Heraclitus


Kathryn Rombs // Metaphysics of Motherhood

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February 16  

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus, not far from Miletus, around 500 B.C. Heraclitus is not so much interested to know the causes of many things—the causes of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes—but to know the one thing that underlies all these things. This, to him, is wisdom. For him, not only does he see what Anaximenes described as air dilating and compressing, but Heraclitus saw it as a grand cycle: as water evaporates out of the sea, then it falls back in again as rain. He posits: “All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.” The world is continual movement: “This world-order, the same for all, no god made or any man, but it always was and is and will be an ever-lasting fire, kindling by measure and going out by measure.” Fire is the element he chooses to represent continual motion. But to him, all things are like fire, all the elements engaged in perpetual movement. Plato says of Heraclitus that nothing is at rest; he says you could not step in the same river twice. (Craytlus 402A)

 

This is a profound philosophical insight corroborated by modern natural science. In middle school biology I learned that the human body completely regenerates every seven years, so that no cell in my 45-year-old body existed in my, say, 30-year-old body. Quantum theory also maintains the constant motion of sub-atomic particles. The material world of the senses is, as far as I understand, exactly as Heraclitus described it—always in flux.

But Heraclitus also believed in a Logos, a Mind, that has an independent existence. Knowledge of it is hard to acquire, but worth the pursuit. Human beings are entirely separate from and other than the divine, and yet they are connected as by a thread. Living in moderation, as the Delphic oracle says, is how to be wise.

Heraclitus’ main achievement was to identify the question of the one and the many. What is reality, one or many? His answer is “Both.” Just as the river is one river, and yet the water is always passing and never static, so is reality like the river: all things are changing, and yet there are persistent realities. This is the great paradox, to Heraclitus, and the question of the one and the many endured for many generations.

Heraclitus will be important for us in the development of a metaphysics of motherhood, for he describes reality so well—as always in flux—and yet finds some principles that endure. This is the essence of metaphysics: to find that which persists, that which is real and constant, despite the eternal flux of the material world. As a mother, everything is in flux, from the life of your child to the maternal instincts and inclinations and efforts you put forth. Sitting at your son’s graduation or your daughter’s wedding, doesn’t it all seem like a blur of constant motion? Isn’t that part of the paradox of it all being so wonderful and beautiful? How does such beauty and honor arise out of that big, chaotic mess we call motherhood? This is to think like Heraclitus. And from the flux, when we find what is constant, true and beautiful, we have succeeded in our metaphysical endeavor.

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