I’ve written about how Thales thought there was one ‘substance’ underlying everything that exists, namely water, which can take solid, liquid or vaporous form. Heraclitus came at things from a different angle. He thought that everything in our world is continuously changing. Obvious examples are that day becomes night, tides ebb and flow, the seasons come and go, living things are born and die.
Heraclitus suggests this means no one can stand in the same river twice! Second time round, the water we stood in last time will have long gone. He would have agreed, however, that rivers, nonetheless, do have one seemingly permanent aspect. Despite the flow, down through the centuries, of countless gallons of water, a river such as the Nile, is still there! Some day, however, due to global warming, or an asteroid strike, or the death of the Sun, it’ll be there no longer. Ultimately, “All is flux”, says Heraclitus. And yet …
Perhaps what might finally and truly be permanent is what Heraclitus called the ‘logos‘, though he didn’t leave any clear definition of exactly what he meant. Centuries later, the writer of the Gospel of John borrowed the word ‘logos’. It’s usually translated into English as ‘word’. In the original Greek, it could indeed refer to the spoken word but, to Heraclitus, it meant something more like ‘the ordering principle of the universe’ – whatever it is that keeps everything ticking – that holds it together, and makes ultimate sense of, the cosmic kaleidoscope of constant change – a unifying as well as an ordering principle.
If everything is continuously changing, ‘conflict’ is inevitable. There’ll be clashes of opposites or ‘opposing tendencies’ – success versus failure, joy versus sorrow, life versus death. Heraclitus didn’t think, however, that this was something we should get too distraught about. Conflict, and continual alternations between ‘opposing tendencies’, can be a source of enlightenment, learning and creative development. “War”, said Heraclitus, “is the father of all things”, though we needn’t go that far!
In keeping with the idea of an overarching ‘unifying’ principle, Heraclitus points out that opposites can be complementary rather than contradictory. There can even be a ‘unity of opposites’. The path up a hill, and the path down a hill, can be the very same path. Which is right for us depends on whether we’re planning to go up in the world or down! What is an entrance can equally be an exit – unless there’s a ‘more than my job’s worth’ official who won’t let you through if you’re approaching from the ‘wrong’ direction.
Heraclitus, then, can be understood as reminding us that we must expect constant change, and that because (as Trekkies know) “resistance if futile”, we should welcome change, and even ‘conflict’ among ‘opposing tendencies’, and the ‘tensions’ they produce. If these are recognised to be inevitable, and are handled sensitively and constructively, they can become ‘balanced exchanges’ which can offer enlightenment. One of Heraclitus’s favourite images is that of the candle flame. It constantly flickers, moving and changing from one instant to the next, but nonetheless continues to offer its light to any, and all, open eyes (and minds).