Heraclitus: The Question of Gender Roles, and our Current Parallel Reality
“He’s the guy that talked about rivers, right?” says the average philosophy student asked about Heraclitus. And while flux is arguably the most widely known of Heraclitus’ ideas, his notion of opposites can also be universally and multilaterally applied. Specifically, the modern day opposition of genders is a prime example of strife between conflicting forces equaling Heraclitus’ definition of harmony.
According to Heraclitus, “The road up and down is one and the same.” Everything and everyone we encounter in life acts in some way as a counterbalance to ourselves. Furthermore, inert objects work in juxtaposition with other inert objects, creating an equalizing tension, as is the case in the bow metaphor. Two things when working against each other become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This harmony of opposites begs the question - does the modern struggle for equality between men and women parallel the sublime discord that Heraclitus said is essential to existence? Is it possible that Heraclitus, writing more than 2,000 years ago, envisaged a time in which the gap between men and women would be considerably narrowed, reflecting the contemporary egalitarian attitude persistent in Western society?
If strife is a natural, ideal part of the human experience, the modern-day struggle and advances toward equality between genders in Western society signals a return to a more authentic state of being. But, what does this mean for the thousands of years of inequality between men and women? What does this mean for the gross imbalance between genders that still exists in parts of Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and other areas of the world?
As imbalance has existed for a substantially longer time than balance, it is clear that discord between the sexes has persisted during periods of inequality and equality. However, it seems illogical to think of the centuries of disenfranchisement as harmonic or just, even though they were most certainly accompanied by dissension and strife.
Maybe in the grand scheme of humanity, of which modern day is nothing more than infinitesimal, we should think of dissonance in a much more long-term sense. Perhaps when Heraclitus proposed that strife is justice, he was intentionally ambiguous on the subject of time. After all, it is somewhat unfathomable for a person that is currently experiencing turmoil to understand how that translates into harmony or justice, at least in the immediate future. But from adversity comes strength.
Since he is known as “the obscure” and “the dark,” the notion that Heraclitus may have been deliberately indefinite on how long anything or anyone must struggle in order to reach balance fits his pattern of ambiguity. Furthermore, Heraclitus is known to have alleged, “Those who seek gold dig up much earth but find little.” Essentially, if you want something, you have to work hard to get it. Clearly, women who have sought equality for hundreds, if not thousands, of years have indeed worked very hard to finally reach some level of gender parity.
A perfect equilibrium between opposites may not always exist, and at times one side may outweigh the other. Inevitably, the side at a disadvantage will endeavor to restore balance. Accordingly, it is plausible that in the case of men and women, thousands of years of inequality and struggle have allowed women to build the fortitude needed to tip the scales toward a more balanced, just existence between genders.
Ultimately, the whole, humanity, benefits from the antagonistically motivated achievements between its parts, men and women. And although the appearance of gender harmony is more pronounced in modern times, this appearance of harmony acts as a façade, hiding the continual clash that has always existed, and will continue to exist between the sexes. Clearly there will always be a fight - now it finally seems that at least Western society is allowing that fight to be fair.