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Heraclitus, depicted in an engraving from 1825

Heraclitus of Ephesus (GreekἩράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος Herákleitos ho Ephésios, LatinHeraclitus Ephesius; * c. 520 BC; † c. 460 BC) was a pre-Socratic philosopher from Ionian Ephesus.

Life and legends

Heraclitus was born around 520 BC[1] in the Greek colony of Ephesus in Ionia, which was under Persian rule until the 5th century. As the son of a certain Blyson or Herakon, about which there was already disagreement in antiquity,[2] Heraclitus came from an aristocratic lineage. This would have given him a hereditary claim to the office of royal sacrificial priest; however, he renounced it in favour of his brother. Heraclitus also took a clearly hostile attitude to his fellow citizens politically, as is shown by a quotation referring to the banishment of a prominent local politician: "Right would the Ephesians do if they all hanged themselves man for man and left their city to the underage, they who drove Hermodoros, their most valiant man, out of the city with the words: 'Of us none shall be the most valiant, or, if so, then elsewhere and with others. '"[3] Despite his dislike of his fellow citizens, he seems never to have left his home town.

Only a few of the details of his life that have come down to us can be regarded as certain, including the information that he originally deposited his work in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.[4] The sparse biographical information - for example in Diogenes Laertios - is otherwise inextricably linked with anecdotes, the truth of which is disputed and in some cases highly doubtful.[5] A large part of the alleged incidents was apparently derived in later times from his variously interpretable aphorisms and aimed at posthumously exposing him to ridicule.[6] In this sense, some anecdotes reflect distorted aspects of his utterances: the fragment B 52, which equates life with a boy's game, corresponds to an episode according to which Heraclitus refused to participate in the legislature in Ephesus because he preferred playing with children in the temple of Artemis.[7] Similarly, Heraclitus' death around 460 BC is surrounded by the legend that he fell ill with dropsy due to his purely vegetable diet during his secluded life in the mountains around Ephesus. With his usual enigmatic way of expressing himself, he was unable to make himself understood by the doctors. He then tried to cure himself by lying under a heap of dung in order to dry out his water-addicted body.[8] This description of the alleged circumstances of his demise probably has its origins in fragments of Heraclitus' doctrine, according to which it is death for the soul to become water.[9]

Despite the local and temporal proximity to Miletus and its natural philosophers, no direct reference to the Milesians by Heraclitus has survived either for Thales or for Anaximander or Anaximenes. He was not a student of any of them,[10] nor did he himself establish a continuous tradition or his own school of teaching. His relationship to Parmenides is disputed; the assumption that he knew the work of Parmenides is speculative.[11] His philosophising, which he characterised as self-searching,[12] thus stands outside all divisions into schools and directions. In the history of philosophy, Heraclitus has therefore been controversially called a material monist or a process philosopher, a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysical or mainly religious thinker, an empiricist, a rationalist or a mystic, his thought has been attributed revolutionary or minor significance, and his work has been judged to be the basis of logic or a contradiction in terms.[13]


Only quotations from later texts by other authors have survived from Heraklit's work. These quotations often consist of only one sentence and contain numerous aphorisms, paradoxes and puns. The stylistic peculiarities, the fragmentary tradition and the fact that the authenticity of some fragments is disputed make a precise recording of his philosophy difficult. His theses were and are therefore the subject of controversial attempts at interpretation. Because of his messages, which were not easy to decipher, he was already called "the dark one" (ὁ Σκοτεινός, ho Skoteinós) in antiquity. His exact circumstances - like the structure of his work - are unclear, since research can only rely on information from non-contemporary, partly very late authors, whose credibility is disputed and in some cases obviously low.

A recurring theme of Heraclitus philosophy, apart from the concept of logos, which can be interpreted in many different ways and denotes the intelligible order of the world and its knowledge and explanation, is the natural process of constant becoming and change. In later times, this change was expressed in the popular short formula panta rhei ("everything flows").

„Whoever steps down into the same floods, other water always flows to him. Souls also flow forth from the moist.“


Furthermore, Heraclitus dealt with the relationship between opposites, such as day and night, waking and sleeping, concord and discord.

„That which strives apart unites, and from the different [tones] arises the most beautiful harmony, and everything arises through strife.“


Rudolf Steiner on Heraclitus

„Heraclitus' worldview will have to be perceived by an unbiased observer quite immediately as an expression of his choleric inner life. A glance at his life will throw much light on this thinker in particular. He belonged to one of the most distinguished families of Ephesus. He became a fierce opponent of the democratic party. He became so because certain views arose for him, the truth of which presented itself to him in his immediate inner experience. The views of his environment, measured against his own, seemed to him quite naturally to prove directly the folly of that environment. As a result, he came into such great conflict that he left his home town and led a solitary life at the temple of Artemis. Take a few sentences that have come down to us from him: "It would be good if all the Ephesians who are adults would rise up and give their city to the minors . . .", or the other where he says of men, "Fools in their ignorance, though they hear the true, are like unto the deaf; of them, when they are present, they are absent." - An inner experience that expresses itself in such cholericness finds itself akin to the consuming work of fire; it does not live in comfortable quiet being; it feels itself one with the "eternal becoming". Such a soul experiences stagnation as absurdity; "everything flows" is therefore the famous sentence of Heraclitus. It is only apparent when a persistent being appears somewhere; one will reproduce a Heraclitean feeling when one says the following: The stone seems to represent a closed, persistent being; but this is only apparent: it is wildly moving inside, all its parts act on each other. Heraclitus' way of thinking is usually characterised by the sentence: one cannot step twice into the same stream, for the second time the water is different. And a disciple of Heraclitus, Cratylus, amplified the saying by saying that one cannot enter the same stream even once. So it is with all things; while we look at what seems to be the same, it has already become another in the general stream of existence.

One does not consider a worldview in its full meaning if one only accepts its thought-content; its essence lies in the mood which it communicates to the soul; in the life-force which grows out of it. One must feel how Heraclitus feels himself in the stream of becoming with his own soul, how the world-soul pulsates with him in the human soul and communicates its own life to it when the human soul knows itself to be alive in it. Heraclitus' thought arises from such co-experience with the world soul: "What lives has death in it through the continuous stream of becoming; but death has life in it again. Life and death are in our living and dying. Everything has everything else in it; only in this way can the eternal becoming flow through everything. "The sea is the purest and most impure water, drinkable and wholesome to fish, undrinkable and corruptible to men." "The same is life and death, waking, sleeping, young, old, this changing is that, that again this." "Good and evil are one." "The straight path and the crooked . . . are one only."“ (Lit.:GA 18, p. 54ff)

„In ancient times there were the so-called mysteries as places of cultivation of the higher spiritual life. There the students could be led to spiritual vision through the development of their abilities. One such mystery was in Ephesus, for example, where the secrets of Diana of Ephesus were explored. There the disciples looked into the spiritual worlds. As much as could be publicly communicated of what was received there was actually communicated. Then the others received it as something seen in the Mysteries, as something communicated to them, as a gift. There were people who were aware that they had received the higher secrets from the Mysteries. Such a man was, for example, the great sage Heraclitus. He was particularly aware of the secrets of the Mystery of Ephesus, of the facts which the clairvoyant people there were able to fathom. What he had received there as a message and what he owed to his partial initiation, he proclaimed in such a way that it could be generally understood. Therefore, he who reads the teachings of Heraclitus, the so-called "dark one", sees that there is something deeper at the bottom of them, so that one can still see the direct experience, the experience of the higher worlds shining through in these original teachings.“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 20f)

„Our existence on earth began in its first metamorphosis as a planet of warmth, and from this you can already see how correct it is, for example, when the old Heraclitus says: Everything sprang from fire. - Yes, of course! Because the earth is only the transformed Old Saturn, everything on earth has also come out of this fire. This was a truth that Heraclitus had from the ancient Mysteries. This is also indicated by the fact that he consecrated the book in which he had written down this truth to the goddess at Ephesus, and laid it on the altar there. This means that he was conscious that he owed this wisdom to the Mysteries, the Ephesian Mysteries, where, in their purity, this doctrine of the primeval fire Saturn was still proclaimed.“ (Lit.:GA 110, p. 51f)

„The relationship of Heraclitus (535-475) from Ephesus to the mystery system is given without further ado by a statement about him which has been handed down and which says that his thoughts "are an impassable path", that whoever enters into them without consecration finds only "darkness and gloom", that on the other hand they are "brighter than the sun" for the one whom a myst introduces. And when it is said of his book that he laid it down in the temple of Artemis, this also means nothing other than that he could only be understood by initiates. (Edm. Pfleiderer has already provided the historical information on Heraclitus' relationship to the Mysteries. Cf. his book: "Die Philosophie des Heraklit von Ephesus im Lichte der Mysterienidee", Berlin 1886). Heraclitus was called the "dark one" for the reason that only the key of the Mysteries brought light into his views.

Heraclitus confronts us as a personality with the greatest seriousness in life. If one knows how to visualise his features, one can see that he carried within himself intimacies of knowledge of which he knew that all words can only hint at them, not express them. On the basis of such an attitude grew his famous saying "Everything is in flux", which Plutarch explains to us with the words: "One does not get into the same river twice, nor can one touch a mortal being twice. But by sharpness and rapidity it disperses and brings together again, rather not again and later, but at the same time it comes together and subsides, comes and goes." The man who thinks such things has seen through the nature of transitory things. For he has felt impelled to characterise the nature of transience itself in the sharpest words. One cannot give such a characterisation if one does not measure transience by eternity. And one cannot extend this characteristic to man in particular if one has not looked into his inner being. Heraclitus also extended this characteristic to man: "The same is life and death, waking and sleeping, young and old, this changing is that, that again this." In this sentence a full realisation of the illusory nature of the lower personality is expressed. He says about it even more powerfully: "Life and death are in our living as well as in our dying." What else does this mean than that from the standpoint of transitoriness alone, life can be valued more highly than death. Dying is passing away to make room for new life; but in the new life the eternal lives as in the old. The same eternal appears in the passing life as in the dying.“ (Lit.:GA 8, p. 38ff)

„For him, an eternal speaks out of transience. He has a profound symbol for this eternal. "Returning to itself, the harmony of the world is like the lyre and the bow." What all lies in this image. Through the striving apart of the powers and the harmonising of the diverging powers, unity is achieved. How one tone contradicts the other; and yet, how it brings about harmony together with it. Apply this to the spiritual world; and you have Heraclite's thought: "Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living death from those, dying life from those."

It is the original sin of man when he clings to the perishable with his knowledge. He thus turns away from the eternal. Life thus becomes his danger. What happens to him happens to him from life. But this event loses its sting when he no longer necessarily values life. Then his innocence is given back to him. He feels as if he could return to childhood, out of the so-called seriousness of life. The adult takes everything seriously that the child plays with. But the knower becomes like the child. "Serious" values lose their value, seen from the standpoint of eternity. Life then appears like a game. "Eternity," therefore, says Heraclitus, "is a child at play, the dominion of a child." Wherein lies the original sin? It lies in taking with the utmost seriousness that to which this seriousness should not attach itself. God has poured himself into the world of things. Whoever accepts things without God takes them seriously as "graves of God". He would have to play with them like a child, but use his seriousness to bring out of them the divine that sleeps enchanted in them.“ (Lit.:GA 8, p. 41f)

„Heraclitus in particular can easily be misunderstood. He lets war be the father of things. But for him war is only the father of "things", not of the eternal. If there were not opposites in the world, if there were not the most diverse conflicting interests, the world of becoming, of transience, would not be. But what is revealed in this conflict, what is poured into it: that is not war, that is harmony. Precisely because war is in all things, the spirit of the wise man should move like fire over things and transform them into harmony. From this point shines a great thought of Heraclitean wisdom. What is man as a personal being? For Heraclitus, this question receives its answer from this point. Man is a mixture of the conflicting elements into which the divinity has poured itself. This is how he finds himself. He becomes aware of the spirit within himself. The spirit that comes from the eternal. But this spirit is born for him out of the conflict of the elements. But this spirit is also to calm the elements. In man, nature creates beyond itself. It is, after all, the same All-One Power that has produced the conflict, the mixture; and which wisely is to remove this conflict again. There we have the eternal duality that lives in man; his eternal opposition between the temporal and the eternal. Through the eternal he has become something quite definite; and out of this definite he is to create a higher thing. He is dependent and independent. He can only participate in the eternal spirit which he beholds according to the mixture which the eternal spirit has wrought in him. And for this very reason he is called to shape the eternal out of the temporal. The spirit works in him. But he works in him in a special way. He works out of the temporal. That a temporal thing works like an eternal thing, that it drives and forces like an eternal thing: that is the peculiarity of the human soul. This makes it similar to a god and a worm at the same time. Man thus stands in the middle between God and animal. This driving and powerful thing in him is his demonic. It is that which strives out of him. Heraclitus pointed this out strikingly: "Man's demon is his destiny. (Demon is meant here in the Greek sense. In the modern sense, one would have to say: spirit.) Thus, for Heraclitus, what lives in man expands far beyond the personal. This personal is the bearer of a demonic. A demonic that is not enclosed within the boundaries of the personality, for which the death and birth of the personal have no meaning. What has this demonic to do with that which arises and passes away as personality? The personal is only one manifestation for the demonic. Forwards and backwards, the bearer of such knowledge looks beyond himself. That he experiences the demonic in himself is testimony to the eternity of himself. And he must no longer ascribe to this demonic the sole occupation of filling his personality. For only one of these manifestations of the demonic can be the personal. The demon cannot close himself off within one personality. He has power to animate many personalities. From personality to personality he is able to transform himself. The great thought of re-embodiment leaps out of the Heraclitean presuppositions as something self-evident. But not only the thought, but the experience of this re-embodiment. The thought only prepares for this experience. Whoever becomes aware of the demonic in himself does not find it as an innocent, first thing. He finds it with qualities. Through what does it have these? Why do I have attachments? Because other personalities have already worked on my demon. And what becomes of what I work on the demon if I may not assume that its tasks are exhausted in my personality? I am preparing for a later personality. Between me and the world entity there is something that reaches beyond me, but is not yet the same as the Godhead. My demon pushes itself in between. As my today is only the result of yesterday, my tomorrow will only be the result of my today: so my life is the consequence of another; and it will be the reason for another. As the earthly man looks backwards at numerous yesterdays and forwards at numerous tomorrows, so the soul of the wise man looks at numerous lives in the past and numerous lives in the future. What I acquired yesterday, in thoughts, in skills, I use today. Is it not so with life? Don't people enter the horizon of existence with the most diverse abilities? Where does the diversity come from? Does it come from nothing?“ (Lit.:GA 8, p. 43ff)

„One understands the proud features and the solitary manner of such sages as Heraclitus was. They could proudly say that many things were evident to them, for they did not attribute their knowledge to their transient personality, but to the eternal demon within them. Their pride had as a necessary adjunct the very stamp of humility and modesty which the words express: All knowledge of transient things is in eternal flux like these transient things themselves. Heraclitus calls the eternal world a game; he could also call it the highest seriousness. But the word seriousness is consumed by its application to earthly experiences. The play of the eternal leaves in man the certainty of life which the seriousness that has sprouted from the transient deprives him of.“ (Lit.:GA 8, p. 49f)



  • Hermann Diels, Walther Kranz (eds.): Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Volume 1, Hildesheim 2004 (unchanged new edition of the 6th edition of 1951), ISBN 3-615-12201-1 (original Greek text partly with German translation; online).
  • Charles H. Kahn: The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. An edition of the fragments with translation and commentary, Cambridge 1981, ISBN 0-521-28645-X.
  • Geoffrey Stephen Kirk: Heraclitus. The Cosmic Fragments. Edited with an introduction and commentary. Cambridge 1954.
  • Serge Mouraviev: Heraclitea. Édition critique complète des témoignages sur la vie et l'œuvre d'Héraclite d'Éphèse et des vestiges de son livre et de sa pensée. Sankt Augustin from 1999 (20 volumes planned, 10 volumes published so far).


  • Jaap Mansfeld (ed.): Die Vorsokratiker, vol. 1, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-15-007965-9 (original Greek text with German translation; Heraclitus pp. 231-283).
  • Bruno Snell: Heraclitus. Fragments. Artemis & Winkler, 14th edition, Düsseldorf 2007, ISBN 978-3-538-03506-5 (original Greek text with German translation).

General works

References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: verlag@steinerverlag.com URL: www.steinerverlag.com.
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold
steinerbooks.org - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. On the dating of Heraclitus' birth and death, see Mouraviev (2000) pp. 577f. (with discussion of the older literature on chronology).
  2. Diogenes Laertios 9,1 (= FGrHist 244 F 340a).
  3. Diogenes Laertios 9,2.
  4. Gadamer (1999), p. 12.
  5. Diogenes Laertios 9,1-17.
  6. Geoffrey Kirk, John E. Raven, Malcolm Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, Stuttgart 2001, p. 199.
  7. Christof Rapp, Vorsokratiker, Munich 1997, p. 62.
  8. Diogenes Laertios 9,3.
  9. DK 22 B 36; Rapp (1997), p. 62.
  10. Pleines (2002), p. 67, note 180.
  11. Mouraviev (2000) p. 584f. (with literature review on the question). Mouraviev points out that only speculative philosophical-historical considerations can speak for a Parmenides reception in Heraclitus, whereas not only philosophical-historical but also philological arguments have been put forward for a Heraclitus reception in Parmenides. The question remains open.
  12. DK 22 B 101: "I have investigated myself" (ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν); Diogenes Laertios 9,5.
  13. Daniel W. Graham, Heraclitus, in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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