Flux, Fire, and Philosophical Revolution

The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus

Heraclitus believed that all things are in a state of flux. The Greek philosopher claimed that radical transformation rules out continuing identity. He also conceived that the world is ruled by a guiding principle called fire.

Heraclitus distinguished himself from his Ionian predecessors Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes by revolutionizing thought about values. He also made the nature of the divine a central question in philosophy.


The ancients interpreted Heraclitus’ thought in many different ways. He has been characterized as a mystical thinker, a cosmologist, and a moral philosopher using physical doctrines to support his moral teachings (Diogenes Laertius 9.1-17).

The fragments survive revealing that Heraclitus held a materialistic belief that everything is in flux and he supported the idea of the coincidence of opposites. In this, Heraclitus seems closer to Thales and Anaximander than to the more developed Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus was among the first to make a point of human epistemic limitations. He is one of the few ancient philosophers to use a word that makes the two different concepts it connects seem incompatible: man (o Skoteinos) and guardian spirit/deity (eudaimon or dusdaimon). His major sayings have been difficult to understand, earning him the name “the Dark One.” He has been considered a philosophical obscurantist. He is also considered an important precursor of modern science as he may have been the first to think of the world as a system.


While Heraclitus seems to have been influenced by his predecessors, he made every effort to break free of the mold. He criticized the epic poets, the historian Hecataeus, the religious guru Pythagoras, the Milesian philosophers and many others. His satirical treatment of them in the “Sale of Creeds” was perhaps inspired by his own melancholy mood, and he sought to create a philosophy separate from all others.

He developed the ideas of Xenophanes regarding a single eternal, indestructible force that binds and sets all things in motion. He called this force the Logos, which he conceived of as a synthesis of the cosmic and human realms. Heraclitus admonished men to become like the Logos and to speak its language in order to understand its nature.

Heraclitus was the first of the pre-Socratic philosophers to emphasize the necessity of the individual soul and its relationship to the One. Heraclitus also is noted for his harsh criticism of cult practices, such as blood sacrifices and praying to statues.


Heraclitus seems to have had a strong influence on the thinkers that succeeded him, even though he did not form an identifiable school or movement. He criticized most of the ancients, including the epic poets, the sage Xenophanes and the religious philosopher Pythagoras, and was self-taught. He also did not recommend any new rituals to replace those he rejected.

Heracliteans argue that sound thinking is the highest virtue and wisdom. They believe that a person’s cognitive experience will help him or her discern the truth in nature, and that the world is full of contradictions that can be interpreted to reveal the unity in all things.

Heraclitus revolutionized thought about values by pointing out that no opposite can be valued to the exclusion of its positive powers. He also developed the idea of flux, or , as destructive of constancy, and taught that man’s character is his fate (eudaimon or dusdaimon). He also introduced the concept of polemos, armed conflict between communities.


Heraclitus stands in a unique position among ancient philosophers. He does not openly criticize any of the Milesians (though he may have tacitly criticized Anaximander), nor did he join any movements or schools later on. He does not explicitly assert any of his own ideas, but many scholars have assumed that he was a material monist or a process philosopher.

It is hard to prove whether Heraclitus believed in flux or not, since his writings are so cryptic and difficult to interpret. However, it is possible to show that he did believe that high-level processes supervene on lower-level ones. The pairs hot/cold and dry/wet are paradigmatic examples of this, as are day/night and water/earth.

Heraclitus was one of the first Greek philosophers to put forward the idea of Logos, which means “word” or “reason.” This concept influenced ancient Stoic philosophy. Heraclitus also stressed the importance of introspection and self-examination as the key to gaining wisdom.

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