Heraclitus of Ephesus


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 - 475 B.C.) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey. He is sometimes mentioned in connection the Ephesian School of philosophy, although he was really the only prominent member of that school (which, along with the Milesian School, is often considered part of the Ionian School).

He was perhaps the first Western philosopher to go beyond physical theory in search of metaphysical foundations and moral applications, and some consider him, along with Parmenides, the most significant of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. His idea of a universe in constant change but with an underlying order or reason (which he called Logos) forms the essential foundation of the European worldview.

Many subsequent philosophers, from Plato to Aristotle, from the Stoics to the Church Fathers, from Georg Hegel to Alfred North Whitehead, have claimed to have been influenced by the ideas of Heraclitus.


According to the "Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers" of Diogenes Laertius (the 3rd Century historian of the ancient Greek philsophers), Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad (which would be 504 - 501 B.C.), but the dates of his birth and death are just guesswork based on that. So, all we can say it is it is likely that he was born around 535 B.C. We do know that he was born to an aristocratic family in Ephesus, an important city on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey.

His father was named either Bloson or Herakon, and was a powerful figure in the city. But, according to Diogenes Laertius, Heraclitus abdicated the kingship (probably just an honorific title) in favour of his brother, and had no interest in politics or power. As a youth, he was a prodigious intellect, and he claimed to have taught himself everything he knew by a process of self-questioning. Some sources also say that he was a pupil of Xenophanes (570 - 480 B.C.), but that is disputed.

He was sometimes known as "the Obscure" (or "the Dark") for the deliberate difficulty and unclearness of his teachings. He was also known as the "Weeping Philosopher", and it is speculated that he was prone to melancholia or depression, which prevented him from finishing some of his works. There is no record of his having travelled, even as far as the nearby learning centre of Miletus, although he seems to have been familiar with the ideas of the Milesian School.

He was apparently something of a misanthrope and a loner, and he cultivated an aristocratic disdain for the masses and favoured the rule of a few wise men. He was not afraid to scorn and denigrate (in no uncertain terms, and in a characteristic shrill voice) almost everyone from the Ephesians to the Athenians to the Persian leader, Darius. He believed that the poet Hesiod and Pythagoras "lacked understanding", and claimed that Homer and Archilochus deserved to be beaten. Diogenes Laertius reported that, later in life, he wandered the mountains, eating only grass and herbs.

His years of wandering in the wilderness, resulted in an oedema (dropsy) and impairment of vision. After 24 hours of his own idiosyncratic treatment (a liniment of cow manure and baking in the sun), he died and was interred in the marketplace of Ephesus.


Heraclitus is recorded as having written a single book, "On Nature", divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics and a third on theology. The book was deposited or stored in the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (as were many other treasures and books of the time) and made available to visitors for several centuries after Heraclitus' death. However, his writings only survive today in fragments quoted by other later authors.

In his work, he used puns, paradoxes, antitheses, parallels and various rhetorical and literary devices to construct expressions that have meanings beyond the obvious. The reader must therefore solve verbal puzzles (he was also nicknamed "The Riddler"), and, by so doing, learn to read the signs of the world. In fact, he deliberately made his philosophical work obscure, so that none but the already competent would be able to understand it.

Unlike many of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus believed that the world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather consists of a law-like interchange of elements, an ongoing process governed by a law of perpetual change, or Logos, which he symbolized by fire. According to Heraclitus, fire provides a kind of standard of value for other stuffs, but it is not identical to them, and is not the unique source of all things, because all stuffs are equivalent and one thing is transformed into another in a cycle of changes.

According to Heraclitus, the world is in an eternal state of "becoming", and all changes arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites. Opposites are necessary for life, he believed, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges, with pairs of opposites making up a unity. Thus, one road carries some travellers out of a city, while it brings others back in; the way up is also the way down; earth changes to fire and fire changes to earth, etc. In this, he posits an equal and opposite reaction to every change and, in his theory of the equivalence of matter, a primitive law of conservation.

The most famous aphorism often attributed to Heraclitus, that "everything is in a state of flux", probably comes in reality from the much later Neo-Platonist Simplicius of Cilicia (490 - 560 A.D.), although other similar quotes are attributable to him, and it remains a pithy summary of his views on the recurrent Pre-Socratic problem of change. Similarly, he is often quoted as saying that one cannot step twice into the same river, although this is based on a simplistic paraphrasing of Plato's. What he was really suggesting is that rivers can stay the same over time even though (or indeed because) the waters in it change.

Thus, contrary to the contentions of both Plato and Aristotle, Heraclitus did not hold the extreme (and logically incoherent) views that everything is constantly changing, that opposite things are identical, and that everything is and is not at the same time. But he did recognize a lawlike flux of elements, with fire changing into water and then into earth, and earth changing into water and then into fire. While parts of the world are being consumed by fire at any given time, the whole remains. Heraclitus does, to be sure, make paradoxical statements, but his views are no more self-contradictory than some of the claims of Socrates.

Heraclitus saw the theory of nature and the human condition as intimately connected, and he was one of the first philosophers to make human values a central concern. He viewed the soul as fiery in nature, generated out of other substances, just as fire is, but limitless in dimension. Thus, drunkenness, for example, damages the soul by causing it to be moist, while a virtuous life keeps the soul dry and intelligent.

He further believed that the laws of a city-state are an important principle of order, and that they derive their force from a divine law. In this way, he introduced the notion of a law of nature that informs human society as well as nature, and this idea of an inherent moral law greatly influenced the later Stoicism movement.

He saw Divinity as present in the world, but not as a conventional anthropomorphic being such as the Greeks worshipped. For Heraclitus, the world itself either is God, or is a manifestation of the activity of God, which is somehow to be identified with the underlying order of things.



[1] "Philosophy Basics" by Luke Mastin

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