Heraclitus once said, “there is an exchange of all things for fire and of fire for all things.”
Despite us knowing more of what Heraclitus actually said than the other pre-Socratics, we may know less about what he meant, as he wrote his ideas as aphorisms. Perhaps Heraclitus shrouded his ideas purposefully, as he thought that anything of value must be obtained through hard work and effort. In regard to the aforementioned quote, there are two interpretations that are widely agreed upon. First, that Heraclitus meant to define fire as the root component of the universe, meaning that our reality is fundamentally made up of fire. Second, Heraclitus was using “fire” allegorically, meaning that despite a stable appearance- like a candle’s flame- everything changes and is given new form over time. Our reality is formed through a continuous cycle of creation and destruction.
Personally, I believe that Heraclitus used the fire motif figuratively. Whilst pondering the quote, the image of a phoenix stayed in the forefront of my mind. Things must be destroyed to be made new again. But, perhaps, “creation and destruction” shouldn’t be taken quite so literally. The lunar cycle, for instance. There is a full cycle just about every 29.5 days. For three of those days, the entire moon can be seen. For another three, absolutely no moon can be observed. Time is moving along as it does, things are changing as they do. Of course, the moon has not been
destroyed, but it must disappear in order for it to reappear again. A continuous cycle of figurative creation and destruction.
Today, in this very 21st century, we know that our reality does change and must change. For instance, evolution. Even since the time of Heraclitus the human race as evolved. We’ve evolved morally, politically, religiously, philosophically, scientifically, and even biologically. Maybe. I’m not entirely sure about that last one, Google won’t tell me. Regardless, time keeps going and things keep changing. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it, and he changed a generation. Bob Dylan is the contemporary Heraclitus. I digress. Recycling is another, perhaps more literal, example of destruction bringing about creation. On top of recycling our garbage to make other things that will eventually become garbage, we create life by recycling oxygen (or, destroying it) and producing (or, creating) carbon dioxide.
Heraclitus, it is said, was in line to be the king of Ephesus. He gave up the crown to his brother and dedicated his life to a quest for truth. That resonates well with me, it reminds me that I needn’t be so enamored with social status that I neglect my own inherent quest for truth. Perhaps we can learn a lot about sociality from Heraclitus. His obvious disdain for, well, just about everyone, could be either good or bad. Probably bad. But we’ve learned that from him as well. As for what I think the first principle of reality is- I have no idea. But I very much like entertaining the idea that we would have nothing without change. So, thanks, Heraclitus.