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Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ancient Greek: — ; c. 535–c. 475 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of Ephesusmarker, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minormarker. He was of distinguished parentage. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. From the lonely life he led, and still more from the riddling nature of his philosophy and his contempt for humankind in general, he was called "The Obscure," and the "Weeping Philosopher."

Heraclitus is famous for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, as stated in his famous saying, "You can not step twice into the same river." He believed in the unity of opposites, stating that "the path up and down is one and the same," existing things being characterized by pairs of contrary properties. His cryptic utterance that "all things come to be in accordance with this Logos," (literally, "word," "reason," or "account") has been the subject of numerous interpretations.


The main source for the life of Heraclitus is Diogenes Laërtius, although some have questioned the validity of his account as "a tissue of Hellenistic anecdotes, most of them obviously fabricated on the basis of statements in the preserved fragments." Diogenes said that Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad, 504-501 BCE. All the rest of the evidence – the people Heraclitus is said to have known, or the people who were familiar with his work – confirms the floruit. His dates of birth and death are based on a life span of 60 years, the age at which Diogenes says he died, with the floruit in the middle.

Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, birthplace of Heraclitus
Heraclitus was born to an aristocratic family in Ephesusmarker, present-day Efes, Turkey. His father was named either Blosôn or Herakôn. Diogenes says that he abdicated the kingship (basileia) in favor of his brother and Strabo confirms that there was a ruling family in Ephesus descended from the Ionian founder, Androclus, which still kept the title and could sit in the chief seat at the games, as well as a few other privileges. 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, 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 ponêra, which can mean either that it was fundamentally wrong or that he considered it toilsome.

With regard to education, Diogenes says that Heraclitus was "marvellous" (thaumasios) from childhood. Diogenes relates that Sotion said he was a "hearer" of Xenophanes, which contradicts Heraclitus' statement (so says Diogenes) that he had taught himself by questioning himself. Burnet states in any case that "... Xenophanes left Ionia before Herakleitos was born." Diogenes relates that as a boy Heraclitus had said he "knew nothing" but later claimed to "know everything." His statement that he "heard no one" but "questioned himself," can be placed alongside his statement that "the things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most."

Diogenes relates that Heraclitus had a poor opinion of human affairs. He believed that Hesiod and Pythagoras lacked understanding though learned 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." Heraclitus hated the Atheniansmarker and his fellow Ephesians, wishing the latter wealth in punishment for their wicked ways. Says Diogenes: "Finally, he became a hater of his kind (misanthrope) and wandered the mountains ... making his diet of grass and herbs."

Heraclitus' life as a philosopher was interrupted by dropsy. The physicians he consulted were unable to prescribe a cure. He treated himself with a liniment of cow manure and baking in the sun, believing that this method would remove the fluid. After a day of treatment he died and was interred in the marketplace.


Diogenes states that his work was "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."

Diogenes also tells us that he deposited his book as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis, the Artemisiummarker, one of the largest temples of the 6th century BCE and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient temples were regularly used for storing treasures, and were open to private individuals under exceptional circumstances; furthermore, many subsequent philosophers in this period refer to the work. Says Kahn: "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." Diogenes says: "the book acquired such fame that it produced partisans of his philosophy who were called Heracliteans."

As with other pre-Socratics, his writings only survive in fragments quoted by other authors.

Ancient characterizations

The obscure

At some time in antiquity he acquired this epithet denoting that his major sayings were difficult to understand. Timon of Phlius calls him "the riddler" (ainiktēs) according to Diogenes Laërtius, 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 Laërtius ascribes to Theophrastus the theory that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. Later he was referred to as the "weeping philosopher," as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher." 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:

The motif was also adopted by Lucian of Samosata in his "Sale of Creeds," in which the duo is sold together as a complementary product in the satirical auction of philosophers. 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 Milanmarker.



"The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos" and "the Logos is common," is expressed in two famous but obscure fragments:
This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.
For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is.
But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep.
(DK 22B1)
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.
(DK 22B2)
The meaning of Logos also is subject to interpretation: "word", "account", "plan", "formula", "measure", "proportion", "reckoning." Though Heraclitus "quite deliberately plays on the various meanings of logos", there is no compelling reason to suppose that he used it in a special technical sense, significantly different from the way it was used in ordinary Greek of his time.

The later Stoics understood it as "the account which governs everything," and the Hippolytus, in the 3rd century, identified it as meaning the Christian Word of God.

Panta rhei, "everything flows"

 (panta rhei) "everything flows" either was not spoken by Heraclitus or did not survive as a quotation of his. This famous aphorism used to characterize Heraclitus' thought comes from Simplicius. The word rhei, adopted by rhe-o-logy, is simply the Greek word for "to stream."

The philosophy of Heraclitus is summed up in his cryptic utterance:

Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei
"On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow."

The quote from Heraclitus is interpreted by Plato as:

Panta chōrei kai ouden menei
"Everything changes and nothing remains still"

Instead of "flow" Plato uses chōrei, to change chōros.

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."

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 and result in "hidden harmony". A way is a series of transformations: the , "turnings of fire," first into sea, then half of sea to earth and half to rarefied 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."
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.

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. Heraclitus calls the oppositional processes eris, "strife", and hypothesizes that the apparently stable state, dikê, 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.

Hepesthai to koino, "follow the common"

People must "follow the common (hepesthai tō ksunō)" and not live having "their own judgement (phonēsis)". 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., humanity is not the image of God: "To God all things are fair and good and just, but people hold some things wrong and some right." God's custom has wisdom but human custom does not, and yet both humans and God are childish: "human opinions are children's toys" and "Eternity 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 people are or can be wise. Only Zeus is wise. To some degree then Heraclitus seems to be in the mystic's position of urging people 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 (eikê)."



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.

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.


Stoicism was a philosophical school which flourished between the 3rd century BCE and about the 3rd century CE. It began among the Greeks and became the major philosophy of the Roman Empire before declining with the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century.

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." This is the closest he comes to a substance, but it is an active one altering other things quantitatively and performing an activity Heraclitus describes as "the judging and convicting of all things." 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 surviving 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)."

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. 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 Academicsmarker) 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.


  1. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 1
  2. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 3
  3. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 6
  4. Strabo, Chapter 1, section 3.
  5. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 2
  6. Chapter 3 beginning.
  7. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 5
  8. DK B55.
  9. DK B40.
  10. DK B42.
  11. DK B44.
  12. DK B125a.
  13. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 4
  14. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, Chapter 2, Section 15.
  15. III.20.53
  16. Satire X. Translation from
  17. Act I Scene II Line 43.
  18. DK B1.
  19. DK B2.
  20. For the etymology see
  21. K.F. Johansen, "Logos" in Donald Zeyl (ed.), Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy, Greenwood Press 1997.
  22. pp. 419ff. , W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1962.
  23. DK B72, from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations iv. 46
  24. DK B2, DK B50, from Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, ix. 9
  25. Barnes page 65, and also Simplicius' commentary on Aristotle's physica 1313.11.
  26. For the etymology see In pronunciation the -ei- is a diphthong sounding like the -ei- in reindeer. The initial r is aspirated or made breathy, which indicates the dropping of the s in *sreu-.
  27. DK22B12, quoted in Arius Didymus apud Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 15.20.2
  28. Cratylus Paragraph 402 section a line 8.
  29. DK B49a, Harris 110. Others like it are DK B12, Harris 20; DK B91, Harris 21.
  30. DK B60
  31. DK B54.
  32. DK B31
  33. DK B76.
  34. DK B30.
  35. DK B90
  36. DK B80.
  37. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 8
  38. DK B51.
  39. The initial part of DK B2, often omitted because broken by a note explaining that ksunos (Ionic) is koinos (Attic).
  40. DK B114.
  41. DK B102.
  42. DK B78.
  43. DK B70.
  44. DK B52.
  45. DK B41.
  46. DK B32.
  47. DK B124.
  48. Cratylus Paragraph 440 sections c-d.
  49. Long, page 56.
  50. Long, page 51.
  51. DK B60.
  52. DK B66.
  53. DK B64.
  54. Different translations of this critical piece of literature, transitional from pagan polytheism to the modern religions and philosophies, can be found at
  55. The ancient Greek can be found in Downloadable Google Books at [1].
  56. Book IX leading sentence.


  • 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.
  • Complete fragments of Heraclitus in English.
  • . Transcript of seminar in which two German philosophers analyze and discuss Heraclitus' texts.
  • . Parallel Greek & English.
  • Book IX, Chapter 1, Heraclitus.
  • Pyle, C. M. (1997). 'Democritus and Heracleitus: An Excursus on the Cover of this Book,' Milanmarker and Lombardy in the Renaissance. Essays in Cultural History. Rome, La Fenice. (Istituto di Filologia Moderna, Università di Parma: Testi e Studi, Nuova Serie: Studi 1.) (Fortuna of the Laughing and Weeping Philosophers topos)
  • Taylor, C. C. W (ed.), Routledge History of Philosophy: From the Beginning to Plato, Vol. I, pp. 80 – 117. ISBN 0-203-02721-3 Master e-book ISBN, ISBN 0-203-05752-X (Adobe eReader Format) and ISBN 0-415-06272-1 (Print Edition).

See also

The following articles on other topics contain non-trivial information that relates to Heraclitus in some way.

External links

  • Heraclitus bilingual anthology from DK in Greek and English, side by side, the translations being provided by the organization, Elpenor.
  • Greek and English with DK numbers and commentary.
  • Text and selected aphorisms in Greek, English, Italian and French.
  • Selected fragments translated by Hooker.
  • The fragments also cited in DK in Greek (Unicode) with the English translations of John Burnet (see Bibliography).
  • 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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