"No man ever steps in the same river twice."
Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher, and quite possibly the first genuine western philosopher (1). He loved wordplay, penning an endless tirade of paradoxical and often mysterious statements that resulted in him earning the nickname "The Obscure." Heraclitus was born to privilege but chose to live a life of isolation. He wrote a single work, which had no title. Throughout life, he became more and more critical of humanity, believing most men were bad, and only few were good. In his later years, he wandered the mountains alone, eating only grass and herbs. A real loner.
Heraclitus is best known for his strong personal belief in process philosophy, which views the world as fundamentally consisting of processes rather than material substances. By process philosophy, a river is not an object, but a continuing flow. The sun is not as a thing, but an enduring fire. Summed up succinctly, this philosophy sees the essence of the world as one of change or, more precisely, becoming, with the underlying driver of all becoming being strife. Process philosophy formed the underlying basis for alchemy, a practice that attempted to make base materials into precious ones, and some branches of analytical psychology that explored the transition of the unaware to the aware individual.
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse.
There are four stages to process philosophy, to becoming, whether it relate to alchemy, psychology, or any other number of processes.
The first is nigredo (the blackening), the "dark night of the soul, when an individual confronts the shadow within" (2). This stage is defined by decomposition. For the alchemist, it means cleaning and cooking alchemical ingredients to form a uniform black matter. For the psychologist, breaking down a person's initial state of undifferentiated awareness through making a person become increasingly (and painfully) aware of their shadow aspects. The purpose of nigredo is to remove the old, to wipe the slate clean.
The second stage is albedo (the whitening), which is concerned with "bringing light and clarity" (3). This stage is characterized by purification, the aim being to regain the original purity and receptivity of the soul, which had been lost. For the alchemist, it means washing away any impurities. For the psychologist, removing an inflated ego and unnecessary beliefs or ideas.
The colours of process philosophy (and alchemy).
Whether applied to a material or individual, following these stages of process philosophy could lead to great works.
Today, the term magnum opus ("great work" or "masterpiece") is typically used to describe a creation that is considered the greatest work of an individual's life.
Da Vinci's magnum opus is arguably the Mona Lisa, a painting and masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance (6). The Mona Lisa is thought to portray an Italian noblewoman, Lisa Gherardini. The painting shows a somewhat ordinary-looking woman with a mysterious smile, with a surreal landscape receding to icy mountains behind her. Initially, the painting was noted for its realism, but later it was oppositely praised for its sense of mystery and romance. The last 100 years have seen the Mona Lisa become the best-known painting in the world. Why is difficult to say, and perhaps that is the exact reason - the French poet Théophile Gautier stated that upon seeing the painting, one "feels a thought that is vague, infinite, inexpressible," leading to a person being both moved and troubled at the same time.
The Mona Lisa by Da Vinci.
Another famous magnum opus is Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, which some believe to be the greatest poem of all time (7). Sonnet 18 is written in a somewhat easy style about someone the narrator esteems more highly than even a midsummer's day, for the latter has uncomfortable moments when it may be too hot or windy, and the day cannot last forever, whereas the description of the esteemed person will remain eternally beautiful and never fade, so long as the poem survives. Moreover, given the esteemed person is not identified with respect to their physical characteristics or accomplishments, the poem opens up the idea that we should esteem all people, no matter who they are, or what they have done, as inherently noble and beautiful - even compared with a midsummer's day, one of the most splendid displays of nature.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
A final magnum opus is the autobiographical novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, which is lauded as one of the greatest British novels of all time (8). The novel describes the adventures of a country boy, David, from infancy to maturity, and it consists of a "very complicated weaving of truth and invention," with many events modelled after Dickens' own life. David Copperfield was actually written mid-way through Dickens' life, marking his entry into his more mature years. It is therefore no surprise that the primary theme of the novel is one of change and growth.
Original cover of David Copperfield.