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Heraclitus, Human Majesty, and Humanism

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sandcastle on a beach
Photo by Rudolf-Peter Bakker on Unsplash

Like many others, I have in the past several days had difficulty looking away from the tragedy of Ukraine.

I’ve been reminded of the words of poet e.e. cummings, who portrayed humanity, “play(ing) with the bigness of his littleness . . .”

The philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BCE) once said, “History is a child building a sandcastle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of human power in the world.”

All the achievements of humanity merely a sand sculpture. 

To mix a couple of texts — dust we are and in sand we build. Several centuries later, Marcus Aurelius would write,

Think about the stuff of the universe, of which you now have a bit; and think of the span of cosmic time and how short your time is; and think of all history, and how small a part you play. (5.24)

In other words, Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot had some antecedents in its reminder that we are small in the scheme of things. 

Imagining both the triumphs and the tragedies of human history as so many grains of sand is one way ancient wisdom encourages us to keep both human ego in check and tragedy in perspective. Heraclitus taught us the mantra panta rhei, “The only constant is change” or more starkly, “everything flows.”

By “everything,” Heraclitus meant everything.

Deflating our human propensity to make everything about us is good work for a philosopher. And a philosophy. 

In difficult times, I remind myself of the fundamentals of Humanism:

1. Everything is connected.

2. Everything changes.

3. Therefore, we must care for each other. (“Other” meaning all living things, and the planet.)

I think of them as the Three C’s: Connection. Change. Care.

Humanism is a philosophy for both good times and bad. Also, Heraclitus’ mantra is good to keep in mind — panta rhei.


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