HERACLITUS: Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (fl. 500 B.C.) is known as the “dark philosopher” because much of his life is still a mystery. Scholars do know that he hailed from Ephesus and that his views were incredibly influential, with the likes of Plato, Hegel, Nieztche, Bergson, and more citing his wisdom in their works. The IEP entry is a great source of information, but I like the translations from my yellowing fourth edition copy of Prentice Hall’s Ancient Philosophy reader from the series Philosophic Classics (with commentary by Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann).
Many of the Pre-Socratic philosopher sought to find the central element of the universe which made up and explained all things. Later ancient philosophers would either deny this unity, suppose it to be something metaphysical, and even posit an atomistic universe. Heraclitus was generally on board with this project, but had his own unique spin. While other philosophers thought that all things were made up of a water, or music, or air, he chose fire as his central element, because while he did suppose there to be a unity to the universe, what truly unified all of being was it’s utter changeability. The IEP captures this succinctly:
The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements, symbolized by fire. Thus the world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather with an ongoing process governed by a law of change.
You can hear in this explanation some foreshadowing to the modern idea that in science, the only constant is change. What I love about Heraclitus’ words are his emphasis on the flow of human experience, of coming to be and passing away in subjective turn.
From pages 16-18 in the Baird/Kaufmann:
“In the same river we both step and do not step, we are and are not.”
“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”
“Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow.”
“Fire, having come upon them, will judge and seize upon [condemn] all things.”
“This world-order [the same of all] did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.”
The implications of this are manifold; there is a separation between objective reality and the lived reality that is not unlike what later becomes Plato’s distinction between the Forms themselves and our limited experience of them in the world, or Beothius’ distinction between a God outside of time and our temporal nature.
For many thinkers, Heraclitus’ understanding of a unity that is ever-changing is contradictory, but I think that the metaphor of a river is exceptionally clear. While the waters in a river change every moment in a constant flow, we yet still quantify the river as one. And while we typically think of time and experience as something rushing us along, it’s also something that flows through us in continuous change that yet leaves us singularly in tact – just as we can ride down a river and rush through life, or we can plant our feet and let it flow through us.
It also sets up Anselm’s model for the Catholic Trinity in a way that makes more sense than most explanations, but I’ll save that for another day. For more on time and temporality, check back next Wednesday for a post on literature that undermines our concept of time, and then next Friday as we turn to Husserl.