Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470BC) was one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world. His views on change were in fundamental contradiction with the picture of the static universe promoted by Parmenides, and fed into the work of untold philosophers from Marcus Aurelius to Nietzsche. Heraclitus’ philosophy is a good starting point for anyone who is dealing with change in life. Heraclitus claimed that life is like a river. The peaks and troughs, pits and swirls, are all are part of the ride.
Do as Heraclitus would – go with the flow. Enjoy the ride, as wild as it may be.
Heraclitus was born into a wealthy family, but he renounced his fortune and went to live in the mountains. There, in a tiny hut deep in the forest, Heraclitus had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the natural world. Heraclitus observed that nature is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’, he noted. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.
Heraclitus concluded fron this that nature itself is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Even the nature of the flow changes.
This vision of life is evident in Heraclitus’ epigram on the river of flux:
‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’(B49a).
The standard interpretation of this passage is that Heraclitus is saying we can’t step into the same river twice. This is because the river is constantly changing. If one strolls down the banks of the Danube, the water before one’s eyes is not the same water from moment to moment. If the river is this water (a debatable point, but let’s leave this aside), it follows that the Danube is not the same river from moment to moment. We step into the Danube; we step out of it again. When we step into it a second time, we step into different water and thus a different river.
Furthermore, we step into and out of the river as different beings.
Most interpretations of Heraclitus’s river fragment focus on the idea of the river in a state of flux. But Heraclitus says more than this in this fragment: ‘We are and are not’.
The river changes and so do you!
We are familiar with the principle of biological generation and corruption. Heraclitus puzzled over this principle two thousand years before the birth of the modern biological sciences and drew its ultimate lesson for the human condition. As material beings, we live in a world of flux. Moreover, we are flux. As physical bodies, we are growing and dying all the time, consuming light and resources to replicate our structure, while shedding matter continuously.
Change and death are ubiquitous features of the natural world. Perhaps this is what Heraclitus meant when he said, in his inimitable way:
‘Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life’.