Heraclitus is known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe and that the Logos is the fundamental order of all.
- 1 Ancient characterizations
- 2 Life
- 3 Philosophy
- 4 Influence
- 5 Notes
- 6 Bibliography
- 7 External links
At some time in antiquity he acquired this epithet denoting that his major sayings were difficult to understand. Timon of Phlius calls him "the riddler" (ainiktēs) according to Diogenes Laertius, who had just explained that Heraclitus wrote his book "rather unclearly" (asaphesteron) so that only the "capable" should attempt it. By the time of Cicero he had become "the dark" (Ancient Greek ο Σκοτεινός — ho Skoteinós) because he had spoken nimis obscurē, "too obscurely", concerning nature and had done so deliberately in order to be misunderstood. The customary English translation of ο Σκοτεινός follows the Latin, "the obscure."
The weeping philosopher
Diogenes Laertius ascribes to Theophrastus the theory that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. Later he was referred to as the "weeping philosopher", as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher". If Stobaeus writes correctly, Sotion in the early 1st century AD was already combining the two in the imaginative duo of weeping and laughing philosophers: "Among the wise, instead of anger, Heraclitus was overtaken by tears, Democritus by laughter." The view is expressed by the satirist Juvenal: The first of prayers, best known at all the temples, is mostly for riches .... Seeing this then do you not commend the one sage Democritus for laughing ... and the master of the other school Heraclitus for his tears?
Diogenes says that the book attributed to Heraclitus was On Nature (peri physeōs). Heraclitus' statement that "nature likes to hide" places him among those seeking the hidden nature of things, including those who were finding an explanation in substance.
Heraclitus had a rather different idea of the hidden nature than substance, but he was being called physicus at least as early as Cicero:
nemo physicus obscurus? ... valde Heraclitus obscurus ....
no physicus was obscure? ... Heraclitus the obscure certainly was.
If physis is nature, then physikos must translate to naturalist, but the term in English can have a great many meanings not necessarily implied by the ancient Greek.
The main source for the life of Heraclitus is Diogenes Laertius. Some have questioned the validity of the anecdotes based on political or social conjecture; however, there is no solid scholarship refuting them.
Diogenes said that Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad, which would be 504-501 BC. All the rest of the evidence - whom Heraclitus is said to have known or who implies that he was familiar with Heraclitus' work - confirms the floruit but does nothing to establish the start and end dates. Those vary by several years in different authors but all are based on a life span of 60 years, the age at which Diogenes says he died, with the floruit in the middle.
Heraclitus was born to an aristocratic family in Ephesus, present-day Efes, Turkey. His father was named either Blosōn or Herakōn. Diogenes says that he abdicated the kingship (basileia) in favor of his brother and Strabo confirms that there was a ruling family in Ephesus descended from the Ionian founder, Androclus, which still kept the title and could sit in the chief seat at the games, as well as a few other privileges.
How much power the king had is another question. Ephesus had been part of the Persian Empire since 547 and was ruled by a satrap (see under Ephesus), a more distant figure, as the Great King allowed the Ionians considerable autonomy. Diogenes says that Heraclitus used to play knuckle-bones with the youths in the temple of Artemis and when asked to start making laws he refused saying that the constitution (politeia) was ponēra, which can mean either that it was fundamentally wrong or that it gave him a headache.
With regard to education, Diogenes says that Heraclitus was "marvellous" (thaumasios) from childhood, which is an implication of prodigy.
Diogenes relates that Sotion said he was a "hearer" of Xenophanes, which seems to be paradoxical, as (so says Diogenes) he had taught himself by questioning himself. The word hearer implies that he was physically present at the speaking of Xenophanes in some capacity. English pupil or disciple have implications not in the Greek as to method, purpose and assent. Burnet states in any case that "... Xenophanes left Ionia before Herakleitos (Greek spelling) was born." Insufficient information survives to resolve the question.
Diogenes relates that as a boy Heraclitus had said he "knew nothing" but later claimed to "know everything." The Greek for "know" changes from the aorist, or indefinite past, to the perfect, which is a stative aspect: he was in a state of knowing as a result of some previous event. For the event he affirmed that he "heard no one" but "questioned himself." The implication is that man contains all knowledge within himself to be elicited by self-questioning, and yet he says: "The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most" The self-examination then may only be a program of objective inquiry.
Diogenes relates that Heraclitus had a poor opinion of human affairs. He believed that Hesiod and Pythagoras lacked understanding though learned and that Homer and Archilochus deserved to be beaten. Laws needed to be defended as though they were city walls. Timon is said to have called him a "mob-reviler" who did his reviling, either really or figuratively, in a voice as shrill as a cuckoo.
Diogenes quotes a letter from Darius inviting him to come to court to explain his writings and offering him rank and good company. Heraclitus refuses: "All men upon earth hold aloof from truth and justice, while, by reason of wicked folly, they devote themselves to avarice and thirst for popularity." No reaction of the king to these words has been recorded. Apparently the excuse that he had a "horror of splendour" and "was content with little" was accepted.
Heraclitus hated the Athenians and his fellow Ephesians, wishing the latter wealth in punishment for their wicked ways. Says Diogenes: "Finally, he became a hater of his kind (misanthrope) and wandered the mountains ... making his diet of grass and herbs."
Diogenes says: "As to the work which passes as his, it is a continuous treatise On Nature, but is divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics, and a third on theology." Theophrastus says (in Diogenes) "... some parts of his work are half-finished, while other parts make a strange medley."
Diogenes also tells us that he deposited his book as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis, the Artemisium, one of the largest temples of the 6th century BCE and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient temples were regularly used for storing treasures, and were open to private individuals under exceptional circumstances; furthermore, many subsequent philosophers in this period refer to the work. Says Kahn: "Down to the time of Plutarch and Clement, if not later, the little book of Heraclitus was available in its original form to any reader who chose to seek it out." Diogenes says: "the book acquired such fame that it produced partisans of his philosophy who were called Heracliteans."
Unfortunately, as with other pre-Socratics, his writings only survive in fragments quoted by other authors.
Heraclitus' life as a highland herbivore was interrupted by a general edema and impairment of vision. The physicians he consulted were unable to prescribe a cure. He treated himself with a liniment of cow manure and baking in the sun, believing that this method would remove the fluid. After 24 hours of treatment he died and was interred in the marketplace.
Panta rhei, "everything is in a state of flux"
Πάντα ρει (panta rhei) "everything is in a state of flux" either was not spoken by Heraclitus or did not survive as a quotation of his. This famous aphorism used to characterize Heraclitus' thought comes from Simplicius. The word rhei, adopted by rhe-o-logy, is simply the Greek word for "to stream."
The philosophy of Heraclitus is summed up in his cryptic utterance:
"ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αυτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν, έτερα και έτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ."
Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei
"On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow."</ref> The quote from Heraclitus is interpreted by Plato as: πάντα χωρεί και ουδέν μένει}}
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei
Instead of "flow" Plato uses chōrei, to change chōros, or ground, and not to "remain", with which menei is cognate. Just previously Plato explained:
τα όντα ιέναι τε πάντα καί μένειν ουδέν
ta onta ienai te panta kai menein ouden
"All beings going and remaining not at all"
At first thought Heraclitus might be supposed to be asserting nothing more profound or obscure than that we exist in a field or continuum in which everything is constantly in flux or process: a non-remarkable observation for such a famous philosophy. However, the assertions of flow are coupled in many fragments with the enigmatic river image:
"Ποταμούς τους αυτούς εμβαίνομέν τε καί ουκ εμβαίνομεν, εσμέν τε και ουκ εσμεν."
"We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not."</ref>
As a fellow Ionian, Heraclitus was certainly familiar with the preceding substance solution of the Milesian school to the problem of change. The problem only exists under the law of identity, one formulation of which is the law of excluded middle. The classical formulation of that law had to wait for Aristotle but it was nevertheless known and operant in pre-socratic philosophy.
In the fragment above Heraclitus is proposing that another law also is in effect. The law of identity states that an identity, say A, is identical to itself, is not non-A, and is not both A and non-A. Heraclitus affirms the middle in the passage above, that the A is both A and not-A. As far as the assertion is true, the change problem disappears and does not need a solution.
According to fragment DK B91: "nor is it possible to touch a mortal substance twice" and DK B6: "The sun is ... not only new each day but forms continually new ...." the Heraclitean law only applies in cases where the identity is sampled diachronically. The sampling rate can be adjusted to as rapidly as an object can be touched, or to the rate of flow of the stream, or daily, or by extrapolation to the frequency at which a photon can be perceived. Heraclitus just said "continually" and theorized: "simultaneously it forms and dissolves."
It seems clear that the stream of the metaphor is time and that the stepping in it is the instant of the present. Heraclitus is therefore asserting that an object is and is not identical with itself of x instants ago.
Kalliste Harmonia, "the fairest harmony"
Milesian philosophy was based on a binary law, which postulates a binary existence: objects either fully exist as completely identical to themselves or do not exist at all. There are two states, off or on. In Heraclitus the existence can be both off and on: a middle state of existing that is to some degree off and to some degree on.
The middle characteristic results from Heraclitus' existence being a derived quantity rather than a given one. It is the resultant of "simultaneous formation and dissolution" (see previous section) in the current instant, which explains such fragments as:
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
... what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder ... The one is made up of all things and all things issue from the one.
In the circumference of the circle the beginning and the end are common.
... it (substance) approaches and departs.
As for the resultant, it is a "harmony":
Εκ των διαφερόντων καλλίστην αρμονίαν}}
ek tōn diapherontōn kallistēn harmonian
"out of discord comes the fairest harmony."
Hodos ano kato, "the way up and the way down"
In οδός άνω κάτω the structure anō katō is more accurately translated as a hyphenated word: "the upward-downward path." They go on simultaneously and instantaneously (see previous section) and result in "hidden harmony". A way is a series of transformations which imply a chronological sequence no matter how closely spaced: the πυρός τροπαί}}, "turnings of fire," first into sea, then half of sea to earth and half to rarefied air.
The transformation is a replacement of one element by another: "The death of fire is the birth of air, and the death of air is the birth of water;" moreover, the replacement is quantitatively determined, in which there appears to be a foreshadowing of conservation of mass:
"Sea ... is measured by the same amount (logos) as before it became earth"
This latter phraseology is further elucidated:
All things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.
This is certainly a foreshadowing of Conservation of energy.
Dike eris, "strife is justice"
If objects are new from moment to moment so that one can never touch the same object twice, then each object must dissolve and be generated continually momentarily and an object is a harmony between a building up and a tearing down. This is a foreshadowing of the scientific concept of equilibrium in many contexts. Heraclitus calls the oppositional processes eris, "strife", and hypothesizes that the apparently stable state, dikē, or "justice," is a harmony of it:
We must know that war (polemos) is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.
As Diogenes explains:
All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things (ta hola, "the whole") flows like a stream.
In the bow metaphor Heraclitus compares the resultant to a strung bow held in shape by an equilibrium of the string tension and spring action of the bow:
There is a harmony in the bending back (palintropos) as in the case of the bow and the lyre.
Heraclitus here references the Scythian bow, the horns of which pointed forward unstrung but back strung, or the deformation of the cross-bar of the lyre under string tension. The palintropos of an object would therefore be its stinting from the growth of the current instant by the decay of the object of the previous. This identity-not-identity accounts for such statements as:
It is one and the same thing to be living and dead, awake or asleep, young or old.
A change is the result of a change in balance:
Cold things become warm, and what is warm cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moistened.
Hepesthai to ksuno, "follow the common"
The idea that the universe changes according to a plan or logos, with which the truly aware soul should cooperate, is expressed in the notable but obscure DK B1 and DK B2. The first phrase of the first fragment can be interpreted as "of the logos which is as I describe it" or "though this word is true evermore" depending on how the words are to be regarded as clustered and what is or is not implied by them. The meaning of logos also is subject to interpretation: "word", "plan", "formula", "measure", "proportion", "reckoning."
However translated it refers to Heraclitus' vision of the operation of the universe and therefore is not the progenitor of the logos of any other creed, doctrine or religion. The ancient Greek word, which is frequent and also appears in a large number of English words, such as logic, was certainly not a neologism of Heraclitus: he was not "the first" to use it. There is no univocal word, logos, and if there ever was one, its meaning is lost in prehistory.
The problem with the Heraclitean logos is that his explanation of it did not survive. Whatever it was, "all things come to pass in accordance with this word" and "the word is common." It is "the account which governs the universe (ta hola, the whole)."
Logos appears to be some sort of natural law and yet men must "follow the common (hepesthai tō ksunō)" and not live having "their own judgement (phonēsis)" implying a voluntary assent, which natural law does not offer. He distinguishes between human laws and divine law (tou theiou "of God").
He removes the human sense of justice from his concept of God; i.e., man is not the image of God: "To God all things are fair and good and just, but men hold some things wrong and some right." God's custom has wisdom but man's does not and yet both man and God are childish: "human opinions are children's toys" and "Time is a child moving counters in a game; the kingly power is a child's."
Wisdom is "to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things", which must not imply that men are or can be wise. Only Zeus is wise. To some degree then Heraclitus seems to be in the mystic's position of urging men to follow God's plan without much of an idea what that may be. In fact there is a note of despair: "The fairest universe (kallistos kosmos) is but a heap of rubbish (sarma, sweepings) piled up (kechumenon, poured out) at random (eikē)." This may be a foreshadowing of scientific randomness rather than an internal struggle, but the evidence is too scant to make either presumption.
Many philosophers have expressed the belief that they were influenced by Heraclitus, whether accurately or not. Some of the more notable ones are mentioned in this section; others will be found in linked articles where they exist. Coincidental resemblances are too numerous for consideration in one article.
In Heraclitus a perceived object is a harmony between two fundamental units of change, a waxing and a waning. He typically uses the ordinary word "to become" (gignesthai or ginesthai, root sense of being born), which led to his being characterized as the philosopher of becoming rather than of being. He recognizes the changing of objects with the flow of time; in fact, this is the view of modern science, which recognizes nothing static and sees a balance between processes everywhere, though not those of Heraclitus.
How can that be a real thing which is never in the same state? ... for at the moment that the observer approaches, then they become other ... so that you cannot get any further in knowing their nature or state .... but if that which knows and that which is known exist ever ... then I do not think they can resemble a process or flux ....
In Plato one experienced unit is a state, or object existing, which can be observed. The time parameter is set at "ever"; that is, the state is to be presumed present between observations. Change is to be deduced by comparing observations, but no matter how many of those you are able to make, you cannot get through the mysterious gap between them to account for the change that must be occurring there.
Bearden's presentation of a relativistic solution to the change problem (under External links below) distinguishes between space and spacetime, the latter being an aspect of reality mathematically defined by Albert Einstein. An object in spacetime has four dimensions in directions x, y, z, and t, where t is time, containing within its boundaries change, so that it is not deduced but is delivered in experience. To take an observation is to reduce the object to nearly three dimensions; that is, to eliminate the time depth, which is equivalent to saying that Plato's states of existence only appear when you look for them, but even as you ponder the observation, time and change do not stop; reality continues to be delivered in units of spacetime.
... there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate.
Bearden describes "one subject" as a snapshot in spacetime. The identity laws apply to simultaneous snapshots of A and B but as soon as they are not simultaneous the change problem occurs. Says Bearden, the laws:
... are monocular, unchanging, 3-dimensional, spatial, non-temporal relational statements. Any statement that is temporal, changing or 4-dimensional will thus appear as a logical paradox to this logical shorthand.
If the "one subject" becomes 4-dimensional, any delimited chunk includes starting and ending snapshots as well as everything in between. If over that time A becomes not-A then both are in the "one subject". As the identity law is only applied subsequent to the experience of A and not-A the two are superimposed in the final snapshot: the object is both A and not-A.
Bearden therefore postulates a conditional identity law: the first three apply if time is not considered but if it is then the dual, or Heraclitean law, applies. Aristotle might have had access to this result if he had applied his theory of act and potency, which asserts that an object is actually what it is sampled to be and is potentially whatever it has been or will be. An object might be therefore actually A and potentially not-A simultaneously.
Stoicism is a school of thought comprising many philosophers between the 3rd century BC and about the 6th century AD.
It began among the Greeks and became the major philosophy of the Roman Empire before declining with the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century.
Throughout their long tenure the Stoics believed that the major tenets of their philosophy derived from the thought of Heraclitus. According to Long, "the importance of Heraclitus to later Stoics is evident most plainly in Marcus Aurelius." Explicit connections of the earliest Stoics to Heraclitus showing how they arrived at their interpretation are missing but they can be inferred from the Stoic fragments. Long concludes to "modifications of Heraclitus."
The Stoics were interested in Heraclitus' treatment of fire. In addition to seeing it as the most fundamental of the four elements and the one that is quantified and determines the quantity (logos) of the other three, he presents fire as the cosmos, which was not made by any of the gods or men, but "was and is and ever shall be ever-living fire." This is the closest he comes to a substance, but it is an active one altering other things quantitatively and performing an activity Heraclitus describes as "the judging and convicting of all things." It is "the thunderbolt that steers the course of all things." There is no reason to interpret the judgement, which is actually "to separate" (krinein), as outside of the context of "strife is justice" (see subsection above).
The earliest surviving Stoic work, the Hymn to Zeus of Cleanthes, though not explicitly referencing Heraclitus, adopts what appears to be the Heraclitean logos modified. Zeus rules the universe with law (nomos) wielding on its behalf the "forked servant", the "fire" of the "ever-living lightening." So far nothing has been said that differs from the Zeus of Homer. But then, says Cleanthes, Zeus uses the fire to "straighten out the common logos" that travels about (phoitan, "to frequent") mixing with the greater and lesser lights (heavenly bodies). This is Heraclitus' logos, but now it is confused with the "common nomos", which Zeus uses to "make the wrong (perissa, left or odd) right (artia, right or even)" and "order (kosmein) the disordered (akosma)."
In short, the logos has developed from being an impersonal and even random eternal quantitative plan of change associated with the upward-downward way and especially fire taking precedence even over the will of Zeus, who did not create it, to being the instrument and design of God, who is personal, whose children humans and only humans are, which he uses to bring about order and correct wrong. It remained logically only to affirm unequivocally the identity of God with his logos, which was done in the Gospel of John.
The Stoic modification of Heraclitus' idea of the Logos was also influential on Jewish philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria, who connected it to "Wisdom personified" as God's creative principle. Philo uses the term Logos throughout his treatises on Hebrew Scripture in a manner clearly influenced by the Stoics.
- Bakalis, Nikolaos: Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics: Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5 pages 26-45 under Heraclitus
- Barnes, Jonathan: The Presocratic Philosophers [Revised Edition], Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London & New York, ISBN 0-415-05079-0
- Burnet, John: Early Greek Philosophy, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 0-7661-2826-1 First published in 1892 this book has had dozens of editions and has been used as a textbook for decades. The first edition is downloadable from Google Books for free at and the text is also available on the Internet (follow the Wikipedia author link).
- Davenport, Guy (translator): Herakleitos and Diogenes, Bolinas, Grey Fox Press, 1979, ISBN 0-912516-36-4 Complete fragments of Heraclitus in English.
- Heidegger, Martin et al: Heraclitus Seminar, Northwestern University Press, 1993, Evanston ISBN 0-8101-1067-9. Transcript of seminar in which two German philosophers analyze and discuss Heraclitus' texts.
- Heraclitus / Haxton (translator): Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, New York Viking (The Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam, Inc.), ISBN 0-670-89195-9}}. Parallel Greek & English.
- Laertius, Diogenes: Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in Ten Books Book IX, Chapter 1, Heraclitus.
- Lavine, T.Z.: From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, New York, New York Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. (Bantam Books), 1984, ISBN 0-553-25161-9 pages=Chapter 2: Shadow and Substance; Section: Plato's Sources: The Pre-SocraticPhilosophers: Heraclitus and Parmenides
- Pyle, C. M. (1997). 'Democritus and Heracleitus: An Excursus on the Cover of this Book,' Milan and Lombardy in the Renaissance. Essays in Cultural History. Rome, La Fenice. (Istituto di Filologia Moderna, Università di Parma: Testi e Studi, Nuova Serie: Studi 1.) (Fortuna of the Laughing and Weeping Philosophers topos)
- Robinson, T.M.: Heraclitus: Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1987 ISBN 0-8020-6913-4
- Taylor, C. C. W (ed.), Routledge History of Philosophy: From the Beginning to Plato, Vol. I, pp. 80 - 117. ISBN 0-203-02721-3 Master e-book ISBN, ISBN 0-203-05752-X (Adobe eReader Format) and ISBN 0-415-06272-1 (Print Edition).
- Wright, M.R.: The Presocratics: The main Fragments in Greek with Inroduction, Commentary and Appendix Containing Text and Translation of Aristotle on the Presocratics, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol, 1985, ISBN 0-86292-079-5
The links below are to collections of fragments of the writings of Heraclitus in a number of languages, mainly ancient Greek and English. Included also are interpretive essays. No standard or uniform presentation of Heraclitus exists. Translations and interpretations as well as quality vary widely, but these limitations may always have been true.
- Thomas E. Bearden Thomas E. Bearden | contribution=Appendix III: A conditional Criterion for Identity, Leading to a Fourth Law of Logic | contribution-url=http://www.cheniere.org/books/aids/appendixIII.htm | title=Aids: Biological Warfare | year=2002 | publisher=Cheniere Press | id=ISBN 0972514651}}. A modern physicist looks at the problem of change as expressed by the law of identity of Aristotle and the flux of Heraclitus and formulates a relativistic solution. A basic knowledge of Symbolic logic and the concept of spacetime is required but advanced mathematics is not necessary.
- Elpenor: Heraclitus: The Word is Common | work=The Greek Word: Three Millenia of Greek Literature | publisher=Elpenor | format=html | url=http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/herakleitus-word.asp | accessdate=2007-10-10}} Heraclitus bilingual anthology from DK in Greek and English, side by side, the translations being provided by the organization, Elpenor.
- Graham, Daniel W.: Heraclitus | work=The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | publisher=The editors | year=2006 | url=http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/h/heraclit.htm | format=html | accessdate=2007-10-09}}
- Template:Cite web Greek and English with DK numbers and commentary.
- Template:Cite web Text and selected aphorisms in Greek, English, Italian and French.
- Template:Cite web Selected fragments translated by Hooker.
- Template:Cite web The fragments also cited in DK in Greek (Unicode) with the English translations of John Burnet (see Biliography).
- Knierim, Thomas: Heraclitus:[Ephesus, around 500 BC] | year=2007 | format=html | publisher=thebigview.com | url=http://www.thebigview.com/greeks/heraclitus.html}} Essay on the flux and fire philosophy of Heraclitus.
- Template:Cite web Site with links to pdf's containing the fragments of DK in Greek (Unicode) with the English translations of John Burnet (see Bibliography) and translations into French, either in parallel columns or interlinear, with links on the lexical items to Perseus dictionaries. Includes also Heraclitus article from Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.
- [url=http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/heraclitus.htm Stamatellos, Giannis Heraclitus of Ephesus: Life and Work, 2007-10-12]
- Heraclitus' Epistemological Views sym•pos•i•a: συμποσια: the online philosophy journal 2007-10-10