Classics Heraclitus
Enrique Hülsz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0282


Active around 500 BCE, Heraclitus of Ephesus is a universally recognized figure of the so-called Presocratic tradition. Biographical data are scarce and the anecdotes reported by later doxography seem untrustworthy (especially the stories about his death). There are extant over a hundred verbatim fragments from his book, the most extensive remains of written philosophical thought from the early 5th century (about two thousand words) before Empedocles. The collection, dependent on indirect sources that range in the standard edition from Plato to Albertus Magnus, suggests a unique and well-polished work, rich in poetical and rhetorical resources. Heraclitus became famous for the enigmatic qualities of his style and was dubbed “the obscure” (ὁ σκοτεινός). Although the style has been frequently categorized as aphoristic, some fragments show a clear narrative structure. Modern attempts at reconstruction have often been based on the locus classicus in Diogenes Laertius (IX.5) that divided the book into three sections, “On the Universe,” “Political,” and “Theological.” The dominant version of its overall philosophical character stems from the Aristotelian interpretation of Heraclitus as a materialistic and monistic natural philosopher (φυσικóς), upholder of fire as principle, and a cosmologist. Many fragments reveal an intense concern with human affairs, such as knowledge; moral and political praxis (including religious belief and ritual practice); and language. The fundamental notion of λóγος tended to be bypassed silently in antiquity, except for the Stoics, and only came to the interpretive foreground in modern times (its complex philosophical status and meaning, and wide range of application have remained, however, the object of scholarly dispute). Plato attributes to Heraclitus the ontological thesis of universal flux (πάντα ῥεῖ), which, together with the idea of the identity and Unity of Opposites, became a defining characteristic of “Heracliteanism.” The book criticized explicitly the figures of ancient and recent wisdom (such as Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Hecateus, Pythagoras, and Xenophanes), but also developed an original epistemological model centered in understanding the unity or oneness of things and their essential nature (φύσις), specially emphasizing the human ψυχή as the knowing subject and moral agent. Although traditionally marginalized, ethics, politics, and religion constitute an important area for current and future scholarship.

General Overviews

Works cited here contain different general treatments of Heraclitus’s philosophy and the biodoxographical materials. Burnet 1930, Jaeger 1948, and Guthrie 1962, although dated, are still worth consulting. Mouraviev 2000, Hussey 1999, Calenda 2011, Graham 2015, and Osborne 1997 offer overall approaches to the author and philosophical mappings of the materials in different scales and from different perspectives. Mouraviev 2003 contains the relevant testimonia (with commentary) about the life and death of Heraclitus, and about the book itself.

  • Burnet, John. 1930. Herakleitos of Ephesus. In Early Greek philosophy. By John Burnet, 130–168. 4th ed. London: A. & C. Black.

    Based on Bywater 1877 (cited under Critical Editions and Commentaries) (130 verbatim fragments), presents a thoroughly physicalistic interpretation of Heraclitus’s main subjects such as fire, Flux, measures in change, conflagration, opposites, man, and theology and ethics, discussing many key doxographical passages.

  • Calenda, Guido, ed. and trans. 2011. Le intuizioni di Eraclito. In Epistemologia greca del VI e V secolo a.C.: Eraclito e gli eleati. By Guido Calenda, 41–138. Rome: Aracne.

    Offers a general outline of Heraclitus’s philosophy, from Flux and the so-called doctrine of the Unity of Opposites, to knowledge, the cosmos, and politics. Includes a bilingual edition of the fragments (Greek and Italian).

  • Graham, Daniel W. 2015. Heraclitus. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    Excellent short article online, balanced presentation of the philosophy of Heraclitus with an updated bibliographical selection.

  • Guthrie, William Keith Chambers. 1962. Heraclitus. In A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 1, The earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. By William Keith Chambers Guthrie, 403–492. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Offers a good overview of the main topics in Heraclitus’s philosophy, presented in a continuous narrative, resulting in a balanced consideration of its physical and anthropological aspects. Systematically summarizes and aptly discusses original materials and ancient and modern interpretations. A selection titled “Flux and logos in Heraclitus” appeared in Mourelatos 1993 (cited under Collections of Articles): 197–213.

  • Hussey, Edward. 1999. Heraclitus. In The Cambridge companion to early Greek philosophy. Edited by A. A. Long, 88–112. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Holds that Heraclitus is not merely a natural philosopher, but a thinker of experience and knowledge of the logos and the nature of all things. The fundamental topics of the cosmos as process, unity in opposition, and the theory of the Soul are summarized and discussed.

  • Jaeger, Werner. 1948. Philosophical speculation and discovery of the world order. In Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Vol. 1, Archaic Greece. By Werner Jaeger, 178–184. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Jaeger’s view stresses the anthropological aspect as the innermost of three rings that frame and structure Heraclitus’s philosophy, which is presented as a coming together of Milesian physics and cosmic religion.

  • Mouraviev, Serge N. 2000. Héraclite d’Éphèse. In Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 3, D'Eccélos à Juvénal. Edited by R. Goulet, 573–617. Paris: Éditions du CNRS.

    A dense survey that deals with biodoxographical generalities, form, content, dimension of the book, state of the question, and methodological issues, including the poetics of Heraclitus’s book.

  • Mouraviev, Serge N. 2003. Héraclite d'Éphèse: Les vestiges: La vie, la mort et le livre d’Héraclite (avec iconographie détaillée et 22 planches d’illustrations). Heraclitea 3.1. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Academia Verlag.

    Useful volume containing all ancient testimonia about the life and the book of Heraclitus. Includes iconography and illustrations.

  • Osborne, Catherine. 1997. Heraclitus. In Routledge history of philosophy. Vol. 1, From the beginning to Plato. Edited by C. C. W. Taylor, 88–128. London and New York: Routledge.

    Overview of Heraclitus’s thought focused on philosophical content, covering several themes (ritual and the gods, custom and shared practice, logos, flux, unity of opposites, harmony and recognition of what is obscure, errors of others, politics, virtue and glory, Heraclitus’ style, and the significance of language).

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