Here’s a hint: he’s grumpy and he’s not Socrates.
PPhilosophy has a barrier. Or at least that’s what it seems when you go through its history and foundations within the Western world. You will usually see its Greek origins divided between the time before and after Socrates. As before and after the common era in our dates, but add a big “S” instead of “AD” or “BC”.
I was always told that it is set up this way because Socrates was such a dynamic and influential character that he changed the nature of philosophy. But that explanation has unintended consequences. It makes you think that those from before were minors, and the philosophy begins after Socrates.
But what if I told you that a Pre “S” philosopher had his writings stored in one of the ancient wonders of the world for posterity? the Temple of Artemis it might have been the only place huge enough to contain his larger-than-life ideas.
- They inspired basic principles of both Stoicism and Christianity.
- His thoughts from 500 B.C. C. are parallel to Darwin, Nietzsche and William James of our current era.
- He intentionally made his work vague, like the ancient Chinese philosopher. Zhuang Zhiso that readers are encouraged to think, not just repeat the ideas of a chosen enlightened group.
To make this character even more unique, he became a total misanthrope, eventually drifting away from a traditionally close-knit Greek community to live alone as a hermit. He also criticized all the “wise” philosophers of his time.
Imagine a grumpy old man, yelling at children to get up off his lawn, while formulating the very nature of our universe, which he would leave for later years as those children grew older. As adults, those adult children would realize that the curmudgeon was right, and the words he shouted and left were pretty wise.
All this is summed up by Heraclitus of Ephesus. But to truly understand the magnitude of his thoughts, it is best to navigate through his four basic principles: fire as the first cause, change is eternal, the unity of opposites and a reason for everything (logos).
Joshua Mark in the world history encyclopedia It says that all the pre-Socratic philosophers tried to find the First Cause of the creation of the world. While others said water or air, Heraclitus chose fire. After all, you can create and destroy.
But historian Will Durant in volume two of the history of civilizationhe says that the philosopher’s choice of fire extended far beyond the element we use to cook our food.
Durant says that Heraclitus did not make a separation between fire, soul and God. In fact, he describes fire as a kind of energy behind all things. It is the energy within us.
Although things around you are always destined to change, the soul is immortal. It is that fire or energy. All things can have a beginning and an end, particularly death, because our souls are made of that fire.
Since fire never dies, it continually consumes. Consequently, one day he will consume all things and proclaim a final judgment, separating the good and the bad.
So, fire is inseparable from God. But it is much more than that, linking this energy with other principles of Heraclitus.
Joshua Mark points out that the philosopher is known for the idea of panta king, or “life is flux”. In the dark manner of Heraclitus, he asserts that all things are alike in the sense that they are destined to change. He would not say that things “are”, but that they are continually becoming something else.
The philosopher is also accredited with saying: “It is not possible to step into the same river twice”.
According to Durant, this makes a lot of sense. Look at the fire. The flame continually dances and changes form, either rising and consuming, or sinking and softening. The energy changes continuously. The same as us.
The father of psychology, and a philosopher in his own right, William James mentioned something similar. He believed that the universe wasunfinished.” In other words, there are so many “cross currents” of influence touching each other that the universe cannot be complete or predestined.
But while Heraclitus conveys change as a constant, there is also another conflict. However, this is a positive thing.
“Wrestling is the father of all and the king of all. He has appointed some to be gods and others to be men… In the end, the fight is justice. The jurisdiction of individuals, groups, species, institutions and empires constitutes the Supreme Court of nature, from whose verdict there is no appeal.”
— Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Volume Two
In his best “get off my lawn” pose, our grumpy genius points out that those who want a peaceful, stress-free life are idiots. Durant explains that Heraclitus sees harmony as “tension in which neither element definitely wins”, not as the end of disagreement.
The fight caused by the disagreement forces the proponents to improve their arguments, themselves or their products within the competition. Heraclitus explains that both the bow and the harp show this. Without the tension of pulling your string, you get nothing useful out of the item.
The very world you see around you is a continuous struggle.
- animal against animal
- man against woman
- religion against religion
- Ideas fight with ideas
- Social classes push each other, nation-states too
As these struggles continue, it forces everyone to get better, or at least strive to get better. It’s the universe’s version of that Greek staple: the Olympics. Surprisingly, ancient thought is also very much like Darwin. But it goes beyond this.
Without struggle, we cannot be complete. In fact, it’s better in life if you don’t get everything you want. Sickness makes good health more appreciated, evil makes good more wonderful, and without work, rest would be boring, not relaxing.
However, our favorite grumpy philosopher is not done yet. All of these elements need to be linked together.
I mentioned earlier that Heraclitus talked about the fire that would eventually consume all things. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But not in his opinion. When we think of fire, we think of a chaotic inferno that engulfs something and destroys it.
Heraclitus sees order in this fire. If we could study this energy behind all things and come to understand it, we would see an unbiased natural order everywhere. It is a reason, a word or a logos.
However, our grumpy sage thinks we should do more than just notice. We must adopt this reason as our own. Durant sums it up neatly, saying:
“We should try to mold our lives according to this form of nature. This law of the universe… this ordered energy, which is God.”
This whole concept of a divine word or reason behind all things sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? On the other hand, I am sure that many of Heraclitus’s ideas do. There is a good reason for this.
There are events in history that I would pay a lot to see. One of them would be to see someone explain to Heraclitus that historians today consider him to be lumped into a gray category of “Pre-Socratic”. One could only imagine what the curmudgeonly thinker would say.
I’d bet my money on him shaking his fist and saying it was nonsense. It wouldn’t be an obscure reference to “Before Socrates” either.
While most philosophy books tend to gloss over Heraclitus, his ideas left a deep legacy in the thinking of the Western world. You can see it in many places.
Mark points to his influence on Plato and Aristotle, but Durant sees the ancient thinker’s ideas embodied in the future.
The historian finds the idea of divine fire and obedience to nature within the resurgent philosophy of Stoicism. Furthermore, the concept of a final judgment and the divine word are fundamental elements of Christianity.
But Durant also sees the benefits of struggle reflected in Darwin’s pillars of evolution. Furthermore, Nietzsche mentions the benefit of the struggle and tells his readers to love his fate, both good and bad.
Unfortunately, Heraclitus wasn’t exactly a joy to be around. As the Athenians executed Socrates, he left behind enough friends to carry on his name and ideas. The same cannot be said for the grumpy sage.
All we have left are a hundred or so fragments of his work, written in his dark way. But you can see the shadows of his thoughts everywhere. He was truly a man, er, hermit, ahead of his time.