Heraclitus said, “The way up and the way down are one and the same” (Wheelwright 78). Just a few thoughts on this passage:
To Heraclitus, there is no difference between up and down. This is totally antithetical to the Western mindset. In our culture, we think of the way up as success and the way down as failure. This motif can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Where did we get the idea that down is evil and up is good? For example, up is heaven, down is hell; “human development” is good, degradation is bad; maturation is positive, infantile behavior is negative; etc. I think it has much to do with viewing Being in a linear fashion, whereas, at least in my view, it is really cyclical in nature.
To many people, man’s flight to the moon was the greatest accomplishment of the twentieth century. It certainly was a great technological achievement. But why do we consider this such a great thing? Is there something we are missing here?
Many of us are intent on “climbing to the top of the corporate ladder,” a sort of capitalistic scala paradisi. We do everything in our power to reach the “heights of success.” Those we consider important are called “stars.” Stars are high above us, aloft in the heavens. We see them twinkling and shining on the silver screen and in our living rooms via the TV, but we will never interact with them. They are too far away from our circle of acquaintances. Why this obsession with upwardness?
I would venture to guess it came about because of a profound fear of the deep unknown. Heraclitus recognized a correspondence between Soul and the deep places, the dark unknown and limitless realms of the human mind. His idea, however, gave equal standing to both up and down. In the thinking of depth psychology, this would translate as consciousness and unconsciousness. Consciousness equals up; unconsciousness equals down.
At some point in our history, these motifs (“down is evil” and “up is good”) took on a life of their own by infiltrating our entire cultural worldview. To this day, we are terrified of the unknown depths within ourselves. We project this fear into many aspects of our lives, such as the idea that upward mobility equals superiority; living in a penthouse apartment is to be preferred to a small, run-down urban dwelling; being rich is better than being poor; driving a Mercedes is more highly esteemed than a Ford; etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Most of us are horrified by the possibility of financial ruin, or a fear we are “losing it.” We want to stay as far away from the bottom as possible. In my opinion, we think this way because we are fleeing the unknown within ourselves. We are frightened by the idea that we may have a dark side, infernal qualities, which, if not cared for and expressed, will jerk the rug out from under our happy, stable lives. Perhaps we need it jerked out from under us from time to time.
Because we feel the unknown is anathema to us, we ignore the enormous value of regression, devolution, cyclical processes, etc. We think “depression” is a disease which we must seek treatment for, when, in reality, it is a natural process we go through at times when we need to “grow down.” Instead of embracing our dark moods, we are told we must ingest various forms of chemicals that make us worse off than we were before. Shouldn’t we become more aware of the deep, hidden feelings within us instead of always focusing on progress and development? This seems to be the implication of Heraclitus’ statement. Our downside needs just as much attention as our upside. Our melancholia needs to be recognized and given space just as much as our narcissistic tendencies.
What I said above about depression is not to suggest that this is the case with all forms of mental distress. Many need some sort of clinical treatment. I am referring to people who, when the first feeling of melancholy strikes them, they are off to the psychiatrist for a bottle of pills. I personally am in contact with people who fit this description. The pills are a palliative. They effectively mask the feelings and moods which the psyche needs to experience. Why we are like this is beyond explanation. One can only go with the cyclical flow and allow the darkness to have its own place. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” [Ecclesiastes 3:4].
Some semblance of understanding may lie in the psychology of C.G. Jung. He stresses the existence of a conflict of opposites, or enantiodromia. This is a term Heraclitus used to describe the endless to and fro process of the eternal flux. The opposites are at war with each other, but in this conflict there is harmony, for both positive and negative need one another. Jung based his theory of compensation on this principle, claiming that the conscious attitude, at times, must be balanced by gaining awareness of certain unconscious processes. According to Jung, “Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago” (Jung 346).
It seems that Heraclitus’ teaching does not consider success any better than failure, good any better than evil, prosperity any better than poverty, etc. In the linear view, good is at one pole, evil at the other. The cyclical view, however, holds that the same reality, in this case good/evil (for want of a better term) is constantly shifting between different faces. It’s like the Jeckyll-Hyde story. How would we know what good is like if we did not have evil to complement it and compare it with? How can we know how pleasant life is until we have allowed room for our angst, our fears, and the inevitability of our own death? It seems that Heraclitus is teaching a complementarity of Being. As above, so below.
Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966.
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