The witty, often paradoxical utterances of Heraclitus are both beguiling and frustrating. It is tempting to solve the problem by pronouncing the two-word formula: “everything flows” (panta rei). This simplification goes back to Plato (Cratylus 402a), who was not sympathetic to Heraclitus. Those two little words have echoed down the centuries, surviving even now as a kind of Twitter condensation of the Greek thinker’s message.
Plato and Aristotle charged that Heraclitus’ thought was confused and incoherent. For he held that (1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time. In this way, the principles of universal flux and the identity of opposites defy the dictates of the law of non-contradiction. Only in modern times have scholars been able to free themselves of these animadversions, recognizing the true grandeur of the thought of Heraclitus.
It is generally believed that Heraclitus wrote a single book which supplied the fragments available to us. According to Diels-Kranz there are 126 authentic fragments. In his edition Miroslav Marcovich recognizes 122. Recent papyrus discoveries have added some material, mostly duplications of items already known, In this discussion I use the traditional Diels-Kranz numbers for citation.
Throughout the surviving passages Heracliitus shows an unwavering self-confidence, bordering on arrogance and even megalomania. Although all human beings are immersed in the Process (or Logos), very few have the wit to understand or even recognize thieir situation. Heraclitus shows disdain for such predecessors as Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Xenocrates. In their ignorance they are scarcely better than the common herd. There are social consequences as well, as when he recommends that the adults of his naive Ephesus should simply hang themselves, so miserable is the mess they have made of the city’s affiairs.
Heraclitus’ utterances about opposites rank among his most seminal and challenging observations First are contraries that stem from different points of view (perspectivism). For example, “[t[he sea is the purest and most polluted water; to fishes drinkable and bringing safety; to humans undrinkable and destructive.” (fr. 61) Or, “[t]he most beautiful of apes is ugly in comparison with the human race.” (fr. 82)
Then there are qualities that occur simultaneously. Of these, probably the most famous is “[t[he road up and the road down are one and the same.” (fr. 60)
And then qualities that necessary for each other. “Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger does the same for satiety, weariness for rest.” (fr. 111)
Finally, the there is the transmutation of elements. “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, earth that of water,” (fr. 76)
The river sayings have occasioned much discussion. One version is this (rendered literally): “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” (fr. 22).
Properly interpreted, the sentence asserts that different waters flow in rivers that are themselves staying the same. In other words, though the waters are always changing, the rivers remain rivers. In fact, it must be precisely because the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, rather than lakes or ponds. The import is that rivers can stay the same over time even though, or indeed because, the waters change. The point, then, is not that everything is changing, but that the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things. It may be then that, more generally, the change in elements or constituents supports the constancy of higher-level structures.
In the light of these passages, it may be argued that Heraclitus does not proclaim universal flux, a kind of unending hullaballoo, Instead he recognizes a lawlike process,
Heraclitus asserts the primacy of an everlasting Word or Logos, according to which all things are one in some sense. The Ephesian thinker is convinced that the cosmos exhibits a rational structure, and that this rational structure orders and controls the universe. The Logos is Heraclitus's physis, but only in the sense of a single principle informing all of nature. To understand the logos it is imperative to acknowledge that all things are unified in it. To be sure, the logos is not the material out of which everything else arose according to the pattern of Milesian monism, though it ranks as the origin of all things insofar as it controls the arrangement of all matter.
In fact, Heraclitus’ theory responded critically to the philosophy of his Ionian predecessors. The Milesian thinkers - Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes - held that some original material turns into all other things (material monism). The world as we know it is the orderly ensemble of different things emanating from the primary element. For the Milesians, the task of explaining the world and its phenomena required showing how everything came from the original stuff, such as Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air.
Heraclitus seems to follow the Milesian example when he refers to the world as “everliving fire” (fr, 30) and makes statements such as “Thunderbolt steers all things,” alluding to the directive power of fire (fr. 64). But fire is a strange element to make the origin of all things, for it is the most inconstant and changeable. It is, indeed, a symbol of change and process. Heraclitus observes that “[a]ll things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.” (fr. 90)
Ultimately, for Heraclitus fire may figure more importantly as a symbol than as an element. Fire is constantly changing, but so is everything else. We witness a never-ending sequence of transformations, the Logos in action. In this way Heraclitus anticipated the process of philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and others, The world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather with an ongoing process governed by a law of change.
Heraclitus’ accomplishment was enormous. He ranks as the first Western philosopher to go beyond physical theory in search of the metaphysical foundations and moral assumptions that have come to form the basis for our thinking.