PERSPECTIVES

 

“Be not in too great a hurry to unscroll Heraclitus the Ephesian’s book; the path is hard to travel. Gloom is there, and darkness devoid of light. But if an initiate be your guide, the path shines brighter than sunlight” (Diogenes Laertius IX.16).    

        —Cleanthes the Stoic

 

“His book is not about nature, but rather, the condition of citizens [politeia]; the natural part is meant to illustrate” (DL IX.15).

        —Diodotus the grammarian

 

“What I understand is excellent, and I think the rest is also. But it takes a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it” (DL II.22).

        —Socrates to Euripides, who gave him the book of Heraclitus

 

“The native polis was not only home, where one was happiest and whither one was drawn, but also a mighty being, lofty and divine. Above all, one owed it one’s life in battle, thereby merely repaying the polis for one’s keep. Within its own realm the polis was most fear-inspiring for the individual if he was not willing to lose himself completely in it. The modes of coercion it freely resorted to were death, dishonor, and exile. There was no appeal beyond the polis, and no escape, for the fugitive abandoned all personal protection.

“Heraclitus was the first to turn his back squarely on the polis. He concerned himself with problems of universal knowledge and was a citizen of the world.”

        —Jacob Burckhardt, History of Greek Culture

 

“The feeling of solitude that pierced Heraclitus, we can only intuit when freezing on wild desolate mountains of our own. No feeling of sympathetic excitement, no craving, no desire to help or to save emanates from him—he is like a shining planet without an atmosphere. His eye, fiery and turned inward, looks lifeless and cold from without, as if just for the sake of appearance. All around him, waves of delusion and distortion crash onto the fortress of his pride; he turns away in disgust.”

        —Nietzsche, On the Pathos of Truth

 

"Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago. Both theoretically and practically, polarity is inherent in all living things.

"If the dynamic conception of the psyche is correct, all statements which seek to overstep the limits of the psyche’s polarity—statements about a metaphysical reality, for example—must be paradoxical if they are to lay claim to any sort of validity. The psyche cannot leap beyond itself. It cannot set up any absolute truths, for its own polarity determines the relativity of its statements. Wherever the psyche does announce absolute truths—such as, “God is motion,” or “God is one”—it necessarily falls into one or the other of its own antitheses. For the two statements might equally well be: “God is rest,” or “God is all.”

—Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

 

"What I was trying to do in Time Out of Joint was account for the diversity of worlds that people live in. I had not read Heraclitus then, I didn't know his concept of idios kosmos, the private world, versus koinos kosmos, which we all share. I didn't know that the pre-Socratics had begun to discern these things."

—Philip K. Dick, interview by Charles Platt, 1979

 

“Though no partaker in or supporter of any kind of rites or mummery, Heraclitus still strikes one as at least an intellectual child of the mystics and of mysticism, although perhaps a rebel son in the house of his mother. His style is not only aphoristic and epigrammatic but cryptic, and this cryptic character is not merely the self-willed obscurity of an intellectual thinker affecting an excessive condensation of his thought or a too closely-packed burden of suggestiveness. It is enigmatic in the style of the mystics, who sought to express the riddle of existence in the very language of the riddle.

“What for instance is the ‘ever-living fire’ in which he finds the primary and imperishable substance of the universe and identifies it in succession with Zeus and with eternity? Or what should we understand by ‘the thunderbolt which steers all things’? To interpret this fire as merely a material force of heat and flame or simply a metaphor for being which is eternal becoming is, it seems to me, to miss the character of Heraclitus’ utterances.

“The mystical language has always this disadvantage that it readily becomes obscure, meaningless or even misleading to those who have not the secret and to posterity a riddle… Is it impossible to make out what Heraclitus meant when he said ‘the gods are mortals, men immortals’? Not if we do not cut off this thinker from the earlier thought of the mystics. The Vedic Rishi also invokes the dawn, ‘o goddess and human’; the gods in the Veda are constantly addressed as ‘men,’ the same words are traditionally applied to indicate men and immortals.

“The immanence of the immortal principle in man, the descent of the gods into the workings of mortality was almost the fundamental idea of the mystics. Heraclitus, likewise, seems to recognize the inextricable unity of the eternal and the transitory, that which is for ever and yet seems to exist only in this strife and change which is a continual dying. The gods manifest themselves as things that continually change and perish; man is in principle an eternal being. Heraclitus does not really deal in barren antitheses; his method is a statement of antinomies and an adumbrating of their reconciliation in the very terms of opposition. Thus when he says that the name of the bow (biós) is life (bíos), but its work is death, obviously he intends no mere barren play upon words; he speaks of that principle of war, father of all and king of all, which makes cosmic existence an apparent process of life, but an actual process of death. Unless we bear in mind this pregnant and symbolic character of Heraclitus’ language we are likely to sterilize his thought by giving it a too literal sense.

“As in Indian, so in Greek philosophy the first question for thought was the problem of the one and the many. We see everywhere a multiplicity of things and beings: is it real or only phenomenal or practical, maya,vyavahara? Has individual man, for instance—the question which concerns us most nearly—an essential and immortal existence of his own, or is he simply a phenomenal and transient result in the evolution or play of some one original principle, matter, mind, spirit, which is the only reality of existence? Does unity exist at all and, if so, is it a unity of sum or of primordial principle, a result or an origin, a oneness of totality or a oneness of nature or a oneness of essence? Or if both the one and the many are real, what are the relations between them, or are they reconciled in an absolute beyond them? These are no barren questions of logic, no battle of cloudy metaphysical abstractions, as the practical and sensational man would have us contemptuously believe; for on our answer to them depends our conception of God, of existence, of the world and of human life and destiny.

“Heraclitus believed unity and multiplicity to be both of them real and coexistent. Existence is then eternally one and eternally many—even as Ramanuja and Madhwa have concluded, though in a very different spirit and from a quite different standpoint. Heraclitus’ view arose from his strong concrete intuition of things, his acute sense of universal realities; for in our experience of the cosmos we do find always and inseparably this eternal coexistence and cannot really escape from it. Everywhere our gaze on the many reveals to us an eternal oneness, no matter what we fix on as the principle of that oneness; yet is that unity inoperative except by the multiplicity of its powers and forms, nor do we anywhere see it void of or apart from its own multiplicity. One matter, but many atoms, plasms, bodies; one energy, but many forces; one mind or at least mind-stuff, but many mental beings; one spirit, but many souls. Perhaps periodically this multiplicity goes back, is dissolved into, is swallowed up by the one from which it was originally evolved; but still the fact that it has evolved and got involved again, compels us to suppose a possibility and even a necessity of its renewed evolution: it is not then really destroyed. The Adwaitin by his yoga goes back to the one, feels himself merged, believes that he has got rid of the many, proved perhaps their unreality; but it is the achievement of an individual, of one of the many, and the many go on existing in spite of it. The achievement proves only that there is a plane of consciousness on which the soul can realize and not merely perceive by the intellect the oneness of the spirit, and it proves nothing else. Therefore, on this truth of eternal oneness and eternal multiplicity Heraclitus fixes and anchors himself; from his firm acceptance of it, not reasoning it away but accepting all its consequences, flows all the rest of his philosophy.”

    —Sri Aurobindo, Heraclitus