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.
Video: Heraclitus and the Buddha
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.