos). People were born, lived, and died, and after such a death, their loved ones mourned and called the event a tragedy, but to Heraclitus, it was simply the progression of life and a natural part of the human condition. The grief and strife which accompanied a death were, in his view, part of the natural operation of the logos because he defined conflict and strife as transformative agencies.

Life is Conflict

For Heraclitus, conflict is necessary for the perpetuation of life. Heraclitus criticizes Homer (l. 8th century BCE) who wrote, “would that strife might perish from among gods and men” (Iliad 18.107) because, if that were to be, there would be no opportunity for change and growth. One cannot grow without striving toward some sort of goal, and strife is necessary in this process. Heraclitus, in fact, views conflict as a vital force in maintaining the world:

We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

Heraclitus rejected Anaximander's concept of the apeiron as a punishing force, creating and destroying, because of the negative connotation of punishment. To Heraclitus, the conflict of opposites is absolutely essential for the continuation of life as understood in the change of the seasons, night turning to day, young people growing old, and even in the living giving way to death. Everything is in constant motion, Heraclitus noted, and one only had to recognize and accept that fact in order to live in it. The Buddha recognized this just as clearly and, in their own ways, both philosophers advocated a compassionate means of accepting and living in a world of constant change when one most desires permanence.

Heraclitus & Jung

Carl Jung echoes the ideas of both philosophers in a number of his works which emphasize the vital importance of accepting change as a transformative possibility. Jung recognized that people feared change because they were afraid of the unknown and that this included a fear of loss and abandonment. In this aspect of his thought, as in others, he drew on the ancient understanding of thinkers like Heraclitus, the Buddha, and many others.

Jung claimed that people feared change, primarily, because they wanted to avoid the kind of conflict associated with growth. In his work The Stages of Life he writes:

Every one of us gladly turns away from his problems; if possible, they must not be mentioned, or, better still, their existence is denied. We wish to make our lives simple, certain, and smooth, and for that reason problems are taboo. We want to have certainties and no doubts - results and no experiments - without even seeing that certainties can arise only through doubt and results only through experiment. (Campbell, 5)

Jung felt that human neuroses arose from the individual's desire to remain childlike and that a part of that was the avoidance of conflict:

Something in us wishes to remain a child, to be unconscious or, at most, conscious only of the ego, to reject everything strange; or else subject it to our will; to do nothing, or else indulge our own craving for pleasure or power. (Campbell, 9-10)

Neither Buddha nor Heraclitus, of course, phrased their concepts in the same way but both seem to have understood well the human tendency to cling to the past and refuse to let go of what one knows and is comfortable with. In doing so, both claimed, one only causes oneself more suffering by refusing to let go of something one was never promised they could hold to begin with.

Conclusion

Buddha and Heraclitus, of course, are hardly the only ancient philosophers to have recognized that life is fleeting and changeable. The brevity of life, in fact, is central to the very concept of philosophy in every culture the world over. It is interesting, however, to consider the views of two of the greatest thinkers of the ancient East and West, along with a modern-day psychiatrist, and recognize the continuity of the human experience.

All three advocate for an acceptance of life as it is while warning against easy answers or comfortable escapes which allow one to avoid suffering without acknowledging its causes. Heraclitus referred to this state as sleepwalking through life, Buddha defined it as underlying ignorance, and Jung identified it as the desire to remain always in a childlike state in which no risks are taken because none are expected. In choosing to remain asleep, ignorant, or childlike, one seeks to resolve the problems of conflict and suffering but, as Jung notes, this choice only stifles the individual:

The serious problems in life are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so, it is a sure sign that something has been lost. (Campbell, 11)

What Jung suggests here is a loss of transformative possibilities by clinging to the known instead of letting go and moving forward with the currents of life. As long as one clings to past understandings and personal or cultural traditions of how things must remain, one cannot experience the kind of growth which comes with change and which, in fact, defines all living things as they are moved through the various stages of life with or without their consent. In this, he is simply stating for the modern age what the Buddha and Heraclitus recognized over 2,000 years ago – that life is flux.


Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus ( / ˌ h ɛr ə ˈ k l aɪ t ə s / [1] Greek: Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος , translit. Hērákleitos ho Ephésios, pronounced [hɛː.rá.kleː.tos ho e.pʰé.si.os] "Glory of Hera" c. 535 – c. 475 BC , [2] fl. 500 BC ) [3] [4] was an Ancient Greek, pre-Socratic, Ionian philosopher and a native of the city of Ephesus, which was then part of the Persian Empire.

His appreciation for wordplay and oracular expressions, as well as paradoxical elements in his philosophy, earned him the epithet "The Obscure" from antiquity. He wrote a single work, On Nature, only fragments of which have survived, increasing the obscurity associated with his life and philosophy. Heraclitus's cryptic utterances have been the subject of numerous interpretations. He has been seen as a "material monist or a process philosopher a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician and a religious thinker an empiricist, a rationalist, a mystic a conventional thinker and a revolutionary a developer of logic—one who denied the law of non-contradiction the first genuine philosopher and an anti-intellectual obscurantist." [5]

Heraclitus was of distinguished parentage but he eschewed his privileged life for a lonely one as a philosopher. Little else is known about his early life and education he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. He was considered a misanthrope who was subject to depression and became known as "the weeping philosopher" in contrast to Democritus, who was known as "the laughing philosopher".

Heraclitus believed the world is in accordance with Logos (literally, "word", "reason", or "account") and is ultimately made of fire. He also believed in a unity of opposites and harmony in the world. He was most famous for his insistence on ever-present change—known in philosophy as "flux" or "becoming"—as the characteristic feature of the world an idea he expressed in the saying, "No man ever steps in the same river twice", or with panta rhei ("everything flows"). His use of fire may have been a metaphor for change. This changing aspect of his philosophy is contrasted with that of Parmenides, who believed in "being" and in the static nature of the universe. Both Heraclitus and Parmenides had an influence on Plato, who went on to influence all of Western philosophy.


1. Life and Times

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus, an important city on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, not far from Miletus, the birthplace of philosophy. We know nothing about his life other than what can be gleaned from his own statements, for all ancient biographies of him consist of nothing more than inferences or imaginary constructions based on his sayings. Although Plato thought he wrote after Parmenides, it is more likely he wrote before Parmenides. For he criticizes by name important thinkers and writers with whom he disagrees, and he does not mention Parmenides. On the other hand, Parmenides in his poem arguably echoes the words of Heraclitus. Heraclitus criticizes the mythographers Homer and Hesiod, as well as the philosophers Pythagoras and Xenophanes and the historian Hecataeus. All of these figures flourished in the 6th century BCE or earlier, suggesting a date for Heraclitus in the late 6th century. Although he does not speak in detail of his political views in the extant fragments, Heraclitus seems to reflect an aristocratic disdain for the masses and favor the rule of a few wise men, for instance when he recommends that his fellow-citizens hang themselves because they have banished their most prominent leader (DK22B121 in the Diels-Kranz collection of Presocratic sources).


Heraclitus: Life Is Flux - History

Heraclitus is known for his obscure and elliptical style of writing. What perhaps makes Heraclitus’ oracular pronouncements difficult to deal with is that they cannot be analyzed into arguments and, in some measure, in his seemingly wilful violation of the most elementary principle of intelligibility: the law of non-contradiction. It has been suggested that his statements are symbolic of the nature of the world and the process he writes about. Heraclitus has a very poetic style of using language: rhetorical effects, puns, riddle, syntactical and semantic ambiguities, metaphors, are characteristic of his style. One view of such use of language is that they are deliberately paradoxical because his central thesis of the world being paradoxical: the coexistence of opposites. His paradoxical language mirrors a paradoxical world, one which is impenetrable by ordinary experience but requires something beyond what is in the realm of experience to understand it. What one must look for is the hidden or invisible harmony and what is visible is a clue for those who have the ability to look beyond the evidence of the senses. However the fragments are to be understood, they are both arresting as well as puzzling. Both these qualities make Heraclitus’ statements not to be taken as straightforwardly true or false, but require reflection and interpretation they are like signs pointing to a meaning beyond themselves.

The Doctrine of Opposites

The opposition between elements becomes a central problem in Greek philosophy after Heraclitus. While the Milesians referred to the elements which seemed to be naturally opposed, Heraclitus has expanded the nature of opposition to include not only the elements with their correlated powers, but generalized it to include everything from natural processes (the seasons), the products of human invention, as well as abstract terms like beauty and justice. Heraclitus use of the opposites will not put them at the beginning of the process of creation (as the Milesians) but at the very centre of nature. Opposites and opposed processes characterise the very nature of things: not only of events, but also of objects. The opposites become not just the signs but also the agents of all kinds of change. Aristotle rejects this conceptualization of the coexistence of opposites, as, he believes, they are violating the principle of non-contradiction: it is impossible for contraries to belong to the same thing at the same time. But does Heraclitus really violate the principle of non-contradiction? What Heraclitus says may turn out not to be violation of the law at all. Opposites, even if they are contraries, can replace each other or transform from one to the other, or may even be simultaneously present (unless they are predicated in the same respect and at the same thing), without logical contradiction. We perceive night and day, hot and cold, dry and wet and at moral levels we also good and bad. To deny the existence of opposites (in the-world-as-we-know-it) is to deny the existence of the world itself. Where there is existence opposites exist. If Heraclitus’ sayings can be shown not to violate the principle of non-contradiction then the whole air of paradoxes disappears what is then to be understood from his sayings? Certainly the intimate relationship between opposed properties or predicates that constitute the world. What appears to be static and stable conceals a dynamic condition, what is changing reveals order and harmony. For Heraclitus it is in this understanding of the world that knowledge lies, beyond the obvious (represented by the senses) contradiction of opposites. In asserting the unity of opposites, Heraclitus does not point the impossibility of knowledge but only its difficulty. Heraclitus is no sceptic, though he may have been the ancestor of some form of skepticism.

The Doctrine of Flux and the Underling Unity

The world is the theatre of opposites and these opposites, for Heraclitus, are always in continual tension in the constitution of things: they try to change into each other. To change from one form (thing) into another there must be some kind of change, something similar to a motion of change and if the world is in continuous change there must be a continuous motion underlying such change. The doctrine of opposites leads us to the doctrine of flux. There is a controversy about whether Heraclitus ever held such a doctrine and if he did in what form since Plato is our principal source for such doctrine and uses this premise to draw the conclusion that knowledge is impossible from such a premise. “One must know that war is universal, justice strife, and everything happens by strife and necessity”. Change is caused by strife, the necessity of strife. Heraclitus uses the river is used as a metaphor for a world in a process of continual change. Everything flows, “you cannot step into the same river twice”, “into the same river we step and do not step, we are and we are not, if something is now it won’t be later, nothing is. All is flow, all is becoming. But war is common, it is universal, so is there something in this world of change that is unchanging, something which does not-change? It seems that the unchanging nature of things is permanent, as if the world is becoming and Becoming is the unity of opposites. When change occurs it looks like the identity of the changing or moving object is preserved, in the sense that it can be identified as the same object, persisting over time and through some qualities. While things may be changing in some respect at all time, it would not seem immediately true to say that they were changing in all respect at every moment of time. To say that things are changing in some respect is true as well as trivial. To say that things are changing in all respect seems to be false. “All things are one”. Those who know this, says Heraclitus, are wise. How does the notion of the essential unity of all things develop and not contradict the thesis that everything is characterized by opposites and so in a state of flux? There are two claims that need to be distinguished here: a strong identity thesis, that opposites are equal, and a weaker thesis, that in a sense opposites are the same. The unity thesis is a global claim about the whole, the world order as it were, where as the identity of opposites is a claim about objects and events in the world. Heraclitus has left it unspecified in what way they are one. If Heraclitus is not to be read as a material monist, all things come only from one element, as the Milesians, how else might we understand ‘all things are one’? We can interpret all things are one in the sense of ‘all things are ultimately derived from one source’. This unity of the source may not itself be one thing, but may be a plurality or itself a unity. Or perhaps, what Heraclitus means when he says all things are one is that there is some genus or some description under which everything can be subsumed.

Logos and Knowledge

Behind the universal flux of things there are invariable relations of regularity and succession that law like govern the order of the world: an order that is uncreated and which is common to all. It is this law, common to all, this underlying genus which Heraclitus calls Logos. It is the hidden structure or formula of all things which lies behind the flux of appearances. The unity of all things is expressed by the logos which hold forever whether we hear it or not, in a sense it is the speech of things, or of the cosmos. Even after we have heard of the logos we cannot comprehend it. Logos is that which is ‘common’, or perhaps public, but though common to all it is by no means easy to know. Knowledge is knowledge of the logos and though difficult it is not impossible. The failure to understand is the failure to see and understand the connection between things: to grasp what is common, the logos. Though men are physically present in the world, not all of them are connected with it, they are absent, though present, inexperienced, though experiencing. Understanding for Heraclitus is a kind of mindfulness, an insight into the nature of things, which grasps oppositions and change in the phenomenal world as well as unity which lies behind them. The senses are a tool towards such understanding , they act as a sign, but the logos is beyond them. The unity of things is not the unity of opposites but connected to the thesis that opposites go together in a regulated way: there is an harmony, even if it is hidden. It is the harmony of opposites the cause of the-world-as-we-know-it. In Heraclitus we also see the use of fire. Some interpretations, as Aristotle does, claim that for Heraclitus fire is that from which all the other elements have originated, it is the primary element of the world creation. Some suggest that fire is symbolises flux, it can be linked to the harmony which underlines the changing world. It may also be that since fire is regarded as the finest and most pervasive of all the elements it may be the most predominant in the cycle of elemental transformation. What real meaning does fire have for Heraclitus is yet to be answered. There are also some interpretation which consider logos as Heraclitus’ god, since it is uncreated and ever-existent. Unity of things is not simply that they are changing. It is also the claim that all change is bounded, and behind the apparent opposition of things there is the principle of change, the logos, that men must know if they want to understand the world. The logos of the world is unity and difference, without benefit of any specific connectives of conjunction or disjunction or inclusion.

In summary, Heraclitus has extended the Milesian concept of nature and natural change. From the force of opposites which create the world to the force of opposite which create change. From the concept of change as progression and regression to the concept of change as a layer over unity. From only one force (the opposite) which creates the world as we know it to a combined force of unity and opposites to create such a world. It is the understanding of the opposites that we understand flux, from the understanding of flux we understand the logos, and from the understanding of the logos we understand the coexistence of the logos and the world of change.


Heraclitus: Life Is Flux - History

Embrace change wholeheartedly, and accept contradiction. Knowing these words–and understanding them–are two entirely different things.

Heraclitus preceded Parmenides, living from 535—475 BCE, and like Parmenides, none of his writing have survived in their complete form. Heraclitus’s philosophy on the surface is in direct contrast with Parmenides by positing a natural argument (I say “on the surface” as their ultimate conclusions, Parmenides’ “All Is One” and Heraclitus’ “World-Fire”, seem to be saying the same thing, but the two taking two drastically different approaches to arrive at the same place).

Heraclitus’s thesis poses that the logos (creation of the world / kosmos) is in a constant state of becoming and that the unity of opposites is a necessary condition of existence. This constant change, strife, agon, and flux demonstrates the interconnection between contraries and thus is a complete understanding of the universe, or the way the world works. It is an empirical account of explaining the underlying coherence between things and how “essence” and matter are never lost, but rather are continuing to change from one form to another—the “everliving fire” that is the world. Birth leads to life, then death, then decay—that decay manifesting itself into new life and so on.

According to Heraclitus, the soul is relatable to, and composed of, cosmic world-fire. When one is young or awake, the soul is active and fiery. As it grows old, or tired throughout the day, the more it is consumed by moisture and dwindles until it is extinguished (sleep and death). Just as day and night is a daily cycle between a fiery and dwindling soul, so is the overall life cycle from birth to death. As you wake from sleeping with a rejuvenated fiery soul, your soul will awaken again after death in a new rejuvenated manifestation of the cosmic world-fire.

A virtuous soul, or a true understanding of Heraclitus’s world-fire logos, is to embrace constant change and to accept all things that appear contrary for everything is subject to becoming (strife, flux) and is inescapable from it. True acceptance of this philosophy relinquishes fear of uncertainty for one knows they will continue in natural accordance with the world-fire. Death is as natural as sleep, and just as one awakes from sleep, the soul will join the world-fire and become part of whatever the world-fire is to create next.

In an effort to keep the soul as pure and as fiery as possible, Heraclitus recommends against “excessively dampening” the soul by partaking in hedonistic folly. Noble pursuits such as ethics, self-knowledge, common sense, and moderation preserves one’s fieriness.


Heraclitus, the Cosmic Fire, and Universal Flux

The pre-Socratic philosophers are, to be blunt, intensely fucking exciting. They really are. And I think it’s because they’re trying to answer, in an understandably limited way, the same questions we’re still addressing, for instance with the Large Hadron Collider: What is the fundamental nature of the universe? What is the world made of? How does this stuff change? And how, if at all, do we interact with the cosmos?

At the risk of sounding like Carl Sagan (who’s a worthy model for emulation), it’s marvelous to think that in the sixth century BCE, Thales of Miletus was already asking these questions, which really are the biggest of the ‘Big Questions’.

Thales, memorably said all things are transformations of water his successor Anaximander, meanwhile, talked about an endless reservoir of qualities (bright, dark, hot, cold, and so forth) which emerge as worlds at different times from and are absorbed back into that reservoir. Another follower, Anaximenes, took the primary physical reality to be air (which is certainly true in Congress). Xenophanes thought the primary reality is the unity of a single God, seeing the Greek panoply of gods as wishful projection. Empedocles, who Freud took for his model, believed the ultimate principle of the universe is the ongoing conflict between love and strife. Against these, Heraclitus is often held to believe the primary stuff of the universe is fire.

The tradition goes back to Aristotle and is not entirely fair. What Heraclitus says is more complicated and profound. You could read his 125 fragments in twenty minutes and only come to understand them after a lifetime of effort. Not for nothing was he known as “the Dark” and “the Obscure”. We can call his principle the unity of opposites but that’s a tentative stab in ‘the Dark’.

Let’s take on Heraclitus in seven quotes:

21. “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

His most important statement. The theme of ceaseless change is an old one in philosophy. It’s easy to understand why. We cannot even describe the daytime sky without allowing for its appearance to change within the hour. The sun and moon will replace each other, the colors of things will change, seasons will replace one another, and we ourselves will keep changing. Whenever we attempt to hold a moment in internal reflection it is promptly washed away in a flood of external perception. Stuck in the Now, it is nearly impossible to make any true statements about the Past or Future, a point that Parmenides took to an extreme. In this fragment, the theme is universal flux. The world is in a state of constant change. Even the most solid mountain is fluidity in slow motion. Most accounts of the physical world agree with the Greeks that everything is always in a course of coming-to-be or passing away.

26. “It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the condition of strife.”

I believe this tells how things change. Heraclitus sees change as an alteration of relative qualities: the warm becomes cold, the moist becomes dry, the light becomes dark. Instead of this change being mediated by a third state (as in Aristotle), two come into conflict and one wins out. The fluctuations of the universe are jockeying for position, and the changes of the physical world occur outside our control.

29. “The universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it has always been, is, and always will be- an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures.”

The image of the divine fire is most closely associated with Heraclitus. Fire is the process of change, symbolically and literally. It gives warmth and light, moves swiftly, and affects changes between states. The cosmic fire is continually extinguished and inflamed. Heraclitian time is cyclical Nietzsche suspected he was the first to hit on the concept of eternal recurrence. (Nietzsche: “My predecessors: Heraclitus, Empedocles, Spinoza, Goethe.”) Again, Aristotle suggests that Heraclitus took fire literally as the stuff of the universe, and later writers have taken Heraclitian fire to be symbolic the truth is probably more both/and than either/or.

43. “Soul is the vaporization out of which everything else is derived moreover it is the least corporeal of things and is in ceaseless flux for the moving world can only be known by what is in motion.”

The Soul/Psyche, according to Heraclitus, originates in what is moist. Then, it moves upward through fire to vapor, or downwards towards moisture. We are born from the liquid womb and selfhood emerges from moisture. Soul, then, has the unique quality of existing and knowing itself in existence self-knowledge is this bright and upward motion. Does Heraclitus believe that the psyche can achieve permanent transmundane status? It’s a topic of debate, but I think so.

108. “The way up and the way down are one and the same.”

How is it possible for the soul to move upwards and downwards? Well, we do it all the time. If you have a naturalistic image of this movement of the soul, you’ll notice that water moves from earth to fire to vapor, while the reverse happens. One way of describing this is backsliding but another is ongoing simultaneous processes. Biological life would be another example, in which growth and death happen simultaneously. As for the soul, Heraclitus might be saying it moves upwards towards the transmundane while shedding its physical nature downwards. I don’t know if this is reading in too much though.

Fragment 108 is also something characteristically Heraclitian: the paradoxical statement. The term used for this sort of paradox is “unity of opposites”. Heraclitus believed that opposites tend towards unity, from conflict to concord. Other philosophers saw the world as made of traits in opposition: day and night, light and dark, et cetera Heraclitus sees individual traits as more like points on opposite sides of a potter’s wheel: essentially unified aspects of a larger whole. Think of day and night, which really are different and relative moments in the earth’s rotation. It also works for up and down, if we think of something burning in a fire, going up as smoke, and down as ash.

64. “Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it.”

The divine Logos, which humans mistakenly call Zeus, permeates all things, and gives us intelligence, entering our body when we awake each day. Because the Greek term can also mean “word” and “truth”, the Logos is often associated with the Christian God. Heraclitus, however, sees the Logos as more universal and detached from human affairs. Xenophanes, again, thought the gods were fictions, in that the characteristics of the universal mystery can’t be pulled out by us Heraclitus sees the gods as mortal and the Logos as higher and more universal the one from which all particulars come. He first writes the words on American money: out of many, one.

118. “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.”

A key Heraclitian concept is Enantiodromia– running to its opposite. At the higher level of Logos, seeming opposites come into concord and plurality becomes unity.

1. I’d like to post about Parmenides next. I know the pre-Socratics aren’t exactly as exciting as health care reform or the Pope. But what can I say? This stuff really turns my crank.


Plato’s answer to Heraclitus and Parmenides

This question could be the opening of a book on the history of western philosophy.

First of all, an explanation of why Heraclitus and Parmenides held the views they did. This arises from the problem of identity and change, which is the problem that one thing logically cannot change with time and remain one (identical).

Although this contradicts common sense, the logic of it is quite simple: it arises from the fact that qualitative change entails quantitative change. This can be proved quite easily: whatever A and B might be, if there is a qualitative difference between them then there is some quality, Q, such that A is Q and B is not-Q (or vice versa) so if A and B are one then one thing is at once Q and not-Q, which is impossible hence A and B must be two, they cannot be one. In particular, one thing cannot travel through time and change as it goes: either it remains one, in which case it cannot change, or else it changes and loses its oneness, its identity.

Heraclitus took the position that only change is real, there is no identity. ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’ he said because the river, having changed, is a new river, and you, having changed, are a new you. ‘Nothing is permanent except the fact of change’ is another of his sayings. Change is real, identity is illusion. And Parmenides took the opposite position: ‘All change is illusion, only the One [identity] is.’

Plato tried to resolve this problem by saying that there are two worlds. There is the ‘real’ world of the Forms, which are perfect and unchanging, and the sensible world that we all perceive around us, which is an imperfect copy of the world of forms, and insofar as the copy is imperfect so is it illusory. Included in among these illusions are the appearances of change, as well as familiar illusions such as visible space shrinking with distance, in all three dimensions.

If we now fast track to modern times, we still have two worlds: the sensible world we perceive around us, which is called the empirical world and which is the object of study of empirical science, and the world of theoretical science, which physicists describe as the world of underlying causes of empirical phenomena and which is is imperceptible, or non-empirical (which is what ‘theoretical’ and ‘underlying’ mean). (To describe causes is to explain their effects, so theoretical science explains what empirical science describes.) The empirical world is an imperfect copy of the theoretical world, and insofar as it is imperfect so is it illusory. Thus visible space shrinks with distance and all secondary qualities (i.e. sensations) are illusory, but the sense data that yield scientific laws are not. Particularly noteworthy is one similarity between theoretical science and ancient Greek philosophy: Einstein’s space-time is surprisingly similar to Parmenides’ One: if time is a dimension within space-time then there is no passage of time and our sensation of such passage is illusory.

The original problem is not yet solved, of course. In particular, to claim that something is an illusion requires that the fact of the illusion be explained, and the illusion of passage of time is so far inexplicable. However there is a lesson to be learned from all this. It is the problem of how much truth there is in common sense. English language philosophy has always preferred common sense to logical argument. John Locke, for example, worked out his philosophy very logically but always retreated when he got too far from common sense, and A. J. Ayer repeatedly said that any argument that went too far from common sense must be wrong. And one cannot help sympathise: common sense is the cumulative practical experience of centuries of living in a hostile world, and therefore only to be gainsaid reluctantly. On the other hand, if Ayer is right then Einstein’s theories of relativity, all of quantum mechanics. and all of modern mathematics must be wrong.


Heraclitus: Life Is Flux - History

By Lindsay Baker9th October 2020How we handle change is the essence of our existence and the key to happiness, particularly in our current times of uncertainty. In the first of a new series, The Art of Living, Lindsay Baker explores the philosophy of change.

“Life is flux,” said the philosopher Heraclitus. The Greek philosopher pointed out in 500 BC that everything is constantly shifting, and becoming something other to what it was before. Like a river, life flows ever onwards, and while we may step from the riverbank into the river, the waters flowing over our feet will never be the same waters that flowed even one moment before. Heraclitus concluded that since the very nature of life is change, to resist this natural flow was to resist the very essence of our existence. “There is nothing permanent except change,” he said.

Or, as the novelist Elena Ferrante said recently: “We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us.” If we can learn to handle this constant flux, we can handle life itself – which, several millennia on from Heraclitus, in our currently uncertain and fast-changing times, feels particularly resonant. Since humankind has existed, many great artists, writers and philosophers have grappled with the notion of change, and our impulse to resist it. “Something in us wishes to remain a child… to reject everything strange,” wrote the 20th-Century psychologist and author Carl Jung in The Stages of Life, echoing Heraclitus. For these thinkers, a refusal to embrace change as a necessary and normal part of life will lead to problems, pain and disappointment. If we accept that everything is constantly changing and fleeting, they say, things run altogether more smoothly.

The philosopher Heraclitus (right, at desk) is featured in Raphael’s masterpiece The School of Athens (Credit: Alamy)

So does the ‘life is flux’ theory mean we must be resigned in a fatalistic way to all the challenges, changes and crises life throws at us? Not necessarily, says John Sellars, author of new book Lessons in Stoicism and philosophy lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. According to Sellars, Heraclitus’s theory is less about resignation and more about “acceptance”.

Change is a favourite subject of Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy (partly inspired by Heraclitus) that is informed by a system of logic and its view of the natural world. To be ‘stoical’ in the popular imagination is to endure hardship without complaint, to ‘grin and bear it’. But the philosophy is more nuanced than that. In his book, Sellars weaves together the thoughts of three Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – showing how their ideas can help us today.

Everything changes, the question is, do we change with it? – John Sellars

“Stoics believe that nothing is stable, and we need to come to terms with that. The natural world is made up of a series of processes that are changing, but if we want to live happily with nature we have to live in harmony with it.” And in fact, he says, Stoicism is not so much about resisting change as facing up to it. Everything changes, the question is, do we change with it?” says Sellars. “Stoics say we don’t have any choice, we can’t fight it.”

This idea is echoed throughout art and literature. British author Virginia Woolf, who famously wrote in an interior-monologue style that itself captured the mutability of thought, wrote: “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” In one of her most unconventional works, the prose poem The Waves (1931), Woolf follows the consciousnesses of six friends, starting from their childhoods. The characters enter new phases of life that are filled with novelty and lack of certainty. A fluid narrative voice shifts subtly between their different points of view, as all of them struggle in some way to define themselves. Woolf presents them all as in a perpetual process of change and metamorphosis throughout the story, as all of us are in life.

Change was one of Woolf’s obsessions. In her earlier, playful novel Orlando (1928), she tells the story of a nobleman in Elizabethan times who, halfway through the novel, awakes to find that he has become a woman. “Change was incessant,” writes Woolf in the novel, “and change perhaps would never cease. High battlements of thought, habits that had seemed as durable as stone, went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh stars twinkling in it.”

Orlando, the 1992 film based on Woolf’s novel, is the story of a nobleman who becomes a woman (Credit: Alamy)

Woolf – although she was in the end unable to conquer her demons – was an avid keeper of a journal, and wrote down her innermost thoughts aiming to work through her feelings. She shared this habit with many significant writers and thinkers, among them Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde – and Stoic Marcus Aurelius. In fact, practising Stoics today still recommend the keeping of a journal, in order to steel themselves for whatever the day ahead may throw at them, and later in the day, to review their actions. The idea is to train yourself to be as prepared as possible, given the changeability of life.

Maybe this is why Stoics have gained a reputation for a no-nonsense ‘stiff upper lip’. “There’s some basis in reality, yes,” concedes John Sellars. “It’s partly about toughening up and training, since learning how to deal with adversity means it doesn’t feel so hard. But it’s not about controlling or repressing – the idea that Stoicism is just about remaining resolute misses something important.”

The only lasting truth

Is cool rationality the key to negotiate change, then? “The goal is to lead a good, happy life,” says Sellars, “and to get into the right place to experience genuine joy, not a flat emotion.” The Stoics advise appreciating things now but also understanding that they are not forever. “Don’t be afraid of uncertainty.” In this sense, says Sellars, Stoicism has broad parallels with Buddhism. “Things are changing, live in the present moment, don’t have strong attachments to external things.” This may sound a little unfeeling, cold even – but it’s not, insists Sellars. “Because like Buddhism, Stoicism also advises to feel compassion for all sentient creatures, and to have natural affinities, and not to be unfeeling or emotionless.”

In the speculative novel Parable of the Sower, the connection between life, change and nature is a central theme (Credit: Seven Stories Press)

In her speculative, sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower (1993), Octavia E Butler presents a protagonist, Lauren, who founds a religion she calls Earthseed, and who has visions of change as the animating force of the cosmos. Lauren notes down her visions as epigrammatic statements: “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” She also makes the same connection between life, change and nature as Heraclitus did in his ‘life is flux’ theory. Butler writes: “Seed to tree, tree to forest Rain to river, river to sea Grubs to bees, bees to swarm. From one, many from many, one Forever uniting, growing, dissolving— forever Changing. The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

All that you touch you Change. All that you Change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change – Octavia E Butler

And Lauren’s vision for the world is one where good conquers evil, and where kindness conquers cruelty. As US author and academic Rebecca Raphael notes in an essay on Butler’s work: “Lauren joins these Heraclitus-like ideas with ethical injunctions to attend well and to shape consciously the change in which one is implicated. There is nothing supernatural about Earthseed’s Change: neither a providence nor an otherworldly eschatology, it is a call to responsibility for the shifting patterns of one’s world.”

Lauren’s religion, Earthseed, contains aspects of both Stoicism and Buddhism. As Raphael puts it: “The component ideas of Earthseed are not new. It has elements of Buddhist metaphysics, of Judaic world-shaping through ethical action, and of Stoic focus on what, however small, one can actually do in the moment. It has no contempt for a social or religious out-group, but instead fosters kindness in a violent world, in order to prepare humans for life on other planets.”

So in our current crisis, how would the Stoics advise us to approach change – not only now but also in the future, whatever that may hold? “We must distinguish between things that are in our control, and things that are not,” says Sellars. “You can self-isolate and social distance, and do those things as an act of calm rational caution, not motivated by panic, fear or anxiety.”

The Modern Stoicism movement holds an annual Stoic Week, in which those involved are challenged to focus on the process not the outcome, and to face up to the reality that adversity is part of the normal course of life that we can learn from adversity, and learn through failure. Adversity, in other words, is a learning experience.

This too shall pass

A medieval prophet asked a wise man for a message to keep him safe. His answer? “This too shall pass”. It was a phrase used in recent months by the actor Tom Hanks in connection with the Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s the name of a book out recently by psychotherapist Julia Samuels. In This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, Samuels relates (anonymously) some of her clients’ stories. “Every person who has walked through my door has had a problematic relationship with change,” she tells BBC Culture. “Change is the one certainty of life, and pain is the agent of change, it forces you to wake up and see the world differently, and the discomfort of it forces you to see the reality of it. It’s through pain that we learn, personally and also universally.”

To live in the present moment in our changing world is one of Buddhism’s tenets (Credit: Alamy)

Samuels says that when the current pandemic first struck, a lot of us were “numb, shocked and anxious. It was like the scary Jaws music coming, you can block it but in the end you have to pay attention, you have to shift and change”. She chose the phrase ‘This too shall pass’ for her book’s title because “you have to go with change and crises to come out the other side. You may not believe that it will ever end. In winter you may not believe that summer will come, but it does.”

Accepting change also makes you better at it, she says. “It’s the paradox that the more you allow yourself to accept that change is inevitable, the more likely you are to change intentionally and adapt.” Change can be an engine of progress.

Samuels is all for accepting the flux of life and nature, and for facing up to the biggest change any of us ever experiences, our own mortality. “I think what we don’t look at grows inside us, so it’s good to have conversations with each other about the end of life. The things you don’t talk about could haunt you and make everything more complicated. Life is precious but it’s good to accept that it’s limited.”

Change is the basis of all history, the proof of vigour – Jenny Holzer

It’s been more than half a century since Sam Cooke’s powerful and optimistic civil-rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come. Yet it’s a song that remains as timely as ever. And it’s been nearly 40 years since the US conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s iconic lithograph Inflammatory Essays, with its rousing message: “Change is the basis of all history, the proof of vigour”. The provocative artwork, created in the early 1980s, is full of the US artist’s trademark dogmatic, pithy truisms. Recently exhibited at London’s Tate Modern, it still feels resoundingly relevant today. “Upheaval is desirable because fresh, untainted groups seize opportunity,” is another phrase from the artwork, along with “The decadent and powerful champion continuity” “Slow modification can be effective men change before they notice and resist” and “The worst is a harbinger of the best”.

The current crisis – and the fight for racial and social equality – make Holzer’s words feel all the more resonant. And with many communities showing solidarity and support, it seems that qualities such as courage, resilience, compassion, empathy – and a sense of fairness and justice – still can be found. How will we look back on this time of turmoil, change and upheaval? Will we come out of this situation with a deeper understanding and an enhanced perspective on humankind, our priorities and our values? With our ‘vigour’ proved?


Heraclitus, Change, and Flow


By Dr. Tim Rayner
Former Professor of Philosophy, University of Sydney
Writer/Author

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470 BC) is one of the most important thinkers in history. Heraclitus’ views on change and flow stand in stark contradition to the picture of the static universe presented by his predecessor Parmenides (5th century BCE), and fed into the work of untold philosophers from Marcus Aurelius (121 AD–180 AD) to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD).

Heraclitus’ philosophy is a good starting point for anyone concerned with change in life. Heraclitus said that life is like a river. The peaks and troughs, pits and swirls, are all are part of the ride. Do as Heraclitus would – go with the flow. Enjoy the ride, as wild as it may be.

Heraclitus was born into a wealthy family, but he renounced his fortune and went to live in the mountains. There, Heraclitus had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the natural world. He observed that nature is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’, Heraclitus noted. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.

Heraclitus concluded that nature is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Even the nature of the flow changes.

Heraclitus’ vision of life is clear in his epigram on the river of flux:

‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’ (B49a).

One interpretation of this passage is that Heraclitus is saying we can’t step into the same river twice. This is because the river is constantly changing. If I stroll down the banks of the Danube, the water before my eyes is not the same water from moment to moment. If the river is this water (which is a debatable point – the river could be its banks, the scar it carves in the landscape, but let’s leave this aside), it follows that the Danube is not the same river from moment to moment. We step into the Danube we step out of it again. When we step into it a second time, we step into different water and thus a different river.

Moreover, we step into and out of the river as different beings.

Most interpretations of Heraclitus’s river fragment focus on the idea of the river in a state of flux. But Heraclitus says more than this in this fragment: ‘We are and are not’.

The river changes and so do you.

We are familiar with the principle of biological generation and corruption. Heraclitus puzzled over this principle two thousand years before the birth of the modern biological sciences and drew the ultimate lesson for the human condition. As material beings, we live in a world of flux. Moreover, we are flux. As physical bodies, we are growing and dying all the time, consuming light and resources to replicate our structure, while shedding matter continuously.

Change and death are ubiquitous features of the natural world. Maybe this is what Heraclitus meant when he said, in his inimitable way:

‘Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life’.

Or maybe not. With Heraclitus we can’t be sure. What we know of Heraclitus comes from his commentators (nothing survives of his original work), and so Heraclitean epigrams can seem dubious in provenance, attributable to other authors. Everything changes, and history has changed a dozen times since Heraclitus’ time yet I believe we can still take value from Heraclitus, particularly in a time like today, which is so clearly calling out for deep institutional and infrastructural change (I am speaking to people who are looking to make deep changes in our environmental and energy systems our political, representative and regulatory systems in our economic system – market capitalism – which is intrinsically indebted to the kind of society we really don’t want to be, an industrial society).


Heraclitus' Fragments

Here is a pdf of the fragments, and here and here are the HOPWAG episodes on Heraclitus. Kenny’s section on Heraclitus in chapter 1 is also useful.

First off, this was a more difficult read than I expected. It was interesting, but the fragments are, well, fragmentary—disconnected and never really presenting a complete thought. But as Plotinus notes (71) (and as M.M. McCabe echoes on HOPWAG), this gives us a chance to inquire for ourselves and attempt a much more speculative interpretation, investigating the topics themselves and trying to construct sensible theories, rather than investigating Heraclitus’ writings and trying to construct a theory consistent with his words. I’ll briefly summarize the points I found most interesting from the first sections, and give a more detailed explanation and interpretation of the metaphysical fragments. Hopefully some of you can correct my interpretation of the metaphysical section, and expand on the other ones. (I’m at a grad ceremony today, but I’ll try to respond to everything later tonight, or at least tomorrow morning.)

This section mostly condemns the stupidity of other men, uncomprehending and tasteless. He makes two other interesting points: he says that “the best” men choose not bodily satisfaction, but “ever-flowing fame from mortals” (58)—an odd conception of the good life for a philosopher and he criticises Pythagoras for constructing his wisdom “fraudulently,” from the writings of others books, rather than authentically—presumably from his own investigation (perhaps what Heraclitus means when he brags about having “inquired into [him]self” (69)).

Heraclitus’ primary substance, material principle, or arche, is fire (59). This may be appropriate, since his metaphysics is one of strife, conflict, and change, but it seems odd for him to have picked a single primary substance at all, given his metaphysics (I’ll circle back to this later). This section also sets out his theory of retribution, by which opposites (something like opposing natural forces) effect some sort of equilibrium (that which expands comes to contract, that which heats comes to cool, etc.) (60).

Heraclitus thinks that sleep “shows the absence of the soul” (63). This makes some sense: sleep looks like an absence of consciousness, at least from the outside. But from that, Heraclitus deduces that the experience of death (which is, apparently, just the absence of a soul) is the same as the experience of sleep. Presumably this means there is a soul that exists after the body dies, but it’s an odd sort of existence. This idea might be connected to the later fragment: “men [are] immortal, living their death, dying their life” (70).

The only thing I could glean from this section is a sort of natural law theory: the correct way of life is given by the logos (“account,” in Barnes’ translation) of the universe.

Heraclitus defends miracles, claiming (I think) that our materialist interpretations betray a “lack of trust” in the divine (66). He thinks there is only one god, or all gods are one and the same, but I’m not sure why. He’s also sceptical of religious ceremonies, treating them like you might treat superstitions.

He’s very mistrusting of human knowledge, claiming that it’s rare and hard to come by. There’s also an interesting anticipation of the (Aristotelian?) paradox that what we can’t know, we can’t come to know, because not knowing it, we don’t know where to look for it:

If you do not expect the unexpected you will not discover it, for it is hard to track down and difficult to approach. (68)

If we take this talk of expectation to be about knowledge (it’s in the section on knowledge, after all), it looks similar to the later paradox. But maybe I’m reading a little too much into this fragment.

For me, this is by far the most interesting theme Heraclitus has written on. I’ll reproduce a few of the key fragments here, and try to pull them into a coherent theory.

First, the ‘theory of flux.’ Probably the most common quotation from Heraclitus looks something like Plutarch’s:

Reason can grasp nothing which is at rest or which is really real for it is not possible to step twice into the same river, according to Heraclitus, nor to touch mortal substance twice,

since any substance we can touch is constantly changing (70) [emphasis mine]. I think it’s right to connect the theory of flux to the notion of substance, but Plutarch’s quotation is missing an important nuance that the HOPWAG professors note. Two better quotations are given:

In the same rivers different waters flow (70),

We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not. (70)

So he’s not just saying we can’t step into the same river—the river is, the second time, the same river in some sense. But he can’t just mean the path remains the same while the water changes (as Kenny suggests)—the path changes too. Setting aside these sorts of interpretations, since the actual materials of the river change constantly, Heraclitus must mean something far more significant: the river is different in its material qualities, but it’s still the same thing. There must be some other feature that explains the persistence of the river.

The second quotation specifies the idea, but maybe makes it more confusing: it’s the actual being of the river—or of us—that is and is not the same. I hope this hasn’t been too controversial an interpretation. It’s odd—maybe incomprehensible—but I think one more quotation, and a short leap of interpretation, will make things much clearer.

Things which have this movement [like the river] by nature are preserved and stay together because of it. (70)

Heraclitus is talking about a drink that is mixed like a vinegar and oil salad dressing, which comes apart if it isn’t shaken. But this is a bit mundane his point must be more significant than that non-homogeneous mixtures can come apart. And if this point is to relate to the previous ones about change and being, then he’s not just saying that a mixture stays mixed because it is moved, but it stays the same thing because it is changed. (This is my leap of interpretation—that this fragment is a metaphor for the earlier ones. But I think this is defensible, especially since it’s quite a banal statement otherwise.) What it is for the river (or anything else) to be a river is for it to constantly become (and simultaneously be (70)) different rivers: “changing it rests” (71). So Heraclitus is using a different notion of being than we are used to: change or process exists, not the material that the process operates on. That material must exist in another sense, or the river wouldn’t be different at all, but Heraclitus must think the process is more significant, and worth being highlighted like this.

And we can see why this might be. Explaining being in material terms is messy: the river is never the same, nor are its banks or its path or what-have-you. If the river is any of its material qualities, we have to allow some change in the material, and the stipulation of how much change is required to make it a different thing just seems arbitrary. It’s even worse when we have to stipulate how fast a thing can change, since plenty of things—like a tree—retain none of their material constituents through their growth. Explaining being in terms of that change—precisely that change that made being so hard to define otherwise—seems like a brilliant solution to the problem, though I’m sure it has its own difficulties. (I'm not sure Heraclitus had any of this in mind when he was writing, but it's nonetheless an interesting argument for the view.)

The other important idea in this section is the ‘unity of opposites’: the theory that opposite qualities can co-exist in the same objects at the same time. This strikes me, initially, as less profound. A lot of the opposites (beautiful and ugly, whole and not whole, cold and hot, wet and dry) seem to be handled by relativity: something is hot relative to one standard, cold relative to another beautiful for a human, ugly for a god (71). Kenny says that some of Heraclitus’ examples aren’t resolved by relativity, but doesn’t expand or give any examples.

Maybe, having planted being in change, Heraclitus needed a theory of change, and borrowed from Anaximenes’ notion of change as strife, or as the ‘retribution’ of opposites. From there he may have updated the theory not just to explain change, but also to explain persistence, since he’s recognized (and it seems like he was the first to recognize) that persistence needs explaining just as much as change does. So the “harmony” of the universe consists not just in its different stages but also in their being unified, and if opposition explains change it must also account for unity through change.

Neither the unity of opposites nor the theory of flux mesh well with Heraclitus’ idea, above, that fire is the arche, or material principle of the universe. If change, not substance, is the root of being, how can we posit a substance as the root of being? And if the universe is governed by the clash of opposites, why make just one substance the principle of the universe—shouldn’t it be two opposites? Maybe he didn’t intend to hold the traditional view that one material is the arche of the universe, but didn’t have the conceptual resources to explain himself fully Robert Paul Wolff often says that the great philosophers ‘saw more than they could say’ for precisely this reason, and that our interpretations should reflect this, i.e. we can’t always take these philosophers at their words. (As you can probably tell by my interpretative leaps, I’m quite sympathetic to this view.) Or maybe I’m reaching too far in my interpretation, and the theory of flux and the unity of opposites were more mundane ideas that didn’t conflict with the other pre-Socratic ideas Heraclitus adopts. Either way, this is getting more and more speculative, so I’ll close here for now.

I’ve passed over a lot that might be important, and what I’ve said is anything but certain, but I hope this serves as at least a starting-point for discussion.

(By the way, if you’re interested in exploring the pre-Socratics further, Barnes’s book—Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin—is fantastic. Barnes lays out the fragments from Thales to Diogenes without too much speculation, but begins the book with a broad interpretation of each philosopher, giving you a clear scheme to understand them in, but giving you the resources to ‘kick away the ladder’ when you reach the top, and find your own understanding.)

I’ve mentioned before being interested in Hegel, and so I’m also reading Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy in addition to the Anthony Kenny book. This makes a nice introduction to Hegel’s own system and Hegel also brings some interesting insights into these early philosophers, so if anyone is curious I’ve selected some key quotes from his writing on Heraclitus and also contextualized it with some of his writing on the Eleatics, primarily Parmenides and Zeno, and I’ve made an attempt to contextualize these in terms of Hegel’s philosophy.

(If anyone else is interested the full text is available here, the section on Heraclitus starts on Page 278, or you can begin with the Eleatics on Page 239)

To Hegel, philosophers aren’t proposing theories that get refuted and eliminated by future philosophers, but all expressing different modes of thinking, and any philosopher who correctly assimilates the philosophers before them and builds off them, expresses a more developed mode of thought. His system begins with his “Logic”, not to be confused with formal logic, where he tries to start philosophy with the simplest presuppositionless thought. I won’t go into detail how it works here except to say that he associates the simplest thought, Pure Being, with Parmenides and the Eleatics. Pure Beings ends up being the most general thought one can think and ends up being Nothing as Pure Neing without any determinations cannot express anything but Nothing and then characterizes these as two opposite moments of a more complex thought, Becoming, which he associates with the philosophy of Heraclitus.

Hegel thus describes the Eleatics:

they rejected all as being untrue, and thus came to pure thought. This is a wonderful advance, and thought thus becomes for the first time free for itself in the Eleatic school. Being, the One of the Eleatic school, is just this immersion in the abyss of the abstract identity of the understanding.

Hegel’s description of Parmenides

Parmenides says, whatever form the negation may take, it does not exist at all. To consider the nothing as the true is “the way of error in which the ignorant and double-minded mortals wander. Perplexity of mind sways the erring sense. Those who believe Being and non-being to be the same, and then again not the same, are like deaf and blind men surprised, like hordes confusedly driven.” The error is to confuse them and to ascribe the same value to each, or to distinguish them as if non-being were the limited generally. “Which ever way is taken, it leads back to the point from which it started.” It is a constantly self-contradictory and disintegrating movement. To human ideas, now this is held to be reality and now its opposite, and then again a mixture of both.

I haven’t studied the Phenomenology of Spirit in depth, but I believe one interpretation of it is explaining why we can’t rest our knowledge on empiricism to convince us why we have to embark on his later Logic in the realm of pure thought. When we try to express experience we have to put it into concepts from the most basic “here” and “now” to more developed “this tree” and find that these concepts no longer contain our immediate experience, so for Hegel we have to start looking for truth by investigating our concepts, but understanding the concepts as concepts, and not conflating concepts for knowledge of the world as he thinks the Ionic philosophers do. Thus for him Parmenides is the first philosopher to put philosophy on its proper foundations starting with thought. He thus describes Parmenides on thought:

According to Parmenides, (…) “Thought, and that on account of which thought is, are the same. For not without that which is, in which it expresses itself, wilt thou find Thought, seeing that it is nothing and will be nothing outside of that which is.” That is the main point. Thought produces itself, and what is produced is a Thought. Thought is thus identical with Being, for there is nothing beside Being, this great affirmation. Plotinus, in quoting (V. Ennead. I. 8) this last fragment says: “Parmenides adopted this point of view, inasmuch as he did not place Being in sensuous things identifying Being with Thought, he maintained it to be unchangeable.” The Sophists concluded from this: “All is truth there is no error, for error is the non-existent, that which is not to be thought.” Since in this an advance into the region of the ideal is observable, Parmenides began Philosophy proper. A man now constitutes himself free from all ideas and opinions, denies their truth, and says necessity alone. Being, is the truth. This beginning is certainly still dim and indefinite, and we cannot say much of what it involves but to take up this position certainly is to develop Philosophy proper, which has not hitherto existed.

Hegel doesn’t see Zeno as advancing the philosophy of Parmenides but applying Parmenides philosophy to reality. Thus I found his discussion very informative for better understanding the implications of Hegel starting his system with Pure Being. He says of Zeno:

In Plato’s Parmenides (pp. 127, 128, Steph., pp. 6, 7, Bekk.) this dialectic is very well described, for Plato makes Socrates say of it : “ Zeno in his writings asserts fundamentally the same as does Parmenides, that All is One, but he would feign delude us into believing that he was telling something new. Parmenides thus shows in his poems that All is One Zeno, on the contrary, shows that the Many cannot be.” Zeno replies, that “He wrote thus really against those who try to make Parmenides position ridiculous, for they try to show what absurdities and self-contradictions can be derived from his statements he thus combats those who deduce Being from the many, in order to show that far more absurdities arise from this than from the statements, of Parmenides.” That is the special aim of objective dialectic, in which we no longer maintain simple thought for itself, but see the battle fought with new vigour within the enemy’s camp.

Aristotle (Phys. VI. 9) explains this dialectic further Zeno’s treatment of motion was above all objectively dialectical. But the particulars which we find in the Parmenides of Plato are not his. For Zeno’s consciousness we see simple unmoved thought disappear, but become thinking movement in that he combats sensuous movement, he concedes it. The reason that dialectic first fell on movement is that the dialectic is itself this movement, or movement itself the dialectic of all that is. The thing, as self-moving, has its dialectic in itself, and movement is the becoming another, self-abrogation. If Aristotle says that Zeno denied movement because it contains an inner contradiction, it is not to be understood to mean that movement did not exist at all. The point is not that there is movement and that this phenomenon exists the fact that there is movement is as sensuously certain as that there are elephants it is not in this sense that Zeno meant to deny movement. The point in question concerns its truth. Movement, however, is held to be untrue, because the conception of it involves a contradiction by that he meant to say that no true Being can be predicated of it. Zeno s utterances are to be looked at from this point of view, not as being directed against the reality of motion, as would at first appear, bat as pointing out how movement must necessarily be determined, and showing the course which must be taken.

This is his first form of argument: “Movement has no truth, because what is in motion must first reach the middle of the space before arriving at the end.” Aristotle expresses this thus shortly, because he had earlier treated of and worked out the subject at length. This is to be taken as indicating generally that the continuity of space is pre-supposed. What moves itself must reach a certain end, this way is a whole In order to traverse the whole, what is in motion must first pass over the half, and now the end of this half is considered as being the end but this half of space is again a whole, that which also has a half, and the half of this half must first have been reached, and so on into infinity. Zeno here arrives at the infinite divisibility of space because space and time are absolutely continuous, there is no point at which the division can stop. Every dimension (and every time and space always have a dimension) is again divisible into two halves, which must be measured off and however small a space we have, the same conditions reappear. Movement would be the act of passing through these infinite moments, and would therefore never end thus what is in motion cannot reach its end. It is known how Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic, quite simply refuted these arguments against movement without speaking he rose and walked about, contradicting them by action. But when reasons are disputed, the only valid refutation is one derived from reasons men have not merely to satisfy themselves by sensuous assurance, but also to understand. To refute objections is to prove their non-existence, as when they are made to fall away and can hence be adduced no longer but it is necessary to think of motion as Zeno thought of it, and yet to carry this theory of motion further still.

List of site sources >>>