Heraclitus of Ephesus (540-480). Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Those who speak with sense must rely on what is common to all, as a city must rely on its law, and with much greater reliance. For all the laws of men are nourished by one law, the divine law; for it has as much power as it wishes and is sufficient for all and still left over.

No Greek philosopher born before Socrates was more creative and influential than Heraclitus of Ephesus. Around the beginning of the fifth century BC, in a prose that made him proverbial for obscurity, he criticized conventional opinions about the way things are and attacked the authority of poets and others reputed to be wise. His surviving work consists of more than 100 epigrammatic sentences, complete in themselves and often comparable to the proverbs characteristic of 'wisdom' literature. Notwithstanding their sporadic presentation and transmission, Heraclitus' sentences comprise a philosophy that is clearly focused upon a determinate set of interlocking ideas.

His Life

Heraclitus, son of Vloson, was born about 535 BCE in Ephesos, the second great Greek Ionian city. He was a man of strong and independent philosophical spirit. Unlike the Milesian philosophers whose subject was the material beginning of the world, Heraclitus focused instead on the internal rhythm of nature which moves and regulates things, namely, the Logos (Rule). Heraclitus is the philosopher of the eternal change. He expresses the notion of eternal change in terms of the continuous flow of the river which always renews itself. Heraclitus accepted only one material source of natural substances, the Pyr (Fire). This Pyr is the essence of Logos which creates an infinite and uncorrupted world, without beginning. It converts this world into various shapes as a harmony of the opposites. The composition of opposites sustains everything in nature. “Good” and “bad” are simply opposite sides of the same thing.?To God all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have supposed some things to be unjust, others just?.

Diogenis Laertius (CE. c 200) in his 8th book ?Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers? notes that ?When somebody asked Heraclitus to decree some rules, he showed no interest because the government of the city was already bad. Instead, he went to the temple of Artemis and played dices with children. Finally he became misanthrope, withdrew from the world , and lived in the mountains feeding on grasses and plants. However, having fallen in this way into 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 by the heat of the manure; but even so he failed to effect anything, and ended his life at the age of sixty?. Scholars place his death at about 475 BCE.

His work

As interpreted by the later Greek philosophical tradition, Heraclitus stands primarily for the radical thesis that ‘Everything is in flux’, like the constant flow of a river. Although it is likely that he took this thesis to be true, universal flux is too simple a phrase to identify his philosophy. His focus shifts continually between two perspectives the objective and everlasting processes of nature on the one hand and ordinary human beliefs and values on the other. He challenges people to come to terms, theoretically and practically, with the fact that they are living in a world ‘that no god or human has made’, a world he describes as ‘an ever-living fire kindling in measures and going out in measures’. His great truth is that ‘All things are one’, but this unity, far from excluding difference, opposition and change, actually depends on them, since the universe is in a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium. Day and night, up and down, living and dying, heating and cooling such pairings of apparent opposites all conform to the everlastingly rational formula (logos) that unity consists of opposites; remove day, and night goes too, just as a river will lose its identity if it ceases to flow.

Heraclitus requires his audience to try to think away their purely personal concerns and view the world from this more detached perspective. By the use of telling examples he highlights the relativity of value judgments. The implication is that unless people reflect on their experience and examine themselves, they are condemned to live a dream-like existence and to remain out of touch with the formula that governs and explains the nature of things. This formula is connected (symbolically and literally) with ‘ever-living fire’, whose incessant ‘transformations’ are not only the basic operation of the universe but also essential to the cycle of life and death. Fire constitutes and symbolizes both the processes of nature in general and also the light of intelligence. As the source of life and thought, a ‘fiery’ soul equips people to look into themselves, to discover the formula of nature and to live accordingly.

Although Heraclitus presents himself as uniquely enlightened, he was clearly familiar with the leading thinkers of his time. He draws attention to the relativity of judgments and the difference between humans and animals in ways that recall Xenophanes’ critique of religious beliefs. He almost certainly knew and rejected Pythagoras’ doctrine of the transmigration of souls (see Pythagoras). His cosmology is both indebted to and a criticism of Milesian science: the criticism appears particularly in his denial of the world’s beginning, but his focus on the law-like processes of nature has clear affinities with Anaximander’s celebrated doctrine of cosmic justice.

Heraclitus’ work does not survive as a continuous whole. What we have instead is a collection of more than 100 independent sentences, most of which are ad hoc citations by authors from the period AD 100-300. Plato and Aristotle rarely cite Heraclitus directly, but their interpretations of him, which are influenced in part by their own preconceptions, shaped the ancient tradition of Heraclitus as exponent of universal flux and of fire as the primary material. Interpretation of Heraclitus is further complicated by the work of his professed follower Cratylus, and still more so by the way Stoics and Pyrrhonists looked back to him as a precursor of their own philosophies. This afterlife is important as an indication of Heraclitus’ complexity and capacity to influence a range of very different thinkers, but modern interpretation of him rightly treats it as secondary to the evidence of his own words.