On Heraclitus, and Against Ideology.

Heraclitus, painted by Johannes Moreelse

Heraclitus of Ephesus was an early Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived around 500BC and I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him. He believed that the universe was in ‘flux’, always moving, a modern physicist might intrepret that ‘flux’ as the ‘arrow of time’ constantly and relentlessly rolling onwards.

To demonstrate this and his many other insights, Heraclitus developed a large number of maxims, the most famous of which attempts to describe the nature of the ‘flux’.

“One can not step twice into the same river, for the river is always moving and you are never the same person.”

For me, this short analogous maxim articulates perfectly my primary objection to all forms of ideology, whether economic/political or religious/philosophical because ideology presumes that the world does not change, that history repeats itself, and that a set package of rules can be applied which can provide the solution to any problem regardless of the circumstances. As this is obviously not the case, and most people instinctively understand that it is not the case, it’s probably worthwhile taking a little time to examine exactly why it is that human beings are so attracted by ideology before returning to Heraclitus.

The Universe is complex, life is complex, and frankly, it would be near impossible for any sentient being to evolve and function unless most of that complexity could be set aside, ‘rules’ provide the method of setting aside much of that complexity. Very broadly, there are two types of rules that human beings apply, mostly without ever consciously understanding that we are doing so.

The first are physical ‘rules’. If you were to drop a glass, you would apply a number of rules. You would ‘know’ that the glass will fall, you would instinctively anticipate it’s rate of descent, and, if the height from which you dropped the glass was high enough and the surface onto which it is falling hard enough, you will anticipate that the glass will shatter on impact. You don’t need to actually drop a glass to accept that this is true because since birth you have developed ‘rules’ from your own experience. It is important to quickly note the limits of the physical rules that we all apply, when the glass shatters you will instinctively jump backward, not because you antipate that shards of glass will hit you but because, from experience you have learnt that the distribution of glass fragments is unpredictable and you potentially might be hit by flying glass. Here you intuitively apply a general ‘rule’ of unpredictability.

The second class of ‘rules’ are social. They range from the blindingly obvious, if I punch someone on the nose, that person is unlikely to react positively, to the extremely subtle but these rules  exist and are leant from birth.

So ‘rules’ are a good thing. Without them there can be no learning experience, we would have no method of departmentalising the knowable and the unknowable and the complexity of life and the universe would overawe and overwhelm us all. Intelligence can not evolve without rules, just as rules can not evolve without intelligence and so we can see that part of the story of mankind’s intellectual evolution has been the small incremental development of intelligence and rule making in parallel.

It is exactly because rule making is one of mankind’s most successful developments that we are all so easily seduced by ideology. Afterall, wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to consider complex issues on their merits and instead were able to apply simple packages of rules ?

But Heraclitus of Ephesus identifies the problem that all those who unthinkingly adopt any political/economic or religious/philosophical ideology fail to consider and that is that some situations and circumstances are just far too complex to allow us to adopt simple rules.

“One can not step twice into the same river, for the river is always moving and you are never the same person.”

Let’s use the current economic crisis to measure the validity of Heraclitus’ observation because currently there are very large numbers of people who want to apply an ideological solution to the problem, whether that is capitalism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or whichever ‘ism’ takes your fancy.

Heraclitus’ river is continually moving, you could set up a movie camera and film it over a year and you would see that it is never the same river twice but when you stop filming does the river stop flowing and changing ? Of course it doesn’t, this is analogous to economic history, there is a broad canon of recorded experience on economic matters, with the benefit of hindsite it may look like a comprehendable narrative but is not. The ‘now’ is always unpredictable and economic history is a compendium of consecutive ‘now’ moments which appear to retrospectively make sense  only because we are applying an artificial ‘rule’ of history.

Similarly, none of us are the same person as yesterday. The main difference, in such a short time frame, is that we have the experience of the last 24 hours which differentiates us from how we were yesterday and by extension, which magnifies the differences, society is not the same, the economy is not the same. Knowledge and experience have changed us all.

It is one thing to learn from history, it is quite another to draw ideological conclusions from it and then to apply those conclusions to form general rules.

For my own part, I don’t believe that the solutions to resolve the current economic crisis will be found within the dogma of any ideology, and it is precisely because of this that I conclude that this is not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis. Any solution must have elements of socialism within it, which those who are ideologically opposed to Socialism will disagree with. Equally, it must contain elements of Capitalism which will not satisfy ideological Socialists. Any solution which people will consider to be ideologically inconsistent will be extremely difficult to communicate, and in any democratic country how can any solution be pursued if it’s so difficult to communicate, especially if the electorate have become ideologically polarised ?

There is only one solution, each and everyone of us must recognise that all ideologies, though comforting in their simplicity, are just misapplied rules, we need to set them aside and think independently of them.

We, each of us, need to metaphorically step into the river and recognise for ourselves that it is continually in flux.


Filed under Economic Crisis, Philosophy, Politics

4 responses to “On Heraclitus, and Against Ideology.

  1. yes, well, that quote about the river, is a very fine quote, because the change in the river, and the change in the person who steps in the river, are very fine changes; to quantify those changes, means one, those changes are significant and deserving of qualification, and two, the minuteness of those changes indicate an absent and therefore fine or small quality.

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