The Flux of Reality: Heraclitus’ Philosophy of Change and Unity

You Cannot Step Into the Same River Twice

Heraclitus is a shadowy figure. He only left behind a few fragments, which have inspired multiple interpretations. He has been variously regarded as a material monist or a process philosopher.

Heraclitus’s most famous fragment reads, “No one can step into the same river twice, for other waters continually flow on.”

Like Parmenides and the Milesians before him, Heraclitus stresses that truth comes to the attentive walker only as a discovery resulting from solving a puzzle.

What Does Heraclitus Want to Say?

Heraclitus says everything changes, that nothing stays fixed, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he warns that you cannot step into the same river twice. This is a radical view of flux that is at once terrifying and liberating. It is a truth that underlies all reality, and finding it takes time, patience and openness to change.

It is the basis of a philosophy of life that Heraclitus called polemos or “war of all against all.” This doctrine of universal flux and the identity of opposites — day following night, death following life — is, as Charles Kahn points out, an extreme interpretation of Heraclitus that entails a denial of the Law of Non-Contradiction.

Plato cites Heraclitus as the source of this theory of radical flux, and he interpreted the idea as meaning that there are no permanent or persisting objects. But this reading is not supported by the evidence from Heraclitus’ fragments.

What Does Heraclitus Want Us to Do?

The fragments of Heraclitus’ work that survive are dark, aphoristic, and often seem to contradict each other. This was his style: he liked to sound self-contradictory, and perhaps he intended it that way. His doctrines are a negative reaction to Milesian thought, which held that what is real is fixed and permanent. Heraclitus, on the other hand, saw change as what is real.

Heraclitus believed that the fundamental elements of the universe are fire and its opposites, light-dark, winter-summer, war-peace, etc. He interpreted this flux as the movement of a larger whole that is in constant becoming (DK22B1).

This constant becoming includes the human world, and he regarded conflict as a necessary part of it (DK64B2). He also thought that God is war-peace and light-dark, and that he is a satiety-hunger, like the fire itself. Heraclitus’ ideas are loaded with complexities and insights that can only be grasped in their figurative meanings. The cryptic and paradoxical nature of Heraclitus’s logoi makes them difficult to understand, and his teachings have become known as the “Obscure One.” Yet he is undoubtedly one of the most influential philosophers who has ever lived.

What Does Heraclitus Want Us to Think About?

Heraclitus combines his philosophical ideas with an unusual method of expressing them. He uses puns, paradoxes, antitheses, parallels and other rhetorical devices to construct expressions with multiple meanings. He seems to think that this is the way the world works, that its structure and semantic complexity are its “sign” (logos).

He also seems to take this approach to describing his understanding of the universe. He is not content with the simple descriptions of the Milesians and Xenophanes, who were essentially monotheists attributing omnipotence and a host of other attributes to the gods.

Heraclitus wants to show that we can understand the nature of the world and its underlying unity only by using this unusual method of expressing his ideas. He seems to think that this is the only way we can “hear” the voice of the divine Logos that speaks to us in our lives and in the world around us. Heraclitus was one of the presocratic philosophers, Greek philosophers who came before Socrates. His cryptic, paradoxical writings have been influential for more than 2,400 years.

What Does Heraclitus Want Us to Feel?

Heraclitus is one of the few ancient thinkers to write a coherent philosophy, though only fragments have survived. He is a profoundly skeptical philosopher, treating the epic poets as common fools and calling Pythagoras a fraud. His fragments demonstrate a profoundly dialectical philosophy, with subtle analyses of contradictory terms and phrases.

For example, his statement that “you cannot step into the same river twice” (DK22B121) implies both radical flux and monism. Heraclitus seems to want us to feel the experience of stepping into a flowing river, a feeling of becoming entangled in it as it moves onward.

Heraclitus is also a mystical philosopher, in the sense that he claims to understand the world by focusing on its inner workings. His use of puns, paradoxes, antitheses, and other rhetorical devices reveals his understanding that the truth is obscure and can be discovered by paying close attention to the way things actually are. Heraclitus’s fragmentary style is reminiscent of the writings of the Presocratics, and his language displays many of their key features.

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