Panta Rhei: What Did Heraclitus Mean?

Panta Rhei translated as Everything Flows is one of the most famous philosophical quotes of all times. But what did the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus mean?

May 11, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
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The persistence of memory, Salvador Dali, MoMA, New York; with Print of Janus,  David Kandel, 1550, British Museum

 

A bit more than 2000 years ago, in the Ionian city of Ephesus, one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy was born. Heraclitus taught that the universe is a constant becoming, a process of change. As the only book he wrote was lost, his work survived in fragments preserved in the writing of other ancient authors. Due to these fragments’ cryptic and often ambiguous nature, he became known as the Obscure One.

 

The philosophy of Heraclitus is one of movement and change. “Panta Rhei,” commonly translated as “Everything flows,” is the most famous aphorism attributed to the presocratic philosopher. Although at first, it may not appear that deep, Heraclitus’ remark is one of the most profound and influential sayings in the history of western civilization. So, what did Heraclitus exactly mean?

 

Heraclitus’ River Fragments & Panta Rhei

The Two Ways & Fire

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Heraclitus the crying philosopher, workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-1638, Prado, Madrid

 

For Heraclitus, fire nourishes life which moves upwards in a path of creation. Then a downward path of destruction follows as life gives place to death in a circular path that never ceases. Sri Aurobindo, the Indian Philosopher, found a lot of similarities between Heraclitus’ thought and various forms of Hindu mysticism. He even compared Heraclitus’ paths with pravṛtti and nivṛtti, i.e., the two paths toward salvation, one through activism and one through withdrawal.

 

Fire is the fuel that makes the endless repetition of Heraclitus’ paths possible. Fire is also the primary element out of which everything is made, and to which everything will eventually return. During this unending process of change, life becomes death, death life, and everything gives its place to something else. In the philosophy of Heraclitus, nothing ever stays the same. Given enough time, all things eventually turn to their opposite, meaning that everything is a constant becoming.

 

Unity Of Opposites

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The persistence of memory, Salvador Dali, MoMA, New York

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This is why the presocratic Greek philosopher also talks of the unity of the opposites. Being and non-being are opposed to each other but also two sides of the same coin. Without the one, the other cannot be. Consequently, the upward and the downward path, although they appear different, are in fact the same, as both are becoming their opposite:

“The way up and the way down is one and the same.”
DK, 60

 

If we could stop time and examine up and down separately, we would deduct that they are something completely different. But in the flux of time, up and down are the same as one transforms into the other and both are parts of the way. Once death has become life, the journey is not over. At that very moment, life is beginning the trip towards its previous state, similarly to yin and yang in Taoism.

 

Panta Rhei

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The False Mirror, René Magritte, 1929, MoMA, New York

 

John Burnett, the author of The Early Greek Philosophy (1892), believed that “Panta Rhei,” translated as “All Things Are Flowing”, perfectly encapsulated the Heraclitean philosophy of flux. However, Burnett also believed that Heraclitus himself never used this phrase himself. Kostas Axelos, another modern scholar who studied Heraclitus in-depth, agreed with Burnett. In fact, there is no ancient source claiming that Heraclitus ever said Panta Rhei. But in any case, we can easily understand why later authors attributed the phrase to Heraclitus.

 

In Plato’s Cratylus (402a), Socrates says:

“Heraclitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.”

 

As Socrates seems to argue, this river of Heraclitus was not just a mere acceptance of a moving universe. More than that, it was a cosmic stream. It was the stream of change:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”
DK, 12

 

Everything around us is changing just like fresh waters are ever flowing, renewing the stream. This is usually where most blogs stop their analysis. But Heraclitus did not simply say that the universe is moving and changing. He also said that we are changing with it. It is not just that you cannot step twice into the same river because the river is constantly changing. Even if the river remained static, there would never be two moments where you would be the same. The subject is not impartial to the universal process.

 

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, Spanish School, c. 1630, Art Institute Chicago.

Burnet writes that for Heraclitus:

“any given thing, however stable in appearance, was merely a section in the stream, and that the stuff composing it was never the same in any two consecutive moments”

 

But what is the moving force behind the flow of this cosmic river? Things get very complicated here, as Heraclitus does not provide a clear answer. There are fragments where Heraclitus talks about the term Logos in the sense of a cosmic law, a term that inspired early Christian thinkers who employed Logos to describe the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God.

 

Heraclitus also speaks a lot about fire as the single dominant element which fuels things. He also famously said that all things are an exchange for fire as gold is for goods (DK22).

 

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Heraclitus, Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628, Rijksmuseum

 

Finally, as we already saw previously, Heraclitus also discussed the unity of the opposites. This is one of the most fascinating Heraclitean ideas. Heraclitus seems to have believed that the opposites (being and non-being, life and death, up and down, etc.) are constantly at war with each other. This process of war is not necessarily negative as it is the one that gives birth to new things:

“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

 

Strife is of great importance for the Greek philosopher as it is the one that keeps things moving. The absence of strife would result in the destruction of the world.

 

Heracltius’ Panta Rhei In The Poetry Of Jorge Luis Borges

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Jorge Luis Borges drinking a cup of tea, c. 1975, via Wikimedia Commons

 

If we want to understand the idea of flux in Heraclitus’ philosophy, we certainly have to first understand the following points briefly covered in the previous section of this article: Logos, fire, unity of opposites, strife. But that is not the only path towards the deciphering of Panta Rhei. A second path is that of art.

 

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was a prominent figure of the literary movement of Magic Realism. He was an Argentine author interested in ancient philosophy and mythology of all kinds. The Greeks were particularly dear to him and especially Heraclitus to whom he devoted a series of poems.

 

In his poems, two of which are called Heraclitus, Borges completely tears down the walls of time and space, illustrating in the best way what Panta Rhei means. In Borges’ poems subjects merge. The poet and Heraclitus appear as one. The same happens with places as Ephesus turns into Rome or Buenos Aires. The only constant is time and Janus, the Roman God of times and transitions, who freely wanders through time and space. The river of Heraclitus in Borges’ poem becomes a river of words and meanings in a truly ingenious way.

 

In Heraclitus (1975), Heraclitus wonders next to a silent river, where he captures the meaning that eventually leads him to proclaim that no man ever steps twice in the waters from the same river.

 

“To Ephesus. The afternoon has brought him,
without his will intending,
On the side of a silent river.
His destiny and his name he ignored.
There is a stone Janus and some poplars
He looks in the runaway mirror
And discovers and works the sentence
That the generations of men
Will not drop. His voice declares:
No man ever steps twice in the waters
From the same river…”

 

This realization is met with horror as the philosopher realizes the fragility of his identity and begins to disappear within the great cosmic river. As he stares at the river, he realizes that he is also the river and sees clearly into the future.

 

“…He stops. He feels
With the astonishment of a sacred horror
That he is also a river and a leak…”

 

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Print of Janus,  David Kandel, 1550, British Museum

 

At the moment he understood the principle of the cosmic flux, Heraclitus became time. For Borges, he is no longer Heraclitus, the philosopher, but Janus, the Roman God of time and transitions, as well as Borges himself. He is no longer just in Ephesus but also in Buenos Aires:

 

“Heraclitus does not know Greek. Janus,
God of the doors, is a Latin god.
Heraclitus has neither yesterday nor now.
He is a mere artifice that has dreamed
A gray man on the banks of the Red Cedar,
A man who weaves hendecasyllables
So as not to think so much about Buenos Aires
And the dear faces. Someone he is missing.”

 

Understanding Heracltitus Through The Moving Image

 

In 1952 a Dutch director named Bert Haanstra (1916-1997) directed Panta Rhei. This was a short poetic documentary that attempted to visualize Heraclitus’ philosophy. Was the attempt successful? Yes, it was! On many different levels, the director manages to perfectly capture the concept of a moving world. A drop of water runs through a leaf, a stream runs in a hurry, the sun rises behind some trees, flowers bloom, the wind. All that, at a first level.

 

At a second level, the movement is present in the film itself. Besides, this is a moving image. Just like you cannot step into the same river twice, you can also not watch the same film twice. Each time the film is different and each time the viewer is also different. If Borges managed to unlock our imagination with his poetry, this documentary tickles our senses with… philosophy.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.