There was an old fellow named Green, Who grew so abnormally lean, And flat, and compressed, That his back touched his chest, And sideways he couldn't be seen. There was a young lady of Lynn, Who was so excessively thin,... Read more of THIN PEOPLE at Free Jokes.caInformational Site Network Informational
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Love And Will
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The First Form Of Contemplation
The Mystical Life
The Preparation Of The Mystic
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Anaximenes And The Air
Animism, Ancient And Modern
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Fire And The Sun
Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire
Introductory
Light And Darkness
Man And Nature
Mystic Intuition And Reason
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Nature Mysticism And The Race
Nature Not Symbolic
Nature, And The Absolute
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Thales
The Beautiful And The Ugly
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Will And Consciousness In Nature
Winds And Clouds



Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire








Heracleitus is a philosopher whose speculations are of
surpassing interest for the student of Nature Mysticism. He was
born about 540 B.C., at Ephesus, and lived some sixty years. He
was one of the most remarkable thinkers of antiquity, and the
main substance of his teaching remains as a living and
stimulating element in the most advanced scientific and
metaphysical doctrines of the present day. But taking the point
of view of the nature-mystic, he derives his special significance
from the manner of his early training, and from the source of his
early inspirations.

While still a youth, he forsook the bustle of the city for the
solitude and charm of the lovely country which surrounded his
home, and he definitely set himself to feed his imagination on
the concrete and sensuous imagery of the poets. He laid
himself open to the impressions and intuitions which such an
environment so richly provided, and thus laid the foundation for
those speculations on the nature of the universe and of life
which have rendered his influence so lasting and his fame so
great.

He is undoubtedly difficult to understand, and his cryptic
utterances earned for him the doubtful title of the Dark. But his
champions have pointed out that his obscurity of diction was
not the outcome of pride or intentional assumption of mystery,
but of the genuine difficulty he found in giving expression to
his novel thoughts. He waxes vehement in his struggles to
subdue his language to his purposes, his vague intuitions, his
movements in worlds not fully realised; and in this regard he
can at any rate claim the sympathy of mystics of every school.

Such was the man and such his training. What was his central,
dominating thought? What was his conception of the universal
Ground of existence? It was this--Pure Fire--motion is the secret
of the eternal change which characterises all known phenomena
of every grade and kind. "All things flow" is the far-famed
aphorism which sums up his philosophy. This eternal movement
is not, however, formless, but is determined to ever-recurrent
forms, and is obedient to law and rhythm.

He taught, then, that the eternal movement which constitutes
existence is Fire. "This one order of all things (he affirms) was
created by none of the gods, nor yet by any of mankind; but it
was ever, and is, and shall be, eternal fire-ignited by measure
and extinguished by measure." But more--he held that this
Fire-motion is alive. It will be remembered that Thales had placed
the cause of motion in matter itself, not in something other than
matter; that is to say, he was to all intents and purposes a
hylozoist. Heracleitus went a step farther, and maintained that
the life in Fire-motion is _organic_, like to that which is
manifested in the plant and animal worlds. His idea of the
essential kinship of all things is very clear and complete.

He conceived, therefore, that soul is in no way fundamentally
distinct from any other of the transformations of the ever-living
Fire. And thus the problem which so grievously torments
modern psychologists, that of the connection between soul and
body, did not exist for him. And a notable corollary of his view
is this. Since man has essential kinship with his environment, he
can apprehend both the outer surface of things and their inner
law; and it is in this recognition of their inner law that his true
nature is to be found. Now if it be granted that this inner law
can be apprehended by intuition as well as by conscious reasoning
process, the corollary is one to which the nature-mystic can
of his own master principle.

The soul, as fire, depends on the cosmic Fire for sustenance, the
breath being the physical medium; and in this regard, all that
was said of Anaximenes and "Breath," or Air, will have its
place. But Heracleitus has a further thought which is in full
harmony with the nature-mystic's chief contention. He holds
that _sense perception_ is also a medium, for the outer fire is
thereby absorbed by the inner fire. The value of this thought
remains in spite of the sage's doctrine of the body. For though
the body is regarded by him as a clog on the activity of the inner
fire, because it consists of water and earth (two forms in which
the movement of the Fire is greatly reduced) it is nevertheless
akin to the soul, and is itself destined, in the course of ceaseless
change, to become Fire in its most living and active form.

Such is the central doctrine of this noted thinker, round which
all his other teaching turned. Let us now ask, as in the
corresponding cases of Thales and Anaximander, why the
particular element was chosen as the Ground of all things. The
answer to this question will furnish, as in the previous cases,
much matter for our special purpose, since the emphasis will lie
rather on the physical properties and functions of fire, than on
its more abstract ontology.

It is obvious that Heracleitus would start with a knowledge of
the speculations of his more immediate predecessors, and of the
data on which they were based--the phenomena of circulation in
nature, evaporation, mist, rain, melting, freezing, and the rest.
And we find that in this direction he merely amplified the older
systems, taking fire, instead of water or air, as his _Welt-stoff_.
He also observed, with special care, certain suggestive cases of
rarefaction by heat and condensation by cold; as also the facts
of constant decomposition and renewal in the vegetable and
animal worlds. But the phenomenon which stands out as the
chiefest determinant of his thought is one which is always
bound to act as a powerful stimulant on a thoughtful mind--that
of combustion.

The flame of an ordinary fire can still be a thing of wonder to
the man whose mind is open to receive impressions even from
the commonplace. How illusive it is!--dancing, darting,
flickering, flashing--appearing, disappearing--unsubstantial yet
active and almost miraculously potent. The effect upon the
mind of primitive man must have been keen and vivid to the
highest degree, and must have produced results of corresponding
significance upon his spiritual development.

But the deeper kind of wonder is reserved for the systematic
speculative thinker, whose attention is arrested by the
phenomena of a steadily burning flame, say that of a lamp. The
oil is sucked up into the wick and slowly decreases in volume.
At the point where the flame begins it rises in vapour, becomes
brilliant, and, in the case of a clear flame, disappears. There is
thus a constant movement from below upwards. The flame has
all the appearance of a "thing," with comparatively definite
form and continued existence, and yet is never really the same,
not for the minutest fraction of a moment. It is an appearance
born of incessant motion--let the motion stop, the flame is gone.
Where the burning is accompanied by smoke, there is an
apparent return of volatilised matter to solid form.

Now let a philosopher like Heracleitus be meditating on nature
as a circulatory system, and let him, by chance or otherwise,
bring together in his mind the phenomena of a burning lamp and
the cosmic facts for which he seeks an explanation--is it
difficult to imagine his Eureka? At any rate, Heracleitus felt that
in the phenomena of combustion he had gained an insight into
the ultimate constitution of nature. And he concluded from them
that there is no such thing as substance, properly so called, but
simply constant movement; the movement _is_ substance. The
great solid-seeming cosmos is motion; some of it visible, some
of it imperceptible; some of it rising upward to serve as fuel,
some of it falling downward, after having fed the flame, to form
the constituents of the present world. The motion is constant,
the stream ever-flowing: no "thing" is ever at rest, and, if it
were at rest, would disappear.

The marvel is that with such scanty data, Heracleitus was able
to attain to views which are in truly remarkable harmony with
the most advanced theories as to the constitution of matter.
Nowadays the very qualities of hardness and impenetrability are
being ascribed to motion--to the almost inconceivable rapidity
of the whirling of electrons within the system of the atom. Le
Bon, for example, in his "Evolution of Matter" and his
"Evolution of Forces," contends that atoms are continually
breaking down, radium presenting merely an extreme case of a
general rule, and that the final product is something which is
no longer matter. Robbed of motion, what we call matter
disappears! It eludes detection by any methods known to us, and
ceases, therefore, so far as we are concerned, to be existent.
Atoms, then, according to this modern doctrine, are complex
systems of motion; and bodies, all agree, are aggregates of
atoms. It seems to follow that the ground of reality, from the
point of view of physics, is motion. In short, as Heracleitus
taught, the world is the result of ceaseless motion. Tyndall's
doctrine of "heat as a mode of motion" is being generalised until
it covers the whole field of material phenomena. Or approach
the theory of Heracleitus from the side of modern astronomy,
the harmony between old and new is equally striking. All
substances, said he, spring from fire and to fire they are bound
to return. It does not require much special knowledge to realise
that this statement contains the pith of the latest theories of the
birth and death of worlds. From fire-mist, says the modern
astronomer, they were condensed, and to fire-mist, by collisions
or otherwise, they will return. What the particular stages may
be, what the significance of the nebula;, what the cosmic
functions of electricity, and other like problems--may be, and
will be, matter for keen debate. But the grand generalisation
remains--from fire-mist back again to fire-mist. How modern,
also, the grand unity which such a theory gives to existence as a
whole. Physics, psychology, sociology, even spiritual facts, all
come under the sway of the vast generalisation, because all
concerned with the same ultimate Reality. The most striking
parallel is found, perhaps, in the doctrine of Energy, which is
attracting so much attention at the present time, and of which
Ostwald is a champion so doughty. It embodies an attempt to
bring into one category the various physical forces together with
the phenomena of organic evolution, of psychology, and of
sociology in the largest sense. Whether the attempt is successful
or not, it is a tribute to the genius of the ancient sage, though it
seems to lack that definite element of consciousness, or soul-life,
which was so adequately recognised by its great predecessor.

Many other points in the system of Heracleitus are worthy of
the closest study. Intensely interesting, for example, is his
doctrine that strife is the condition of harmony, and indeed of
existence. Schelling reproduced this idea in his well-known
theory of polarity; Hegel developed it in his dialectic triad--
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis; and the electrical theories of
matter and force now in vogue fall easily into line with it--not to
speak of the dominant theory of evolution as involving a
struggle for existence, and as applied in well-nigh all
departments of enquiry and research. But it is enough to have
grasped the central principle of Fire-motion to prove that the
phenomena of fire have had an influence in the development of
man's intellectual and spiritual life--an influence which cannot
easily be exaggerated. Heracleitus claims an honoured place in
the line of nature-mystics.





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Previous: Winds And Clouds



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