23 Opposites join, from dissonance comes harmony, united through conflict
Another key theme for Heraclitus is that both positive and negative are needed in order to complete the whole. It is in the tension of apparent opposites – and he is happy to use images of violence and war to express it – that the cosmic balance is achieved.
We have wondered already about whether such harmony exists. Presuming it does, does conflict have to be the basis for it? In Heraclitus’ view it was essential: another fragment criticises the poet Homer for even wishing for the end of strife, for there would be no harmony without high and low, nor any living beings without male and female. Biologists and musicians both may want to take issue, but at least his position is clear: opposites in tension, even in conflict, are the way the world works.
There’s nothing in the fragments that suggests that Heraclitus was looking for a synthesis of opposites. They remain separate, and opposed. Yet another fragment describes war as ‘father of all’, who dictates that some are gods, some are free, some are slaves. It may create cosmic harmony, but it’s a harsh world for individuals.
One thing at least we should get from Heraclitus, which is backed up by human experience: peace is hard work. It’s not what naturally happens when we just stop being nasty to each other. If there is an alternative to a world built on a balance of competing opposites, it is one built on patient peace-making. I hope for a harmony which comes from people realising that their different needs are not dissonances but resonances. What I mean is that as we really listen and learn, we discover that the deepest needs of others spring from the same roots as our own: the need to be loved, valued, recognised, the need for relationships and security, the need for fulfilment and development. Those are far more important than the things for which people compete, even to the point of violence.