Chapter 4: Heraclitus

*this blogpost is one of my reading summary series of History of Western Philosophy. For chapter 3, you can read here

Book 1: Ancient Philosophy
Part 1: The Pre-Socratics
Chapter 4: Heraclitus

Russell opens this chapter by explaining that there are two different opinions toward the Greeks. One, opinion that views the Greeks with almost supertitious reverence, as the best inventors, and as the superhuman genius whom modern men can't equal. Two, opinion that holds the Greeks as an incubus and believes their contributions to thoughts should now be best forgotten. 

Russell argues the right attude in studying a philosopher is neither reverence nor contempt. We have to get to know him first, know his theories, then we can be critical to his theories.

Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. (p. 47)

Heraclitus, who flourished in 500 B.C., was an Ionian. We don't really know much about his life, except that he was an aristocratic citizen of Ephesus. He was notably famous for his doctrine panta rhei, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." That everything is in a state of flux. 

He was not an amiable person. He liked to contempt. He said bitter things of other people. For example, what he said concerning his fellow citizens, "The Ephesians would do well to hang themselves, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless lads." 

"Of all whose discourses I have heard, there is learning of many things teacheth not understanding, else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecatateus." "Pythagoras ... claimed for his own wisdom what was but a knowledge of many things and an art of mischief." (p. 49)

Heraclitus believed in war. He said war was the father and the king of all. According to Heraclitus, soul is a mixture of fire and water, which the fire is noble and the water is ignoble. The soul which has more fire is called "dry" and that is the wisest and the best. He thought fire was the primordial substance. His another doctrine was the mingling of opposites. Let me quote here some of his sayings, so you can draw a conclusion what he means actually. :P

"Couples are things whole and things not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one." 
"Good and ill are one." 
"To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right." 
"The way up and the way down is one and the same." 
"God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each." 
"It is the opposite which is good for us." (p. 51)

So, do you already get his points? You don't? Don't worry, neither do I. :/ For those who understand, please care to share here in the comment below. Thank you. ^_^

While we're waiting for someone who cares to explain, let's go on then. :)

We already know Heraclitus thinks that everything changes. But, we, human being, are looking for something permanent. "The search for something permanent is one of the deepest of the instinct leading men to philosophy," Russell wrote. Be it love or safe haven. Religion teaches us that there are two forms in permanence, which are God and immortality. God, like we already know will never change, and immortality is the life after death where it's eternal and unchanging.

Although Heraclitus believes that everything changes, he (surprisingly for me) allows something to be everlasting. He held the world "was ever, is now, and ever shall be, an everliving Fire". Philosophy isn't the only thing which is looking for permanence, but also science. And this is when things are getting interesting.

Chemistry gives us an example. Fire transmutes, it isn't destroyed. Atom still exists even though fire combusts. We thought atom was indestructible before we later found out that atom could disintegrate. Atom is composed from electron, proton, and neutron. 

Unfortunately it seemed that protons and electrons could meet and explode, forming, not new matter, but a wave of energy spreading through the universe with the velocity of light.  Energy had to replace matter as what is permanent. But energy, unlike matter, is not a refinement of the common-sense notion of a "thing"; it is merely a characteristic of physical processes. (p. 54)

In larger scale, the same thing happens to our galaxy. The planets came out of the sun and the sun came out of the nebula. You can watch Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 1 if you want to know more. :D Well, our galaxy has lasted for 13.2 billion years, and perhaps it will last for some more years. But, let's face the blatant and painful truth: our galaxy will explode one day, so will our lovely planet. This is what religion says as armageddon. 

Russell concluded this chapter by saying:

The doctrine of the perpetual flux, as taught by Heraclitus, is painful, and science, as we have seen, can do nothing to refute it. One of the main ambitions of philosophers has been to revive hopes that science seemed to have killed. (p. 54)

That was all from chapter 4: Heraclitus. Next on chapter 5, we will meet Parmenides. Stay tuned! \m/

1 comment

  1. Filosofi emang menarik walau puyeng berusaha nangkepnya. :S Keren bahan bacaannya mbak.


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