Heraclitus (circa BCE 500):
Heraclitus was the first philosopher whose words resonated with me at school:
‘You never step into the same river twice’.
This seemed to make sense in capturing the flux of experience and the potential for change, conflict and difference. Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic philosopher famous for his aphoristic ambiguity. Though he was trying to be comprehensive, only fragments of his work remain: those other people have quoted. Heraclitus is constantly trying to explore the unity in opposites. He is not trying to infringe the law of non-contradiction. He is very far from Post-Modernist irony. He seeks out the systematic ambivalence between polar opposites in the essential nature of things.
What can we learn from Heraclitus about conflict?
1.Wisdom Starts with Inward Reflection. As a reflexive and reflective thinker, who thinks about his thinking, Heraclitus is an early role model for demonstrating some components of this blog. Heraclitus says
‘Applicants for wisdom do what I have done, inquire within’.
Heraclitus uses the word wisdom 13 times in the fragments and captures the need to go beyond the merely rational when he says:
‘Of all the words yet spoken none comes quite as far as wisdom,
which is the action of the mind beyond all things that can be said’.
2. Know Yourself. This is essential in most forms of conflict: we need to know ourselves before thinking we can be able to know the other side in conflict. As James Hillman (whose marvelous translation I have used) says of Heraclitus:
‘He has some of the feel of the image of a child playing both sides of the board game’
3.The Value of Paradox. He teaches us to use aphorisms that are paradoxical to deconstruct our thinking, to realize that nothing is stable, and all is in flux, that whatever we say can also generate an opposite that is possibly equally true. He uses opposites to create the tension of contradiction to see the truth or a new perspective. This sense of always checking for the opposite of our views, to doubt them, is a very healthy habit for better argument and conflict work. We have come to neglect it as a way to seek the truth or its better approximation.
4. Overcoming our Conflict Allergy. One of the uses of Heraclitus is therefore to help us overcome our ‘conflict allergy’. This does not mean that we create conflict or go looking for it as I often do (though there are times when that would be good), but that we should get over our denial of conflict, our pretence that it is not there and our fear of dealing with it. It is part of the very fabric of our lives and societies and has been from the start. There is conflict in current societies and in any realistic view of human nature; though that does not mean that we have to tear ourselves apart! Heraclitus deals in generative paradoxes and ambiguities, leaving them to work their meaning. Actually spending some time with a conflict or paradox is part of the approach that this blog advocates in a counter to modern attention deficit driven haste and jumping to unwarranted conclusions.
5. Conflict is the Essence of Life. Heraclitus’s contribution to conflict thinking can also be captured in some of his other fragments: For conflict as part of the very essence of life:
‘The poet was a fool,
Who wanted no conflict Among us, gods Or people.
Harmony needs Low and High,
As progeny needs A man and woman.’
6. Conflict Handling Needs to be Mindful. For the need to keep mindful (in conflict as in all things):
‘Those unmindful when they hear,
For all they make of their intelligence,
May be regarded as the waking dead’.
Some pseudo-Buddhist once took me to task for using the word ‘mindful’ in the context of conflict discipline, and yes I do think this essential to conflict: feel what you are feeling without suppression or venting: gentle attending to it.
7. Creativity in Conflict. For the need to seek creative breakthroughs in conflict situations, he offers:
‘Whoever cannot seek
The unforeseen way sees nothing,
For the known way
Is an impasse’
8. Learning from Experience: On the need to learn from experience:
‘Many fail grasp what they have seen
And cannot judge what they have learned
Although they tell themselves they know.’
9. Conflict is Central to our Modern Lives. Heraclitus, encourages us to face conflict as an essential characteristic of life and reality. Moreover, in many ways he was ahead of his times and his perspectives are very consistent with our chaotic somewhat out-of- control times.
10. Most Truths Contain Dilemmas or Paradoxes. Our modern politicians frequently offer us simple truths without dilemmas. In reality, those who stress the free market, ignore its downsides; those who stress the role of governments, ignore its inefficiencies. Heraclitus can teach us to become realistic about such dilemmas simply by acknowledging them. Once we have overcome our fear or denial of conflict, we can start to become realistic about how to handle it effectively.