Heraclitus and Laozi (1)


Both Heraclitus and Laozi offer a view of reality as whole in flux that balances oppositions as it unfolds along its trajectory. Both view it as self-organizing, not as a creation of some higher power. While underlining this point, both use language akin to that of the religions of their various societies. Yet neither focus on a need for devotion toward this reality in the traditional religious sense. They are not speaking of making offerings or sacrifices. They in fact both seem to view the cosmos as a homeostatic system that at least has some regularities.

That said, there are some important differences in the thinking of these two philosophers. Most importantly, Heraclitus appears to accept that normal processes of reflective reasoning are needed for us to understand this whole. The cosmos is viewed as rational, and humans as rational agents who can use their sense experience and rational reflection to understand the cosmos. There is a rejection of traditional religious forms of understanding. Laozi’s Tao is less clearly a fully rationally organized whole than Heraclitus’ cosmos. While the Tao unfolds in line with the regularity as the oppositions of the yin and yang balance each other out, it is not clear whether there is some greater indeterminacy in this change than Heraclitus seems to imply. Further, Laozi does not seem to think that the human rational reflection can bring us to understand that Tao. Though Heraclitus does think most human accounts are like playthings, he indicates that humans have the capacity for thinking well. The Tao appears to transcend human comprehension more completely than Heraclitus’ cosmos. For Laozi, the use of reflective reason can not be expected to facilitate our understanding of ultimate reality, the Tao. Words are useful instruments, it seems, but discursive reflection depending on words does not lead to ultimate truth. To understand the Tao, we do not harness our reflective logic. We transcend it. We are to unlearn the culturally accepted ideas that work rather like a drug on our minds, dulling them into slumber. Rather than cultivating reason, we are rather to cultivate a kind of nonlinguistic (perhaps prelinguistic) intuition in order to come to the closest that we can of an understanding of the Tao.

The parallels between these thinkers are interesting to explore, and I intend to explore them in some detail as I move from my commentary on Heraclitus to one on the Tao te Ching. But here will begin by discussing some of the fundamental ideas of Heraclitus, as relevant to Laozi, especially with regard to metaphysics and epistemology. I will follow in a further post focusing on Laozi, and then with another on their respective views of ethics and politics, which are intricately tied to their metaphysical views.



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