Heraclitus' non-duality

Heraclitus’ non-duality

Heraclitus of Ephesus is an ancient thinker known for his riddle-like sayings. Some of his statements seem self-contradictory, while others seem to some quite strange explanations to natural phenomena. Take for instance, his statement the on the matter of divine justice and theodicy. Heraclitus reportedly said: “To god all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some unjust and others just”. There are a number of ways to make sense of a statement like this. One might suppose that Heraclitus does not trust human judgment, or that he claims that humans are unable to see the good and beauty in evil things. However, looking at Heraclitus’ other statements, I think the key lies in a non-dual view of the universe. This would mean that to God, justice and injustice are not two separate categories, but that the underlying nature of the universe is one.

This is supported by statements such as “The beginning and the end are common on the circumference of a circle”, “The sea is the purest and most polluted water”, or “The road up and the road down are one and the same”. Heraclitus’ God is the ultimate embodiment of non-duality, as Heraclitus states: “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger”.

It would seem not strange to say then, that in God all is united, and indeed that everything is part of God. Nevertheless, our human state is a dualistic one, where we are deluded into thinking that opposites exist. Heraclitus does touch on this subject, stating for instance that: “They would not have known the name of justice if these things [unjust things] did not exist”.

He does not seem to address the issue of escaping this duality though. Traditions with non-dualist philosophies, such as Yogachara for instance, focus their ethics and teachings on recognition of the true (non-dual) nature of reality. Heraclitus does not do this, at least not in the statements we have of him, though this might be because he believes duality to be essential to the human condition. We see notions of the inability to escape one’s nature in Heraclitus’ statements on other animals. “Pigs rejoice in mud more than in pure water”, “Asses would choose rubbish rather than gold”. This might indicate that humans are more fit for a dualistic world view, and that it is the state in which they are most happy. At the same time, it seems that injustice and evil only exist within duality, though this might be compatible with the idea that it is the best place for humanity to be. This is because the ultimate non-dual concept is the unity between duality and non-duality, meaning that we are, in a sense, already living in the non-dual world, there is nothing to change. These latter points do not have any scriptural support from what I can find, though the ideas still track with the rest of Heraclitus’ statements.