West Point, Prout’s Neck, Winslow Homer, c. 1900 / Wikimedia Commons
“… Different and again different waters flow”
Change and the Logos of Heraclitus
By Syed Riza Qadri
Heraclitus’s fragments on change and the impermanence of nature read like reminders of one’s own passing existence. “It is not possible to step twice into the same river” seems to say (DK 22B91), “Yesterday is gone, and today shall be gone tomorrow.” But as one reads through these extant writings of the philosopher, the thought that some day one shall be gone as well doesn’t feel morose. The writings seem to call one to notice the changes in nature, in life as it comes and goes, and prompt one to ask, “What is the account (logos) behind their coming and going?” One might even think that by reminding people of their impermanence, Heraclitus seeks to distract them from the pull of satiety (DK 22B29).
But is the world then, as Heraclitus describes it, too quick or ephemeral to be understood? Is change, in fact, disconcerting? Here is a fragment that may evoke such a reaction:
“The sun is new each day” (DK 22B6).
Is the sun that I see today the same as the sun that I saw yesterday? I feel inclined to answer “no.” Today is, after all, a day other than yesterday, and whatever is in today cannot be the same as all that happened the day before. Even I am not who I was yesterday; I have aged a day. The same is true for every other living being, including the sun. Every day, I become someone new, and so does the rest of nature. Everything changes too quickly to be conclusively named or understood.
Thinking like this leads one nowhere but to confusion. One is dismayed by the inability to know anything at all because now nothing can be talked about with certainty. It may be right to say that the sun is new each day, for each day is different from the others; however, the sun is also the star that shines upon the earth every day. We have learned, with time, its characteristics and their effects upon us. We know, for example, that our bodies can bear exposure to the sun only to a limit. And we know that our lives without its light are impossible. So, it is not as though we go to sleep every night apprehending the rising of yet another new, unknown star in the skies tomorrow or dreading the sudden disappearance of our own. The sun is indeed a day older every new morning; new atoms may be burning inside it, and old ones lost; but we know that it is, despite these changes, the same star that lies in the center of our solar system. Here, amid all this impermanence, is some stability.
Heraclitus seems to point out that there is an unrelenting change in the world, but it is not meant to disorient us. At the heart of this change lies the Logos, as “all things come to be in accordance with [it]” (DK 22B1). The Logos itself is stable and eternal.
But one will never be able to discern the Logos unless one reflects deeply upon the changes in nature, inquiring, for example, what has the flow of a river, or the rising sun, to teach me? A person who does not pause to notice these changes lives “at odds with the Logos” (DK 22B72), and his life, in disharmony with the Logos, is unstable and restless. He is “in continuous contact [with the Logos],” as change does exist in his life, but the Logos remains unknown to him. “[T]he things [he] meet[s] every day appear strange” because he does not inquire into them (DK 22B35). He does not wonder how they are in one place, “at rest” (DK 22B84a), though they do not cease to change.
It is not just the tendency of things to change that Heraclitus wants one to know in the end. Observing nature’s impermanence should make one curious about the existence of permanence: is there something that does not and will not go away? If “we are and we are not” (DK 22B40a), and if we are “both living and dead” (DK 22B88), how do the opposites—existence and nonexistence, life and death—work at once? And how do things, despite their constant change, stay in place? I am both living and dying at this moment; new cells in my body are replacing old ones; I am closer to death today than I was yesterday, and yet I am alive. How am I not violently confused? How can I be in two states simultaneously, alive and dying, and still be one thing, going simply about my day? Where does this harmonia, which is “composed of things at variance” (DK 22B8), come from? What keeps nature at rest while changing it (DK 22B84a)?
Given this mystery, it seems foolish to spend time fulfilling one’s desires for too much wealth, food, and other adornments of this impermanent, worldly life. Spoiling one’s senses on desires rather than searching for the Logos would be to see life come and go without realizing why it did so. It would be to rob oneself of “understanding (noos) [and] intelligence (phrēn)” (DK 22B104), two qualities that come to those who are determined to know what this world and the life that we live in it are really about.
Change is not meant to confuse or alarm us. We experience it noiselessly every day, as Heraclitus writes, in “[c]old things [as they] grow hot, a hot thing cold, a moist thing [as it] withers, a parched thing [as it] is wetted” (DK 22B126). And even as “we are and we are not” in a single moment, we do not become unknowable to ourselves; hence Heraclitus’s indirect call to “search [one]self” (DK 22B101), and the reminder that “[t]he soul has a self-increasing Logos” (DK 22B115) whose “road[s]” one is encouraged to travel (DK 22B45). Change in nature does not tell us just that we are beings awaiting death. Our impermanence is, of course, important to know but not all there is to know: if we are here for only a little while, why is that? How does life exist in dying things? Or death in living things? If things always change, will one feel forever a lack of permanence? The answer, Heraclitus says, lies in reflecting seriously upon the observable world, in “paying attention to [nature]” (DK 22B112), and staying in pursuit of the changelessness that “[brings] together by [bringing] apart” (DK 22B51)—a phrase which can be interpreted in many ways. Here, I will interpret thus: it is by causing change that the Logos makes everything stable; it is by the sun’s setting and rising every day that the earth continues a safe, undisrupted life in the cosmos.
Syed Riza Qadri (‘23) is a student at Ashoka University majoring in Philosophy.
McKirahan, Richard D. Philosophy Before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett Publishing Company, 2010.