The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXX

Heracleitus, continued…

The “War of Opposites”…

Constancy amidst Eternal Flux…

Birth and Death, Womb and Tomb…

The Inscrutable Benevolence of Providence…

The Unity of All Things…

Heracleitus’ doctrine of “measure” goes back (again) to Anaximander, who warned that if any of the elements (earth, water, air, or fire) or the opposites (hot and cold, wet and dry) overstepped their limits and transgressed upon the provinces of the others, their “injustice” would immediately invoke “Nemesis”, and demand “reparations”.

But Heracleitus regards these temporary transgressions—the elemental acts of “hubris”—somewhat differently. He sees such “injustices”, rather, as essential to the process and equilibrium of the whole, and, in another famous fragment, suggests that they are merely illusions:

To god, all things are beautiful and good and just; but men suppose some things to be just and others unjust.

Our fallacious suppositions arise because men can only know things by means of sense perception, which depends upon opposition and change. As the Aristotelian Theophrastus writes:

According to Heracleitus, sensation proceeds by opposition…In his view, perception requires change…For when a thing is the same temperature as our body we do not feel it as hot or cold.

When we perceive a thing as “hot”, that is, we judge it so by reference to its opposite cold, as we do when we say it is “light” or “day”, by comparison to its opposites darkness and night.

God, of course, is hardly bound by such human limitations, perceiving all things by pure intellection—rather than by comparison to their opposites–, as they are in themselves. From his higher perspective, accordingly, “all things are beautiful and good and just”, since all are necessary: both the things that men think beautiful, good, and just, and those they deem their opposites.

Here again, we observe in Heracleitus that characteristically Hellenic rejection of sensation and multiplicity, and thus the entire material order. We also recognize the Greek roots of the Christian belief in a benevolent Providence which inscrutably ordains all for the good, notwithstanding the appearance of injustice, evil, and suffering in the world.

 

That conflict and opposition are only apparently unjust leads by turns to the famous Heracleitean doctrine that “War is the father and king of all”:

It is necessary to understand that war is universal and justice is strife, and that all things take place in accordance with strife and necessity.

For fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, and earth that of water.

The war of opposites is the engine of the world-process, inasmuch as the birth of one element depends upon the demise of another.

That all life comes out of death in an endless, cyclical exchange of one for the other is another ubiquitous and immemorial human theme. We have seen it inflected, for instance, in the Orpheo-Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, in which the death of the body and the rebirth of the soul in another is conceived as an exchange of souls between the underworld kingdom of darkness and the world of the living. Relatedly, in the agricultural cults celebrated throughout Greece and the Ancient Near East, it was understood that it is only by the death and burial of the seed in winter that the womb of Mother Earth was fertilized, guaranteeing the rebirth of nature in the spring. In the mystery religions of antiquity, the analogy of the seasonal year to the life cycle of the human person inevitably presented itself: that only by the death of the earthly body does the otherworldly soul truly live. The same analogy is a salient of Christian theology, of course, as expressed so magnificently in Jesus’ words in John 12:24, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”, followed immediately by another characteristically Greek sentiment and admonition: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal”.

 

In the eyes of God, then, what men call “injustice” and what they call “justice” are one and the same. The identity that underlies all opposition is insisted upon again and again in the fragments:

The path traced by the pen is straight and crooked.

In a circle, beginning and end are common.

Naturally, the highest expression of the paradox of sameness in difference, through which all opposition is resolved and transcended, is the Godhead itself:

God is day, night, winter, summer, war, peace, satiety, hunger…

Thus the invisible Divine appears to us under the sensible aspect of the opposites, but remains ever the same, just as the same universal fire appears to burn and gutter out, under the aspect of the elemental opposites into which it is transformed.

For God above all,

The way up and the way down are the same.

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