On fire: A dialectical heritage


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Heraclitus has come down to us as the philosopher of ????? ???, of the view that everything flows. This immediately calls to mind the image of water. Indeed, a saying of his that most commonly attends discussions of his philosophy is the following: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”[1] However, this can only lead to false impressions. For fire plays a far greater and more fundamental role for Heraclitus, as both an element and a metaphor, than water ever did. Fire expresses and is the eternal alteration between life and death, movement and rest, between uniformity and diversity viz. what has come to be known as the dialectic.

It should be recalled that Hegel consciously built his system on the basis of Heraclitus. As he once famously stated, “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.”[2] In taking over the latter’s dialectic he also absorbed his notion of fire. But the dialectic does not remain still. Not merely do its forms change, but the human comprehension of the dialectic varies as well. Thus we find Hegel’s dialectic more concrete compared to Heraclitus, while fire was reduced to a subsidiary function within the totality of Hegel’s system. And yet fire and the dialectic remained inextricably bound together.

Finally, in considering Marx, we find yet another alteration in the conception of fire and dialectics. Here Marx’s materialist outlook is an advance on the idealism of Hegel, and yet also represents, on one level, a return to the materialism of Heraclitus. This is a true concretisation of the dialectic. And yet, unlike the previous two, fire does not play an important conceptual role for Marx. Rather it sinks to the level of a mere metaphor for the dialectic of human activity. By examining the development of the notion of fire in the dialectics of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx light can be cast on the essence of their dialectical thought. More specifically, when we look at the continuity and discontinuity of the imagery of fire across these three great thinkers, we can see how they dialectically passed the torch of the dialectic as a tool of enlightenment.

According to Hegel, the history of philosophy is the dialectical progression of human thought. Since the principle by which this development occurs is the dialectic, this history is also a history of the dialectic itself. As such the importance of Heraclitus is that he took “the dialectic itself as principle.”[3] For Hegel the latter is an unfolding totality, one which moves from the abstract to the concrete. As he stated in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:

The advance requisite and made by Heraclitus is the progression from Being as the first immediate thought, to the category of Becoming as the second. This is the first concrete, the Absolute, as in it the unity of opposites. Thus with Heraclitus the philosophic Idea is to be met with in its speculative form; the reasoning of Parmenides and Zeno is abstract understanding.[4]

Here the logical and the historical are united.[5] Everything before Heraclitus is seen as abstract, one-sided, merely preparatory. Hence he and his philosophy were viewed by Hegel as both temporally and logically subsequent to the Eleatics. He echoed the same sentiments later on when he stated that “As the first concrete determination of thought, becoming is also the first genuine one. In the history of philosophy it is the system of Heraclitus that corresponds to this stage of the logical Idea.”[6] For Hegel, then, Heraclitus is the first real step forward in the development of human thought. This he accomplished by positing the dialectic, and thereby concretising previous thinking. It is no wonder then that, as noted above, Hegel held him in such high regard. Nor can there be any doubt of the importance which a study of Heraclitus holds for understanding Hegel’s method and system.

Marx and Engels, unsurprisingly, both studied Heraclitus but only ever wrote about him in passing.[7] His importance to them was less theoretical and more so historical. This is not to say that they did not esteem his philosophy. As Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle upon receiving the latter’s book on Heraclitus: “I have always felt a great TENDERNESS for this philosopher, whom I prefer above all the Ancients save Aristotle.”[8] Engels, for his part, argued that Heraclitus was an important philosophical forerunner:

When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.[9]

In light of Engels’ statement that the “old Greek philosophers were all born natural dialecticians,” this can only mean that, similar to Hegel, he held Heraclitus to be a founder of the dialectic.[10] But a distinction should be noted here. According to Hegel the importance of Heraclitus is the place he holds in the progression of the Absolute Idea i.e. the former interpreted the latter idealistically. Engels, however, understood Heraclitus to be an early materialist philosopher and, therefore, represented an initial advance in humanity’s conceptual grasp of material reality. While it is true that neither Marx nor Engels produced a systematic study of Heraclitus, this cannot obviate the powerful influence the latter had on philosophy in general, and dialectical logic in particular.[11]

The exact details of the life of Heraclitus are not known. The information that exists is, like his philosophy, fragmentary. What can be assured, as Robinson has remarked, is that Heraclitus “lived during the period spanning the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BC.”[12] Further, he was an aristocrat and lived in the Greek port city of Ephesus. The latter was a place of great wealth, serving as a commercial hub in the ancient world. It was here that Heraclitus is said to have written a single book entitled On Nature, although there is debate as to whether this is true or not.[13] Whatever he actually wrote, all that has come down to us are fragments which, a careful reading reveals, have common threads binding them together.[14]

In fragment 30 Heraclitus lays bare the nature of reality, stating that “The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it always was, and is, and shall be: an ever-living fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.”[15] Heraclitus’ meaning here can be taken as both literal and symbolic. First, he is asserted that everything is literally made of fire as it is the basic element of reality. This, therefore, includes the other basic elements: “The turnings of fire are, first, sea; and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio it was before it became earth.”[16] While stating that the different elements transition between each other, his assertion is that fire is the primary element which underlies the others and to which they return: “Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.”[17] Hence a cycle is formed with fire being both the beginning and end viz. the entire universe is an infinite ring.

Secondly, therefore, Heraclitus’ also means fire in the symbolic sense of the continual flux and change of fire as it burns: its form is always altering and yet it remains the same. This constant change is not chaotic however, as his mention of measures imply that this movement is ordered, structured, and lawful. In what is presumed to be the introduction to his work Heraclitus wrote that “This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it…all things come to be in accordance with this logos.”[18] He stated further that “it is necessary to follow this what is common. But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”[19] What is the logos? It is fire and as the latter takes many forms, we should not be surprised to find the logos under different names. Thus “All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as good for gold and gold for goods.”[20] This exchange is the turning between opposites, so that “Fire is want and satiety,” or, in other words “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.”[21] The logos is Fire, and Fire is God: the whole of existence.

This is shown further in fragment 10, where Heraclitus argues that “Things taken together are whole and not whole, being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.”[22] Fire, then, stands for the process of the unity and division of opposites, or what Engels referred to as the “interpenetration of opposites.”[23] This all-embracing process determines everything: “War is the father of all and the king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans, some he makes slaves, others free.”[24] Hence, war is fire and fire is war: “For fire will advance and judge and convict all things.”[25] Furthermore, chaos is order and order is chaos: “It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity.”[26] The lawful order of reality, then, arises out of the eternal flux of its process. As Heraclitus wrote, “The most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random.”[27] Chance and necessity, life and death, unity and division: everything is a universal alteration.

It is clear from the above that when Heraclitus made references to God he did not mean so in either a monotheistic or polytheistic sense. No his philosophy was an ancient materialism: if not atheistic, then at least pantheistic. Certainly, according to the logic of his thought, there is reason to believe that his whole point in referring to the logos by different names was intended to elucidate the unity amid diversity. It was also likely intended to aid the understanding of those who read his work by shining a light on popular ignorance. And this is why fire best represented the whole matter: for fire is always moving, always altering, and yet remaining the same: “Changing, it rests.”[28] The creation of fire arises from destruction and in destroying it creates.[29] This means, further, that this eternal process of change is self-regulating, as is implicit in fragment 30 quoted above. In other words, there is an inner logic to reality i.e. precisely the logos. The logic of Heraclitus, then, is dialectical and its most lucid expression is fire.

In leaving Heraclitus and turning to Hegel, we find a number of dialectical transitions. For example, fire remains a symbol of the dialectic, but its conceptualisation differs viz. the framework shifts from a materialist pantheism to absolute idealism. Further, where the dialectic is implicit in the thinking of Heraclitus, it is explicit in Hegel. In fact, we can characterise this development as the move from ancient to modern dialectics. From a Marxian perspective, then, Hegel represents both a progression and a retrogression compared to Heraclitus. In order to properly appreciate the historical significance of the former, his relationship with the latter must be illuminated and cognised.

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