Father of the Doctrine of Flux and the Unity of Opposites
Heraclitus (Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος — Herakleitos
the Ephesian), son of Bloson, was a pre-Socratic philosopher
born about 535 BCE in Ephesos, the second great Greek Ionian
city. He was a man of strong, 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 Lógos, that is, Rule, Order
or Reason. Heraclitus is the philosopher of eternal change.
For him everything is "in flux", as exemplified
in his famous aphorism "Panta Rhei": πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει (Plato, «Cratylus»),
'everything flows and nothing is left unchanged'. In fact,
according to Heraclitus, there is no permanent reality
except the reality of change; permanence
is an illusion of the senses.
accepted only one material source of natural substances,
the Pyr (Fire). This Pyr is the essence
of Lógos which creates an infinite and uncorrupted
world, without beginning. It converts this world into various
shapes as a harmony of the opposites. He taught that the
composition of opposites sustains everything in nature
(polarity of the essence): all things carry with them their
opposites, that death is potential in life, that being
and non-being are part of every whole — therefore,
as written above, the only possible real state is the transitional
one of becoming.
may rightly be called the Grandfather of the Stoicism,
a philosophical system built upon the unassailable power
of a single idea: live according to nature. The Heraclitean
philosophy is also very close to another ancient philosophical
tradition, that of Taoism: the Tao (or "the
Way") often refers to a space-time sequence, and is
similarly expressed with seemingly-contradictory language
(e.g., "The Way is like an empty vessel / that may
still be drawn from / without ever needing to be filled").
He shared with the philosophy of Lao
Tzu (老子 "Old Master") not only
the emphasis on continuous change, which he expressed in
his famous saying "everything flows", but also
the notion that all changes are cyclic (Yin-Yang). According
to the philosopher Hans
Georg Gadamer some of the sentences of Heraclitus could
have been adopted by the first Christians, like the obscure “the
father is his own proper son”, meaning actually that
as soon as a man generates a son, he becomes a father.
fragments of Heraclitus's work, commonly known as «Peri
Physeos» On Nature (of the Universe),
have survived, although their interpretation is made difficult
by their lack of context and by the abbreviated, oracular
style in which they were written. Because of the difficulty
of his thought, Heraclitus was known in the history of
philosophy as "the Obscure" (Ancient Greek ὁ Σκοτεινός — ho
Skoteinós), as well as "the Mocker" or "the
Reviler of the mob", due to his contempt for those
who were not enlightened... Timon of Phlius (Greek sceptic
philosopher and satirical poet, 300 BCE) called him 'Ainiktês',
the "Riddler", some other philosophers referred
to him as "the Weeping Philosopher", a humorous
reference to his claim that all things flow like rivers.
Heraclitus’ 'book' «Peri
Physeos» was then mostly a collection of concise gnomic
thoughts and was perhaps divided in three sections:
cosmology, politics and theology. The punctuation of his
propositions allows different readings and interpretations. Chiasmus and oxymoron were
the most frequent figures of style he used to express his
thoughts. Heraclitus dedicated his work and placed it in
the temple of Artemis, as some say, having 'purposely'
written it 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. When Socrates read
Heraclitus’ 'book' said that "The concepts I
understand are great, but I believe that the concepts I
can't understand are great too. However, the reader needs
to be an excellent swimmer like those from Delos, so as
not to be drown from his book".
Text in old Greek with 'translations'
in English, Italian and French.
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.
If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils
would distinguish them.
Se le cose si mutassero in
fumo a distinguerle basterebbe l'olfatto.
Si toutes choses devenaient fumée, les narines
I have searched myself...
Mi sono cercato me stesso...
Je me suis cherché moi-même...
self-examination is the hardest thing to do...
εἷς ἐμοὶ μύριοι, ἐὰν ἄριστος ᾖ.
One is worth ten thousand to me, if he is the best.
Uno per me è diecimila,
se è il migliore.
Un seul est dix-mille pour moi, s'il est le meilleur.
ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή.
The way up and the way down is one and the same.
La via in su e la via in giù sono
una e medesima cosa.
Le chemin en haut, et le chemin en bas sont un et
θυμῷ μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ὃ τι γὰρ ἂν θέλῃ, ψυχῆς ὠνεῖται.
It is hard to fight against one’s heart’s
desire. Whatever it
wants it will buy at the cost of the soul.
E difficile battersi contro
il desiderio: a prezzo dell'anima,
acquisterà ciò che ambisce.
Il est difficile de combattre contre le désir
de son propre coeur:
il achetera au prix de l'âme ce qu'il convoite.
here is probably the earliest statement of the power
of advertising in a market economy.
ποταμῷ γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐμϐῆναι δὶς τῷ αὐτῷ.
You cannot step twice into the same rivers.
Non si può discendere
due volte nel medesimo fiume.
On ne peut pas descendre deux fois dans le même
this statement poses clearly the problem of the continuum
as inherent in the nature of things (flux). It is
not the same river obviously since the water has
all moved along downstream. Nor is it the same 'you',
since each instant your physical nature changes.
χρυσὸν γὰρ οἱ διζήμενοι γῆν πολλὴν ὀρύσσουσι
Those who seek for gold dig up much earth
and find a little.
Quelli che cercano oro scavano
ma poco ne trovano.
Ceux qui cherchent de l’or remuent beaucoup
de terre et n’en trouvent que peu.
much labor, often no or few returns,
that is the nature of the investigation of new ideas.
ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται, ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει,
ἀνεξερεύνητονἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.
If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not
for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.
Se non speri l'insperabile,
non lo troverai,
poiché è faticoso e difficile da trovare.
Si tu ne t'attends pas à l'inattendu, tu ne
le trouveras pas,
car il est pénible et difficile à trouver.
πᾶν γὰρ ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται.
Every beast is driven to pasture by a blow.
Le bestie vengono portate al
pascolo con la sferza.
Toute bête est menée au pâturage
par des coups.
every thing we have ever learned (which has
turned out worth learning), has been learned with
difficulty and pain and often approached unwillingly.
ἀκοῦσαι οὐκ ἐπιστάμενοι οὐδ' εἰπεῖν.
Knowing not how to listen, they do not know how to
Non sapendo ascoltare, non
Ne sachant écouter, il ne savent parler.
κύνες γὰρ καὶ βαΰζουσιν ὃν, ἂν μὴ γινώσκωσι.
Dogs bark at every one they do not know.
I cani abbaiano contro chiunque
Les chiens aboient après tous ceux qu’ils
are three stones with Heaclitean thoughts engraved found
in Olbia, Ukraine, dating back approx. to VIth century