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SHORTER WORKS — 1910-1950


Heraclitus is the first and the most consistent teacher of the law of relativity; it is the logical result of his primary philosophical concepts. Since all is one in its being and many in its becoming, it follows that everything must be one in its essence. Night and day, life and death, good and evil can only be different aspects of the same absolute reality. Life and death are in fact one, and we may say from different points of view that all death is only a process and change of life or that all life is only an activity of death. Really both are one energy whose activity presents to us a duality of aspects. From one point of view we are not, for our existence is only a constant mutation of energy; from another we are, because the being in us is always the same and sustains our secret identity. So too, we can only speak of a thing as good or evil, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly from a purely relative point of view, because we adopt a particular standpoint or have in view some practical end or temporarily valid relation. He gives the example of “the sea, water purest and impurest”, their fine element to the fish, abominable and undrinkable to man. And does not this apply to all things?– they are the same always in reality and assume their qualities and properties because of our standing-point in the universe of becoming, the nature of our seeing and the texture of our minds. All things circle back to the eternal unity and in their beginning and end are the same; it is only in the arc of becoming that they vary in themselves and from each other, and there they have no absoluteness to each other. Night and day are the same; it is only the nature of our vision and our standing-point on the earth and our relations of earth and sun that create the difference. What is day to us, is to others night.

Because of this insistence on the relativity of good and evil, Heraclitus is thought to have enunciated some kind of supermoralism; but it is well to see carefully to what this supermoralism of Heraclitus really amounts. Heraclitus does not deny the existence of an absolute; but for him the absolute is to be found in the One, in the Divine,– not the gods, but the one supreme Divinity, the Fire. It has been objected that he attributes relativity to God, because he says that the first principle is willing and yet not willing to be called by the name of Zeus. But surely this is to misunderstand him altogether. The name Zeus expresses only the relative human idea of the Godhead; therefore while God accepts the name, He is not bound or limited by it. All our concepts of Him are partial and relative; “He is named according to the pleasure of each.” This is nothing more nor less than the truth proclaimed by the Vedas, “One existent the sages call by many names.” Brahman is willing to be called Vishnu, and yet he is not willing, because he is also Brahma and Maheshwara and all the gods and the world and all principles and all that is, and yet not any of these things, neti neti. As men approach him, so he accepts them. But the One to Heraclitus as to the Vedantin is absolute.

This is quite clear from all his sayings; day and night, good and evil are one, because they are the One in their essence and in the One the distinctions we make between them disappear. There is a Word, a Reason in all things, a Logos, and that Reason is one; only men by the relativeness of their mentality turn it each into his personal thought and way of looking at things and live according to this variable relativity. It follows that there is an absolute, a divine way of looking at things. “To God all things are good and just, but men hold some things to be good, others unjust.” There is then an absolute good, an absolute beauty, an absolute justice of which all things are the relative expression. There is a divine order in the world; each thing fulfils its nature according to its place in the order and in its place and symmetry in the one Reason of things is good, just and beautiful precisely because it fulfils that Reason according to the eternal measures. To take an example, the world war may be regarded as an evil by some, a sheer horror of carnage, to others because of the new possibilities it opens to mankind, it may seem a good. It is at once good and evil. But that is the relative view; in its entirety, in its fulfilment in each and all of its circumstances of a divine purpose, a divine justice, a divine force executing itself in the large reason of things, it is from the absolute point of view good and just – to God, not to man.

Does it follow that the relative view-point has no validity at all? Not for a moment. On the contrary, it must be the expression, proper to each mentality according to the necessity of its nature and standpoint, of the divine Law. Heraclitus says that plainly; “Fed are all human laws by one, the divine.” That sentence ought to be quite sufficient to protect Heraclitus against the charge of antinomianism. True, no human law is the absolute expression of the divine justice, but it draws its validity, its sanction from that and is valid for its purpose, in its place, in its proper time, has its relative necessity. Even though men's notions of good and justice vary in the mutations of the becoming, yet human good and justice persist in the stream of things, preserve a measure. Heraclitus admits relative standards, but as a thinker he is obliged to go beyond them. All is at once one and many, an absolute and a relative, and all the relations of the many are relativities, yet are fed by, go back to, persist by that in them which is absolute.

Arya. 5.1917