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Heraclitus and Parmenides--A Reconciliation of "Opposing" Worldviews

The author won an award for his performance in a nationwide intercollegiate ancient Greek translation contest.

Heraclitus - Oil on Canvas by Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen - Public Domain

Heraclitus - Oil on Canvas by Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen - Public Domain

Heraclitus the Obscure

Heraclitus, well-called "the Obscure", presents a worldview that at first glance seems counter-intuitive and perhaps self-contradictory. He says things like, "Things taken together are whole and not whole..." (Fragment 22B10, Line 1), "...though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself" (Fragment 22B51, Lines 1-2), and "We are and we are not" (Fragment 22B49a, Lines 1-2).

Although he seems to paint a picture of a Cosmos full of opposites and in constant flux, his words should actually be interpreted as depicting an ultimate reality which is unified and eternally changeless. Duality and change are mere phantoms that haunt the human imagination. Seen in this light, Heraclitus gives us a philosophy much like that of Parmenides, although it is commonly thought that these two perspectives are at odds. I'll support my interpretation by discussing quotes from Heraclitus himself, and by showing crucial similarities between the sayings of Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Reality is One (A Unity or Whole)

Heraclitus presents ultimate reality as being a unity in essence. For example, he says that "to God all things are . . . just, but humans have supposed some unjust and others just" (Fragment 22B102). By reasonably beginning with the assumption that God must perceive things as they truly are, Heraclitus may be read as saying that, in reality, all things are just. If all things are just, then the human notion of "unjust" must not exist outside the realm of imagination, as it is a notion of something which doesn't exist in reality. So the dichotomy that is set forth is not the apparent (illusory) dichotomy between just and unjust, but a dichotomy between reality and faulty human beliefs. The error in the human conception lies in its creation of a duality where there is only one thing.

This is the same dichotomy given by Parmenides, who says, "For they made up their minds to name two forms, of which it is not right to name one--in this they have gone astray..." (Fragment 28B8, lines 53-54). The form which Parmenides here says is not right to name is "that which is not" (Fragment 28B.2, line 7). Having shown the Heraclitus fragment to be saying that "unjust" does not exist in reality, we may consider his further claim that humans "supposed" the existence of injustice tantamount to Parmenides' statement, "they made up their minds to name two forms". "Unjust" is not, but humans have invented it with their own imaginations. What is, rather than being the "two forms" of just and unjust, is only one.

Heraclitus also states, "The road up and the road down are one and the same" (Fragment 22B60). Consider a road between two cities. Although one person may perceive that he/she is on the road to one of those cities, another person coming the opposite direction would see the road as leading to the other city. But the road itself is not a road to one city or to the other. The road is one. So again, the dichotomy shown is not between the road up and the road down, but between the road as it actually is and the road as it may be wrongly perceived within individual limited human perspectives; between that which is and that which is not.

Again, Heraclitus says, "The beginning and end are common on the circumference of a circle" (Fragment 22B103). In a circle, there is actually no beginning or end. If a human draws a circle, the point where he/she begins is seen as the starting point, and that same point becomes the end. But this is again only a human perception, not a reality in the circle itself. If one were to stumble upon a perfect circle that had never been drawn, but simply was, it would be impossible to select any point as beginning or end, because no such duality exists for any point in the circle. Any point in the circle can be thought of as both the beginning and end, but is actually neither. It is just a point. So once more, Heraclitus shows that where a duality seems to exist, there is actually no division. Every point is both beginning and end, and is neither. Although the natural human tendency to create a distinction, reality knows no such distinctions.

It is important to note that by using the image of a circle to symbolize reality, Heraclitus provides another invaluable link between his own philosophy and that of Parmenides, who envisions reality as "complete, like the bulk of a ball well-rounded from all sides" (Parmenides, Fragment 28B8, lines 42-43). Finally, Heraclitus' view of ultimate unity couldn't be more blatantly articulated than in fragment 22B50, in which he asserts that "all things are one" (Fragment 22B50).

The monad, or "One", ubiquitous in Greek philosophy, was symbolized as a dot within a circle.

The monad, or "One", ubiquitous in Greek philosophy, was symbolized as a dot within a circle.

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Reality is Changeless and Eternal

For Heraclitus, reality is not only one, but also changeless and eternal. It neither came to be, nor changes form, nor ceases to be. The word that Heraclitus uses for this ultimate changeless reality is the "logos". Of the logos, he says that it "holds always", and that "all things come to be . . . in accordance with [it]" (Fragment 22B1). So although things "come to be" in accordance with the logos, the logos itself did not come to be, since it "holds always". Necessarily, this means that the logos also never ceases to be. The Greek word "logos" may be properly translated as an "account" or "rendering". Thus, this ultimate logos Heraclitus refers to can be thought of as absolute reality, ultimate truth, and the only true account for the way things are. In essence, it is strikingly similar to Parmenides' description of the "single story of a way, that it is" (Fragment 28B8, lines 1-2). Since this "story" is of something that is, perhaps it is better to think of it as more of a "true account/rendering", rather than a "story", since a story is potentially fictitious. This way that is, as given by the only "true account", is said by Parmenides "neither to come to be nor to perish" (Fragment 28B8, line 14), just as the Logos of Heraclitus "holds always".

So it is established that the logos of Heraclitus is similar to Parmenides' "story" of the "way that is" in the sense that it has neither beginning nor end. Additionally, however, the logos is ever changeless like the way that is. When Heraclitus says, "Changing, it rests" (Fragment 22B84a), it is at first unclear whether he thinks reality actually changes or not. Another fragment will help clear the matter. "God is day and night, winter and summer . . . but changes the way fire, when mingled with perfumes, is named according to the scent of each" (Heraclitus, Fragment 22B67). Since Heraclitus continually symbolizes ultimate reality with fire, it seems possible that by here using the same symbol for God, he sees God, reality, and the logos as different names for the same thing.

I believe Heraclitus would posit that the way fire changes when it is mixed with perfumes is this: it doesn't change. Fire itself remains one thing. Among other things, the different perfumes may symbolize different human beings, with their myriad different perspectives: "Although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding" (Heraclitus, Fragment 22B2). So God/Reality is one, and doesn't change, but through the lenses of individual perceptual frameworks, change and differentiation may be faultily ascribed to reality itself. Heraclitus presents a similar idea in fragment 22B61: "The sea is the purest and most polluted water." Although this seems to give the sea itself a dual nature, the rest of the fragment shows that it is not the sea itself that has division. The sea is one, but "to fishes drinkable . . . , to humans undrinkable". One might say that fishes and humans are just two different sorts of "perfumes".

Photo: Ninaraas, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Photo: Ninaraas, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Time/Change & Distinctions: Born in the Mind

Another similarity between the writings of Heraclitus and Parmenides--one that lends further crucial evidence of their compatibility--is their continual shared emphasis on how the bulk of humankind stays mired in confusion where the Truth is concerned. Parmenides makes this point by dividing his poem into one section on the way of truth (that which is) and another section on the way of mortal opinion (that which is not). Heraclitus drives home the same concept by dispersing bits of commentary on human fallacy throughout his insights about what is true.

I'll offer a fragment from each of the two philosophers, chosen for their striking similarity of imagery, as examples of this dominating theme. "But [mortals] are carried on, equally deaf and blind" (Parmenides, Fragment 28B6). "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to people if they have barbarian souls" (Heraclitus, Fragment 22B107). Reason (and other sayings of Heraclitus) would suggest that a "barbarian soul" would be unable to truly grasp the nature of the logos. Alternately stated, if a person understands the logos and attempts to live his/her life in harmony with it, they do not have a barbarian soul, and thus their senses are not as likely to deceive them. If a person is caught up in the way of mortal opinion (a Parmenidian concept), it is reasonable to think that it is due to their inability to rightly apprehend the logos (Heraclitus' contribution). However these ideas may be formulated, their implications are the same: the vast majority of people are virtually blinded by their very eyes and deafened by their own ears to the underlying truth of the universe. The only way to "see" and "hear" truly is to transcend the shadow-world of flux and division, and ascertain the changeless and unified truth of what is.

In conclusion, I'd like to offer my idea of what underlying idea would both remove much of the obscurity of Heraclitus' worldview, and provide a final bond between his beliefs and those of Parmenides. Perhaps Heraclitus would agree with me in saying that true reality is changeless and unified, and comprises both itself and the illusory world of apparent change and duality. He says, "Even the posset separates if it is not stirred" (Heraclitus, Fragment 22B125). By this, I believe he means that the essential nature of reality--which is unified and changeless--is nothing other than both unity and division, change and stasis. It is both the big picture and the half-truths that men see within it. Although complete, it is complete only by virtue of its incompleteness. Although unchanging, it is unchanging in that we witness it always changing. One must be reminded of what the goddess spoke to Parmenides, saying, "There is need for you to learn all things--both the unshaken heart of persuasive Truth, and the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true reliance. But nevertheless, you will learn these too--that the things that appear must genuinely be, being always, indeed, all things. (Parmenides, Fragment 28B1, lines 28-30). Perhaps these "things that appear" entail both the things that are essentially real and the things that are real within the human world of half-truths. Parmenides was charged to learn "all things", all things including the things which exist only in the minds of men, because by existing in the collective human psyche, they exist indeed.

Perhaps the greatest human loss--that which the majority of humans suffer--is the loss of the vision of the completeness and eternality behind the constant changes that present themselves to us daily. That is to see only the flux and the division. However, it is perhaps a loss hardly lesser to come to the conclusion that the changes and divisions that only appear to rule our common world have no part in the completeness at all. These are the dreams from which we make our own realities, and as such, they are an inseparable and necessarily existing part of the great whole.

© 2010 Justin Aptaker

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