Updated: Apr 23, 2022
When you think of cosmos, do you think of it as something singular or something plural? Is it ‘one’ or ‘many’? Is it an ‘organism’ with many organelles? Or is it an ‘aggregation’ of many independent but interrelated elements?
At least since the 5th century B.C., Western philosophers have been focused on this question. Like his contemporaries, Heraclitus (c. 535 – 475) asked whether the world was best understood in terms of its unity or its diversity.
This debate has continued under many guises, right up to our own day. 20th century philosopher and engineer, R. Buckminster Fuller, wrote: “The universe is plural and at minimum two.” On the other hand, a contemporary school of Italian philosophy, known as Neoparmenidism (after Parmenides of Elea, a contemporary of Heraclitus), has reasserted the thesis that ‘all is one’.
In recent centuries, however, most philosophers have sought a compromise position: the world is one and many. Hegel, and later Marx, did this via the dialectic: thesis (unity), antithesis (plurality), synthesis (unity). Existentialists followed suit. Jean-Paul Sartre relied on the concept of le neant (nothingness) to shatter the hegemony of l’etre (being). Heidegger did the same by distinguishing dasein (‘that it is’: one) from wassein (‘what it is’: many). But perhaps the most successful modern attempt to bridge the gap between singularity and plurality comes from British mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s great work of systematic philosophy, Process and Reality, is based on just 3 “undefined terms”: one, many, creativity.
According to Whitehead’s ‘process philosophy’, the fundamental unit of being is the ‘actual entity’, a creative act that begins by uniting sheer ‘multiplicity’ into the provisional unity of an ‘actual world’ in which the elements have graded relevance for the attainment of a particular ‘subjective aim’. Through the process of ‘concrescence’ (creativity), that ‘actual world’ gives rise to a single, unique ‘actual entity’ and that actual entity in turn contributes its ‘superject’ back to the multiplicity. The world is the perpetual creative flux between unity and diversity. Each actual entity unifies the whole world but then contributes something novel and unique back into that world. 2500 years before Whitehead, Heraclitus attempted something similar in his own master work, On Nature. Unfortunately, only fragments of Heraclitus’ work survive.
Heraclitus wrote (fragment numbers appear in parentheses):
…One does wisely in agreeing that all things are one. (50)
But he also offered:
The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings, piled up at random. (124)
Like Whitehead, Heraclitus defends a version of unity that dynamically embraces plurality. He does this using several metaphors, the most famous of which is based on the flow of water in a river:
As they step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow upon them. (12)
We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not. (49a)
These fragments are widely understood to point out that, while the river itself may endure, the water that constitutes that river is ever changing. Ever the same, ever different! Ever one, ever many. In fact, it is precisely this interplay of identity and diversity that qualifies a ‘water feature’ as a ‘river’.
Yet that is only half of what these fragments tell us…and the less interesting half at that! Heraclitus is also pointing out that when we step into a river once, and then twice, we are not the same the second time any more than the river is the same. One river, one person; but everything is different each time. Identity and diversity, unity and plurality! This principle is perhaps best summed up:
While changing it rests. (84a)
But he might just as well have said, “While resting, it changes.” Drawing on text from the Church of England hymnal, Whitehead offers something similar:
Abide with me, fast comes the eventide.
Heraclitus applies this formula in a variety of contexts. Regarding natural phenomena, for example:
Hesiod…failed to recognize day and night. For they are one. (57)
The real constitution of each day is one. (106)
The alternation of light and dark gives the appearance of plurality but in fact, these are just ‘moments’ in a single phenomenon: a day.
If sun did not exist, it would be night. (99)
The alternation of light and dark is a function of a ‘third party’, the sun; it is not part of the essence of ‘a day’. With or without sunlight, a day is a day.
Heraclitus also illustrates the relationship between identity and diversity using a set of metaphors based on ‘perspective’. He wrote:
A road up, down, one and the same. (60)
In the narrow context of one person’s travel (physical, social or economic), the roads up and down might appear to be diametric opposites; but from a broader perspective, we can easily see that these are one and the same road. More generally:
In the case of a circle, beginning and end are common. (103)
And more significantly:
And, as the same thing, there is present living and dead and the waking and the sleeping and young and old. For the later, having changed around, are the former, and the former, having changed around, are again the later. (88)
It is not clear exactly what Heraclitus is shooting for in this fragment but it seems likely that part of the meaning is that apparent opposites (living/dead, waking/sleeping, young/old), like light and dark, are really just different ‘poles’ (plurality) in the constitution of a single entity (unity).
Heraclitus suggests that opposition itself might even be a form of unity:
…what opposes unites. (8)
After all, two entities contradicting one another is very different from two entities ignoring one another. Contradiction affirms both poles of a dichotomy; it is a form of relatedness.
…Differing from is in agreement with itself, a back-turning connection as of a bow or lyre. (51)
Even when writing about the most important topic of all, life and death, Heraclitus finds that his formula holds:
Immortals mortal(s), mortals immortal(s), these living the death of those, those dead in the life of these. (62)
Through the universal unity of opposites, immortals (gods) experience in some way the deaths of mortals and mortals the transcendence of gods. Note that this is eerily close to the Christian doctrine (500 years later) of Incarnation and Resurrection. But perhaps that is not such a surprise after all. Any discussion of the one and the many raises the question of God (unity) and creation (plurality). It does not appear that Heraclitus’ concept of God was very well defined. He seems to know what he doesn’t believe more clearly than what he does.
Furthermore, they pray to these statues – as though one were to carry on a conversation with houses, without any recognition of who gods and heroes are. (5)
Like most important philosophers and theologians in the Western tradition, Heraclitus is first and foremost an iconoclast. He rejects idolatry and anthropomorphic notions of God. He proposes a model of divinity that clearly distinguishes the substance of God from various ‘accidents’ attributed to God:
God, day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety famine, and undergoes change in the way that whenever it is mixed with spices, gets called by the name that accords with bouquet of each. (67)
God is the union of opposites; as such God is ineffable (‘hallowed be thy name’). However, God gets called many ‘non-hallowed’ names based on apparent attributes that are not in any way essential to God’s identity but rather accidental artifacts of divine interaction with the sensible world.
On the whole, Heraclitus seems ambivalent toward worship and religious observances but if religion is to be practiced, it must be done sensibly and with piety:
They vainly purify themselves with blood when they are defiled – as if one who had stepped into mud should wash himself off with mud! He would be thought mad… (5)
…night-wandering wizards, Bacchants, Lenaeans, initiates…the initiation-rites accepted among mankind they perform in an impious manner. (14)
…Hades and Dionysus, for whom they rave and celebrate the festival of Lenaea, are the same. (15)
Introducing the concept of God allows Heraclitus to expand further the application of his doctrine of perspective (above):
To God (theos) all things are fair and just (dike), whereas humans have supposed that some things are unjust (adike), other things just (dike). (102)
Human nature does not have right understanding; divine nature does. (78)
God’s perspective is broader than ours, perhaps infinitely broad, and from God’s perspective apparent opposites may be resolved in over-arching identities (or at least, harmonies). As we noted earlier, embedded in every pair of opposites is the relationship we call ‘opposition’. To be opposed to something pre-supposes something in common, something about which opposition is possible. Sometimes -A is closer to A than B is to either.
Heraclitus has given us a model that appears to fit all things, from natural phenomena (rivers) to geometric forms (circles), from mortals to immortals, from the limited perspective of the immanent (humans) to the unlimited perspective of the transcendent (God). Perhaps we should see it as an early attempt at a TOE (Theory of Everything).
Only one question remains: what makes it all work? What drives the creative process? Is it God? Not necessarily!
Cosmos, the same for all, no god or man made, but it always was, is, and will be, an everliving fire… (30)
Heraclitus, like Whitehead 2500 years later, is reluctant to invoke the idea of ‘God’ to make his system work. Instead, he views God as a (the) prime exemplar of a universal ordering principle. Heraclitus is clear that the clash of opposites plays a decisive role in the on-going creation of cosmos.
One must realize that war is common, and justice strife, and that all things come to be through strife… (80)
War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free. (53)
Every animal is driven to pasture with a blow. (11)
And thunderbolt steers the totality of things. (64)
So, conflict (plurality) is clearly one pole of the creative process; but the other pole is harmonization (unity). Heraclitus calls this later pole: logos. The Greek concept of logos is incredibly rich; there is nothing in English that comes close to capturing the breadth of its potential applications. According to Heidegger, its root meaning is ‘weir’ or ‘net’. It can, in various contexts, also be translated as order, pattern, plan, narrative, account, syntax, word and more.
…This account (logos), which holds forever…all things happen in accordance with this account (logos)… (1)
It gathers and brings together again, forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs. (91)
Things grasped together: things whole, things not whole; being brought together, being separated; consonant, dissonant. Out of all things one thing, and out of one thing all things. (10)
…All things through all things. (41)
Still no mention of God! For Heraclitus the essence of logos is wisdom and wisdom is, and is not, God:
Of all those accounts (logos) I have listened to, none gets to the point of recognizing that which is wise, set apart from all. (108)
One thing, the only wise thing, is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus. (32)
Heraclitus’ concept of logos (or wisdom) comes closest to fulfilling the function of ‘God’ in his cosmology. On the one hand, logos is ‘set apart from all’ (as is Zeus); on other hand ‘Zeus’ represents the sort of anthropomorphic God that Heraclitus rejects. In one respect logos is God (Zeus); in another respect, not. 1st century (AD) Christian theology proposed a resolution to this dilemma. John the Evangelist wrote:
In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. (John 1: 1 – 3)
In Christian theology, the Word (logos) is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity. For Heraclitus and for 1st century Christians, logos is what mediates the relationship between the one and the many. Heidegger’s ‘net’ has a double function: it segments the one into the many and then, without violating the identity of the many, reunites them as one.
Out of all things one thing, and out of one thing all things. (10)
Like orthodox Christian theologians, Heraclitus was fiercely anti-Gnostic. As much as he opposed the notion of an anthropomorphic God, he also opposed the Pythagorean/Dionysian idea that ‘truth’ is accessible only by a favored few.
For those who are awake there is a single, common universe, whereas in sleep each person turns away into own private. (89)
Though the account (logos) is common, the many live, however, as though they had a private understanding. (2)
Thinking is common to all. (113)
Yet the fact that truth (i.e. recognition of the logos)is accessible to all does not mean that that access is easy:
Real constitution has a tendency to conceal itself. (123)
The unapparent connection is stronger than one which is obvious. (54)
The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither indicates clearly nor conceals but gives a sign. (93)
For Heraclitus, the logos is an objective, universal matter of fact. It is the same for all; one discovers it, not just by inspecting her own thoughts and experiences, but by inspecting the thoughts and experiences of others as well. It is a collective truth.
Let us not make random conjectures about the most important matters. (47)
The logos discloses itself, not just in personal experience and reflection, but in the artifacts of all human experience and reflection: mythology, philosophy, theology, liturgy, logic, mathematics, art, music, literature, etc. Heraclitus was the paradigmatic 1950’s liberal arts major. (Would he be unemployed today and living in his mother’s garage?) The modern mantra, “I am spiritual, not religious,” would not pass muster with Heraclitus.
There is no private truth; truth is discovered by community in community. This may be the first expression of ‘ecclesiology’ in Western thought. Since the Enlightenment, Western thought has built intellectual walls to separate scientific ‘fact’, social theory and metaphysical speculation. This was not the way 5th century Greeks approached the world. They took a holistic approach.
For Heraclitus, and others, there was one logos that governed everything – physical, social and metaphysical. Therefore, it was logical to look for patterns that would be common to the natural order, the social order and the metaphysical order.
Those who speak with insight must base themselves firmly upon that which is common to all, as a city does upon law – and much more firmly. For all human laws are nourished by one, the divine. (114)
Today, we call social law derived from physical patterns, ‘natural law’. Hasidic Judaism talks of Written Torah (the ‘law’ as set out in the 5 books of Moses) and Oral Torah (the pattern of the cosmos) and argues that they are one and the same. Heraclitus goes even further and suggests that physical law may even be a reflection of moral law:
The sun will not overstep measures. Otherwise avenging furies, ministers of Justice (Dike), will find him out. (94)
Justice will catch up with fabricators of falsehoods and those who bear witness to them. (28)
Fire, having come suddenly upon all things, will judge and convict them. (66)
Sound thinking a very great virtue, and wisdom saying what is true and acting in accordance with real constitution of things, paying heed. (112)
Did these things not exist, would not know the name ‘Right Way’. (23)
Once again, Heraclitus anticipates Whitehead who postulates an array of values (‘eternal objects’) that logically precede his ‘actual entities’. These eternal objects motivate and guide the process of concrescence, i.e. the process that constitutes the becoming of actual entities.
Heraclitus may be the first Western thinker to place ‘cosmos as one’ and ‘cosmos as many’ on equal footing. He was also possibly the first to suggest that the foundation of reality is process, not structure. This notion has found loud, albeit well-spaced, echoes in the intellectual history of the Western world:
Early Christian theology (500 years later)
Nicholas of Cusa (2000 years later)
Alfred North Whitehead (2500 years later)
Postscript: Of course, there is much more to Heraclitus than we have been able to touch on in this essay: his politics, his physics and his metaphysics, for example; but I have tried to remain true to our focus: ontology & cosmology