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’.
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),
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).
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.
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.
before Whitehead, Heraclitus attempted something similar in his own master
work, On Nature. Unfortunately, only
fragments of Heraclitus’ work survive.
wrote (fragment numbers appear in parentheses):
- …One does wisely in agreeing that all
things are one. (50)
But he also
- The most beautiful order is a heap of
sweepings, piled up at random. (124)
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)
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!
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
applies this formula in a variety of contexts. Regarding natural phenomena, for
- Hesiod…failed to recognize day and
night. For they are one. (57)
- The real constitution of each day is
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
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.
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.
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
- 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).
that opposition itself might even be a form of unity:
- …what opposes unites. (8)
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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).
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)
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.
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)
(plurality) is clearly one pole of the creative process; but the other pole is
harmonization (unity). Heraclitus calls this later pole: logos.
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
- 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)
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.
century (AD) Christian theology proposed a resolution to this dilemma. John the
- 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)
theology, the Word (logos) is Jesus
Christ, the Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity.
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
- Out of all things one thing, and out
of one thing all things. (10)
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
- 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)
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
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.
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
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
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.
goes even further and suggests that physical law may even be a reflection of
- 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)
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.
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.
has found loud, albeit well-spaced, echoes in the intellectual history of the
- Early Christian theology (500 years
- Nicholas of Cusa (2000 years later)
- Alfred North Whitehead (2500 years
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