Heraclitus, the Melancholic Father of Flux

Heraclitus wringing his hands over the world.  Heraclitus, the Weeping Philosopher by Johannes Moreelse

Heraclitus wringing his hands over the world.

Heraclitus, the Weeping Philosopher by Johannes Moreelse

Heraclitus is thought of as the father of flux, the philosophy of change. He was known as the “Weeping Philosopher”, who might have suffered from a unique type of depression which shows through the physical appearance of melancholy. But even though this man was in a perpetual state of sadness for most of his life, he found no greater joy upon realizing the value of understanding. 

Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers, remarked that Heraclitus was extraordinary, even among other philosophers. After all, how often have you heard about philosophers that wished death on other philosophers that simply, in his opinion, did not understand?

You probably haven’t. And yes, that is extreme. However, when one looks into the man himself, we may gain insight into not only his apparent misanthropy, but also why he refused to value the thoughts of those who lacked a sensory understanding.

Heraclitus was born into wealth in Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey. But despite his position, he had no interest in money, fame, politics or power. As a boy, he was only interested in learning. But he never felt that learning of the physical world was important. Instead, he wanted to know the nature of the universe

"The things of which there is sight, hearing, experience, I prefer." - Heraclitus (according to DK22B55*)

Similar to how those with different languages do not understand each other, Heraclitus believed that nature had its own language, which itself was not understandable to those without sensory wisdom. When he, himself, attempted to write about his experiences in his treatise, On Nature, it was often far too confusing to understand. There were many verbal puzzles and semantics that clouded his readers’ interpretations of his philosophy, gaining him another nickname - “The Obscure”. Heraclitus, however, believed that this was the language of nature, and, by picking apart these puzzles, one would understand representing the nature of the universe.

It was no wonder, then, that he couldn’t take the relatively shallow understanding of the world from the perspective of another human. To him, they must have been incredibly short-sighted.

From his own experiences, he came to an understanding that the universe is under perpetual change. In order to demonstrate such an observation, the philosopher was known to use the symbol of the “ever-changing flame”.

“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.” - Heraclitus, On Nature

Logos, or Word, was the name that he gave to this universal law of change. Fire, to Heraclitus, was a standard to represent the change from one state to another.

Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water. - Heraclitus, On Nature

Other philosophers of the time were keen on the belief that one material turned into another, thus creating the physical world as we know it, but Heraclitus focused on the change itself. In other words, it’s not important that something becomes another, but that change among things is a universal constant.

This idea of Logos gave rise to three beliefs:

  1. Everything constantly changes.

  2. Opposite things are identical.

  3. Everything is and is not at the same time.

The second and third ones are no doubt giving you pause. But what Heraclitus means by the unification of opposites is that the opposite of one state can only exist because change is constant. For example, hot can turn to cold, therefore these opposites are unified according to the transformative nature of change; it is not that they are the same. This combination of these two make it so that nature can exist in multiple forms at any given moment in time.

Allow me to help you understand further by using the example of an ice cube. The moment you take out an ice cube and put it in room temperature, it begins to, atomically, change state. Therefore, over time, is the ice cube a solid or a liquid? The answer is that it exists in both phases, only taking one phase at the before the beginning of its transformation or at the end of it.

We can control whether water is liquid or solid. But we cannot control the universe, which perpetually changes. Therefore, is it unreasonable to say that opposites are unified according to that change?

So, from the mind of an outcast, the philosophy of flux, the motion of change, was born. While it was thought of as illegitimate in the time of Heraclitus, the doctrine of flux has thrived within the sciences for centuries as an explanation for motion in many disciplines.

But it’s far more important than that. Science itself obeys the laws of perpetual change by constant growth based on tested theory. If technology is the cornerstone of civilization, then science is its advancement. This has been proven by the drastic change of the world from era to era. However, while science follows change, the arts also have an intimate relationship with flux. It is the arts that gives humanity the ability to recount the eras of the past at a personal and emotional level that is unmatched by simply reading history. In fact, history looks to the arts in order to get an understanding of cultures and technology of the past.

The doctrine of flux is truly inspiring. It drives me and my team to help you understand the world around you by following the methods of Heraclitus: asking “Why is the world how it is?” and guiding you through the inevitable changes in your understanding.

References:

Diels, Hermann and Walther Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Zurich: Weidmann, 1985. * Explanation of the Diels-Kranz Numbering System [http://www.iep.utm.edu/diels-kr/]