Heraclitus of Ephesus

Here is something that I have wanted to do for a long, long time, which is to blogify the pile of philosophy notes I still have left over from university. I was a marvelous student, but aimless. I blundered into graduating with two majors that I didn’t know what to do with, and made the bewildering choice to decline a minor in philosophy even though I had the credits to do it. Anyway, I am reasonably sure that with very few exceptions I took all the philosophy courses that were available at my little country alma mater.

The other perplexing thing about my academic philosophical career is that I kept almost all of my notes. I have a stack of them right here. They’re from before the age of laptops, and tablet computers existed only in Star Trek, so it’s just a bunch of dead trees with scribbles all over them. I have always been enough of a fan of handwriting to try out different styles, and at the time I was going through a phase in which I capitalized all the Ns and Rs. That’s not relevant to any particular point. It’s nice handwriting, good and clear and legible. And now I would like to start transferring those ideas into a format less susceptible to cat barf. I’ll treat them in whatever order they’ve been shuffled. On the top of the stack is Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was almost pre-classical, doing his thing in Greece five full centuries before the turn of our common era. He was a wealthy man. (That’s not a shock.) He wrote a book called On Nature, of which only about 1500 words have survived. His contemporaries gave him a nickname, The Riddler, because even in the glory days of philosophizing, nobody knew what the hell Harry was talking about. (I call him Harry. We’re familiar.)

A lot of Christians think logos has something to do with Jesus. In fact logos got its start with our guy Heraclitus, whence it was adopted into the wider space of Greek thinking generally. From there it passed down the centuries until Greeks and the inheritors of Greek culture were introduced to a particular Jewish cult, and they applied what was to them ready-made labels to the symbols they found therein. The ancient Greek term meant “word” but also all kinds of things connected to the concept of words, like pattern (this one is important), ratio, and reason.

Heraclitus said that change was the only constant thing in the universe. No thing or collection of things remained the same from moment to moment. If a thing seemed stable, that was an illusion. Strictly on the part of the perceiver, that is: the thing can’t make itself appear to not change — it’s your idiotic preconceived notions of stability. All this change nevertheless took place inside an ordered construct — a pattern — that repeated itself over and over. The pattern did not change; it was the cyclic pattern of change.

He had some rather wacky semi-atomic ideas with which he described how the pattern worked. It’s all based in fire, apparently, and the first element to emerge out of fire is…the sea. Yet more puzzling is that the sea gives rise to earth and to something that is either lightning or a snake. None of it makes sense physically. That didn’t matter to Harry. It didn’t matter to any of the ancient thinkers, because they had this notion of sympathy between the inner and outer worlds. That is, they thought our own internal states, thoughts, and emotions were intimately connected to the states of the external world. (I should hesitate to call this an ancient idea, although it is a hoary old one. What I mean is that it’s still just as popular today as it was back then. It’s a problem. By saying the world should work a certain way, we are shielded from seeing how it actually works.  It leads to mistaken notions, like Heraclitus’ crazy-town system of elements.) As far as Heraclitus was concerned, the make-up of the cosmos must be reflection of right philosophy. Since the pattern — the logos — was fundamental to all things, then this element of cognition, generally associated alchemically with fire (pyros), must be the base element of the universe. Ergo, water precipitates from fire. I doubt this was rigorously tested.

There were actually two sides to his elemental scheme, a downward and an upward side, condensation and rarefaction. A great wheel of going out and coming back in, emanating from fire to all the various forms and events, and then returning up an opposite path back to fire. It sets up a duality, and this duality he believed described all things. Opposite things require each other, he said. They’re not even two separate things! They’re the same thing on opposing sides of the logos-wheel. As such everything is a unity of opposites, stretched in tension across this Great Circle, and this tension Heraclitus calls War.

“War is the father of all and king of all,” says Harry. By this he means that the dynamism, the strife between the opposites, is the generative force that creates and sustains the universe. Let the tension collapse and the world withdraws entirely back to the primordial fire from which it came. Poof! Heraclitus saw this as being an act of will, or at least a sign of intelligent motive. The logos, then, the pattern, is God, the cosmic path. Travel down some centuries and introduce that idea to some Greek-speaking converts, and Bob’s your uncle.