Heraclitus, change, and flow

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470 BC) is one of the most important thinkers in history. Heraclitus’ views on change and flow stand in stark contradition to the picture of the static universe presented by his predecessor Parmenides (5th century BCE), and fed into the work of untold philosophers from Marcus Aurelius (121 AD–180 AD) to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD).

Heraclitus’ philosophy is a good starting point for anyone concerned with change in life. Heraclitus said 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, Heraclitus had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the natural world. He observed that nature is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’, Heraclitus noted. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.

Heraclitus concluded that nature is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Even the nature of the flow changes.

Heraclitus’ vision of life is clear in his epigram on the river of flux:

‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’ (B49a).

One 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 I stroll down the banks of the Danube, the water before my eyes is not the same water from moment to moment. If the river is this water (which is a debatable point – the river could be its banks, the scar it carves in the landscape, 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.

Moreover, 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 the 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. Maybe this is what Heraclitus meant when he said, in his inimitable way:

‘Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life’.

Or maybe not. With Heraclitus we can’t be sure. What we know of Heraclitus comes from his commentators (nothing survives of his original work), and so Heraclitean epigrams can seem dubious in provenance, attributable to other authors. Everything changes, and history has changed a dozen times since Heraclitus’ time; yet I believe we can still take value from Heraclitus, particularly in a time like today, which is so clearly calling out for deep institutional and infrastructural change (I am speaking to people who are looking to make deep changes in our environmental and energy systems; our political, representative and regulatory systems; in our economic system – market capitalism – which is intrinsically indebted to the kind of society we really don’t want to be, an industrial society).

I think that Heraclitus gets it right. Reality is change and flow.


  1. How can we relate it to ourselves?

  2. ian calantas says:

    Change is constant.

  3. Reblogged this on ram0ram note book.

  4. ian calantas says:

    The only constant thing in this world is change. Have you noticed it?

  5. David Airth says:

    The best part is how Hegel picked up on Heraclitus’ change and made it the center of his world-system theory, which still stands today.

  6. Reblogged this on marsowords and commented:
    If you like paddling in deeper waters, this blogger is worth checking out.

  7. Shared on Facebook Chan6es, Tim. Philosophy for Change insights are such a joy to read. Thank you so much. 🙂

  8. Congratulations on your blog. Awesome stuff here…

    Great to have found you ; Aquileana 🙂


  10. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  11. Ah….. awesome. I liked it.

  12. Very well explained!! You just saved me from the poor performance in philosophy presentation! Thanks loads!

  13. franklin ngam says:

    there is total change

  14. Robust perspectives!

  15. Ashiata Junior, S R B says:

    Is change realy an illution of senses?

  16. johnbritton1 says:

    Thank you for this.
    In my training work (I train performers) I often link Heraclitus’ “Panta rhea” (everything flows) with Krishnamurti’s ‘Everything Flows’ as a way of emphasising how our liveness is found in how we react to external stimulus, not in any fixedness of position or belief.

  17. Heraclitus based the alleged truth of this idea (valid for all of space and time, it seems) — i.e., that everything flows — on what he thought true about his stepping into a river! — The details surrounding which he got wrong, anyway. But, there are trillions of unchanging objects/particles in each microgram of matter, namely protons, which remain unchanged (unless acted upon) for far longer than the universe has been in existence. So, this ancient, mystical notion, seems to me to be a rather odd way to re-fashion philosophy (a useless disciple in itself).



    [I hasten to add that by challenging this ancient myth i am not committed to the opposite view that nothing changes.]

  18. Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.

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