HERACLITUS (c. 540-480 B.C.)


Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, of an aristocratic family (possibly a descendant of Androculs, founder of Ephesus), but turned his back on political life and resigned his 'kingship' to his brother (this entitled him to certain privileges such as front seats at the games). He was the last of the great Ionian philosophers.

He was often referred to as "the riddler" or "the obscure one", due to the cryptic nature of his writings, as well as "the mocker" or "the reviler of the mob", due to his contempt for those who were not enlightened. (In return, philosophers referred to him as "the weeping philosopher", a humorous reference to his claim that all things flow like rivers. Furthermore, there is a story that his riddling with his doctors when he had dropsy ("change a rainstorm to a drought") had the result that they did not help him.) He was certainly familiar with the ideas of Pythagoras and Xenophanes.

He wrote a book, and we have what appears to be a fragment from its introduction, in Ionian style; and he may have placed it in the temple of Artemis. However, what views of his we have may stem from a collection of his sayings put together by his followers. He himself seems to have had little faith in the ability of others to understand him -- he once compared what he said to the riddles of the Oracle at Delphi. He did preach that one ought to live in accordance with Nature, which became the doctrine of the later Stoic philosophers.


Biographical Fragments


1. "Heraclitus son of Bloson (or, according to some, of Herakon) of Ephesus. The man was in his prime [acme] in the 69th Olympiad. He grew up to be exceptionally haughty and supercilious, as is clear also from his book, in which he says: "Learning of many things does not teach intelligence; if so it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus." ... Finally he became a misanthrope, withdrew from the world, and lived in the mountains feeing on grasses and plants. However, having fallen in this way into a dropsy he came down to town and asked the doctors in a riddle if they could make a drought out of rainy weather. When they did not understand he buried himself in a cow-stall, expecting that the dropsy would be evaporated off by the heat of the manure; but even so he failed to effect anything, and ended his life at the age of sixty."

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.1)


2. "Antisthenes in his Successions quotes as a sign of his [Heraclitus's] arrogance that he resigned the hereditary 'kingship' to his brother."

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.6)


3. "riddler"

-- Timon of Phlius, 3rd century B.C. satirist


4. "obscurus"

-- Cicero, (106-43 B.C.) De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum


5. "The book said to be his is called "On Nature", from its chief content, and is divided into three discourses: On the Universe, Politics, Theology. He dedicated it and placed it in the temple of Artemis, as some say, having purposely written it rather obscurely so that only those of rank and influence should have access to it, and it should not be easily despised by the populace..."

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.5)





1. "Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep."

-- Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (7.132)


2. "For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding."

-- Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (7.133)



Contempt for the Many


1. "The best renounce all for one thing, the eternal fame of mortals, but the many stuff themselves like cattle."

-- Clement, Miscellanies (5.59.4)


2. "They are at odds with the logos, with which above all they are in continuous contact, and the things they meet every day appear strange to them."

-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.46)


3. 'What understanding or intelligence have they? They put their trust in popular bards and take the mob for their teacher, unaware that most people are bad, and few are good.'

-- Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Alcibiades I (p. 117)


4. 'A fool is excited by every word [logos].'

-- Plutarch, Listening to Lectures (40f-41a)


5. 'Of all those who accounts [logoi] I have heard, no one reaches the point of recognizing that that which is wise is set apart from all.'

-- Stobaeus, Selections (3.1.174)


Contempt for Predecessors


1. 'Much learning does not teach insight. Otherwise it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and moreover Xenophanes and Hecataeus.'

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.1)


2. 'Heraclitus said that Homer deserved to be expelled from the contests and flogged, and Archilochus likewise.'

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.1)



Road to Understanding


1. 'All that can be seen, heard, experienced -- these are what I prefer.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.9.5)


2. 'Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to people if they have barbarian souls.'

-- Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (7.126)


3. 'Uncomprehending when they have heard, they are like the deaf. The saying describes them: though present they are absent.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (5.115.3)


4. 'One ought not to act and speak like people asleep.'

-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.46)


5. 'Human nature has no insight, but divine nature has it.'

-- Origen, Against Celsus (6.12)


6. 'A man is called infantile by a divinity as a child is by a man.'

-- Origen, Against Celsus (6.12)


7. 'It belongs to all people to know themselves and to think rightly.'

-- Stobaeus, Selections (3.5.6)


8. 'I searched myself.'

-- Plutarch, Against Colotes (1118c)


9. 'Men who are lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into many things indeed.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (5.140.5)


10. 'Unless he hopes for the unhoped for, he will not find it, since it is not to be hunted out and is impassable.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (2.17.4)


11. "Those who seek gold dig up much earth but find little." --- Clement Miscellanies (4.4.2)


12. "Right thinking is the greatest excellence, and wisdom is to speak the truth and act in accordance with nature, while paying attention to it."

-- Stobaeus, Selections (3.1.178)


13. 'Wisdom is one thing, to be skilled in true judgment, how all things are steered through all things.'

-- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (9.1)



'All Things are One'


1. "Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one."

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.9.1)



2. "Things taken together are whole and not whole, <something which is> being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity; and out of a unity all things."

-- Aristotle, On the World (5.396b20)


'Unity of Opposites' = same things have opposite qualities


(a) Same thing produces opposite effects

1. 'The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.5)


2. 'Pigs rejoice in mud more than pure water.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (1.2.2)


3. 'It seems that each animal has its own pleasure... The pleasures of horses, dogs and men are different -- so Heraclitus says that donkeys would prefer rubbish to gold (for food is more pleasing to donkeys than gold).'

-- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (10.5 1176a7)



(b) Different aspects of the same thing justify opposite descriptions

1. 'Physicians who cut and burn complain that they receive no worthy pay, although they do these things.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.3)


2. 'The track of writing is straight and crooked.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.3)


3. 'The road up and the road down are one and the same.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.3)


4. 'Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.'

-- Arius Didymus (Fr. 39.2)   [ most likely original ]


5. '[It is not possible to step twice into the same river] ... It scatters and again comes together, and approaches and recedes.'

-- Plutarch, On the E at Delphi (392b)


6. "We step into and we do not step into the same rivers. We are and we are not."

-- Heraclitus, Homeric Questions 24 Oelmann (Schleiermacher, fr. 72))


7. 'The beginning and the end are common on the circumference of a circle.'

-- Porphyry, Notes on Homer (On Iliad 24.200))


8. 'The name of the bow [bios] is life [bios], but its work is death.'

-- Etymologicum Magnum, sv bios = 22b48)



(c) Things are possible only because of their opposites

1. "Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger satiety, waeriness rest."

-- Stobaeus, Selections (3.1.178)




(d) Certain opposites are connected because they succeed each other


1. "Cold things grow hot, a hot thing cold, a moist thing withers, a parched thing is wetted."

-- John Tzetzes, Notes on the Iliad (p. 126)


2. 'The same thing is both living and dead, and the waking and the sleeping, and young and old; for these things transformed are those, and those transformed back again are these.'

-- pseudo-Plutarch, Consolation to Apollonius (106e)


3. 'Most men's teacher is Hesiod. They are sure he knew most things a man who could not recognize day and night; for they are one.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation 9.10.2




1. "God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger, but changes the way <fire> when mingled with perfumes, is named according to the scent of each."

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.8)



The Unity is Hidden

 1. 'An unapparent connection is stronger than an apparent one.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.9.5)


2. 'Nature loves to hide.'

-- Themistius, Orations (5.69b)


3. 'The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign.'

-- Plutarch, On the Pythian Oracle 404d


Opposite Tensions Ensure This Coherence, Unity, Balance


1. 'They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.9.2)



There Needs to Be Tensions between Opposites -- 'strife'


1. 'It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity.'

-- Origen, Against Celsus (6.42)


2. 'War is the father of all and king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans; some he makes slaves, others free.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.9.4)


3. 'It is law, too, to obey the counsel of one.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (5.155.2)


4. 'Thunderbolt steers all things.'

-- Hippolytus, Refutation (9.10.7)


5. 'To God all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some unjust and others just.'

-- Porphry, Notes on Homer (On Iliad 4.4))


6. 'Heraclitus rebukes the author of the line 'Would that strife might be destroyed from among gods and men': for there would be no musical scale unless high and low existed, nor living creatures without female and male, which are opposite.'

-- Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics (1235a25)


7. 'It is not good for men to get all that they want. Sickness makes health sweet and good, hunger plenty, weariness rest.'

-- Stobaeus, Selections (3.1.176)



1. 'The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-lasting fire being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.'

-- Clement, Miscellanies (5.103.6)


2. 'All things are an exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.'

-- Plutarch, On the E at Delphi (338d-e)


3. 'Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, and earth that of water.'

--Maximus of Tyre (41.4)




1. There is a single logos ('account', 'word', and 'reason') to which everyone should listen, although most are not able to understand this logos. This logos is an account of reality, the reason for things being the way that they are, the fundamental principle of the world.

2. Heraclitus has access to this all-important truth about the constitution of the world of which men are a part, and is trying vainly to propagate it. The great majority fail to recognize this truth, which is 'common', that is, it is valid for all things and accessible to all people, if only they use their observation and understanding.

3. The logos is the unifying formula of all things, or the proportionate method of arrangement of all things: their structural plan both individual and in sum.

4. The effect of the arrangement of all things according to a common plan or measure is that all things, although apparently plural and discrete, are really united in a coherent complex of which men themselves are part.

5. Comprehension of this (4) is necessary for the adequate enactment of one's own life.

6. There are four different kinds of connection between evident opposites (the 'Unity of Opposites'):

(a) The same thing produces opposite effects (water: fish & men = life vs. death)

(b) Different aspects of the same thing justify opposite descriptions (stairs: up and down; cutting: good and bad)

(c) Good things are possible only because of bad things (health and sickness, satiety and hunger, rest and weariness)

(d) Opposites are stages in a single invariable process (waking and sleeping; young and old; night and day)

What these different connections between opposites show is that there is never any absolute division of opposite from opposite. If you were to remove something's (e.g., health, life) opposite (i.e., disease, death), then you would not actually have it (i.e., health, life) any longer.

7. Each pair of opposites thus forms a unity as well as a plurality. So 'things taken together' are described in one sense as 'wholes', that is forming one continuum, and in another sense as 'not wholes', as single components.

8. Every opposite can be expressed in terms of god, which is either imminent in all things or is the sum total of all things. Just because peace is divine it does not follow that war is not equally divine, is not equally permeated by the directive and unifying constituent which is on occasions equated with the whole ordered cosmos.

9. God is not essentially different from the Logos.

10. The Logos is, among other things, the constituent of things that makes them opposed, and which ensures that the change between opposites will be proportional and balanced overall. God is then the common connecting element in all extremes, just as fire is the common element of different vapors (they were conceived as a compound of fire with different kinds of measure.)

11. While each separate pair of opposites forms a single continuum, the several continua, also, are connected with each other, though in a different manner. Thus the total plurality of things forms a single, coherent, determinable complex -- a unity.

12. This unity is hidden. The unseen unity of opposites is in fact stronger than other more obvious types of connection.

13. This unity depends upon a balanced reaction between opposites. There is a connection, or means of joining, through opposite tensions, which ensures this coherence: just as the tension of the strings is balanced by the tension of the arms of the lyre, and there is a coherent, unified, stable and efficient complex.

14. If this balance was not maintained, then the unity and coherence of the world would cease (just as if the tension of the arms of the the lyre exceeded the tension of the strings, the lyre would be destroyed).

15. The total balance in the universe can only be maintained if change in one direction eventually leads to change in another, that is, if there is 'strife' or 'war' between opposites, i.e. action and reaction between opposites.

16. The river is a metaphor for the kind of unity that depends on the preservation of measure and balance in change. The meaning is not that every single thing must be like a river, but rather that a complex whole, like the world, might remain 'the same' while its constituent parts are for ever changing. The unity of the river as a whole is dependent upon the regularity of the flux of its constituent waters. It is a metaphor for the balance of constituents in the world.

17. The world is an ever-living or eternal fire, parts of which are always extinguished to form the two other main world-masses, sea and earth. Changes between fire, sea and earth balance each other; pure, or etherial, fire has a directive capacity. (Note: no coming-into-being of the world, it is eternal).

18. Pure cosmic fire, or ether, is the brilliant fiery stuff which fills the shining sky and surrounds the world. It has a directive capacity. All fire, by the regularity with which it absorbs fuel and emits smoke, while maintaining a kind of stability between them, patently embodies the rule of measure in change which inheres in the world process. It is the very constituent of things that actively determines their structure and behavior -- which ensures not only the opposition of opposites, but also their unity through strife.

19. The cosmos consists, broadly, of the masses of earth, and sea, surrounded by fire or ether. The fire is the motive point of the cosmological processes. From the fire comes rain, which nourishes the sea, and is replenished by the evaporation ascending from the sea.

20. The heavenly bodies are bowls of fire, nourished by exhalations from the sea; astronomical events, too, have their measures.

21. Wisdom consists in understanding the way the world works.

22. The soul is composed of fire: it comes from, and turns into, moisture, total absorption by which is death for it. The soul-fire is related to the world-fire.

23. Waking, sleeping and death are related to the degree of fieriness in the soul. In sleep the soul is partly cut off from the world-fire, and so decreases in activity.

24. Virtuous souls do not become water on the death of the body, but survive to join, eventually, the cosmic fire.

25. The uses of conventional religion are foolish and illogical, although on occasion they accidentally point to the truth.



The Presocratic Philosophers, G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield (2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

'Ancient Greek Philosophy I: The Pre-Socratics and Plato', Christopher Janaway, in Philosophy 1: A Guide Through the Subject, ed. A. C. Grayling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 336-397.

'Heraclitus', Catherine Osborne, in Routledge History of Philosophy, Vol. I: From the Beginning to Plato, ed. C. C. W. Taylor (London and NY: Routledge, 1997)