Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540–c. 480 BCE)

That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analysed, intuition of man has produced. It is the theme of some of the best Hebrew poetry in the Psalms; it appears as one of the first generalizations of Greek philosophy in the form of the saying of Heraclitus (PR 208).

Such is the forceful opening of Whitehead’s chapter on Process in PR, in which he calls attention to one of the two rival notions that characterize our experience of reality—permanence and flux, symbolized respectively by enduring pyramids and the flowing river. The religious intuition of these polarities is invoked by the words of traditional hymn, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”[1] While the Platonic Forms, Whitehead’s eternal objects, God’s primordial nature, and the logic of Parmenides reflect our experience of eternity and permanence, Heraclitus’ image of life as a flowing river reflects the experience of the brevity and the perpetual perishing that characterizes each moment of experience. Despite our quest for stability, we live in world of constant change.

1. Brief Vita

Described as the “riddler,” “obscure,” and misanthropic by his earliest commentators, Heraclitus of Ephesus was the first Western philosopher to capture the dynamic nature of existence. Born into an aristocratic family and destined for political and religious leadership, Heraclitus scorned public life and saw his fellow citizens as sleepwalkers, who—like the citizens of Plato’s cave—embraced illusion instead of reality. While we do not know the exact dates of Heraclitus’ lifespan, ancient authorities noted that he “flourished” (i.e. was in his fortieth year), during the sixty-ninth Olympiad, roughly equivalent to 504-500 B.C.E. Ancient authorities also assert that he died at the age of sixty, a lifespan commonly attributed by the Greeks to great figures.

2. Metaphysical and Spiritual Vision

Heraclitus’ writings are mysterious and aphoristic and share a stylistic similarity to the writings of his contemporary, Lao Tzu, the author of the Chinese spiritual classic, Tao Te Ching. Werner Jaeger asserts that “Heraclitus is the first [Western] thinker who not only wishes to know the truth but also holds that this knowledge will renew men’s [sic] lives” (1947, 113). Heraclitus thus believes that metaphysics is not a value-neutral description of reality; rather, he asserts that what we know about the universe has axiological implications. Our greatest good as persons and communities comes from our knowledge and alignment with the nature of things. Because Heraclitus’ writings are aphoristic and fragmentary, one cannot be dogmatic about his actual thought. Nevertheless, this article will present what seem to be his essential ideas in a more systematic way, in order to highlight his possible status as a forerunner of process thought. In this, we will focus on five key insights around which Heraclitus’ philosophy seems to crystallize: (1) the dynamic and ever-changing nature of reality; (2) the unity of opposites; (3) Logos as microcosmic and macrocosmic; (4) the relativity of all things; and (5) the relationship between metaphysics and spiritual transformation.

2.1. The Dynamic and Ever-changing Nature of Reality

Two statements typify the Heraclitean vision of reality:

(1) Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed (Fr. 20).

(2) You can’t step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on (Fr. 21; DK 22 B 91, 12).[2]

In describing Heraclitus’ metaphysics, Plato notes that “Heraclitus somewhere says that all things are in process and nothing stays still” (Cratylus 402a).

According to both Heraclitus and Whitehead, the process is the reality. Like fire, all things are constantly rising and perishing. Transformation involves the constant interplay of creation and destruction. “The way upward and down are one in the same” as reality moves constantly from fire to earth and from earth back again to fire (Fr. 108; cf. DK 22 B 60, 76). Moment by moment, “[t]here is an exchange of all things for fire and fire for all things” (Fr. 28; DK 22 B 90). Fire, or cosmic transformation, constantly “throws apart and brings together again; it advances and retires” (Fr. 31; DK 22 B 91).

Fire, from Heraclitus’ perspective, is not a material substrate to which all things are reducible, but the description of the process of transformation that characterizes every moment of life.[3] In spite of the fiery nature of reality, daily life requires us to live by the illusion of stability. But, what appears stable is, in fact, in the process of continuous transition, albeit at a slower speed than the lively, moving elements characteristic of the element fire. In a world of process, absolute stability is an illusion, whether it relates to mountains, empires, or our own physical embodiment. Birth and death, and then rebirth again characterize each moment of life’s constant flux. The recognition that death is our constant companion may become the source of liberation for one who knows reality as it is. “Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water” (Fr. 34: DK 22 B 76)

The fact that “the sun is new each day” (Fr. 36; DK 22 B 6) awakens persons to the wonder of each fleeting moment and opens seekers to the possibility of moving from illusion to truth. Life is, as Whitehead says, “perpetually perishing.” We grieve the loss of what we love, but are energized by the surprises that lie ahead. In the lively and constantly changing universe, Heraclitus counsels his listeners to live adventurously, for “unless you expect the unexpected, you will never find it” (Fr. 19; DK 22 B 18).

2.2. The Unity of Opposites

Heraclitus affirms a holistic vision of reality in which all things exist in a dynamic tension. There are no gaps in reality. All things are in constant transition and creative tension. Similar to the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy, Heraclitus sees light and dark, good and evil, fire and water, as constantly flowing into one another. “Moist things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist” (Fr. 22; DK 22 B 126).

Like Pythagoras, Heraclitus affirms that there is a hidden harmony beneath the constant rising and perishing of life. But, in contrast to Pythagoras’ irenic harmony, Heraclitus sees harmony as the product of strife between polar realities. Though he speaks of war as characteristic of reality, Heraclitus sees the essential tension of opposites as necessary for creativity. “What is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in bending back, as in the case of the bow and the lyre” (Fr. 116; cf. DK 22 B 54). Contrary to those for whom stability, rest, and peace are the primary metaphysical, spiritual, and cultural values, Heraclitus suggests that conflict and creativity go hand in hand. “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony” (Fr. 98; DK 22 B 8). The wise person embraces conflict and tension as the pathway to new life.

2.3. The Logos as Microcosmic and Macrocosmic

Although “war is the father and king of all” (Fr. 25; DK 22 B 53), there is a hidden intelligence that underlies the human and non-human world. Heraclitus affirms that the universal Logos is also the logos of humankind. While the term “logos” has many meanings, Heraclitus’ use of the word “Logos” seems to point to the cosmic order, measure, harmony, and intelligence embodied in all things.

Transition is orderly as well as chaotic. Although Heraclitus affirms the primacy of Logos in guiding cosmic and personal transformation, he equally notes that “time is a child playing counters on a game” (Fr. 24; DK 22B 52). God plays dice in the universe. Chaos and order, and randomness and intelligence, are polar opposites that energize the universe. Logos is the immanent principle of measure and order in a world of constant change.

2.4. The Relativity of all Things

Heraclitus recognizes the relativity of both human and non-human perspectives. Heraclitus’ emphasis on the relativity of experience is a precursor of Whitehead’s metaphysics as well as certain forms of post-modernism. Reality is polyvalent in meaning: “it is by disease that health is pleasant; by evil that the good is present; by hunger, satiety; by weariness, rest” (Fr. 99 = DK 22 B 111). Again, “sea water is at once very pure and very foul, it is drinkable and healthful for fishes, but undrinkable and deadly for humans” (Fr. 101 = DK 22 B 61).

The path of wisdom reveals that good and evil are relative in nature. “To God all things are beautiful, good, and right; men [sic], on the other hand, deem some other things right and others wrong” (Fr. 106 = DK 22 B 102). In a world of constant transformation, good and evil flow into one another and must be accepted as part of the cosmic adventure.

2.5. The Relationship between Metaphysics and Spiritual Formation

Heraclitus affirms the essential relatedness of metaphysics, our vision of reality, and axiology, our understanding of what is truly good and beautiful in our ethical and spiritual lives. He saw his task as that of prophet to his fellow citizens, one through whom the universal Logos calls to humankind to awaken from its illusions and see life as it is. The common condition of humankind is sleep. Humans turn away from the universal wisdom of the Logos to their own private and illusory realities. One fragment suggests that Heraclitus’ wisdom was the result of his own commitment to self-discovery: “I have searched myself” (Fr. 8 = DK 22 B 101). His own spiritual experiences revealed that “you will never discover the limits of the soul” (Fr. 42 = DK 22 B 45). The microcosm and macrocosm are one. The universal Logos is also the wisdom within each person. Yet, humans typically prefer their own individual realities to dynamic, universal truth: “Although internally connected with the Logos, men [sic] keep setting themselves against it” (Fr. 64 = DK 22 B 72).

Our greatest good comes from aligning ourselves with the Logos guiding the world of process. Intellectual and spiritual alignment with the Logos enables us to balance chaos and order in our own constantly arising and perishing lives. The story is told that “when some visitors unexpectedly found Heraclitus warming himself by the cooking fire, [he responded with the words] ‘here, too, are gods’” (Fr. 74). Like the Tao, the Logos moves quietly yet effectively through all things. “Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe” (Fr. 124; DK 22 B 75). Life’s goal is to wake up and become a conscious partner with the ever-present and ever-changing Logos that guides all things. There are “gods,” or spiritual energies, in the cooking fire, the classroom, the household, and the natural world.

3. Whitehead and Heraclitus as Process Theologians

The relationship of Whitehead’s philosophical system to the seminal vision of Heraclitus can be articulated in terms of the following themes: (1) the primacy of process; (2) the presence of Intelligence in the process of transformation; and (3) the relationship of metaphysics and axiology.

3.1. The Primacy of Process

Whitehead explicitly notes his indebtedness to Heraclitus. In many ways, Heraclitus was the first process philosopher. Both Whitehead and Heraclitus recognize that reality is to be found in the process of transition from which each moment of existence arises. In his own interpretation of process and transition, Whitehead has the benefit of 2500 years of metaphysical reflection, including his own meditations on the insights of Heraclitus. Whitehead understands process in terms of (1) each entity’s internal process of concrescence, or self-creation, through which the many elements of experience become unified; and (2) the prehension of past entities by their successors, which enables each perishing entity to live on as objectively immortal in the self-creation of future actual entities and the consequent nature of God (e.g. PR 150, 164, 210). Heraclitus, on the other hand, describes the transition from one entity to another, in the language of the sixth century B.C.E., as the ceaseless process of transformation through which fire becomes water and earth, and then arises again from the changes of these elements. Reality is not found in some ethereal or changeless plane of existence, but in the experience of constantly arising and perishing subjects of experience.

3.2. The Presence of Intelligence in the Process of Transformation

Both Heraclitus and Whitehead recognize the interplay of chaos and order in the creative process. Novelty, the emergence and embodiment of new possibilities, is an essential characteristic of both individual and cosmic creation. Novelty and change are guided by an internal as well as external intelligence. For Heraclitus, fire receives its measure and order from the immanent and ubiquitous Logos. Logos weaves together the wisdom of the universe with the highest wisdom of humankind. The immanent Logos gives order and a sense of predictability to the constantly changing universe.

Like Heraclitus’ Logos, Whitehead’s God serves as the principle of order and novelty within the creative process. Immanent within the world process in terms of the initial aim, the mediation of the eternal objects with the world of change and relativity, God’s influence is revealed in the creation and sustaining of the regularities of nature, personal experience, and momentary experience. As the ultimate source of beauty and adventure, God also inspires individuals and societies to new and creative possibilities.

Within each moment’s experience, God’s aim is contextual and persuasive in nature, “the best for impasse” (PR 244). Each entity prehends divine intelligence, embodied as the initial aim, as the basis for its own process of creative transformation. The initial aim influences the process of concrescence and binds together groups of entities to create societies, or social orders that reflect order amid change and make it possible for many diverse entities to join in a common cause.

3.3. The Relationship of Metaphysics and Axiology

Heraclitus’ metaphysics presents both a vision of the universe and the goal of human life. In his prophetic sayings, Heraclitus calls his listeners to see the world as it is and discover the synchronicity of divine and human reason. For Heraclitus, philosophy truly is the love of wisdom that enables persons to live with self-awareness.

Whitehead sees speculative philosophy as embracing knowledge, morality, and spirituality. Implied in his understanding of the initial aim as God’s aim at complexity, intensity, and beauty of experience relevant to each entity’s self-creation is the possibility that persons will experience and consciously embody the initial aim in their own momentary process of self-creation. To know that each moment reflects immanent ideals toward which it is striving invites persons to embody these ideals through spiritual disciplines and metaphysical reflection.

Whitehead compares the process of metaphysical discovery to the “flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation, it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalizations, and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational explanation” (PR 5). Further, Whitehead notes that “speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of experience can be interpreted” (PR 3, italics added). In contrast to those who identify philosophy solely with the information garnered from linguistic analysis and sense data, Whitehead affirms the importance of non-rational and non-verifiable, and non-falsifiable, religious experiences as data for philosophical investigation. Religious experiences, including the experiences of permanence, flux, order, and novelty, provide insights for metaphysical reflection. In a truly inclusive metaphysical vision, the evidence of the five senses must be supplemented by the evidence provided by non-sensory and mystical experiences. Further, as the “description of generalities that relate to all the details of practice,” metaphysics must take into account—as well as provide coherent and insightful explanations and critiques of—these same religious experiences. Unlike many of his twentieth-century contemporaries who saw religious experiences as irrelevant to the quest for understanding, Whitehead asserted that “philosophy gains its importance by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought” (PR 15).

In his reflections on speculative philosophy, Whitehead notes that “morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook” (PR 15). Whitehead believes that the insights that come from metaphysical reflection have global as well as personal ramifications. Whitehead’s thought places the common good at the heart of our ethical reflections. Metaphysical insight is not amoral, but spiritual and ethical in nature. With Heraclitus, Whitehead affirms that our metaphysical vision challenges us to recognize the essential interplay of our own well-being and the well-being of others.


[1] Henry F. Lyte, “Abide With Me, Fast Falls the Eventide” (1820).

[2] Numbers and translation of Heraclitus’ fragments are from Wheelwright’s Heraclitus (1964). In certain cases, I cite the Diels-Kranz collection from which most translations are taken. Fragment 20 is Philip Wheelwright’s reconstruction of Plato’s description of Heraclitus in Cratylus 402a and 440c.

[3] In this regard, Heraclitus differs from his philosophical predecessor Thales, who saw water literally as the ultimate source of physical reality.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Diels, H. and W. Kranz. 1934. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. (Berlin).

Freeman, Kathleen. 1949. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford, Basil Blackwell).

Fuller, B.A.G. 1923. The History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus (New York, Henry Holt Company).

Guthrie, W.K.C. 1950. The Greek Philosophers (New York, Harper and Row).

_____. 1962. The History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Jaeger, Werner. 1947. The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Kirk, G.S. 1952. Heraclitus, The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Kirk, G.S. and Raven, J.E. 1957. The Presocratic Philosophers (London, Cambridge University Press).

Wheelwright, Philip. 1969. Heraclitus (New York, Atheneum).

Author Information

Bruce G. Epperly
Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education
Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA 17603, USA

How to Cite this Article

Epperly, Bruce G., “Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540–c. 480 BCE)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/historico-speculative-context/heraclitus/>.