Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post. Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at some of the most famous presocratic philosophers (that is, ancient Greek philosophers who lived prior to Socrates), and we will finish this mini-series of presocratic thinkers with Heraclitus, who lived between approximately 600-540 BC.
Who Was He?
Heraclitus was a controversial and antagonistic citizen of Ephesus, who sharply criticised the ideas of many of his contemporaries, including Xenophanes and Pythagoras, who we looked at last week and the week before respectively. Little is known about his background and upbringing, although he is believed to have been born to distinguished parentage, and was an aristocrat of sorts.
What’s the Big Idea?
Heraclitus spent a lot of time pondering the nature of change and is most famous for his saying “you could not step into the same river twice”. This rather beautiful idea encapsulates the fact that while there is always something that can be referred to as ‘a river’, the water that constitutes the river is constantly changing. This example compels us to think deeply about the nature of objects, and how their form or structure is distinct from their material existence.
As a brief ‘aside’, some of you will know that my blogging email address is ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’, but what you probably didn’t know is that this is inspired by the famous saying of Heraclitus, quoted above.
It seems to me that we form ideas about things that in reality don’t exist. For instance, we draw distinctions concerning where one object ends and another begins, or where one event ends and another begins, or where one moment ends and another begins. While these distinctions can be helpful in disciplines such as mathematics and science, it’s important to remember that in reality such divisions don’t exist; they are purely conceptual. Existence is really a single entity, and if we consider this notion deeply it will give us some powerful insights into the nature of God, His omnipresence, and the panentheistic nature of reality.
So we can be grateful to Heraclitus for his picture of the ever-flowing river, which in a fascinating way highlights the peculiar distinction between form and content, and compels us to think more deeply about the nature of things.
Next week we will stay with the ancient Greeks and look at a big idea by Parmenides, who is part of a school of philosophers known as the Eleatics (as they were from the ancient town of Elea). Be sure to subscribe so you never miss a post!