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Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

Heraclitus of Ephesus (Greek Ήράκλειτος Herakleitos) (about 535 - 475 BC), known as 'The Obscure,' was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Ephesus in Asia Minor. As with other pre-Socratics, his writings only survive in fragments quoted by other authors. He disagreed with Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras about the nature of the ultimate substance and claimed instead that everything is derived from the Greek classical element fire, rather than from air, water, or earth. This led to the belief that change is real, and stability illusory. For Heraclitus everything is "in flux", as exemplified in his famous aphorism "Panta Rhei":

Everything flows, nothing stands still

Heraclitus is recognized as one of the earliest dialectical philosophers with his acknowledgement of the universality of change and development through internal contradictions, as in his statements:

"By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine. All things change. Fire penetrates the lump of myrrh, until the joining bodies die and rise again in smoke called incence."

"Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre."

He is famous for expressing the notion that no man can cross the same river twice:

ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν
εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
We both step and do not step in the same rivers.
We are and are not.

The idea of the logos is also credited to him, as he proclaims that everything originates out of the logos. Further, Heraclitus said

"I am as I am not," and

"He who hears not me but the logos will say: All is one."

Heraclitus held that an explanation of change was foundational to any theory of nature. This view was strongly opposed by Parmenides, who argued that change is an illusion and that everything is fundamentally static.

He appears to have taught by means of small, oracular aphorisms meant to encourage thinking based on natural law and reason. The brevity and elliptical logic of his aphorisms earned Heraclitus the epithet 'Obscure'. The technique, as well as the teaching, is redolent of Zen Buddhism's koans.

Moreover, the Heraclitean emphasis on the nature of things and existence as one of constant change, expressed with language of polarity, is particularly reminiscent of another ancient philosophical tradition, that of Taoism: the Tao (or "the Way") often refers to a space-time sequence, and is similarly expressed with seemingly-contradictory language (e.g., "The Way is like an empty vessel / that may still be drawn from / without ever needing to be filled"). Indeed, parallels may be drawn between the fundamental concepts of the logos (as it was understood during Heraclitus's time) and the Tao.

Heraclitus is described as having a melancholy disposition, and is sometimes referred to as the "weeping philosopher," as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher."


  • Heraclitus, Herakleitos and Diogenes, translated by Guy Davenport, Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1979. ISBN 0912516364 (Complete fragments of Heraclitus translated into English)
  • Heraclitus, Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton, forward by James Hillman, (parallel English & Greek), Viking Penguin 2001 ISBN 0-670-89195-9.
  • Martin Heidegger and Eugen Fink, Heraclitus Seminar, translated by Charles H. Seibert (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993). ISBN 0810110679. (Transcript of seminar in which two major German philosophers engage in detailed analysis and discussion of Heraclitus texts)

See also