“No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus
My uncle Bruce often says, “the only constant is change.” He didn’t study philosophy but his statement has some ancient roots in Greece. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 6th century BCE) was best known for his theory that nothing is permanent, except change - everything is in flux is what he theorized. Even though some things look permanent, they are in fact changing. This is true of all things in the universe. As an example, an apple newly picked is already rotting. The river that looks as majestic as the day before is not the same river…all the water is new. Running alongside Heraclitus’ assertion about perpetual change was his notion of “logos” – a guiding force or principle that unifies everything. I find Heraclitus’ idea of logos has its parallels in “The Dao” of Lao Tzu. There are also obvious echoes of this all-encompassing principle in the introduction to the Gospel of John in the Christian bible. In each tradition, the meaning of the logos is a little obscure. Some claim that it has always existed. Everyone has access to it but few know it. And, the world, unlike most people, is in accordance with it. Heraclitus seems to say that even opposites are in unity because of the unifying property of the logos…they are, in fact, inseparable. They depend on one another. For example, hot cannot exist without cold – one defines the other. For me, his philosophy holds many profound ideas and truths.
What is fascinating is his pairing of this all-pervasive force with constant change. At first it seems very paradoxical –and that is why it attracts me. I believe many eternal truths are found in paradoxes. It’s a pity we know so little of Heraclitus as the few fragments of his writings (circa 500 BC) are pregnant with ideas and profundity. What we do know is that he was held in high esteem among the greatest philosophers who immediately followed him including Plato and Aristotle.
The important “take-away” from Heraclitus’s teaching is that we are all changing on a personal level and that we live in an ever-changing world. Our ability to influence the direction of our lives and future events is very limited, next to impossible if we stay on the surface of the great river of life and not see the depths of its true nature. Our only hope to discover the underlying reality of our lives is found in the logos. It is only then that we can become part of the future by going with, becoming part of, the flow of change… discover its oneness, and then benefit from this all-pervasive truth. One must give in to the logos. As the ancient Eastern saying goes, “Stop trying to steer the river”. You’ll only bang your head. Therefore, in a weird cosmic way, we must accept and embrace change before we can influence it…and more accurately, before we can let ourselves influence it. The lesson is one of passive awareness and enlightened participation.
All these musings bring me back to a common theme found in the Tao:
“If you really want something to happen, you need to get out of its way”.
I suspect, that when what you want to happen does happen, you won’t even be the same person. What happens may also be different from what you originally wished for, but it will be something better than that first wish. Sound paradoxical? No wonder later in history Heraclitus was called the “Obscure One” or the “Dark One”. The lesson is that there is a truth that underlies reality – finding it likely involves hard work, as well. But it does come to those who wait. Patience.
In a recent trip to Iceland I came across the works of Halldór Laxnass. In his book “Independent People” a story of fierce struggle and fortitude and longing, I found this marvelous quote which may best sum up the utility and meaning in the writings of Heraclitus:
“A man’s dreams have a habit of coming true, more especially if he has made no particular effort to fulfill them”