Heraclitus (figured by Michelangelo_) sits apart from the other philosophers in Raphael's School of Athens.

Born:535 BC
Died:475 BC

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic philosopher. He was chiefly famous in antiquity for his doctrine that everything is in a state of flux ("No man every steps in the same river twice").


1   Life


Very little is known of his life, except that he was an aristocratic citizen of the Ionian city of Ephesus. [1]

Heraclitus was an Ionian. However, he was not in the scientific tradition of the Milesians. [1] He was a mystic. He regarded fire as the fundamental substance; everything, flame in a fire, is borth by the death of something else. [1]

As with other pre-Socratics, his writings survive only in fragments quoted by other authors. From what survives, he does not appear as an amiable character. He was much addicted to contempt and was the reverse of a democrat. Concerning his fellow citizen, he says "The Ephesians would do well to hang themselves, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless lads; for they have cast out Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying: 'We will have non who is best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere and mong others.'" The one exception to his condemnations is Teutamous, who is signaled as "of more account than the rest". When we inquire the reason for this praise, we find that Teutamus said "most men are bad." [1]

His contempt for mankind leads him to think that only force will compel them to act for their own good. He says: "Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows"; and again: "Asses would rather have straw than gold." [1]

As might be expected, Heraclitus believes in war. "War," he says, "is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free." Again: "Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would

His ethic is a kind of proud asceticism, very similar to Nietzsche's. He regards the soul as a mixture of fire and water, the fire being noble and the water ignoble. The soul that has most fire he calls "dry." "The dry soul is the wisest and best." "It is pleasure to souls to become moist." "A man, when he gets drunk, is led by a beardless lad, tripping, knowing not where he steps, having his soul moist." "It is death to souls to become water." "It is hard to fight with one's heart's desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul." "It is not good for men to get all that they wish to get." One may say that Heraclitus values power obtained through self-mastery, and despises the passions that distract men from their central ambitions. [1]

2   Philosophy

2.1   Metaphysics

Heraclitus believed fire to be the primordial element, out of which everything else had arisen. [1] Aristotle writes:

Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things... Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water... Anaximenes and Diogenes make air prior to water, and the most primary of the simple bodies, while Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus say this of fire, and Empedocles says it of the four elements (adding a fourth-earth-to those which have been named); for these, he says, always remain and do not come to be, except that they come to be more or fewer, being aggregated into one and segregated out of one.

—Aristotle, Metaphysics

The metaphysics of Heraclitus are sufficiently dynamic to satisfy the most hustling of moderns:

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.

The transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind.

In such a world, perpetual change was to be expected, and perpetual change was what Heraclitus believed in. [1]

2.2   Theology

The attitude of Heraclitus to the religions of his time, at any rate the Bacchic religion, is largely hostile, but not with the hostility of a scientific rationalist. He has his own religion, and in part interprets current theology to fit his doctrine, in part rejects it with considerable scorn. He has been called Bacchic (by Cornford), and regarded as an interpreter of the mysteries (by Pfleiderer). I do not think the relevant fragments bear out this view. He says, for example: "The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries." This suggests that he had in mind possible mysteries that would not be "unholy," but would be quite different from those that existed. He would have been a religious reformer, if he had not been too scornful of the vulgar to engage in propaganda. [1]

The following are all the extant sayings of Heraclitus that bear on his attitude to the theology of his day. [1]

The Lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign.

And the Sibyl, with raving lips uttering things mirthless, unbedizened, and unperfumed, reaches over a thousand years with her voice, thanks to the god in her.

Souls smell in Hades.

3   Works

3.1   On Nature

On Nature is a philosophical treatise written by Heraclitus. According to Diogenes, it was divided into three discourses; one on the universe, another on politics (and ethics), and one on theology.

4   Mentions

Aristotle writes of Heraclitus:

Heraclitus too says that the first principle-the 'warm exhalation' of which, according to him, everything else is composed-is soul; further, that this exhalation is most incorporeal and in ceaseless flux; that what is in movement requires that what knows it should be in movement; and that all that is has its being essentially in movement (herein agreeing with the majority).

—Aristotle, On the Soul, Book I Part 2, translated by J. A. Smith

5   References

[1](1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) Bertrand Russel. 1945. The History of Western Philosophy. 58- http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/History%20of%20Western%20Philosophy.pdf

Some items are by their nature always in motion. For instance, liquid cement or rivers (a river which did not have moving would just be a long lake).

Also barley drink.