Everything Flows, or Does It? Heraclitus on Everything.

Sjoerd van Hoorn

Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived in the early 5th century BC in Ionia (now the west coast of Turkey), was known for being both obscure and sad, leading early-modern painters such as Jan Lievens to depict him as the weeping philosopher.

Heraclitus, Jan Lievens (after Cornelis Kettel), 1620s (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, Germany, on loan from priv. coll.).

Heraclitus must have been not only a melancholy but a formidable character. He did not suffer fools gladly and set the bar of foolishness high. To him, Hesiod was an ignoramus; Pythagoras was a charlatan; Xenophanes a bit thick; Homer gullible: the poet was fooled by children telling him a riddle: “what we find we leave behind, what we do not find we take with us” (D22 = B56).[1] Homer failed to see that these kids were talking about lice.

In fact, Heraclitus opined, Homer deserved a thorough thrashing, as did Archilochus (D21 = B42). No surprise, then, that he despised his fellow citizens of Ephesus and would rather play dice with children than discuss politics with adults. He was the son of a ‘king’, which seems to have been a sort of honorary office rather than a rank at this time, but he renounced the title in favour of his brother to free himself up for philosophy.

As a philosopher, Heraclitus is only rivalled by his near contemporary Parmenides in terms of the interest he still holds for us. None of the philosophers before Plato even comes close to him as a writer. Heraclitus framed his insights in densely formulated, often paradoxical aphorisms such as “lightning governs all” (D82 = B64), “nature likes to hide” (D35 = B123), and “the way up is the same as the way down” (D51 = B60).

Heraclitus apart from the rest in Raphael’s School of Athens, c. 1510 (fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

Heraclitus is most famous for saying that “everything flows”: panta rhei. This suggests an attractive and familiar thought, namely that everything changes – all is in permanent flux. When Michel de Montaigne wrote in his essay Du repentir (On repentance, 1570s) that he noted not how things are but how they are passing,[2] he no doubt took this to be a very Heraclitean thought. He was in good company, as Friedrich Nietzsche[3] and even Plato held the same view. Heraclitus is supposed to be of the opinion that nothing is permanent, there is only movement. It all sounds very postmodern.

The problem with this view is that Heraclitus did not say this. Or, to be more precise, among the hundred or so fragments of Heraclitus that have been handed down to us over the millennia there is no text saying panta rhei. This invites the question to what extent, if any, the attribution is an accurate description of Heraclitus’ thought.

A model of the Artemisium, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, where Heraclitus deposited his philosophical book, rather than putting it into general circulation (Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey).

There is widespread agreement among the scholarly community that Heraclitus started his book with a number of paragraphs on the nature of reason and understanding:

And of this account (logos) that is – always – humans are uncomprehending, both before they hear it and once they have first heard it. For, although all things come about according to this account, they resemble people without experience of them, when they have experience both of words and of things of the sort that I explain when I analyse each in conformity with its nature and indicate how it is. But other men are unaware of all they do when they are awake, just as they forget all they do while they are asleep.’’ (D1 = B1)

There is only one account of how things are, only one logos or reason behind everything, but people do not understand this. Even when it has been explained to them they are so foolish as to cling to their views, prejudices and superstitions. The common people believe, for example, that if they have killed someone they can wash it off by animal sacrifice (D15 = B5). It is like trying to wash off soil with mud. They are like sleepers, each turned inward, whereas the logos is common to all. Human beings are in fact perfectly capable of thinking with moderation, for thinking is a shared feature of humanity, but most of them don’t think: “Although the account (logos) is in common (xunos), most people live as though they had their own thought” (D2 = B2).

Heraclitus, Johannes Moreelse, c. 1630 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands).

Heraclitus lays bare an important characteristic of scientific thought, namely that it is objective and universal. Nevertheless, Heraclitus is not looking for laws of nature in a modern, Newtonian sense. According to the great German philologist Werner Jaeger, the points I have just discussed are prefaced to a theological doctrine.[4] “The lord whose oracle is the one in Delphi neither speaks nor hides, but gives signs” (D41 = B93); and Heraclitus passes on these signs “like the Sibyl with her raving mouth” (D42 = B92). What is wise (hen to sophon) is to know the thought (gnōmē) that steers all things (D44 = B41) and does want and does not want to be called only by the name of Zeus (D45 = B32).

This would seem to make Heraclitus into a sort of monotheist attributing omnipotence and all the rest to Zeus, but there is more going on. The divine logos has certain essential traits which make it considerably more interesting philosophically. God is day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, satiety-hunger (D48 = B67). God consists in tension, as does a lyre or a bow. There is struggle at the heart of things. Underneath it all, one must know that what is in common to things is war (polemos), that justice is conflict (D63 = B80), war is the father of all and the king of all (D64 = B53). By polemos, Heraclitus means armed conflict between human communities, as is revealed by the rest of the last quotation, which says that war makes some people slaves and others free. But he also uses the word metaphorically, to mean something like exchange. As Charles Kahn points out in his book The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge UP, 1979), the Greek philosopher is not here arguing in literal terms, but employing other metaphors, fire in particular.

Fire in the temple, as imagined by Alexandre Prado.

Fire, as Heraclitus puts it, is the principle of exchange. Everything else is born of fire, including the other elements – earth, wind and water. “Turnings of fire: first sea, then half of the sea, earth” (D86 = B31). Taken literally, as Kahn argues, this is obviously nonsense. Fire seems to stand here for a principle of change, also brought out by observations that warm things grow cold and cold things warm up, or that illness makes health sweet and medical treatment can be unpleasant but eventually results in a cure. “Changing, it remains at rest.” (D58 = B84a) Everywhere we see the same principle at work, although Heraclitus does not, I think, mean that there is literally just one thing whose permutations we see. He is not a material monist, i.e. he does not think that matter is all there is, but rather takes the variety of things existing in the world to be ruled by one principle.

Everything, then, changes, but these changes do not detract from the stability of things. Actually, in a sense they constitute this stability, as we can see when we turn to the surviving fragments on flux.

Heraclitus lives on in a Slovakian chain of bookstores.

In their recent Loeb edition of the Early Greek philosophers, André Laks and Glenn Most, whose translation I have been quoting or paraphrasing in the above, give us four quotations of Heraclitus pertaining to what we may call the ‘flux problem’. First, “we step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not” (D65a = B49a). Second, “it is always different waters, that flow toward those who step into the same rivers” (D65b = B12). So far, so good, because these statements are perfectly consistent. The same rivers contain different water all the time. As James Warren has observed in his introduction to the Presocratics, the fact that water flows in it is what constitutes a river.[5] If it had not flowed, it would have been the water of a pond or lake. Only something which, in a sense, remains the same, as Aristotle would later observe, can in another sense change. There must be some thing to which the change occurs.

Things get more difficult however, with the third quotation, which this time is not Heraclitus’ own words but a line from Plato’s dialogue Cratylus (402a). Socrates states that “Heraclitus says something like this: that all things flow [hoti panta chorei] and nothing remains; and comparing the things that are to the flowing of a river, he says that you could not step twice into the same river” (D65c A 6). As we have seen, Plato in saying this suppresses an important clause. In one sense we cannot step into the same river twice, but in another sense we can. This sense is explained by the Roman philosopher Seneca in his Letters to Lucilius (58.23): “This is what Heraclitus says: ‘Into the same river we do and do not step twice’ [in idem flumen bis descendimus et non descendimus]. For the name ‘river’ remains the same, but the water passes by (D65d).” Seneca’s words here are in fact open to the interpretation that, according to him, the river itself changes, for the water passes by [aqua transmissa est] and only our concept remains the same [manet enim idem fluminis nomen]. But, apart from Stoic semantics, the quotation provides us with another reason for thinking that Heraclitus held that rivers both change and remain the same.

So it is true that according to Heraclitus everything changes. But it is equally true that some things remain the same. A river always consists of different drops of water, but it is still the same river. Water, then, is a metaphor for change too. It is both a symbol and a real medium of change. Just as things change by fire and fire changes things, water changes them as well.

Heraclitus (detail), Peter Paul Rubens (school of), c. 1637 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

This becomes clear if we look at another fragment, which has sometimes flummoxed readers by its apparent banality. “The sea, the purest water and the foulest: for fish it is drinkable and life-giving, but for humans undrinkable and deadly” (D78 = B61). There is the same sort of exchange at work. Just as fire changes earth and water into different things, water is different for different things too. There is also the same use of contrasts as in the statement above about illness and health, hunger and satiety, the diverging and converging of things, the fitting together of a lyre and its strings.

This is the dynamic that occurs between a river and the waters flowing in it, and the sea and its effects on fish and men respectively. It embodies Heraclitus’ idea that there is one account [logos] of everything that holds for everything, namely that all comes from one thing and one thing out of all, and that is difficult to make out. This one thing – the One (hen in Greek) – finds a powerful symbol in fire, but it is also lightning, or in fact the god Zeus by another name.

Sjoerd van Hoorn studied philosophy at the Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He has been a junior lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and is now a freelance writer. His interests include classical German philosophy, ancient philosophy, and poetry, which he also writes himself.

Further Reading

Alongside the books by Charles Kahn and James Warren mentioned in this article, a brief and accessible introduction to Heraclitus is given by Daniel W. Graham on the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy. For a survey of Ancient Greek thought from Homer through to Socrates I recommend Hermann Fränkel’s Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums (American Philological Association, New York, 1951), translated into English by Moses Hadas and James Willis as Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Blackwell, Oxford, 1975).


1 References throughout are given to the ‘D’ numbers of the Early Greek Philosophy Loeb (9 vols, 2016), edited by André Laks and Glenn Most; the ‘B’ numbers that follow refer to the earlier numeration of Diels-Kranz (edd.), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (6th ed., 3 vols, Weidmann, Berlin, 1952).
2 Je ne peins pas l’être, je peins le passage (I don’t paint what is, I paint its going by), from Du repentir in his Essais (Gallimard, Paris, 1965, III 44). Montaigne writes that everything changes: La constance même n’est autre chose qu’un branle plus languissant (Stability itself is nothing but a much lazier swinging).
3 Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen in Kritische Studienausgabe (De Gruyter, Berlin, 1999) I 822–30.
4 Die Theologie der Frühen Griechischen Denker (Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1953), the revised version of his Gifford Lectures from 1936.
5 Presocratics (Acumen, Stocksfield, 2007) 72–4.