“Now almost all the hypotheses that have dominated modern philosophy were first thought of by the Greeks; their imaginative inventiveness in abstract matters can hardly be too highly praised,” says Bertrand Russell in “Heraclitus” in History of Western Philosophy.
Russell acknowledges that these theories, in their early days, were “somewhat infantile” – nevertheless philosophers have developed and refined them and these theories gained influence over the last two thousand years, and we still feel their influence today.
Russell believes that if an intelligent man comes up with a theory that seems, to us, ridiculous, that we should not denigrate his view, but try to understand how, from his perspective, his theory appears to be true.
This approach would help to broaden our own imagination and perceptions and we would, perhaps, realise how confusing our own so-called prejudices would seem in a period of a different temperament.
(The use of the male pronoun here follows the style of Bertrand Russell, who did not write about women-philosophers, a prejudice that seems strange to some of us today, thereby confirming the substance of Russell’s comment.)
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The Soul is Made of Fire and Water
Heraclitus, who lived from circa 600 BC to circa 540 BC, was born in Ephesus in Asia Minor. He left no written work and we derived what we know of his teaching from the works of others, explains Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Thinkers.
Heraclitus lived in agonised contempt of mankind. He believed fire and water made up the soul, the fire being noble, the water ignoble. Russell quotes him: “Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows.” Heraclitus was a believer in the necessity for war.
One of his most terrifying sayings, quoted by Russell, is: “We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and all things come into being and pass away through strife.”
Russell points out that he appears to seek the destruction of our universe; in fact, he is praying for it.
A Constant State of Flux
For Heraclitus, the only constant is change. Jeremy Harwood says “He stated that the three principle elements were earth, fire and water. Fire was the primary element, controlling and modifying the other two. The dynamism existing between opposites provides the universe with its driving force.” The inevitable tension from this coming-together ensures that the universe is constantly in a state of flux.
An example used by Heraclitus is a river, which is constantly changing yet remains the same because the waters are constantly moving.
In “The Natural Philosophers” in Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder quotes: “Everything flows. Everything is in a state of constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding. Therefore, we cannot step twice into the same river.”
Bertrand Russell compares Heraclitus’ philosophy with that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s, describing it as “a kind of proud asceticism.” He quotes Heraclitus: “It is death for souls to become water,” and, chillingly: “It is hard to fight with one’s heart’s desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul.”
In essence, Heraclitus has invented his own religion and interprets the theology of the day in a way that fits in with his own thought, and completely debunks certain aspects of that theology.
“Up and Down Are the Same!” Says Heraclitus
Heraclitus’ thought about opposites can seem confusing. “Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions like that of the bow and the lyre.”
This example demonstrates Heraclitus’ conviction that, through strife the opposites mingle and produce harmony. Therefore, there cannot be unity without strife and what is opposite, is to our human good.
Some examples are that if we have no winter, we would not know spring, and if we were never ill, we would not appreciate the benefits of being well. How would be know what peace was if we hadn’t known the strife of war?
This philosophy contains elements of Hegel, who lived from 1770 to 1831 and begins with a synthesising of opposites. “Hegelian dialectic,” says Jeremy Harwood, “starts with a proposition or thesis which, initially, is taken to be true. Then, an equally logical antithesis is formulated. Faced with two incompatible ideas, a third position becomes apparent. This is the synthesis.”
Sayings of Heraclitus
Here are some of Heraclitus’ sayings as quoted by Russell:
- Souls smell in Hades.
- Greater deaths win greater portions. (This means those who die greater deaths become Gods.)
- Good and ill are one.
- The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries.
- Couples are things whole and things not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonies and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from one.
- The wisest man is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man.”
Men Awake and Men Asleep
Heraclitus tells us, “Men awake have one common world, but in sleep they turn aside each into a world of his own.” Iris Murdoch, in “Morals and Politics” in her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, explains that, although this might see a simple explanation about private experience, it is actually more puzzling than that.
“Language has and must have public rules. Yet we have private insights and cognition which go beyond what could be described as a private saying of public sentences, and even when we speak aloud may we not to some extent ‘make the language our own?’ Men dream when they are awake too.”
She continues by pointing out that we are in continual turmoil between our inner and outer selves, and this is a dynamic situation. She feels we must take on ideas about freedom and reason, and this must lead to a “self-created privacy.” Murdoch speaks of our assumption of individuality in our humanity and, importantly, its potentialities, as she attempts to extract from Heraclitus’ philosophy a deeper, more humane meaning.
“A man ought to be allowed to be free, and should also possess happiness, and knowledge – and moral sensibility. There are obligations which belong to his environment and others which belong to himself and these overlap.”
Heraclitus and the Everlasting
It would be a mistake to assume that, because of Heraclitus’ pessimism, he had no room for the notion of the everlasting. On the contrary, he believed, says Russell, that “the central fire never dies: the world was ever, is now, and ever shall be, an ever-living fire.” However, Russell points out that fire changes and could be viewed as a process rather than something of substance:
“Science, like philosophy, has sought to escape from the doctrine of perpetual flux… Chemistry seems to satisfy this desire… fire, which appears to destroy, only transmutes: elements are recombined, but each atom that existed before combustion still exists when the process is completed.”
It seems little wonder that Heraclitus spent a lot of his precious time weeping. How much worse for him if he had known that, at some future time, astronomy would tell us that the universe and everything in it, is subject to the passing of time, which is the opposite of everlasting.
No doubt, as Russell suggests, philosophers will continue to seek a way to challenge the doctrine of perpetual flux.