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Brief Lives

Heraclitus (c. 500 BC)

Harry Keith lets flow a stream of ideas about permanence and change.

If you’ve never read Heraclitus’s book, then you share something in common with every modern scholar of his work: we only have fragments. Unfortunately, so little of his writing survives that it is difficult to piece together the life and opinions of this intriguing philosopher. This is what makes studying him partly so easy, and partly so difficult: you can read all the surviving fragments in an hour, then puzzle over them for the rest of your life.

We may never understand Heraclitus’s philosophy in detail, but I hope by the end of this article to introduce you to some of the themes that survive, to what recent(ish) philosophers have said about them, and to what we can learn from them today.

Heraclitus was known as ‘The weeping philosopher’. Everything flows!
Painting by Abraham Janssens, 1601-2


Most of what we know about Heraclitus’s life comes from the biographer of philosophers Diogenes Laertius (not to be confused with the other Diogenes, the urn-dwelling Cynic) who wrote in around 225 AD, more than seven hundred years after Heraclitus’s time. Laertius was notorious for regurgitating without critical reflection previous sources, ranging from comic poems, to earlier biographies, to that ever-popular source ‘according to some’. Therefore take the following with a large pinch of Ionian sea salt.

Heraclitus was born in the Greek city-state of Ephesus, on the coast of modern day Turkey, and he flourished around 500 BC, which is about thirty years before Socrates was born. The surviving anecdotes of his life are all rather whacky: the picture we’re left with is of an arrogant eccentric who hated common wisdom and the authorities of his time to the point of self-isolation. Despite being born in Ephesus, he seems very critical of the city. After his friend Hermodorus was exiled from it, he claimed that the Ephesians all deserved to die to a man, and ought to leave the city to the young.

Another anecdote recalls the occasion of him being asked to make laws for the city. Scornful of their constitution, he instead left for the Temple of Artemis, where he played dice with children. When questioned about this behaviour, he retorted that it was better to play with children than to play at politics with the city’s rulers. The Temple of Artemis, later known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was also where he deposited his only work, On Nature. It was written in riddles – supposedly so the uneducated or unintelligent would be unable to understand it.

Near the end of his life, he supposedly left Ephesus for a life in the mountains, living off plants. After contracting dropsy, a severe medical condition, he returned to seek medical help. In a characteristically cryptic turn of phrase, he asked the doctors if they could “turn a rainstorm into a drought.” They naturally had no clue what he meant; and so he tried to cure himself – by burying himself in dung in order to heat himself up. There he died. (I think here it’s useful to remind readers that one ought not to laugh at the deaths of philosophers.)


Most contemporaries of Heraclitus seemed to view his contributions as brilliant but somewhat incomprehensible, difficult to read, and the work of a ‘riddler’. So if you don’t understand him, you share something in common with pretty much everyone in history, bar (hopefully) himself.

One theme that does crop up again and again in what survives, is the ‘unity of opposites’. Essentially, a common form of some fragments of his writing involves Heraclitus giving two seemingly opposite concepts and claiming that they’re the same. For example: “The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for men, undrinkable and death-dealing” (All quotations are from the excellent Early Greek Philosophy, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 2001). So from different perspectives, the sea is both pure and polluted. Similarly: “the path up and the path down is the same”; and, more abstractly, “Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things.”

It’s worth noting that not all philosophers read these passages in the same way. And exactly what kind of way these opposites are the same is also the subject of some debate. For the sea and for the path, the idea seems similar: that from different perspectives, the same thing can have different qualities. For the hiker at the bottom of the mountain, the path on the mountain is the path up. For the hiker at the top, it’s the path down. Sea water is delicious for the fish, for us not so much. But what does “from all things one and from one all things” mean? This can be seen as a unity claim: the universe, as a whole, is one thing. But the same one universe is several different things, in all its constituent parts (planets, black holes, coffee, you). Perhaps Heraclitus is saying that the properties a thing has depend on how one looks at it; be it oneness and multitude, or drinkability and the lack of. This kind of statement seems to be why both Aristotle and Plato viewed Heraclitus’s philosophy as self-contradictory.


Another, much-debated idea of Heraclitus is the flux principle. (Flux just means ‘change’, but the ‘change principle’ doesn’t sound as cool, so we use ‘flux’ instead.) “ Panta chorei”, Heraclitus said: “Everything moves.”

In fact, most people’s opinion on Heraclitus’s view here comes from one quotation, known as the river fragment. Ever heard the saying “You can’t step into the same river twice”? That was Heraclitus – or at least it might have been, because another source quotes his saying as “On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow”, which for nit-pickers has very different implications to the other phrase.

Whichever version Heraclitus actually wrote, what did he mean by it? Almost everyone, Plato included, assumes it’s a metaphor (this makes sense: he was ‘the riddler’, after all), the idea being that once you’ve stepped back into the river, the water is now different, so you’re not really stepping in the ‘same’ river; and so it is with everything else: people change, and grow old; the world shifts; everything is characterised by constant change. It is also interesting to note the similarity with the Buddhist concept of anicca articulated by Gautama Buddha at around the same time, which one can sum up as ‘nothing is permanent’.

But does this principle apply to everything, at all times, in every respect? If I rob a bank, then say, “But you can’t convict me, I was a different person at the time,” I’m not likely to evade jail.

Some philosophers, like Daniel Graham, argue for a ‘limited flux’ doctrine. At a base level yes, all things change, but it is through constant change that real, permanent objects emerge. For this Graham relies on the second variation of the river fragment: ‘in the same rivers, different and different waters flow’ – the river stays the same, despite having different waters at any two times. In fact, the river needs different waters to stay the same river: if the water stayed still, it wouldn’t be a river, but a lake! Thus changing things like people, objects, etc can exist, even though at a base level, their constituents are always changing. Within ten years, almost every cell in your body will be replaced; but you’re still you. Of course, for those who prefer a strict reading of the first variation of the river fragment (‘It’s impossible to step into the same river twice’), there’s no such thing as ‘the same river’. There is no such thing as a person persisting over time, either. Indeed, there is no permanence. Ultimately, what view you take depends on which variation of the fragment you think makes most sense. Which do you think makes the most sense?


What can we learn from this famously contradictory, obscure, and abstract philosopher? Quite a bit, I think. Life today, just as it was in Heraclitus’s time, is full of contradictions. Here we are, bundles of changing cells and flowing fluids, growing and changing, but always, somehow, staying the same person. Our attitudes change too: a politician or law may seem morally righteous to us one day, deplorable and evil the next. A partner seems to us flawless one day, detestable the next. For Heraclitus, perhaps they’re both!

Heraclitus urges us to move past black and white – absolute truth and absolute falsity – to embrace the changing and contradictory nature of human experience. For, says Heraclitus, “It is wise to agree that all things are one.”

© Harry Keith 2024

Harry Keith is a Philosophy undergraduate at the University of Warwick. He lives in Perthshire and London.

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