Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who lived in Ephesus of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) some time in the 6th century BCE. He is one of the most popular Greek philosophers that preceded Socrates (presocratics). He has influenced thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, Jung, Kafka, Lenin and so many more. Heraclitus quotes are still popular not only among students of ancient philosophy but also among the wider public, for example “no one ever steps in the same river twice.”
His work survives in small fragments of cryptic and often paradoxical nature. As a result, he is often known as the ‘Obscure,’ the ‘Riddler’ or the ‘Dark One.’
Heraclitean philosophy taught that everything was in flux, constantly changing. Heraclitus also spoke of fire as the primary natural element and defended the unity of opposites; the idea that opposite things are identical. Furthermore, he was the first philosopher in Greece to use Logos in his theory to describe the cosmic order.
In this article, we will explore the life and work of Heraclitus through his fragments and most famous quotes.
The Life Of Heraclitus
Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, a wealthy Greek Ionian city in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) around 535 BCE. He descended from an aristocratic family but, according to ancient stories, he was not interested in politics. In fact, he is said to have passed the title of king of the city in favor of his brother.
Although we don’t know what the duties of a king were in Ephesus at the time, Heraclitus’ rejection clearly showed that he was not willing to participate in the political life of the city. The main source on Heraclitus’ life is Diogenes Laertius who lived almost three centuries after the Greek philosopher’s death.
Diogenes relates that Heraclitus preferred to play knucklebones in the temple of Artemis – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, not to be confused with Artemis’ temple in Corfu – rather than take part in politics. Later on, when the Ephesians recognized his wisdom, they asked him to make laws for the city; a common practice at the time for philosophers. However, Heraclitus denied and chose to live a monastic life.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Heraclitus died of dropsy (edema) around 475 BCE. His death was, let’s say, unique.
The story is the following. Heraclitus had gotten used to the monastic life. After spending years talking in riddles and paradoxes, he had become unable to communicate simply with other people. When he got symptoms of dropsy, he visited the doctors of the city and asked them if they could make a drought after a storm. No doctor could understand what he meant and Heraclitus left unassisted. As the symptoms got worse, he decided to take the situation into his hands.
“He buried himself in a cowshed, expecting that the noxious damp humour would be drawn out of him by the warmth of the manure. But, as even this was of no avail, he died at the age of sixty.” Diogenes Laertius, IX.1.3
Diogenes also relates that:
“…being unable to tear off the dung, he remained as he was and, being unrecognizable when so transformed, he was devoured by dogs.” Diogenes Laertius, IX.1.4
Before we laugh at the misfortune of Heraclitus, we should keep in mind that this story is most probably a myth created by Diogenes Laertius. In the story, Heraclitus’s quotes and enigmas turn against him causing his death. Making up death stories for Greek philosophers, was an especially popular practice during the Hellenistic period.
The ‘Obscure’ Greek Philosopher
Heraclitus wrote only one work called On Nature and dedicated the only copy to his beloved temple of Artemis. This meant that people could only read his work in the mystifying atmosphere of the temple.
This was not the only mystical part of his work though. Heraclitus was a huge admirer of the oracle of Delphi and his enigmatic sayings. He loved paradoxes, enigmas, and compressing complex meanings in brief sentences. As a result, it was very difficult for anyone to decipher the meaning hidden behind his puzzles. According to the tragic poet Scythinus:
“Do not be in too great a hurry to get to the end of Heraclitus the Ephesian’s book: the path is hard to travel. Gloom is there and darkness devoid of light. But if an initiate be your guide, the path shines brighter than sunlight.” as quoted in Diogenes Laertius, IX.1.16.
From this passage, we understand that the Greek philosopher’s work is challenging but worth exploring nonetheless. A proper introduction (initiation) is all it takes to demystify his radical thought and discover the path that “shine brighter than sunlight.”
Socrates had a similar view. According to a legend, Euripides, the tragic playwright, asked Socrates what he thought of Heraclitus’ book. Socrates replied that what he understood was excellent, and so were the parts that he didn’t!
Socrates found Heraclitus difficult and he had access to the text in its original language. So it is no wonder that by the Middle Ages, people would find the Ephesian almost incomprehensible. This also explains how Heraclitus was called nicknames like ‘Obscure,’ ‘Dark,’ and ‘Riddler.’
Today Heraclitus’ work is permanently lost. The only way to know the Greek philosopher is through fragments of his work quoted by other ancient authors, like Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius, the Stoic philosophers, and early Christian thinkers.
The Weeping Philosopher
Heraclitus became known in the centuries after his death as the ‘weeping philosopher’. Why? As we saw, he spent many years alone, away from society. Also, he often makes pessimistic statements about the majority of people saying that they are unable to listen to the Logos (cosmic reason).
The ‘weeping philosopher’ title became commonplace in art. Heraclitus was often painted crying next to Democritus who was called the ‘laughing philosopher’ because his philosophy appeared more cheerful to later scholars. The most famous depiction of Heraclitus as a weeping philosopher is in Raphael’s famous painting The Academy of Athens. Raphael painted Michelangelo as Heraclitus sitting alone in the foreground of the image.
The Philosophy Of Heraclitus
So let’s explore the philosophy of one of the most famous Greek philosophers of all time. We will cover Heraclitus’ basic ideas while explaining some of his most famous quotes.
Everything Is Fire
During Heraclitus’ time, Greek philosophers were trying to decipher the laws of the universe. Especially Greek philosophers from the cities of Ionia were interested in uncovering what things are made of.
These thinkers are also called monists (monism=oneness) since they tried to attribute everything in existence to one single element. First Thales (c. 620-546 BCE) said that everything was made of water. Then Anaximenes (6th century BCE) stated that it was air. Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE) formulated a theory, where an abstract substance called Apeiron (the infinite) was the basis of all things.
Heraclitus took a stance on the matter. For him, fire was the original and most basic element of all. The element out of which everything was made.
“This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.” Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker by Diels and Kranz (DK), 30
Fire is the measure for all things changing:
“All things are an interchange for Fire, and Fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.” DK, 90
However, there is a difference between Heraclitus and the other monists. He mainly used fire as a metaphor for change, which he thought was the real basis of the universe. Just think of fire for a bit. It never stays the same, it is never calm, it is always in movement. Heraclitus believed that nothing can stay the same for long.
Everything constantly changes and takes the form of other things. The death of one thing is the birth of the other. Fire becomes air, air turns into water, and water into earth:
“Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.” DK, 76
Everything Flows And The Most Famous Heraclitus Quotes
Heraclitus’ most famous quote is “Panta Rhei”, which roughly translates to “everything flows.”
Interestingly, Heraclitus never used these words himself. However, “Panta Rhei” perfectly encapsulates his theory of constant change. This theory understands the universe as a place where the only constant is change. Heraclitus observed the nature around him and saw that things constantly move. Nothing stays the same for a long time. In his thought system, nothing is. Things are always becoming. The cosmos is not static.
A small seed grows into a tree, the tree becomes the material of a house, or the food of other animals, plants, or fungi. The universe for Heraclitus is, therefore, a process; a process of change. This continuous movement of things is expressed with Heraclitus’ river quotes, where the Greek philosopher compares the flow of the world to that of the current of a river:
“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” DK, 12
“We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.” DK, 49a
So why can you never step into the same river twice? Because every time you try to step in the river, not only are you stepping on new waters but also you are a new person.
The Unity of Opposites And The Birth Of Dialectics
This idea of a world that is always moving and changing set the basis for what philosophers later called the dialectic method. This is a method of philosophical inquiry whereby one finds a solution to a problem by examining two contradicting theses. Dialectics formed the basis for the thinking of intellectuals as diverse as Plato, Hegel and Marx.
So, why is Heraclitus the father of dialectics? Heraclitus believed that things tend to turn into their opposites given enough time. Life becomes death, day becomes night and vice versa.
Furthermore, everything contains a part of its opposite, just like yin and yang in Taoism. As a result, Heraclitus believed that the opposites were the two sides of the same coin. This idea is known as the unity of opposites. Let’s take a peek at some Heraclitus quotes on the matter:
“The way up and the way down is one and the same.” DK, 60
“And it is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, awake and asleep, young and old; the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former.” DK, 88
The same applies to even mortals and immortals (heroes and gods):
“Mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, the one living the others’ death and dying the others’ life.” DK, 62
But what truly makes Heraclitus the father of dialectics, is his argument that harmony stems from the tension between opposite forces:
“there would be no harmony without high and low notes, and no animals without male and female, which are opposites.” Aristotle Eudemian Ethics 7.1235a
“Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.” DK, 51
Strife And War
The opposites are in constant strife with each other but also co-depend. Without the one, the other cannot be:
“It is sickness that makes health pleasant; evil, good; hunger, plenty; weariness, rest.” DK, 110-1
In the Heraclitean universe, change does not occur on its own. There is a force that drives things forward, and that is strife. This is so important for Heraclitus, that he even rebukes Homer for wishing strife to disappear from the world.
The Ephesian sees the strife between the opposites as essential, since the identity of one thing, depends on its strife with its opposite.
The most famous Heraclitus quotes about strife and war is, without a doubt, the following:
“War is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free.” DK, 53
Some scholars perceive this quote to be an endorsement of war. They argue that Heraclitus lived in an age of war and adopted a cynical stance that idealized conflict as the father of new empires and cultures. Others take this quote as a metaphor for the war between opposite forces in general.
Let’s try to recap the basic positions of Heraclitus so far. He believes that the basic element is fire. He also uses fire as a metaphor for change because he thinks that the world is constantly moving and changing. Opposites are essentially both parts of one phenomenon that fuel change through their strife.
There is one basic idea we have not mentioned, however. Heraclitus believes in a cosmic law, a law that determines the way things take place. That is the Logos, a term which has many different meanings in Greek, like speech, argument, reason, proportion, discourse, etc.
Heraclitus is the first in a great line of Greek philosophers to use Logos as a central part of his system. Logos was later used by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists and many more. Early Christian authors also loved using the Logos as a name for God.
The Relativism of Heraclitus
As Heraclitus believes in the unity of the opposites and the oneness of everything, he also reaches a point of relativism. Contrary to other Greek philosophers, Heraclitus claims that things depend on our point of view.
“The wisest man is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man.” DK, 82-3
“The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.” DK, 61