Heraclitus Life, Philosophy & Quotes

Written by Daniel Seeker

Jul 2, 2024

There’s something special about Heraclitus. This ancient Greek philosopher wasn’t known as “The Obscure Philosopher” without reason. His enigmatic philosophical musings influenced not only the philosophers of his time but, perhaps equally so, the thinkers and philosophers of today.

Much of the philosophy of Heraclitus is encapsulated in the concept of “panta rhei” or “everything flows.” Heraclitus believed that change was the only constant in the universe, and his emphasis on flux and impermanence challenged the prevailing philosophical paradigms of his time, especially that of thinkers like Parmenides of Elea who postulated that reality was immovable and unchanging.

What sets Heraclitus apart from his contemporaries is not only his paradoxical paradigms but also the scarcity of biographical information at our disposal. While information about the lives of many ancient philosophers is limited, the details available on Heraclitus are even sparser.

Influence

The most notable school of philosophy influenced by Heraclitus was Stoicism. The Stoics were deeply inspired by Heraclitus’s insights, particularly his concept of the impermanence and constant flux of all things. This idea became a cornerstone for the Stoics, who developed a comprehensive metaphysical framework around it.

The Stoics also adopted Heraclitus’s notion of the Logos, a rational principle that they believed governed the universe. They saw this Logos as the underlying order amidst the chaos of constant change. This perspective allowed the Stoics to view the world as a coherent and rational system, despite its perpetual transformations. They believed that understanding and aligning oneself with the Logos was essential for achieving a virtuous and harmonious life.

Moreover, the Stoics expanded on Heraclitus’s ideas by integrating them into their ethical teachings. They argued that recognizing the impermanence of external circumstances could help individuals cultivate resilience and equanimity. By accepting that everything external is subject to change and beyond one’s control, a person could focus on what truly mattered: their own actions and responses, which are within their power.

History

According to ancient sources, most notably Diogenes Laërtius, Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, an ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia (modern-day Turkey). The exact year of his birth is uncertain, but it is generally believed to be around 535-475 BCE, as he has traditionally been considered to have lived in the 69th Olympiad (504–501 BC). Which is considered approximately correct based on his references to contemporaries like Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus.

The city Ephesus held a pivotal position in the unfolding geopolitical landscape during Heraclitus’ life, being right in the middle of key historical events. Notably, it bore witness to the ascendancy of Lydia under the rule of Croesus, an kingdom east of Ionia that existed from about 1200 BC to 546 BC. The subsequent chapter in its history unfolded with the sweeping influence of the Persian Empire, marking a transformative period after Cyrus the Great’s successful overthrow of Croesus in 547 BC.

Ephesus, unlike other neighboring Ionian city-states like Miletus (which was also a city known for its philosophers), remained neutral during the Ionian revolt of 499-493/494 BCE which in turn led to Ephesus having a better relationship with the Persian Empire than some of its unfortunate neighbors, as it escaped harm during the subsequent suppression of the revolt by Darius the Great in 494 BC.

Philosophy

The enigmatic nature of Heraclitus’s philosophy is mirrored in his own cryptic writing style. His surviving works, though fragmentary, offer glimpses into a mind that sought to delve into the fundamental nature of reality. Heraclitus employed metaphorical language and paradoxes, leaving his ideas open to interpretation and debate for centuries to come. His writings were not just a collection of aphorisms but a tapestry of profound insights that continue to resonate with thinkers across epochs.

Alongside the notion of impermanence, another one of Heraclitus’s central tenets, was the idea of the unity of opposites. In fragment 98 of On the Universe “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony” highlighting his belief that opposing forces were essential for maintaining balance and harmony in the world.

Here below I’ve hand-picked some notable quotes from the surviving fragments of Heraclitus.

Everything flows, nothing stands still.
Heraclitus (Quoted by Plato in Craytulus)

Character is destiny.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 121)

Nothing endures but change.
Heraclitus (Quoted by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Philosophers)

No man ever steps in the same river twice.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 41)

The sun is new every day.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 6)

The road up and the road down is one and the same.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 69)

A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.
Heraclitus

It is what opposes that helps.
Heraclitus (Quoted by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics)

He who hears not me but the logos will say: All is one.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 50)

Man, like a light in the night, is kindled and put out.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 76)

It is harder to fight pleasure than to fight emotion.
Heraclitus

Nature is wont to hide herself.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 10)

Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.
Heraclitus (Quoted by Hippolytus of Rome)

Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 98)

It would not be better if things happened to people just as they wish.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 52)

Much learning does not teach understanding.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 16)

The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 32)

We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.
Heraclitus

Even sleepers are workers and collaborators on what goes on in the universe.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 90)

It is wise to listen, not to me but to the Word, and to confess that all things are one.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 50)

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 89)

He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 7)

Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream
Heraclitus

All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.
Heraclitus

When is death not within ourselves?… Living and dead are the same, and so are awake and asleep, young and old.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 78)

Couples are wholes and not wholes, what agrees disagrees, the concordant is discordant. From all things one and from one all things.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 54)

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 20)


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<a href="https://nirvanic.co/author/seeker/" target="_self">Daniel Seeker</a>

Daniel Seeker

Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish, creator of Nirvanic and a lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings and his online course are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel has studied history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.

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