A few hours ago I thought of the paradigm of Democritus as the Laughing Philosopher and Heraclitus as the philosopher weeping and wondered if there were any traits of their philosophies that would give further credence to their opposites or make what is simply a characterization of their personalities into an interesting analogy for their views. It seems that much of the time Democritus and Heraclitus are saying the same thing but focusing on different aspects of it, and in some cases is saying the opposite of the other.
Heraclitus of course is known for being a (if not the) major proponent for constant change in the Universe; Democritus on the other hand seems to be a thinker who being a Determinist is a precursor to the view that the Universe has constancy through the Laws of Physics. There is change in particular bodies but the underlying nature of reality (or at-least our Universe) remains the same. Some could argue that the very formulaic and fundamental aspects of reality have changed in some ways throughout the life-span of the Universe with the birth of new elements and kinds of phenomena in the Universe. This may be so, but the potential for our Universe in the state that it is in and every single element of its being was an implicit possibility of existence within the fabric of that massively expanding space before the Universe had much mass but was incredibly dense (I’m sure I’ve said something that a Physicist or Physics Major could correct me on but I’m relatively sure the basics of what I say conform to contemporary theory of the earliest stages of our Universe). Even if it was not inevitable (if we are to assume the Universe isn’t entirely deterministic though it seems largely so) the existence of us and everything else was a possibility only through the underlying physics and laws of our Universe which to a certain degree of indeterminacy acted randomly to create a realm of quarks, quasars, stars, planets and life out of the laws of causation that no matter how “random” (emphasizing the possibility over indeterminacy rather than Determinism) was always intrinsic in the structure of existence and in that sense was not a change in the radical sense. Much like a growing child, one could view it either undergoing a process of constant change or changing constantly under the ever-present law of cellular reproduction though it will wane in his adulthood and decrease even further in efficacy in old age before being permanently stopped in death. The Perspectivists would understand quite-well that either interpretation of the cosmos is valid.
The mentioning of Perspectivism of course reminds one of Nietzsche, who in many ways is Heraclitean. Democritus is however a precursor to Karl Marx. Both in their personalities and philosophies they seem to have much in common, and you see that in their views of ethics as-well. Heraclitus at-times seems to surrender to a type of Nihilism by professing that all is good and just (which in-a-sense is different to say that it is neutral but to say that any action at either end of a created spectrum is good is tantamount to Nihilism through the justification of all acts and occurrences) in the eyes of the unseeing Universe. Some may argue that Heraclitus was a Theist or Pantheist of some sort because he mentions Zeus and God (not Judeo-Christian) in his writings, but there are fragments of his writing such as “This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out” and “"The fairest universe is but a heap of rubbish piled up at random.” Not only do we see a trace of the Theory of Conversation in this quote (which comes up again in other fragments if I remember correctly) but this is also a precursor to Atheist/Existentialist thought that it seems for the most part all four philosophers concur on. The distinguishing features however is how they reproach said meaninglessness.
It is not that Heraclitus is a precursor to Cynicism and believes that ethics exist but are wound in the fabric of nature, and Democritus is one who believes ethics arises out of human construction and appropriate social convention; rather Heraclitus believes (seemingly) that all is permissible and Democritus believes that though the Universe is apathetic to human concerns that a morality that can be called “objective” exists. Here we see a conflict with the Death of God long before Nietzsche appears on the scene. Democritus gives his distinction in saying, “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants, for the same reason one is to prefer liberty over slavery,” it would not be more than two thousand years until Marx would give the material explanation that prosperity cannot exist for all under a tyranny and levels of Democracy only exist according to degrees of material wealth conforming to resources, modes of production and that social structure is defined largely by those modes of production.
Heraclitus and Nietzsche seem far more personable in their focuses than Democritus and Marx. Though all of them focus on existence as a whole to some extent, Heraclitus laments that most people have “wet souls” and argues that a life of Hedonistic pleasure makes the soul moist and unable to be kindled by the fire of the Logos. Nietzsche of course is well-known for being against the “religion of comfort” and its weakening and viceful effects on the human psyche. Democritus and even Marx indirectly say the same thing but their main focus (I don’t know how much of Democritus’ writings were spent on Physics and what percentage on Ethics but this is the feeling I get from a description of his philosophy) seems to be on the physical order of the cosmos (or material nature of social orders in-regards to Marx) rather than giving advice or being a social analyst in the cultural sense for their times (or people living in any time who will read them) which Heraclitus and Nietzsche seem more akin to the description of.
It would seem to be a contradiction at-face that Heraclitus and Nietzsche would be the more personable writers seeming that both (though Nietzsche contradicts himself on this issue) view humans largely defined by their innate character and not their surroundings or upbringing. The Existentialist Materialist however recognizes that this however does not remove the illusion of choice, the possibility of change within a creature’s neurology and psychology and therefore recognizes the folly of Fatalism. Just because a large portion of a creature’s essence (or even all of it theoretically) is innate within its makeup and beginning essence does not mean that the essence will not have a tendency to alter itself as a larva is not condemned to be eternally prepubescent but instead is destined to transform into its mature adult self. We with a degree of Behaviorism will acknowledge of course that one’s environment will encourage, stifle or otherwise mold said inevitable alteration to one’s character. Though a choice is predetermined by Physics, this does not change the fact that it was the individual who chose. Not only this, but people with a certain degree of intelligence and a certain psychology can choose in the sense of rebelling against convention and the status-quo to fashion for their lives a decent and purposeful existence of dignity and clarity.
Heraclitus is an arguer for constant change despite “character being fate” as he’s known for saying because although character is – as I’ve already said – pre-determined it is not fixed or stagnant. Not only this, but because future development is unknown to us, to Behaviorists there is the illusion that we may step out of time in-a-sense and radically alter one’s course when of course one’s decision to act and alter another’s or our own course was written into the fabric of time (as a considerable possibility if not an inevitability) from its inception. Heraclitus and Nietzsche are personable and believe in strife largely for their implicit conviction that only through choice (the implicit showing a things true nature while force by its essence is an outside force coercing alien and unnatural motion on a object) can greatness be attained; while in the eyes of Democritus and Marx greatness was innately derived either from the interworking of a thing or from the pre-determined involvement and alteration of nature (or what is very-likely the synthesis of the two with an emphasis on the things starting nature) to attain greatness and therefore was inevitable. Both are correct but it is Heraclitus’ and Nietzsche’s attitude to act as if one is radically free that is of greater social benefit.
Another reason why Heraclitus and Nietzsche are more personable is because they regard their thoughts as deeply personal. Even though for Heraclitus it was not truly he who was speaking, but the Logos speaking through him, he regards his thought as something that is deeply important in a personal way for every person, and one reason why he may lament over and despise the soggy souls is not out of selfish motivation but because these people are incredibly ignorant and by the nature of being deprived of it utterly have no idea what they are lacking in philosophical insight and virtue. Marx and Democritus are far-more scientific than philosophical in this Existential or emotional sense, not that both are without passion in their writings (though I would only be assuming in the case of Democritus). Though it is largely psychological and therefore materially based, this distinction between the two pairs could be seen as analogous to their differing philosophical outlooks.
For Marx and Democritus everything is largely determined and we are merely actors on the stage of life. Our lines are written for us and we recite them believing they are utterly our own; this interpretation of materialism, Marx and Democritus (for I realize that this is all it is and not even my own) would have us with a crisis of identity. After all, if my very being is merely electrical impulses and chemicals passing through a particular genetic make-up, then who I am can be copied and in a theoretical sense there is nothing “sovereign” or radically unique about me if one is of the view that this material nature defeats the notion of the sovereign or of individuality. Which I am not convinced of because Man seems more independent and individual with his material existence and inevitability of death than in any notion of a soul which is either enslaved to scripture (and exists not for its own sake but for some divine teleology dictated by theology) or recycles through reincarnation and then has no retaining existence of a “self” but rather is a recyclable material like matter and energy. But it is true that a Determinist outlook of pure reporting of fact has one grow a detached view of existence.
However with Heraclitus there is the notion that people choose not to listen to the Logos which is what infuriates him; and with Nietzsche there is the Existentialist idea of applying a self-defined purpose to an otherwise purposeless life. This of course is entirely philosophical, unscientific and concords with Materialism and Determinism only in the sense that an individual is likely predetermined to define his life a certain way (derivative to causality) and based on his own material nature. This however – to reiterate the point of the significance of the illusion of choice in relation to selfhood – does not change the fact that it is his choice, regardless of him being enslaved by it (in the sense of him being who he is and unable to be two contradictory things at the same time regardless of his wishes or the what he wishes he wishes) as well as liberated by it.
If one is to take away anything from this essay and that one thing alone, I would suggest for their own sake it would be the essential understanding of the significance of the illusion of choice, while understanding at-least in-terms of physical causation it is only an illusion. But then one may ask what this has to do with Heraclitus sobbing and Democritus guffawing. With both saying very-similar things on fundamental questions and being essentially two sides of the same coin (as Marx and Nietzsche are on some issues; though I do not mean to cover or ignore their immense differences in focus and opinion) it could be said that extremes of both look incredibly alike – much like Freud’s Unity of Opposites. However there is a radical distinction that is worth making. With Heraclitus and Nietzsche the death of humanity is in the long run of total universal insignificance. One may ask why then is Heraclitus crying, and the answer is although it is both inevitable and insignificant it doesn’t fail to move him deeply. With Democritus however there is the focus on the inevitability (or close to inevitability) but the notion of moral responsibility still remains. If one knows one is determined to fail that does not excuse one from trying; and as Anarchists would argue, the very notion that one is excused from the prevention or attempted interference with the inevitable evils of the world is what makes these evils possible and what will be the ultimate damning feature of mankind – the rationalization of apathy.
We must act as if rebellion is effective and our efforts in life will be fruitful even though evidence shows they very-likely will not be. This however is not tantamount to an act of faith. Quite the contrary. Faith is believing in something despite evidence for it or despite evidence discrediting it. Existential and “non-fatalist” rebellion of the Anarchist is a rebellion that proposes that fate has already been largely decided and man almost irreparably damned; but the individual can choose to act in repost to the status-quo and save himself from moral damnation through choice. Democritus is laughing both because this type of salvation is still possible (and is significant) and also through understanding this he simply chooses to – though the joke is largely on him and on all of us.
For comedy (great comedy) itself is a crying man managing to laugh through making the absurdities and general absurdity of life comedic by acknowledging it, accepting it and making clever satire or analogy of it while not giving in or conforming to its absurdity and immorality. And to make myself seem erudite, when coupled with the Nietzschean sentiment “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as a realization of this in-a-sense, we see great value in Titus saying to his brother when asked why he laughs: “I laugh because I haven’t another tear to shed.”