The Philosophy of Water

The Philosophy of Water

For souls, it is death to become water, and for water death to become earth. Water comes into existence out of earth, and soul out of water. –Heraclitus

The first thought that comes to mind upon reading this passage is that Soul, for Heraclitus, is capable of becoming. It can change from a state of being dry to that of being wet. There would seem to be a dichotomy of Soul here, but there really isn’t. Heraclitus believes that Soul can pass back and forth between the two states, yet remain one. This signifies its opposition, and thus its harmony. It is in line with his ideas of constant flux and the unity of opposites. So far, Soul follows the same cosmological principles as all other things in existence.

Why is it death for Soul to become water? In another fragment, Heraclitus says, “a dry soul is wisest and best.” I am assuming he is thinking about his idea of fire as cosmic principle. Soul is a mixture of both fire and water, it seems. The more fire, the drier it is; the more water, the wetter it is. More fire means a wiser and superior Soul. The wetter Soul becomes by yielding to the passions through surfeit, the more inferior it is.

The way we are to keep Soul dry is to “follow the common.” The common is the logos, the principle of the ordering of the universe. The common says, “It is not good for men to get all they wish to get.” Overindulging in anything moistens the Soul. Here, Heraclitus is simply using good common sense. Excess is a sure road to failure.

Perhaps Heraclitus derived his view from observing Nature in action. The rain falls and mixes with earth and is washed into the sea, thus bringing about the seeming destruction of earth. Assuming Soul is being compared with dry earth, then it would be, in a sense, death to become water. The dry earth, being washed away by the sea, dissolves into the sea and cannot be recognized as earth. Paradoxically, however, water comes from the earth; there is a continual exchange. Harmony is the result of this strife. Dryness and wetness are both attributable to Soul. They are two, but yet they are one, just as Nature is one. The logos of Soul includes dryness and wetness. The two, striving against each other, help bring about our very existence.

I don’t think Heraclitus is saying the Soul literally dies. I believe he thinks Soul is immortal; he just doesn’t say so. His cyclical, regenerative worldview implies that Soul also be cyclical and regenerative. For a time, Soul is wet and ignoble. Then, there is a shift to dryness. A desirable state of balance between the two extremes is reached, which brings about a state of symmetry.

When I think of dry as a metaphor, I think of dull and boring. For me, wet seems more alive and exciting. It reminds me of vacationing on an island or beach. It is peculiar how images are viewed differently around the world and in different historical milieus. Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with Soul, due to our extreme emphasis on the materialistic. We think of pleasure and material things as fiery, superior, exciting, while things of the Soul, such as art, poetry, philosophy, and literature are dull and boring. At least that seems to be the opinion of most people. Of course, metaphors also lose their power over time and must be reinvented.

Heraclitus gives us the idea that Soul comes into existence out of water. Again, I don’t take this literally. I don’t think his worldview includes a finite moment of creation for Soul, or anything else in Nature. This view may have been influenced by Thales’ assertion that all things originate with water. But Heraclitus gives us something else to think about: “water comes into existence out of earth.” This would make absolutely no sense if we take it in a linear fashion. What if we say, “Water comes into existence out of Soul” and “Soul comes into existence out of water?” We interpreted dry earth as a metaphor for soul earlier, so this seems to be a valid statement. Here again is a cyclical mode of thought. It is in line with Heraclitus’ cosmology. Soul is in constant, cyclical motion, exchanging dry for wet, wet for dry, hot for cold, cold for hot, etc. Soul is at the foundation of human existence; our lives are energized by the endless unrest.

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