Heraclitus (c.? 600-? 540 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Heraclitus (c.? 600-? 540 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? He was a pre-Socratic thinker. He argued that everything is in constant state of flux, or change, and war and conflict among opposites is the forever state of the universe. This reminds us of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegel argued that becoming is the result of being and non-being. The conflict between being and non-being would give us becoming, which is change. To put it differently, we have Thesis (being), antithesis (non-being) and synthesis (becoming).

Let us not forget that long before Hegel’s Copernican revolution, using Kant’s expression, it was becoming that produced conflict between the opposites.

Buddha had anticipated what Heraclitus held. The former believed our struggle or suffering is the consequence of our attachment to the world of change and becoming. Hindus would argue that attachment to the changing reality is futile, because after all the world of becoming is nothing but an illusion.

 In Manichaeism there has always been a battle between good and evil and there’s no end on sight, that is, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.  Heraclitus never said movement or motion is the result of conflict between the opposites. He simply maintained that everything is in the state of becoming and wars between opposites. The universe has always been the theater of strife and battle between opposites.

Hegel had a different agenda in mind when he came up with his logic of neither/nor in order to deliver the world of becoming. Although he by passed the either/or logic of Aristotle, which he had preferred over causality, he tries to resolve this contradiction by saying that once we go beyond this logic, then we have the world of becoming. He was very much stuck with the decisions of the church fathers in 300 AD, namely, Jesus was both God and man at the same time and in the same relationship. He made an attempt to prove it philosophically that it was possible Christ was both God and man. However, when he like an Avatar in Hinduism entered our world, he was in the becoming of history.

St. Thomas Aquinas, however, even being Aristotelian he must have known that the logic of either/or belonged to the theoretical science. Therefore, it couldn’t be used for either ethics or Religious belief. If it not to be applied to the practical science, nor could it be used for what people believe based on their faith. Hegel did not seem to understand this and as a result he tried to change the structure of either/or logic of Aristotle. He didn’t have to let his religious belief, which was based on the decisions of church fathers in 300AD dictate his philosophy. After all they were also human beings and subject to errors. On the other hand it is possible that church fathers didn’t apply Aristotelian logic used for theoretical knowledge when they said Jesus was fully man and fully God. They didn’t try to fit their faith into the procrustean bed of either/or logic. Hegel made an effort to fit his faith into changed logic. The practical knowledge had its own logic of neither/nor. Perhaps this is what Hegel tried to do, namely argue that it is neither being, nor non-being. It is becoming. But the problem is Geist or Spirit enters the river of becoming of history and it is also becoming. If Geist is the Holy Spirit, which is transcendent entering our realm like an Avatar or incarnation in Hinduism, then it automatically become subject to the movement of history and time. This never happened for the Hindus, because time and change are illusions but not for Hegel. May be this was one of the reasons Schopenhauer went against Hegel’s philosophy.

He was critical of the people of Ephesus where he belonged and believed they were so foolish they ought to hang themselves and let the city be run by the rule of children. Perhaps he thought we should go back to the innocence of childhood and stay away from corruption, which was destroying his culture. He made fun of Homer while criticizing Pythagoras and Xenophanes.

He was trying to understand the fundamental structure of the universe. Thus, he thought the three principal components of nature were Fire, Earth and Water. Fire is the main component, which controls and modifies the other two. ‘All things are an exchange for Fire, and Fire for all things… the transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind’.

The cosmic fire has its correlative in the man’s soul. In those who’re not strong is contaminated by ‘watery’ components of sleep, stupidity and vice. Does this make sense? These human beings with great virtue are able to survive the death of their physical body and finally rejoin the cosmic fire. Nevertheless, the process of separation and unity continues. Resembling the Chinese ideas of yin and yang, Heraclitus held that the dynamism between opposites was the driving power and eternal condition of the universe. ‘Men do not understand that being at variance it also agrees with itself, there is a harmony, as with the bow and the lyre’.

He keeps reminding us that ‘God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger’. Battle, conflict and opposition are necessary and good, because the idea of universal tension determines that while opposites opposites may have periods of alternating dominance, none of them shall ever entirely destroy or overcome the other: ‘The sun may not overstep his measure; for the Erinyes, the handmaids of justice, shall find him out’.

This universal tension secures that change keeps on, that everything is in the process of becoming. Permanence doesn’t have a reality in the universe. The only permanent phenomenon is the condition of change, which is the consequence of the transformation of Fire. In other words, everything changes but Change itself.

This is where Plato found the basis of his philosophy of being and becoming. Things that change participate in the Form of Change. So Heraclitus believed in the reality of constancy. You see, unless there’s a constant or permanent reality, motion has no meaning. The movement of a train makes sense in contrast to the station. Plato argued that unless there’re permanent transcendent realities of Forms there cannot be the world of becoming. I personally believe Heraclitus knew he couldn’t maintain the reality of change and motion unless there’s a permanent reality. This was perhaps his justification for change. For Buddha in 2600 BC who had a similar claim that there’s nothing which doesn’t change, there was a different justification. Apparently he didn’t have faith in the gods and deities that are the sources of permanence. Therefore, how could he argue that everything changes and the reason for our suffering is the fact that we’re attached to the changing world? However, how did he hold that such a change exist, if there’s no permanence? Eventually he had no choice but agree that he couldn’t maintain his position unless he accepted the facts that change is nothing but an illusion, what the Hindus always believed. This brought him closer to Parmenides, the pre-Socratic thinker.

Heraclitus, on the other hand, as we mentioned before held that whereas nothing stays changeless within universe, the universe itself is eternal. It is ‘without beginning or end; everlasting… it is always the same’. (Webster’s) The world ‘was ever, is now, and ever shall be, an ever-living Fire’. I’m thinking of the burning bush observed by Moses on top of the mountain.

Heraclitus was not like the contemporary rationalist philosophers of his day, thus decided not to explain the reasons supporting his thinking in detail. Stoic philosophers followed his footsteps and at the end called him ‘the riddle’. He wrote his philosophy in aphoristic and prophetic genre, with an obvious contempt for those who couldn’t observe what was clearly in front of them. Is this what Jesus did while standing before Pontius Pilate? He was without doubt a mystic and there’re similarities between his writings and the author of ‘Tao Te Ch’ing’, namely Lao Tzu or the old master. It is very difficult to know whether he was influenced by this Chinese classic. For Lao Tzu the world is a relative phenomenon. Even values are relative, which has nothing to do with the modern Western idea of relativism. The universe is relative, because the Tao is absolute. However, the Dao is beyond any duality, which makes it possible for the world not to be an illusion. Right here we can see the fact that Heraclitus doesn’t seem to have been influenced by this great Chinese philosopher.

Heraclitus’ notion of reality as a process, namely an ever-changing progression goes against the later development of metaphysics emerging out of the thought of Aristotle. Remember metaphysics has two meanings: Once Aristotle was gone his works on the theological matters were put after the ones on physics, ‘meta’ meant after here. ‘Meta’ also means beyond that is whatever he taught which was beyond the realm of the physical. As much as being was the subject matter of great importance and significance for Plato with his idea of Forms, for Aristotle was involved in the study of substances and the qualities they can, do or must have. Let us not forget that Aristotle rejected Plato’s Forms of perfection and reduced them to concepts we have in our mind, which correspond to what is in the world. In other words, Plato’s vertical reality became horizontal for Aristotle. The symbolism of cross comes handy here, namely the vertical aspect of the cross belongs to Plato and the horizontal part to Aristotle. However, as you remember Heraclitus argued that the universe itself is eternal like change, which reminds us of Plato’s realm of transcendent Realities. Aristotle tried to define motion and process without the changelessness of Plato’s Forms. The term ‘substance’ means that which is under what is standing or the most important part of anything. How can we bring Plato’s Forms into this world? Once we try, then forms become subject to change. The only form which didn’t need matter to become a reality was pure Form, which he called it God. This is closest he could come to Plato’s Forms.

We can see Heraclitus’ process idea in Bergson and Whitehead. As we also know, the latter once said everything we have in Western philosophy is nothing but a footnote to Plato. Plato finally situates Parmenides in the realm of his Forms.

Heraclitus was undoubtedly one of the most astonishing pre-Socratic thinkers.

( Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)