AskDefine | Define Heraclitus

Dictionary Definition

Heraclitus n : a presocratic Greek philosopher who said that fire is the origin of all things and that permanence is an illusion as all things are in perpetual flux (circa 500 BC)

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Proper noun

  1. An ancient Greek philosopher.



Extensive Definition

Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ancient Greek: — , English Heraclitus the Ephesian) (ca. 535475 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of Ephesus, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor.
Heraclitus is known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, and that the Logos is the fundamental order of all.

Ancient characterizations

The obscure

At some time in antiquity he acquired an 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 — ) 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 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. 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: Subsequently they were considered an indispensable feature of philosophic landscapes. Montaigne proposed two archetypical views of human affairs based on them, selecting Democritus' for himself. The weeping philosopher makes an appearance in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Donato Bramante painted a fresco, "Democritus and Heraclitus", in Casa Panigarola in Milan. And so on.

The naturalist

Diogenes says that the book attributed to Heraclitus was On Nature (peri phuseōs). 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 physicus was obscure? ... Heraclitus the obscure certainly was.If phusis is nature, then phusikos 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,
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, 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 self-examination then may only be a program of objective inquiry.


Diogenes relates that Heraclitus had a poor opinion of human affairs. 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. 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." The word rhei, adopted by rhe-o-logy, is simply the Greek word for "to stream."
The closest quote from Heraclitus is provided by Plato: 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: 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: "We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not."
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.
ek tōn diapherontōn kallistēn harmonian"out of discord comes the fairest harmony."

Hodos ano kato, "the way up and the way down"

In 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 , "turnings of fire," first into sea, then half of sea to earth and half to rarified 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"or again:This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out. 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.
Plato argues against Heraclitus as follows: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.


Aristotle brings his logic to bear against Heraclitus in Metaphysics invoking the identity laws:... 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 dozens of 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 its forced replacement by Christianity under Justinian I. Stoic writings include hundreds of pages.
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." 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 known 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. detail Christ the Logos 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.

Church fathers

The church fathers were the leaders of the Christian church during its first five centuries of existence, roughly contemporaneous to stoicism under the Roman Empire. The works of dozens of writers in hundreds of pages have survived. All of them had something to say about the Christian form of the logos. From them chiefly the modern world receives its Heraclitean fragments, mainly because the church found it necessary to discriminate between the Christian logos and that of Heraclitus as part of its ideological distancing from paganism. The necessity to convert by defeating paganism was of paramount importance. Hippolytus of Rome therefore identifies Heraclitus along with the other pre-Socratics (and academics) as sources of heresy. Church use of the methods and conclusions of ancient philosophy as such was as yet far in the future, even though many were converted philosophers.
In Refutation of All Heresies Hippolytus says: "What the blasphemous folly is of Noetus, and that he devoted himself to the tenets of Heraclitus the Obscure, not to those of Christ." Hippolytus then goes on to present the inscrutable DK B67: "God (theos) is day and night, winter and summer, ... but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savor of each." The fragment seems to support pantheism if taken literally.
Hippolytus condemns the obscurity of it. He cannot accuse Heraclitus of being a heretic so he says instead: "Did not (Heraclitus) the Obscure anticipate Noetus in framing a system ...?" The apparent pantheist deity of Heraclitus (if that is what DK B67 means) must be equal to the union of opposites and therefore must be corporeal and incorporeal, divine and not-divine, dead and alive, etc., and the Trinity can only be reached by some sort of illusory shape-shifting.


Hegel asserted that in Heraclitus he had an antecedent for his logic: "... there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my logic." The only valid fragment he cites as antecedent is Dk B49a, to which he gives the interpretation:Sein und Nichts sei dasselbeBeing and non-being are the same. Heraclitus does not form any abstract nouns from his ordinary use of "to be" and "to become" and in that fragment seems to be opposing any identity A to any other identity B, C, etc., which is not-A. Hegel, however, interprets not-A as not existing at all, not nothing at all, which cannot be conceived, but indeterminate or "pure" being without particularity or specificity. Pure being is in fact a substrate, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out from interpretations of Heraclitus, but even if present is not the main gist of his thought.
The Hegelian substrate is God thinking; that is, Hegel (with others) believed that reality is being thought by God. Since man's thought is the image of God's thought, God is not ineffable (so incomprehensible as to be unutterable) but can be understood by an analysis of thought. Just as man continually corrects his concepts of reality by holding a dialectic so God improves limited being by conducting a historical dialectic. details Dialectic For his god Hegel does not take the logos of Heraclitus but refers rather to the nous of Anaxagoras, although he may well have regarded them the same, as he continues to refer to god's plan, which is identical to God. Whatever the nous thinks at any time is actual substance and is identical to limited being, but more remains to be thought in the substrate of non-being, which is identical to pure or unlimited thought.
The universe is therefore a combination of being, the particular and specific, and non-being, the same without the limitations. The specific is never complete in itself but to find completion must be continually replaced by other specifics formed from non-being. The essential nature of being is that it is free "in itself"; that is, it does not depend on anything else, such as matter, for its being. The limitations represent fetters, which it must constantly be casting off in favor of more freedom.
Although he began with commentary on the Christian religion and often expresses the view that he is one, his ideas of god are not at home among the Christians. He was adopted instead by the Marxist-Leninists, who, stripping away the concepts of divinity, styled what was left dialectical materialism, many seeing an origin in Heraclitus.


Funded by the Gifford endowment Alfred North Whitehead wrote voluminously using concise abstract nouns and phrases given special and innovated meanings that cannot be understood as ordinary English. He believed the starting point of his philosophy was the flux of Heraclitus modified and supplemented by the thought of Aristotle but he does have an undefined: the referent of the English word process. Although he expands at great length on the concept he nowhere attempts to define what it is.
Subsequent historians of philosophy therefore coined the term process philosophy to comprise Whitehead's metaphysics and whatever other thought seemed analogous including that of Heraclitus. The accuracy of their characterization remains to be baptized by time and criticism. Whitehead did not see himself as a process philosopher but believed he was updating Heraclitus in the light of the mathematics and mathematical philosophers of his time. This article cannot begin to summarize all of Whitehead's thought and therefore concentrates on the key lecture reproduced in Process and Reality.
Using "all things flow" as the starting point for a "metaphysics of 'flux'", which he sees as implicit to various degrees in the philosophies of Locke, Hume and Kant (but not Hegel), Whitehead does not present it as a mutually exclusive alternative to the "metaphysics of 'substance'" but as complementary. The latter "spatializes the universe" (according to Bergson) but this is "the shortest route to a clear-cut philosophy" such as the Analytic Geometry of Descartes. The substance metaphysics is less of interest to Whitehead. Proclaiming that Newton "brusquely ordered fluency back into the world" with his Theory of Fluxions (the derivatives of differential calculus) Whitehead launches into an innovative elaboration of Heraclitus' upward-downward way, relying especially on Aristotle's theory of act and potency.
The way becomes the simultaneous occurrence of two processes: concrescence (in place of the upward) and transition (in place of the downward). The former is the unification of "particular existents" into new particular existents also termed "actual occasions" or "actual entities." In this process the final cause of the new unity is predominant. Transition is the "perishing of the process" (concrescence) in such a way as to leave the new existent as an "original element" of future new unities. This latter process is the "vehicle of the efficient causes" and expresses the "immortal past."
As in Heraclitus, a concrescence never reaches the unity of its final cause, hence Whitehead uses the term "presupposed actual occasions", which are "falsifications." An object therefore is identified with its concrescence; there is no other. The process of transforming "alien" entities into "data" for a new concrescence is termed a "feeling." Whitehead thus builds up statements that are scarcely less obscure, if at all, than those of Heraclitus: "... an actual occasion is a concrescence effected by a process of feelings."
In contrast to the becoming of Aristotle, a concrescence never results in the static act toward which it tends, but it does reach a "culmination" in which "all indetermination as to the realization of possibilities has been eliminated." This "evaporation of all indetermination" is the "satisfaction" of the feeling.
To explain the passage of the actual moment through time (the upward-downward way) Whitehead thus resorts to a unique blend of Heraclitus' flow and Aristotle's act and potency. The potency of Aristotle is the substrate in which all possibility resides, from which comes the actual, or determinate and specifically empowered, beings by a process called "to become." Whitehead refers to the potency under the aegis of the future, or yet to come, as "reality." The reduction of the potential to the actual occurs in two processes: macroscopic, "the transition from attained actuality to actuality in attainment" and microscopic (concrescence), the "conversion of conditions which are merely real into determinate actualities." The past is "a nexus of actuality", which grows into what is currently the future. In summary:The community of actual things is an organism; but it is not a static organism. It is an incompletion in process of production.



  • The Presocratic Philosophers [Revised Edition]
  • Early Greek Philosophy 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).
  • Herakleitos and Diogenes Complete fragments of Heraclitus in English.
  • Heraclitus Seminar . Transcript of seminar in which two German philosophers analyze and discuss Heraclitus' texts.
  • Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus . Parallel Greek & English.
  • Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in Ten Books}} Book IX, Chapter 1, Heraclitus.
  • Essay on the flux and fire philosophy of Heraclitus.
  • 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.
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