Heraclitus and the Integration of Opposites

Heraclitus, The Weeping Philosopher

This piece is an “outtake” from Integration and Difference: Constructing a Mythical Dialectic (Routledge, forthcoming 2022).

Born circa 535 BCE in Ephesus, a Greek city in what was then part of the Persian Empire and is now in Turkey, Heraclitus was a younger Greek contemporary of Pythagoras, the Buddha, and Confucius. He has been nominated by Eva Brann as the first Western philosopher, as he is thought to have written the first relatively unified work of Western philosophy, though only one-hundred thirty brief fragments have survived through the succeeding twenty-five centuries.[1] Nevertheless, his thought has been deeply influential on many subsequent theorists, from Plato, Leibniz, Hegel, Nietzsche, and James to Bergson, Whitehead, Jung, Deleuze, and Hillman, who describes Heraclitus’ work as “strikingly postmodern.”[2] A significant portion of Heraclitus’ fragments center on the themes of opposition and unity, strife and reconciliation, asserting that a fundamental driving force of cosmic process is the tension of opposites, defining the field of constraints out of which arises harmonious balance.[3] Not only do these oppositions produce the precondition for the possible entities of the world through the difference endemic to their relational totality, but the harmony generated through opposition and its subsequent reconciliation is the way that new entities emerge. The constraints of present, given reality can only be superseded by the integration of duality that can, in turn, only arise from such discordant tendencies.[4]

Heraclitus suggests that an expanded view of the world, particularly the direct knowledge of distant cultures and their concomitant modes of thought, leads to such an expansive view of reality. Rather than basing our beliefs on the authority of others, Heraclitus exhorts us to search out the truth of any controversy for ourselves, to see the contextual motivation for both sides of the argument rather than remaining within our provincial enclosures, an activity which necessitates coming into intimate contact with the other, whether geographically, culturally, or epistemologically.[5] Not only does coming into contact with the other allow one to see one’s own position as relative and contextually mediated, as containing partial truths among others, but the persistent relation between two entities transforms those entities, each absorbing something of the other into itself, as the shore dissolves into the fluid ocean just as surely as the ocean is absorbed by the solidity of the shore.[6]

This quality of process is perhaps most simply expressed by the Taoist taijitu symbol, which arose from the thought of Heraclitus’ near contemporary Laozi, who died in 531 BCE, roughly four years before Heraclitus’ birth.[7] It seems highly unlikely that Heraclitus knew of Laozi’s existence, so it is all the more striking that Taoist philosophy finds such a profound resonance with Heraclitus’ thought at roughly the same axial age moment in the sixth century BCE.[8] As Hegel notes in a lecture on Heraclitus, there is indeed something “oriental” about Heraclitus’ “metaphorical expressions.”[9] Heraclitus suggests an analogy between the mutual complementarity of low and high notes in harmony and the union of male and female in the production of a child, which seems to imply that harmony is an emergent property toward which cosmic process teleologically tends, just as a child is the entity toward which the comingling of male and female is drawn. One might say that the harmonious reconciliation that issues from oppositional difference is an expression of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of opposites.[10]

Heraclitus recognizes not only that the emergence of novelty requires the tension of difference, but that if any entity, even the sun, eclipses its opposite too blatantly, balance is inevitably restored by countervalent forces in the nature of process, which requires the integration of dualities through their perpetual confrontation. The movement Heraclitus describes influenced both the Hegelian dialectic and the conception of a compensatory return of the repressed in twentieth century depth psychology, which discerns a corrective balancing trajectory in relation to the modern privileging of rational, logocentric, egoic consciousness over domains accessible to the affective, intuitive faculties which have often been denigrated and repressed.[11]

The reconciliation of opposites through discord is not an easy or confluent process, but one that requires great fortitude, as the task of conceiving a harmony that contains tension requires strength analogous to the muscular force necessary to string a bow or a lyre. Binary tension is, indeed, characterized by intensity, an internal struggle in opposite directions, which like the bow, produces directed force in a third, perpendicular direction, or like the lyre, produces harmonious melodies that emanate in all directions. This action along a unidimensional axis generates activity along a new axis or axes, both in physical processes involving strings, and in mental or cultural processes involving habitual dualities.[12]

In Heraclitus’ conception, each side of any controversy cannot contain the whole truth, as each expression of truth is inherently partial, so that judged by different entities, the ocean can either be clean or poisonous, life-sustaining for the fish who swim in it, but fatal to humans who drink its water, an image by which he seems to imply that different people or entities in different contexts can each find value in one side of a duality that is intolerable to their counterpart, and vice versa.[13] Humans cannot drink seawater, and they certainly cannot breathe it, whereas fish can only survive in water and, by analogy, while one assertion of truth or one mode of thought may be intelligible and even necessary to one being, it may be experienced as unintelligible or intolerable to another. However, pushing the analogy to its logical conclusion, although human beings cannot drink or breathe seawater, they can be nourished by eating the fish who breathe in that medium. Thus, even when one thinker finds the ideas to which he or she is opposed ridiculous, dangerous, or simply wrong, these ideas are often the conditions that produce an element that the thinker requires to render their worldview more expansive. As Heraclitus writes: “Singing together we compete. We choose each other to be one, and from the one both soon diverge,”[14] by which he seems to mean that binaries exist in tense competition in order to produce a harmonious unity, which then produces a further tension, which in turns produces a higher-order unity, and thus the world becomes both increasingly differentiated and increasingly integrated, moving toward ever more expansive modes of relation.


[1] Eva Brann, Heraclitus (Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2011).

[2] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003) xi.

[3] Heraclitus xviii, 31, 37.

[4] Heraclitus, 31.

[5] Heraclitus, 11.

[6] Heraclitus, 17.

[7] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986) 221.

[8] Karl Jaspers, The Axial Age and Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution.

[9] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume II (Berkeley: University of California Press,2006) 70.

[10] Heraclitus, 43.

[11] Heraclitus, 19.

[12] Heraclitus, 31.

[13] Heraclitus, 35.

[14] Heraclitus, 39.

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