Saul Bellow quotes from the late sixth century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Heraclitus at the start of The Adventures of Augie March, writing that "a man's character is his fate." The philosopher who developed the concept of "flux", Heraclitus held that a man can determine his character as well as his fate, and that, like all things, a man and his destiny are subject to change.
Heraclitus, one of the most prominent pre-Socratic philosophers, lived in Ephesus of Ionia, in Asia Minor. He wrote in a dense, paradoxical style (often in the form of obscure riddles or aphorisms) that hinders a full understanding of his work. He felt that such riddles closely mimicked the paradoxical and ever-changing state of the world. Nevertheless, Heraclitus' work was widely admired in his day, and had a profound influence on future thinkers such as Plato. For the most part, he lived a relatively isolated life, and, according to rumor, survived for some time on a diet of grass and herbs. He died shortly before turning 60.
Today, only fragments of Heraclitus' work survive, predominantly through quotations found in outside sources. His fundamental doctrine of "flux" states that natural materials work for the benefit of no single element (such as air, water, or earth), but rather that each of these elements contributes to an ongoing process. Unity, according to Heraclitus, is found in the overall experience; the waters that compose a river change, but the river itself remains constant. Heraclitus highlighted the primordial element of "fire" as a symbol of the constant state of flux, and the ability of all things to transform while maintaining an overall balance.
Heraclitus' theories enabled him to develop a natural moral law that governed human beings in the same manner as the material elements. In other words, Heraclitus envisioned the soul as "fiery" by nature, subject to change, and, like the material elements, in a state of constant, overall balance. Human experience, according to Heraclitus, requires both high and low points. Heraclitus also considered war and strife to be crucial to the processes of creative and collective change.
Bellow utilizes the idea of "flux" in Augie March by establishing an exhilarating balance between Augie's character development (or lack thereof) and his experiences in the material world. Bellow deftly expresses this idea through his mastery of images and description; in this novel, he employs Walt Whitman's signature technique of cataloguing objects and images. Augie, who exists in a constant state of flux, hits a number of high and low notes along the way, and his life is shaped by a variety of human and environmental influences. In the end, despite of the rapid succession of experiences that he has undergone, Augie remains Augie: his identity is a constant. To this end, Bellow renders the character in the fashion of the Heraclitean image of the "river", moved along by the persons, landscapes, and emotions that he encounters. Augie's "special destiny" lies in the uniqueness of his personal experience.