Why does the ancient Greek thinker Heraclitus (500 BCE) so attract centuries of philosophers? After all, only fragments of Heraclitus’ work remain, most of them apocryphal or redundant. One sentence of Heraclitus stands out, one persuasive utterance, variously translated:
You cannot step into the same river more than once.
Perhaps because of its context and antiquity, this single subtle sublime fragment has taken on an oracular character, like a statement issuing from the heart of solitude. Perhaps its very simplicity makes the fragment seem definitive, shaming logic and scattering the dissecting tools assembled by the learned commentators for working on the “patient etherised upon a table” of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock.
This is why the poets seem to grasp the fragment as competently as the philosophers. For example, Jorge Luis Borges makes references to the fragment in several of his poems:
We are the time. We are the famous
metaphor from Heraclitus the Obscure.
We are the water, not the hard diamond,
the one that is lost, not the one that stands still.
We are the river and we are that greek
that looks himself into the river. His reflection
changes into the waters of the changing mirror,
into the crystal that changes like the fire.
In these lines of verse is the sublimity of the realization, of the paradox that cannot be unraveled or resolved, that carries with it a cheap and selfless eternity and engenders what Borges elsewhere calls “the secret anguish of the Ephesian” — meaning Heraclitus, who was from Ephesus.
What outlasts us, in a different way, is art, Borges writes.
Art is endless, like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.
Before the river we abandon intellect and control. Art is the eternal mirror to nature and to ourselves. And the most sublime art is the art of living rightly.
The world makes of the element of oneness a material and social opportunity to lay out caste, subordination, and sameness. It makes of the flux relativism, ego, and nihilism. Neither component functions without the other in the worldly sense.
The solitude that surrounds us in gazing at the river is coveted by the world because it is our approximation to reality, bypassing the contrived world of society and culture that has labored so much through texts and power to give us the stultifying sense of oneness that is the appearance of the river.
Yet from nature itself and from the depths of our solitude is how we gain the understanding of paradox, and rescue both the oneness and the flux, both the river and ourselves.