Biography of Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus (; Greek: Ἡράκλειτος Herakleitos, "Glory of Hera"; c. 535 – c. 475 BCE, fl. 500 BCE) was an ancient Greek, pre-Socratic, Ionian philosopher and a native of the city of Ephesus, which was then part of the Persian Empire.Little is known of Heraclitus's life. Most of the ancient stories about him are later fabrications. It is generally believed that Heraclitus was of distinguished parentage, but he eschewed his privileged life for a lonely one as a philosopher. Little else is known about his early life and education. He regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. His paradoxical philosophy and appreciation for wordplay and cryptic utterances has earned him the epithet "the obscure" since antiquity. He was considered a misanthrope who was subject to melancholia. Consequently, he became known as "the weeping philosopher" in contrast to the ancient philosopher Democritus, who was known as "the laughing philosopher".

He wrote a single work, only fragments of which have survived, increasing the obscurity already associated with him. Heraclitus has thus been the subject of numerous interpretations. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus has been seen as a "material monist or a process philosopher; a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician and a religious thinker; an empiricist, a rationalist, a mystic; a conventional thinker and a revolutionary; a developer of logic — one who denied the law of non-contradiction; the first genuine philosopher and an anti-intellectual obscurantist."Heraclitus believed the world is ultimately made of fire. He also believed in a unity of opposites and harmony in the world. He was most famous for his insistence on ever-present change — known in philosophy as "flux" or "becoming" or impermanence — as the characteristic feature of the world; an idea expressed in the sayings, "No man ever steps in the same river twice", and panta rhei (Πάντα ῥεῖ, "everything flows"). His use of fire may have been a metaphor for change. This changing aspect of his philosophy is contrasted with that of the ancient philosopher Parmenides, who believed in "being" and in the static nature of the universe. Both Heraclitus and Parmenides had an influence on Plato, who went on to influence all of Western philosophy.


The main primary source for the life of Heraclitus is the doxographer Diogenes Laërtius; which Charles H. Kahn characterizes as "a tissue of Hellenistic anecdotes, most of them obviously fabricated on the basis of statements in the preserved fragments". Two extant letters between Heraclitus and Darius I, which are quoted by Diogenes Laërtius, are also later forgeries. Kahn states that an accurate description of Heraclitus's life is "almost completely unknown". Although he is traditionally considered to have flourished in the 69th Olympiad (504-501 BCE), Kahn surmises that this date is based on a prior account synchronizing his life with the reign of Darius the Great. This date can be considered "roughly accurate" based on a fragment that references Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus as older contemporaries, which would place him near the end of the sixth century BCE. Although most of the information provided by Laertius is unreliable, Kahn says that the anecdote that Heraclitus relinquished the hereditary title of "king" to his younger brother may at least imply that Heraclitus was the eldest brother of an aristocratic family in Ephesus.In the 6th century BCE, Ephesus, like other cities in Ionia, was tied to both the rise of Lydia under Croesus and to the overthrow of Croesus by Cyrus the Great. Kahn says that Ephesus appears to have cultivated a close relationship with the Achaemenid Empire; during the suppression of the Ionian revolt in 494 BCE, Ephesus was spared and emerged as the dominant Greek city in Ionia. As the eldest son of one of the richest families in the city, Heraclitus appears to have had little sympathy for democracy, but Kahn stresses that this does not imply that he was "an unconditional partisan of the rich." but instead as "withdrawn from competing factions" - similar to Solon of Athens.


Heraclitus is said to have produced a single work on papyrus, which has not survived; however, over 100 fragments of this work survive in quotations by other authors and are catalogued using the Diels–Kranz numbering system. The title is unknown, but many later philosophers in this period refer to this work as On Nature.Diogenes Laertius states that the book was divided into three parts, but Burnet notes that "it is not to be supposed that this division is due to [Heraclitus] himself; all we can infer is that the work fell naturally into these parts when the Stoic commentators took their editions of it in hand. Martin Litchfield West notes that the existing fragments do not give much of an idea of the overall structure., but that the beginning of the discourse can probably be determined, starting with the opening lines, which are quoted by Sextus Empiricus

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Timon of Phlius called Heraclitus "the Riddler" (αἰνικτής; ainiktēs), saying Heraclitus wrote his book "rather unclearly" (asaphesteron); according to Timon, this was intended to allow only the "capable" to attempt it. By the time of Cicero, this epithet became "The Obscure" (ὁ Σκοτεινός; ho Skoteinós) as he had spoken nimis obscurē ("too obscurely") concerning nature and had done so deliberately in order to be misunderstood. Aristotle quotes part of the opening line in the Rhetoric to outline the difficulty in punctuating Heraclitus without ambiguity; he debated whether "forever" applied to "being" or to "prove". Theophrastus says (in Diogenes Laërtius) "some parts of his work [are] half-finished, while other parts [made] a strange medley".According to Diogenes Laërtius, Heraclitus deposited the book in the Artemisium as a dedication. Kahn states: "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". Laërtius comments on the notability of the text, stating: "the book acquired such fame that it produced partisans of his philosophy who were called Heracliteans". Prominent philosophers identified today as Heracliteans include Cratylus and Antisthenes—not to be confused with the cynic Martin Heidegger believed that the thinking of Heraclitus (and Parmenides) was the origin of philosophy and misunderstood by Plato and Aristotle, leading all of Western philosophy astray. Heidegger quotes from passages of On Nature throughout his published lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics, relating the logos of Heraclitus to that of the Christian tradition and comparing Greek philosophy to Christianity as a whole:

Heraclitus's teaching on logos is taken as a predecessor of the logos mentioned in the New Testament, in the prologue to the Gospel of John. The logos is Christ. Now, since Heraclitus already speaks of the logos, the Greeks arrived at the very doorstep of absolute truth, namely, the revealed truth of Christianity.


Diogenes Laërtius summarizes Heraclitus's philosophy, stating; "All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things (τὰ ὅλα ta hola ("the whole")) flows like a stream".


Like the Milesians before him, Thales with water, Anaximander with apeiron, and Anaximenes with air, Heraclitus considered fire as the Arche, the fundamental element that gave rise to the other elements, perhaps because living people are warm. Other scholars see it as a metaphor for change. It is also speculated this shows the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism with its concept of Atar.On Heraclitus using Fire as a new primary substance, Burnet writes:

All this made it necessary for him to seek out a new primary substance. He wanted not merely something from which opposites could be "separated out," but something which of its own nature would pass into everything else, while everything else would pass in turn into it. This he found in Fire, and it is easy to see why, if we consider the phenomenon of combustion. The quantity of fire in a flame burning steadily appears to remain the same, the flame seems to be what we call a "thing." And yet the substance of it is continually changing. It is always passing away in smoke, and its place is always being taken by fresh matter from the fuel that feeds it. This is just what we want. If we regard the world as an "ever-living fire" (fr. 20), we can understand how it is always becoming all things, while all things are always returning to it.

Unity of opposites

On the unity of opposites, Burnet says:The "strife of opposites" is really an "attunement" (armonia). From this it follows that wisdom is not a knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underlying unity of the warring opposites. That this really was the fundamental thought of Herakleitos is stated by Philo. He says: "For that which is made up of both the opposites is one; and, when the one is divided, the opposites are disclosed. Is not this just what the Greeks say their great and much belauded Herakleitos put in the forefront of his philosophy as summing it all up, and boasted of as a new discovery?"

In this union of opposites, of both generation and destruction, Heraclitus called the oppositional processes ἔρις (eris), "strife", and hypothesizes the apparently stable state, δίκη (dikê), "justice", is a harmony of it, which Anaximander described as injustice. Aristotle said Heraclitus disliked Homer because Homer wished that strife would leave the world, which according to Heraclitus would destroy the world; "there would be no harmony without high and low notes, and no animals without male and female, which are opposites".

The One and the Many

On Heraclitus's teachings of the one and many, Burnet writes; "The truth Herakleitos proclaimed was that the world is at once one and many, and that it is just the 'opposite tension' of the opposites that constitutes the unity of the One. It is the same conclusion as that of Pythagoras, though it is put in another way." Burnet also writes about Plato's understanding of Heraclitus:According to Plato, then, Herakleitos taught that reality was at once many and one. This was not meant as a logical principle. The identity which Herakleitos explains as consisting in difference is just that of the primary substance in all its manifestations. This identity had been realised already by the Milesians, but they had found a difficulty in the difference. Anaximander had treated the strife of opposites as an "injustice," and what Herakleitos set himself to show was that, on the contrary, it was the highest justice (fr. 62).

Flux (Panta rhei)

Jonathan Barnes states that "Panta rhei, 'everything flows' is probably the most familiar of Heraclitus' sayings, yet few modern scholars think he said it." Barnes observes that although the exact phrase is not ascribed to Heraclitus until the 6th century by Simplicius of Cilicia, a similar saying representing the same theory, panta chorei, or "everything moves" is ascribed to Heraclitus by Plato in the Cratylus.Since Plato, Heraclitus's theory of Flux has been associated with the metaphor of a flowing river. This fragment from Heraclitus's writings has survived in three different forms:

On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow.

We both step and do not step into the same rivers; we both are and are not

It is not possible to step into the same river twice

Some classicists and professors of ancient philosophy have disputed which of these fragments can truly be attributed to Heraclitus. Professor of ancient philosophy M. M. McCabe has argued that the three statements on rivers should all be read as fragments from a discourse. McCabe suggests reading them as though they were arose in succession. McCabe writes that the three fragments, "could be retained, and arranged in an argumentative sequence". In McCabe's reading of the fragments, Heraclitus can be read as a philosopher capable of sustained argument, rather than just aphorism.

The German classicist and philosopher Karl-Martin Dietz interprets the metaphor as illustrating what is stable, rather than the usual interpretation of illustrating change. "You will not find anything, in which the river remains constant ... Just the fact, that there is a particular river bed, that there is a source and an estuary etc. is something, that stays identical. And this is ... the concept of a river."

God and the soul

By "God", Heraclitus does not mean a single deity as primum movens ("prime mover") of all things or God as Creator, the universe being eternal; he meant the divine as opposed to human, the immortal as opposed to the mortal and the cyclical as opposed to the transient. To him, it is arguably more accurate to speak of "the Divine" and not of "God".Heraclitus regarded the soul as a mixture of fire and water, and that fire is the noble part of the soul and water is the ignoble part, and he considered mastery of one's worldly desires to be a noble pursuit that purified the soul's fire.The phrase Ethos anthropoi daimon ("man's character is [his] fate") attributed to Heraclitus has led to numerous interpretations, and might mean one's luck is related to one's character. The translation of daimon in this context to mean "fate" is disputed; according to Thomas Cooksey, it lends much sense to Heraclitus's observations and conclusions about human nature in general. While the translation as "fate" is generally accepted as in Charles Kahn's "a man's character is his divinity."


Although many of the later Stoics interpreted Heraclitus as having a "logos-doctrine" where the "logos" was a first principle that ran through all things, West observes that Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Sextus Empiricus all make no mention of this doctrine, and concludes that the language and thought are "obviously Stoic" and not attributable to Heraclitus. Kahn stresses that Heraclitus used the word in multiple senses and Guthrie observes that there is no evidence Heraclitus used it in a way that was significantly different from that in which it was used by contemporaneous speakers of Greek. Guthrie considers the Logos as a public fact like a proposition or formula, though he admits that Heraclitus would not have considered these facts as abstract objects or immaterial things.


Ancient philosophy

Parmenides's poem argues change is impossible; he may have been referring to Heraclitus with such passages as "Undiscerning crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same, and all things travel in opposite directions!". Most historians believe Heraclitus was older than Parmenides, whose views constitute a critical response to those of Heraclitus, though the reverse is also possible and it remains a subject of debate. Heraclitus refers to older figures such as Pythagoras and is silent on Parmenides, who possibly refers to Heraclitus.The sophists such as Protagoras may also have been influenced by Heraclitus.Antisthenes (Ancient Greek: Ἀντισθένης) was a writer from ancient Greece who was a disciple of Heraclitus, on whose work he wrote a commentary. This Antisthenes may be the same as the one who wrote a work on the succession of the Greek philosophers (αἱ τῶν φιλοσόφων διαδοχαί), which is often referenced by Diogenes Laërtius in his own work; however, this remains unclear, and Laërtius may have been referring to the historian Antisthenes of Rhodes instead, who may have also been the same Antisthenes mentioned by Phlegon of Tralles.Plato is the most famous philosopher who tried to reconcile Heraclitus and Parmenides; through Plato, both of these figures influenced virtually all subsequent Western philosophy. According to Aristotle, Plato knew of the teachings of Heraclitus through his student Cratylus, who went a step beyond his master's doctrine and said one cannot step into the same river once. Plato presented Cratylus as a linguistic naturalist, one who believes names must apply naturally to their objects. According to Aristotle, Cratylus took the view nothing can be said about the ever-changing world and "ended by thinking that one need not say anything, and only moved his finger". Cratylus may have thought continuous change warrants skepticism because one cannot define a thing that does not have a permanent nature.

The Stoics believed major tenets of their philosophy derived from the thought of Heraclitus, which is most evident in the writings of 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, which Long concludes are "modifications of Heraclitus". Heraclitus states, "We should not act and speak like children of our parents", which Marcus Aurelius interpreted to mean one should not simply accept what others believe. Marcus Aurelius understood the Logos as "the account which governs everything", but Burnet cautions that these modifications of Heraclitus in the Stoic fragments make it harder to use the fragments to interpret Heraclitus himself, as the Stoics ascribed their own interpretations of terms like "logos" and "ekpyrosis" to Heraclitus. The Cynics were also influenced by Heraclitus, attributing several of the later Cynic epistles to his authorship.Aenesidemus, one of the major ancient Pyrrhonist philosophers, claimed in a now-lost work that Pyrrhonism was a way to Heraclitean philosophy because Pyrrhonist practice helps one to see how opposites appear to be the case about the same thing. Once one sees this, it leads to understanding the Heraclitean view of opposites being the case about the same thing. A later Pyrrhonist philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, disagreed, arguing opposites' appearing to be the case about the same thing is not a dogma of the Pyrrhonists but a matter occurring to the Pyrrhonists, to the other philosophers, and to all of humanity.Hippolytus of Rome, one of the early Church Fathers of the Christian Church identified Heraclitus along with the other Pre-Socratics and Academics as sources of heresy, and identified the logos as meaning the Christian "Word of God", such as in John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was God"; however, modern scholars such as John Burnet viewed the relationship between Heraclitean logos and Johannine logos as fallacious, saying; "the Johannine doctrine of the logos has nothing to do with Herakleitos or with anything at all in Greek philosophy, but comes from the Hebrew Wisdom literature".The works of dozens of writers in hundreds of pages have survived; all of them mentioned the Christian form of the Logos. German physicist and philosopher Max Bernard Weinstein classed Hippolytus's view as a predecessor of pandeism. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr took a more positive view of Heraclitus. In his First Apology, he said both Socrates and Heraclitus were Christians before Christ: "those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them".


Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.

Michel de Montaigne proposed two archetypical views of human affairs based on Heraclitus and Democritus, selecting Democritus's for himself.G. W. F. Hegel gave Heraclitus high praise; according to him, "the origin of philosophy is to be dated from Heraclitus". He attributed dialectics to Heraclitus rather than, as Aristotle did, to Zeno of Elea, saying; "There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic".Friedrich Nietzsche saw Heraclitus as a confident opposition to Anaximander's pessimism. and interpreted Heraclitus as finding frivolity of a child in both man and God; he summarized Heraclitus's thought as "And as the child and the artist plays, so too plays the ever living fire, it builds up and tears down, in innocence—such is the game eternity plays with itself".Carl Jung wrote that Heraclitus had "discovered the most marvellous of all psychological laws: the regulative function of opposites ... by which he meant that sooner or later everything runs into its opposite". Jung adopted this law, called enantiodromia, into his analytical psychology. He related it with Chinese classics, stating; "If the Western world had followed his lead, we would all be Chinese in our viewpoint instead of Christian. We can think of Heraclitus as making the switch between the East and the West."Bertrand Russell interpreted Heraclitus as a kind of proto-empiricist; this view is supported by some fragments W. K. C. Guthrie disputes this interpretation, citing "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men who have barbarian souls".Martin Heidegger was also influenced by Heraclitus, as seen in his Introduction to Metaphysics. According to Heidegger; "In Heraclitus, to whom is ascribed the doctrine of becoming as diametrically opposed to Parmenides's doctrine of being, says the same as Parmenides".

Depictions in art

Heraclitus has been portrayed several times in western art, especially as the "weeping philosopher" alongside Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher" part of the weeping and laughing philosopher motif. This pairing, which may have originated with the Cynic philosopher Menippus, generally references their reaction to the folly of mankind.Heraclitus also appears in Raphael's School of Athens, which was painted in around 1510. Raphael depicted Michelangelo as Heraclitus; he and Diogenes of Sinope are the only men to sit alone in the painting. Heraclitus seems to write a poem, though he also looks away from his pen and paper. Salvator Rosa also painted Democritus and Heraclitus, as did Luca Giordano, together and separately in the 1650s. Giuseppe Torretti sculpted busts of the same duo in 1705. Giuseppe Antonio Petrini painted "Weeping Heraclitus" circa 1750.




Ancient Primary Sources





Modern Criticism

Montaigne, Michel. Democritus and Heraclitus – via Wikisource.

G.W.F. Hegel (1831). "Heraclitus". Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Retrieved 9 April 2022.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1909). "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks". In Mügge, Maximilian A.; Levy, Oscar; Haussmann, William A.; Kennedy, J. M. (John McFarland); Ludovici, Anthony Mario; Collins, Adrian; Zimmern, Helen (eds.). The complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Vol. 2. [Edinburgh, London, T. N. Foulis.

Heidegger, Martin; Fink, Eugen; Seibert, Charles H. (1993). Heraclitus Seminar. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-8101-1067-0.. Transcript of seminar in which two German philosophers analyze and discuss Heraclitus's texts.

Translations with Commentary on the Fragments

Kahn, Charles H. (1979). The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-21883-2.

Kirk, G. S. (1954). Heraclitus, the Cosmic Fragments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wheelwright, Philip (1959). Heraclitus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wright, M. R. (1985). The Presocratics: The main Fragments in Greek with Introduction, Commentary and Appendix Containing Text and Translation of Aristotle on the Presocratics. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press. ISBN 978-0-86292-079-1.

Modern Scholarship

Barnes, Jonathan (1982). "The Natural Philosophy of Heraclitus". The Presocratic Philosophers. London & New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 43–62. ISBN 978-0-415-05079-1.

Burnet, John (1892). "Heraclitus". Early Greek Philosophy. A. and C. Black. Retrieved 5 March 2022.

Graham, D. W. (2008). "Heraclitus: Flux, Order, and Knowledge". In Curd, P.; Graham, D. W. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 169–188. ISBN 978-0-19-514687-5.

Graham, D. W. (2002). "Heraclitus and Parmenides". In Caston, V.; Graham, D. W. (eds.). Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 27–44. ISBN 978-0-7546-0502-7.

Graham, Daniel W. (2019). "Heraclitus". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The editors. Retrieved 2013-08-25.

Guthrie, W. K. C. (1962). A History of Greek Philosophy: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hussey, Edward (1972). The Presocratics. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0684131188.

Long, A. A. (2001). Stoic Studies. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22974-7.

West, Martin L. (1971). Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Clarendon Press. Retrieved 6 March 2022. Chapters 4-6 deal with Heraclitus

Further reading

McCabe, Mary Margaret (2015-05-01), "Platonic Conversations", Oxford University Press, pp. 1–31, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198732884.003.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-873288-4, retrieved 2021-07-12 {{citation}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)

Dilcher, Roman (1995). Studies in Heraclitus. Hildesheim: Olms. ISBN 978-3-487-09986-6.

Kirk, G. S.; Raven, J. E. (1957). The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McKirahan, R. D. (2011). Philosophy before Socrates, An Introduction With Text and Commentary. Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 978-1-60384-183-2.

Mourelatos, Alexander, ed. (1993). The Pre-Socratics : a collection of critical essays (Rev. ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-02088-4.

Naddaf, Gerard (2005). The Greek Concept of Nature. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791463734.

Schofield, Malcolm; Nussbaum, Martha Craven, eds. (1982). Language and logos : studies in ancient Greek philosophy presented to G. E. L. Owen. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. ISBN 978-0-521-23640-9.

Heraclitus; Haxton (translator), Brooks; Hillman (Forward), James (2001). Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. New York: Viking (The Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam, Inc.). ISBN 978-0-670-89195-5. {{cite book}}: |last2= has generic name (help). Parallel Greek & English

External links

Quotations related to Heraclitus at Wikiquote

Media related to Heraclitus at Wikimedia Commons

Stamatellos, Giannis. "Heraclitus of Ephesus: Life and Work". Retrieved 2007-10-12.

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