What precisely is the key-note of Heraclitus' thinking, where has he found his starting-point, or what are the grand lines of his philosophy? For if his thought is not developed in the severe systematic method of later thinkers, if it does not come down to us in large streams of subtle reasoning and opulent imagery like Plato's but in detached aphoristic sentences aimed like arrows at truth, still they are not really scattered philosophical reflections. There is an inter-relation, an inter-dependence; they all start logically from his fundamental view of existence itself and go back to it for their constant justification.
As in Indian, so in Greek philosophy the first question for thought was the problem of the One and the Many. We see everywhere a multiplicity of things and beings; is it real or only phenomenal or practical, maya, vyavahara? Has individual man, for instance, - the question which concerns us most nearly, - an essential and immortal existence of his own or is he simply a phenomenal and transient result in the evolution or play of some one original principle, Matter, Mind, Spirit, which is the only real reality of existence? Does unity exist at all and, if so, is it a unity of sum or of primordial principle, a result or an origin, a oneness of totality or a oneness of nature or a oneness of essence, - the various standpoints of Pluralism, of Sankhya, of Vedanta? Or if both the One and the Many are real, what are the relations between these two eternal principles of being, or are they reconciled in an Absolute beyond them? These are no barren questions of logic, no battle of cloudy metaphysical abstractions, as the practical and sensational man would have us contemptuously believe; for on our answer to them depends our conception of God, of existence, of the world and of human life and destiny.
Heraclitus, differing in this, as Mr. Ranade reminds us, from Anaximander who like our Mayavadins denied true reality to the Many and from Empedocles who thought the All to be alternately one and many, believed unity and multiplicity to be both of them real and coexistent. Existence is then eternally one and eternally many, - even as Ramanuja and Madhwa have concluded, though in a very different spirit and from a quite different standpoint. Heraclitus' view arose from his strong concrete intuition of things, his acute sense of universal realities; for in our experience of the cosmos we do find always and inseparably this eternal coexistence and cannot really escape from it. Everywhere our gaze on the Many reveals to us an eternal oneness, no matter what we fix on as the principle of that oneness; yet is that unity inoperative except by the multiplicity of its powers and forms, nor do we anywhere see it void of or apart from its own multiplicity. One Matter, but many atoms, plasms, bodies; one Energy, but many forces; one Mind or at least Mind-stuff, but many mental beings; one Spirit, but many souls. Perhaps periodically this multiplicity goes back, is dissolved into, is swallowed up by the One from which it was originally evolved; but still the fact that it has evolved and got involved again, compels us to suppose a possibility and even a necessity of its renewed evolution: it is not then really destroyed. The Adwaitin by his Yoga goes back to the One, feels himself merged, believes that he has got rid of the Many, proved perhaps their unreality; but it is the achievement of an individual, of one of the Many, and the Many go on existing in spite of it. The achievement proves only that there is a plane of consciousness on which the soul can realise and not merely perceive by the intellect the oneness of the Spirit, and it proves nothing else. Therefore, on this truth of eternal oneness and eternal multiplicity Heraclitus fixes and anchors himself; from his firm acceptance of it, not reasoning it away but accepting all its consequences, flows all the rest of his philosophy.
Still, one question remains to be resolved before we can move a step farther.
Since there is an eternal One, what is that? Is it Force, Mind, Matter, Soul? or, since Matter has many principles, is it some one principle of Matter which has evolved all the rest or which by some power of its own activity has changed into all that we see? The old Greek thinkers conceived of cosmic Substance as possessed of four elements, omitting or not having arrived at the fifth, Ether, in which Indian analysis found the first and original principle. In seeking the nature of the original substance they fixed then on one or other of these four as the primordial Nature, one finding it in Air, another in Water, while Heraclitus, as we have seen, describes or symbolises the source and reality of all things as an everliving Fire. "No man or god" he says "has created the universe, but ever there was and is and will be the everliving Fire." In the Veda, in the early language of the Mystics generally, the names of the elements or primary principles of Substance were used with a clearly symbolic significance. The symbol of water is thus used constantly in the Rig Veda. It is said that in the beginning was the inconscient Ocean out of which the One was born by the vastness of His energy; but it is clear from the language of the hymn that no physical ocean is meant, but rather the unformed chaos of inconscient being in which the Divine, the Godhead lay concealed in a darkness enveloped by greater darkness. The seven active principles of existence are similarly spoken of as rivers or waters; we hear of the seven rivers, the great water, the four superior rivers, in a context which shows their symbolic significance. We see this image fixed in the Puranic mythus of Vishnu sleeping on the serpent Infinite in the milky ocean. But even as early as the Rig Veda, ether is the highest symbol of the Infinite, the apeiron of the Greeks; water is that of the same Infinite in its aspect as the original substance; fire is the creative power, the active energy of the Infinite; air, the life-principle, is spoken of as that which brings down fire out of the ethereal heavens into the earth. Yet these were not merely symbols. The Vedic Mystics held, it is clear, a close connection and effective parallelism to exist between psychical and physical activities, between the action of Light, for instance, and the phenomena of mental illumination; fire was to them at once the luminous divine energy, the Seer-Will of the universal Godhead active and creative of all things, and the physical principle creative of the substantial forms of the universe, burning secretly in all life.
It is doubtful how far the earlier Greek philosophic thinkers preserved any of these complex conceptions in their generalisations about the original principle. But Heraclitus has clearly an idea of something more than a physical substance or energy in his concept of the everliving Fire. Fire is to him the physical aspect, as it were, of a great burning creative, formative and destructive force, the sum of all whose processes is a constant and unceasing change. The idea of the One which is eternally becoming Many and the Many which is eternally becoming One and of that One therefore not so much as stable substance or essence as active Force, a sort of substantial Will-to-become, is the foundation of Heraclitus' philosophy.
Nietzsche, whom Mr. Ranade rightly affiliates to Heraclitus, Nietzsche, the most vivid, concrete and suggestive of modern thinkers, as is Heraclitus among the early Greeks, founded his whole philosophical thought on this conception of existence as a vast Will-to-become and of the world as a play of Force; divine Power was to him the creative Word, the beginning of all things and that to which life aspires. But he affirms Becoming only and excludes Being from his view of things; hence his philosophy is in the end unsatisfactory, insufficient, lop-sided; it stimulates, but solves nothing. Heraclitus does not exclude Being from the data of the problem of existence, although he will not make any opposition or gulf between that and Becoming. By his conception of existence as at once one and many, he is bound to accept these two aspects of his everliving Fire as simultaneously true, true in each other; Being is an eternal becoming and yet the Becoming resolves itself into eternal being. All is in flux, for all is change of becoming; we cannot step into the same waters twice, for it is other and yet other waters that are flowing on. And yet, with his keen eye on the truth of things, preoccupied though he was with this aspect of existence, he could not help seeing another truth behind it. The waters into which we step, are and are not the same; our own existence is an eternity and an inconstant transience; we are and we are not. Heraclitus does not solve the contradiction; he states it and in his own way tries to give some account of its process.
That process he sees as a constant change and a changing back, an exchange and an interchange in a constant whole, - managed for the rest by a clash of forces, by a creative and determinative strife, "war which is the father and king of all things." Between Fire as the Being and Fire in the Becoming existence describes a downward and upward movement - pravritti and nivritti - which has been called the "back-returning road" upon which all travels.
These are the master ideas of the thought of Heraclitus.
Treatise - Chapter 3