Heraclitus of Ephesus


Life and Work

Heraclitus (fl. c.500 BC) was born in Ephesus, the second great Ionian city. He was a man of strong and independent philosophical spirit. Heraclitus wrote a single book, with the title On Nature, perhaps divided in three sections: cosmology, politics and theology. He dedicated and placed his book in the temple of Artemis.

The Obscure Philosopher

Heraclitus is characterized as the obscure philosopher, due to the insignificance of his language and the enigmatic aphorisms of his writings. It is noteworthy that his book was purposely written 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. For this reason, when Socrates read his  book said: the concepts I understand are great, but I believe that the concepts I cant understand are great too. However, the reader needs to be an excellent swimmer like those from Dilos, so not to be drown from his book.

Fire and Logos

Like the Milesian philosophers, Heraclitus focused on the material origins of the world. Moreover, he inspired the internal hidden rhythm of nature which moves and regulates things, namely, the logos. Heraclitus accepted only one material source of natural substances, fire (pyr). Fire is the manifestation of logos which creates an infinite and uncorrupted world, without beginning or end in time. In turn fire changes or transforms to water and earth.

Eternal Change

Heraclitus is the philosopher of the eternal change. His well known statement is that ‘everything flows’. He expresses this notion of eternal change and mobility in terms of the continuous flow of the river which always renews itself. Heraclitus’ view of cosmos is that of continuous conflict between species. He converts this world into various shapes as a harmony of the opposites. The composition of opposites sustains everything in nature. Good and evil, just and unjust are simply opposite sides of the same single thing.


Logos, knowledge and perception

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

2(50) Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that one is all /all is one.

3(89) For those who are awake there is one common universe.

4(41) There is one wisdom, to understand how reason steers everything through everything.

5(32) The one and only wise does and does not consent to be called by the name of Zeus.

6(113) Thinking is common to all.

 7(116) All humans are able to know themselves and be prudentphronein)

 8(108) Of all those whose logoi I have heard, no one reaches this conclusion - that the wise is separate from all things.

 9(78) Human nature (ethos) has no understanding but the divine has.

 10(79) A man is said to be a child compared with daimon, as is a child compared to a man.

 11(2) One must follow what is common; but although the logos is common most people live as if they had a private understanding of their own.

 12(34) Not understanding after hearing they are like the deaf; the saying is evidence for them 'absent when present'.

 13(101a) Eyes are more accurate witnesses than ears.

 14(107) Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for those who have souls that do not understand the language.

 15(17) Many who come across such things do not think about them, and even when they have learnt about them they do not understand, but to themselves they seem to.

 16(72) Logos: though people associate with it most closely they are separated from it, and what they come across every day seems to them strange.

 17(19) They do not know how to listen or speak.

 18(73) We must not speak and act like people asleep.

 19(95) It is better to hide ignorance.

 20(35) Men who love wisdom (philosophoi) must be enquirers (histores) of very many things.

 21(47) Let's not make random guesses about the greatest matters.

 22(22) Those who look for gold dig up much earth and find little.

 23(114)  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 human laws are nourished by one divine law; for it has as much power as it wishes and is sufficient for all and is still not exhausted.

 24(44) The people should fight to defend nomos as their city wall.

 25(33) It is also law to obey the ruling of one man.

 26(49) One man is as ten thousand, if he is the best.

 27(39) In Priene Bias son of Teutamos was born, whose logos was more than the rest.

 28(18) If you have no hope you will not find the unhoped-for, since it is undiscoverable and no path leads there.

 29(55) All that is seen and heard and learnt I honour above all.


 Strife, harmony and opposites

 30(80) One must know that war is common and justice is strife, and that all things happen by strife and necessity.

 31(53)  War is father of all and king of all: some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others free.

 32(54) Unseen harmonia is stronger / better than seen.

 33(10) combinations: wholes and not wholes, being like and being different, in tune and out of tune, and from all things one, and from one all things.

 34(8) Opposites come together and from what is different arises the fairest harmony.

 35(9).  Donkeys would choose rubbish rather than gold.

 36(13) Pigs enjoy mud rather than clean water. cf. 37 from Columella: pigs wash in mud, birds in dust or ashes.

 37(61) Sea water is most clean/pure and most polluted; for fish it is drinkable, for  humans undrinkable and destructive.

 38(11) Every animal is driven to pasture with a blow.

 39(59) The path of letters is straight and crooked. (?or the screw)

 40(60) Way up, way down: one and the same.

 41(48) For the bow the name is life, but its work is death.

 42(111) Disease makes health pleasant and good, as does hunger satiety and weariness rest.

 43(7) If all that there is turned to smoke, the nose would distinguish them.

 44(97) Dogs bark at those they do not recognise.

 45(126)  Cold things warm, warm cools, wet dried, parched is moistened.

 46(96) Corpses should be thrown out ahead of dung.

 47(102) To god all things are beautiful and good and just, but people have supposed some to be unjust, others just.

 48(67) God: day night; winter summer; war peace; satiety hunger; but he changes like <fire>, which, when mingled with the smoke of incense, is named according to each one's sensation.

 49(51)  They do not understand that what conflicts with itself agrees with itself: there is a harmonia of opposite tensions, as in the bow and lyre.

 50(125) The barley-drink separates if it is not stirred.

 51(84a)  Changing it rests.

 52(123).  Nature tends to / loves to hide.

 53(23) They would not know the name of Dike if these (the opposites) did not exist.

 54(52) Time is a child playing draughts; the kingship is a child's.


 Fire, flux and cosmology

 55(91) It is not possible to step twice into the same river.

 56(12)  Over those who step into the same river ever different waters flow. (Cf. 49a)

 57(30) This order, the same for all, no one of gods or men has made, but it always was and is and will be an everliving fire, kindling and being extinguished according to fixed measures.

 58(64)  Thunderbolt steers all things.

 59(66) Fire, having caught up with them, will judge and constrain all things.

 60(94) Sun will not overstep his measures, otherwise the Erinyes, ministers of justice, will find him out.

 61(3) <sun> breadth of a man's foot

 62(6) The sun is new every day

 63(99) If there were no sun, as far as depended on the other stars it would be night.

 64(100)  <the sun> governs the hours/seasons which bring all things.

 65(16) How could one hide from that which never sets.

 66(120) The limits of morning and evening are the Bear and opposite the Bear the boundary of Zeus aetherios.

 67(90) All things are an equal exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods are for gold and gold for goods.

 68(31)  The changes of fire:  first sea, and of sea half earth and half pr.. earth is poured out as sea and is measured in the same proportion as it was before it became earth.

 69(124) The fairest cosmos is as a rubbish heap piled up haphazardly.


 Psychology and ethics, life and death

 70(45) You could not in your going find the limits of soul though you travelled the whole way - so deep is its logos.

 71(101) I searched myself.

 72(115). There is logos of soul which increases itself.

 73(118)  Dry soul is wisest and best.

 74(119) A person's character is his destiny (daimon).

 75(112) The greatest virtue is to be prudent, and wisdom is to speak the truth and with understanding to act according to nature.

 76(110) It is not better for people to get what they want.

 77(98) Souls have the sense of smell in Hades.

 78(36) For souls it is death to become water, for water death to become earth; from earth arises water, and from water soul.

 79(77) It is delight or death for souls to become wet ... we live their death and they our death.

 80(84b) It is weariness to labour and subject to rule.

 81(85) It is hard to fight against impulse; whatever it wants it buys at the expense of soul.

 82(117) When a man is drunk he is led stumbling along by a boy, having his soul wet.

 83(24) Gods and men honour the war-dead.

 84(29) The best choose one thing above all: everlasting fame among men; but most gorge themselves like cattle.

 85(25) Greater fates are allotted greater destinies.

 86(27) When men have died there awaits them what they  neither expected nor imagined.

 87(63) When he (?god) is there <the souls in Hades> rise up and become watchful guardians of the living and the dead.

 88(20) Having come to birth they want to live and have their fates, and they leave children behind to become their fates.

 89(21) Death is what we see when awake, and what we see asleep is sleep.

 90(47)  As the same thing there exist in us living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old; for these change round and are those, and those change round and are these.

 91(26) A man in the night kindles/touches a light for himself because his sight is put out; when alive, while he sleeps, he touches the dead, and while he is awake he touches the sleeping.

 92(75) People asleep are workers, taking part in the work of the cosmos.

 93(62) Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living the death of those, and dying the life of these.

 94(88) It is the same in <us>: being alive and dead, awake and asleep and young and old; for these after changing are those and those again after changing are these.


 Counterfeit learning and religion

 95(4) Polymathia does not teach one to have nous, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus. (cf. 121 on Hermodorus, 125a on the Ephesians and 129 (dub.) on Pythagoras.

 96(57) Hesiod is the teacher of very many, whom they know understands very much, he who did not recognise day and night , for they are one. (cf. 106).

 97(42) Homer deserves to be thrown out of the contests and given a beating, and Archilochus as well.

 98(56) Humans are tricked in the understanding of what they see, just like Homer, who was wiser than al the Greeks. For children killing lice tricked him saying: 'what we saw and seized we left behind, but what we did not see or seize, this we took with us'.

 99(43) hubris should be put out more firmly than a fire.

 100(5) They make themselves clean/pure by washing with another's blood, as if you could clean off mud by stepping into mud. But a man would be thought mad if anyone were to see him behaving in this way. And they pray to their statues like someone talking to a house, not knowing the nature of gods and heroes.

 101(14) Night-prowlers, magicians, bacchants, maenads, mystics; the rites men practise in the <holy> mysteries are unholy.

 102(58) Doctors do nothing that deserves taking payment when they cut and burn, doing the same (in the cure and the illness).

 103(15) If it were not in honour of Dionysus that they walk in procession and sing a hymn to the phallus they would be acting most shamelessly. Hades and Dionysus are one, for whom they rave in frenzy.

 104(92) The Sibyl with raving mouth making utterances that lack humour, elegance and incense through the god.

 105(93) The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

 106(28) The one who appears most wise understands appearances and stays by them. Dikhowever will seize hold of the architects of lies and perjurers.

 107(87) A foolish person gets excited at every logos.

 108(46) Vanity - the sacred disease (epilepsy).

Translation M. R. Wright -  note: numbers in parentheses refer to the standard Diels/Kranz order


Copyright 1997-2006

Giannis Stamatellos

E-mail: gstamap@yahoo.com






  Writings and Sources

  Mythological Origins

  Pherecydes of Syros


  Thales of Miletus
  Anaximander of Miletus
  Anaximenes of Miletus

  Heraclitus of Ephesus
  Xenophanes of Colophon

  Pythagoras of Samos
  Philolaus of Croton
  Archytas of Tarantum
  Alcmaeon of Croton


  Parmenides of Elea
  Zeno of Elea
  Melissus of Samos

Empedocles of Acragas
  Anaxagoras of Klazomenes
  Democritus of Abdera