In what sense, if any, does Heraclitus hold that
everything is always changing?


According to Diogenes Laertius (circa 3rd century CE)(1), a biographer of the ancient Greek philosophers, in the sixth century BCE, Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote a philosophical work entitled "On Nature".   Also according to Diogenes, Heraclitus was a misanthrope who had a very low opinion of the intelligence of his fellow Ephesians.   He made a point of writing in an obscure and complex fashion, making extensive use of poetical metaphors and plays on words, so that none but the already knowledgeable could understand him.  

They say that Euripides gave Socrates a copy of Heraclitus' book and asked him what he thought of it.   He replied: "What I understand is splendid; and I think what I don't understand is so too - but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it."
                      (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, II 22).

None of the original work has survived.   Only 139 disjointed fragments remain as quotations in the works of others.   As a consequence, it is very difficult to tease a coherent interpretation out of the little that remains of his text.   There continues a considerable debate amongst the experts as to which fragments are the best guides to the original text, and what ought to be the proper interpretation of Heraclitus'philosophic musings.(2)

The traditional interpretation of Heraclitus'philosophy is that of a universe in constant change.   This probably goes back to the comments of Plato.   In the Cratylus, Plato (Socrates) says  

"Heraclitus I supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice."(3)

Plato's interpretation was adopted by Aristotle, and through him Theophrastus, whose "Opinions of the Physicists"became the basis of all later ancient accounts.(3)  

For Heraclitus, according to this interpretation, the great truth is that the unity of the world-order ("logos") depends on difference, opposition, and change.   Against his philosophical predecessors'idea of the world as a fixed unity with things like "The hot', "The cold', "The light', "The dark' as entities which existed in themselves, Heraclitus presents the idea of the world as process with the discernable properties of things as determinable magnitudes, relative positions on a continuum.   The universe, to Heraclitus, is in a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium of opposites (like the bow and lyre -- B51) in a constant flux between opposites (like day and night -- B57, B67).   But the process is an ordered one, governed by fundamental principles.   Thus, universal change is accompanied by an eternal unchanging governing canon -- the "logos".  

Interestingly, however, there is nothing in the few remaining fragments of his writings that would support Plato's contention that Heraclitus believed in the constant flux of all things.   The only fragments that could be interpreted in the Platonic way are B12 and B91.   Plato likely refers to these passages because they speak of rivers, and waters, and say that you cannot step into the same waters twice.   (Actually, since both say essentially the same thing, and each is derived from descriptions of Heraclitus's text rather than quotations from that text, some experts suggest that it is probable that both are descended from a single original passage.)   But if Plato is correct in his interpretation, and Heraclitus maintained that all things are in motion and nothing at rest, it is quite surprising that no fragments supporting such a conclusion still exist.   Based on the scanty evidence that does remain, it is possible that Plato overstated Heraclitus'actual position in his interpretation.

Considering the remaining fragments that do exist, there are at least four different ways in which Heraclitus talks about opposites.   The fragments suggest that Heraclitus does not believe that opposites are one (unity) as Plato and Aristotle suggest, but rather believes that opposites are present in the same thing, or coinstantiated.   And how Heraclitus talks about opposites is key to understanding the sense in which Heraclitus thinks about change.

  1. Perspective:   From B13, pigs like mud, but men do not.   From B9, horses, dogs, and humans have different notions of pleasure.   Asses prefer straw to gold, while men prefer gold to straw.   From B61, the sea is pure for the fish, but impure for man.   From B60, the way up and the way down is one and the same.   From B48, the bow is called life (in a play on words), yet its function is death.   From B58, the work of the surgeon merits a fee (is good) to the surgeon, but is painful (evil) to the patient.   From B103, the beginning and the end of the circumference of a circle are the same.   The same thing is viewed with opposite appreciation or justifies opposite descriptions depending on one's point of view.   There is only one thing, yet there can be opposite descriptions of it.   Change is not mentioned.
  2. Contrast:   From B111, health is pleasant and noticeable only because of sickness, good only because of evil, plenty only because of hunger, and so forth.   Things like health and sickness, good and evil, hunger and plenty exist on a scale delineated by opposite extremes.   Things are often defined, recognizable, noticeable only in terms of their opposites.   The scale is one, but with two opposing limits.   Again, change is not a part of this.
  3. Tension:   From B51, the function of both bow and lyre are dependent on the dynamic tension ("backwards-turning attunement") of opposing forces.   Some opposing things exist in dynamic equilibrium.   The opposing forces exist within the one thing.   Once more, change, although potentially inherent in opposing forces, is not part of the description.
  4. Cyclical:   From B12, the river is one, yet the water is ever changing.   From B57, day and night are separate components of the daily cycle.   From B88, the soul cycles between the living and the dead, the mind cycles between being awake and asleep, the body cycles between being young and old.   From B126, things cycle between being warm and cold, wet and dry.   Many pairs of opposites follow each other in cycles, and are hence connected in a larger whole.   Things change yet remain the same.   These are the only examples of opposites that involve change.

The fragments provide examples where opposites are coinstantiated within a single invariant object.   And examples where opposites are coninstantiated within a single invariant process.   These fragments make it clear that Heraclitus is arguing that only the unitary underlying object or process exists.   What appear to be opposites are but different perspectives on the underlying hidden unity.   Hence, the existence of opposites is entirely dependent on one's point of view.

The fragments that suggest a succession of opposites (day following night, death following life) provide supporting evidence for the Platonic interpretation that change is central to Heraclitus's thought.   To say that every object manifests some pair of contrary properties cyclically is just to say that every object undergoes change.   For Heraclitus, on this interpretation, every object is subject to change and is always undergoing some kind of change or other.   The change that all things experience is driven, on this view, by the strife between those opposites that are coinstantiated within any given object (B80, B53).   The example of the bow or lyre (B51) suggests the tension between opposed forces.   It seems static, but it is in fact dynamic.   Beneath an object's apparently motionless exterior is a tension between opposed forces.   This is not obvious to us only because, as Heraclitus also tells us, 'nature loves to hide'(B123) and 'an unapparent connection (harmonia) is stronger than an apparent one'(B54).

But given the other ways in which he talks about opposites, it is also just as likely that Heraclitus's notion of the role of change involved more than just the succession of opposed states that occurs in cases of cyclical change.   His other examples of the coinstantiation of opposites within a single object exemplify the kind of change in which the opposites are simultaneously present in a single object and are manifested by a change in perspective.  

From this alternate interpretation of Heraclitus, the message of the river fragments is not so much that all things are changing, but rather that some things stay the same only by changing.   One kind of long-lasting reality (river, man, days, years) exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent parts (waters, ages/souls, night and day, seasons).   The choice is not between constancy and change, but rather a constancy that exists only because of change.   A human body is as one by living and continuing - by virtue of constant metabolism as Aristotle understood it.   In this sense, change is seen as a necessary condition of constancy -- "things whole and not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant.   The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one."(B10)   This view fuses together the four different kinds of discussion of opposites resulting from changes in perspective.   As we move about our world, our perspective is always changing.   Hence the constancy of some thing will always be subject to changing appreciations as a result of those changing perspectives.   "It rests by changing"(B84a).   Contrary to common sense, the ubiquitous change we see around us is not change in the underlying objects.   It is instead a continuous change in viewpoint.

The two alternative interpretations of Heraclitus focus on different fragments, and justify different senses of "always changing".   The traditional interpretation has Heraclitus arguing for a constant change affecting all things.   This interpretation has often been considered difficult to marry with the notion of knowledge.   Aristotle, for example, argued that if everything is constantly changing as Heraclitus suggests, we can know nothing about anything.   (Whatever we though we knew has already changed by the time we think we know it.)   When we consider that constant change is a relatively common sense appreciation of reality over time, it is difficult to reconcile any philosophical argument for it with the obtuse and obscure arguments attributed to Heraclitus.   If the ideas of Heraclitus were as common place as common sense, why would it take a "Delian diver to get to the bottom if it"?

The more recent competing interpretation, however, has Heraclitus arguing for the appearance of change (and opposite properties) arising from a constant change in viewpoint.   Such an interpretation has the advantage of making Heraclitus'core idea somewhat more revolutionary in a world where it is patently obvious to the senses that everything is changing all the time.   It is one thing to argue the obvious that the barley drink will undergo change and separate if not stirred (B125).   It is quite another to argue that the barley-drink is one and the same stirred and not-stirred (separated), and only our perspective on the constancy of the thing changes.   No wonder Heraclitus was considered obscure and obtuse.


Notes & References

(1)     Diogenes Laertius, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL=<

(2)     Vlastos, Gregory.   Studies in Greek Philosophy: Volume 1 -- The Presocratics, Daniel W. Graham Ed., Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1993.   ISBN 0-691-01937-1.   Pgs 127-150.

(3)     Plate, Cratylus, in Plato: Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns Eds., Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 2002.   ISBN 0-691-09718-6.  
Pg 439, S402a.

(4)     Kirk, G. S., "Natural Change in Heraclitus", Mind, New Series, Vol. 60, No. 237. (Jan., 1951), p 35.

Graham, Daniel W., "Heraclitus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =                                         <>.

Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E., Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1957.


B12:           (From Cleanthes, from Arius Didymus, from Eusebius)

On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.

(Or alternatively -- "You cannot step twice into the same rivers ; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you."or   "We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.")

B91:          (From Plutarch)

[For, according to Heraclitus, it is not possible to step twice into the same river, nor is it possible to touch a mortal substance twice in so far as its state is concerned. But, thanks to the swiftness and speed of change,] it scatters and brings together again, [(or, rather, it brings together and lets go neither again nor later, but simultaneously)] it forms and dissolves, and it approaches and departs.


B9              For a horse, a dog and a human being have different pleasures; asses prefer straw to gold, since asses find food sweeter than gold.


B10           Graspings: things whole and not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.


B13           Pigs delight in the mire more than in clean water.


B36           For it is death to souls to become water, and death to water to become earth. But water comes from earth; and from water, soul.


B48           The bow is called life, but its work is death.


B51           They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.


B53           War is father of all and king of all; and some he manifested as gods, some as men; some he made slaves, some free.


B54           An unapparent connection (harmonia) is stronger than an apparent one.


B57           Men are sure that [Hesiod] he knew very many things, he who did not know day and night: they are one.


B58           And good and evil are the same. For doctors, cutting and burning and torturing sick men in every way, still complain that they do not receive as much pay as they deserve from the sick, producing the same things, goods and sicknesses.


B59           The straight and the crooked path of the fuller's comb is one and the same.


B60           The way up and the way down is one and the same.


B61           The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.


B62           Mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, the one living the others' death and dying the others' life.


B67           God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savor of each.


B80           We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.


B84a       It rests by changing.


B88           And it is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, awake and asleep, young and old; the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former.


B103       In the circumference of a circle the beginning and the end are common.


B111       It is sickness that makes health pleasant and good; hunger, plenty; weariness, rest.


B123       Nature loves to hide.


B125       Even the posset (barley-drink) separates if it is not stirred.


B126       Cold things become warm, and what is warm cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moistened.

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