I was standing on top of the world
but for some reason
I felt a strong urge
to climb down again
Heraclitus said 2500 years ago that things are always changing and opposites are…well, not really opposites from each other. Philosophers through the ages have always been good in coming up with the phrases that encapsulate there philosophy, they think they are really clever but the layman will not understand the full depth and others philosophers think they do.
That things are always changing sound pretty obvious and even if you never philosophies about life, it would not be hard to understand this idea. One of his own examples that he seems2 to give is that of a river that is never the same river. It is not only the water that flows through the river that changes constantly but even the simple act of you standing in the river and leaving footprints when you leave is a change. But why would you care about this simply example, your life will not become any better when you know this you might think and you might be right. Maybe you only need to know the things that you think you know, and dismiss the rest.
You might be right in this, if you see yourself as a modern individual who plots its own route through life, and the society you live in has little influence on who you are or shall become. Think how modern culture tells young people that they can reach every goal if they work hard and that they should reach for the stars. It only tells you what you as an individual can do but it tells you nothing about the society you live in that might help you with reaching these goals or hinder you to get there. Most people that live now, in societies influenced by Hollywood, will see themselves as individuals that are for the most part in control of the lives they have, they feel that they are a separate being, that they have a soul you might say, that is not part of this world. That Heraclitus once told them that a river is never the same is not important for these modern men, off course a river is never the same but again, what has that to do with me.
At this point I might start talking to you, if we, for whatever reason would meet. I would probably start with some fun knowledge; I would talk about that article I read where they explained that a human body is made out of cells and that most of these cells constantly get replaced by new once. That we are physically not the same person we were 15 years ago. We all know off course that we change, we get older but as a thought experiment it is fun to imagine that the body you have, that individual you see in the mirror is changing day by day, maybe even That parts that make you think.
With this example I might have separated the individual, or the “thing” that thinks, from the body that constantly changes because you don’t like the idea that it is your brain that does the thinking. Now you can start talking about how memory works and mention the experiment1 some smart scientists did just after the attack on the twin towers in New York. They knew that these big events have the best chance to be remembered and they wanted to test this. They asked people to write down where they where and with who and a bunch of other questions. When they collected all this information, they asked the participants what they remember of that day after many years. The results are remarkable because a lot of people are sure that they where here or there and with these people while infect they were not. Even when they saw their own written notes made the days after the attack. There are countless of other examples that show that our memory is not this fixed thing that doesn’t change. Memories change, including the memory you have of yourself, like the river of Heraclitus does.
There is no reason to believe that you remember correctly all of your past experiences that you see as vital parts of your individuality or soul. Your individual body changes constantly but the picture you paint of yourself as an individual is also constantly changing…without you noticing this. The way you see yourself now is not the same as the way you saw yourself 15 years ago.
And what about the vague notion that opposites are not really opposites? Well, to connect it to my earlier story, I would say that a bad experience in life can over time morph into a good outcome and memory. We have experiences in life, things happen, things happen also to animals but we humans have learned to make stories out of these events and tell them; tell them to others but also to ourselves. We learned to look for reasons and you might believe in a God or many Gods that give your life meaning, but all we really know, the story we tell you might say, that makes sense like 1 + 2 = 3 is that life once started, that we see that the sun slowly gets bigger and one day will eat this blue rock for lunch. Life is meaningless but because we can give it meaning it is not meaningless. Heraclitus knew that we see the world in opposites, but he knew also that that is a part of how we function, we humans have a hard time seeing the world…neutral.
A disclaimer: My knowledge of Heraclitus is not vast; I encounter him every time I read a book about the history of philosophy or Greek philosophers and what I can read in a one minute on the internet. I know that many philosophers praise him including my friend Nietzsche and that has taught me that he is someone to take seriously, though he also has some strange ideas for someone living in 2021. What you have read here is not more then my interpretation that I forced into a story I wanted to tell. I also keep rereading it and keep changing parts but it is time to post so it is by no means a finished post.
1From most Greek philosophers we have mostly fragmented of original text and a lot of hearsay.
2Like with most things that are researched the results are often more nuanced than the headlines, or I, make you believe. Here you can read about the experiment: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/911-memory-accuracy/