The Greek sages: Heraclitus — No stepping twice in same river.

The Greek sages: Heraclitus — No stepping twice in same river. May 24, 2019

If someone told you they waded in a particular creek one day and then again two days later, you would not think it odd or illogical.

greek philosophers heraclitus wisdom
Painting of Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse, 1529. (Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

But, then, you aren’t Heraclitus (460-370 BC), a seminal Greek philosopher who was born some six centuries before the birth of Jesus.

Heraclitus once famously said something to the effect that “you can’t step into the same river twice.”

It was an important idea, not only one ancient Greek philosophers wrestled with but also elite thinkers still in the 21st century.

The same, but different

What it means is that although an extant body of water named, say, the Mississippi River, appears to be roughly the same day by day, it is constantly changing — its configuration as it snakes over the landscape at the mercy of physical forces, the chemical composition of its water as various substances existing within it (algae, phosphates, etc.) rearrange and transform, its inherent ecosystem as creatures that it nurtures are born, die and are exchanged for others.

So, the river or creek we waded in yesterday is, in many ways, a completely different body of water than it was two days before, and vice versa. Even though, for all practical purposes, we can still think of it as the same waterway.

If you say to a friend, “Let’s go fishing in the creek,” for instance, he (or she) won’t likely say, “Which one — today’s or last week’s?”

These changes that have occurred or will in our metaphorical creek are fundamental to it but not terribly relevant to whether or not you choose to go fly-fishing for bass in it on any particular day.

Lovers of wisdom

These are the kinds of mind-bending, seemingly irrelevant concepts that the Greek philosophers and those who followed — the term in Greek, philosophos, meant “lovers of wisdom” — liked to chew on.

The website Ancient History Encyclopedia describes the ancient Greek sages, including Socrates, his dreamy protégé Plato and the uber-materialist Aristotle as an intellectually probing, innovative lot:

Who are we? How can we be happy? Does the universe have a purpose? Greek philosophers approached the big questions of life sometimes in a genuine scientific way, sometimes in mystic ways, but always in an imaginative fashion. Pythagoras considered a charlatan for claiming the doctrine of reincarnation, a half-naked Socrates haranguing people in the street with provocative and unanswerable questions, Aristotle tutoring great generals: these are examples of how Greek thinkers dared to question traditional conventions and to challenge the prejudices of their age, sometimes putting their own lives at stake. Greek Philosophy as an independent cultural genre began around 600 BCE, and its insights still persist to our times.”

The Pre-Socratics

But before these big names emerged in the history of philosophy, there was a unique seminal group about a century earlier known to scholars as the “Pre-Socratics.” They lived in the Greek city-state of Ionia’s wealthiest city, Miletus, and included such luminaries as Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Here and with these guys what we know as “philosophy” was born, as Milesian thinkers struggled to come up with an explanatory theory of the universe that was based, not on supernatural divinities, but natural phenomena.

As Ancient History Encyclopedia points out, these seminal “philosophers” thought way outside the box of their time:

Their approach required the rejection of all traditional explanations based on religious authority, dogma, myth and superstition. They all agreed on the notion that all things come from a single ‘primal substance’: Thales believed it was water; Anaximander said it was a substance different from all other known substances, ‘infinite, eternal and ageless’; and Anaximenes claimed it was air.”

We can appreciate the enormous innovativeness of their intellectual investigations when we realize that Greek society at the time was awash in divinities, as is our own today in the United States (i.e., God, angels, the Holy Ghost, Satan, etc.). It was astonishing that they were able to suspend their traditional beliefs, developed over millennia in Greek culture, to wonder, “Do gods really exist, or is what we materially perceive with our senses all there truly is?”

Both Plato and Aristotle argued against Heraclitus’ ideas, seeming to consider him something of a wack job, but they thought enough of him to formally counter his ideas. Heraclitus’ key idea was that the universe is comprised of an infinite number of “incompressible atoms,” and that “void” (empty space) deserved with atoms “an equal right with reality, or Being” in existence.

Heraclitus’ reality: constant flux

And he saw universal reality as a realm of constant flux and change, which led to his famous quote. He believed the cosmos operated under natural “fixed and ‘necessary’ laws of a purely mechanical system, in which there was no room for an intelligent cause working toward an end.” He credited the popular belief of most Greeks in divinities to an irrational human tendency to assume that some superhuman agency must be behind extraordinary natural phenomena, like thunder and earthquakes.

Heraclitus’ ideas are still a work in progress, as evidenced by the 70 percent of Americans who still believe in God and other divine beings and realms, and billions more who also believe around the world. Keep in mind that he was thinking these things more than 2,300 years ago.

That is why I introduce him here in this nontheist space, and why I will continue to illuminate these important and far-seeing Greek sages in future blog posts.


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