SLOCA Somebodies: Heraclitus - SLO Classical Academy
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SLOCA Somebodies: Heraclitus

“No one ever steps into the same river twice.”

Odds are, you’ve heard this (or something like it) before, but did you know that this famous quote comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, HERACLITUS?

Before there was Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there was Heraclitus. According to legend, Heraclitus wrote one book, which was lost in antiquity, so all that we know about him and his writings exists only in attributions and quotations from other writers. Still, we can gather enough about his philosophy to see that he was an influencer of Plato specifically, who went on to influence the whole of Western philosophy, even to today. All of this, of course, makes him a worthy study for our Somebodies series.

Heraclitus, a native of the city of Ephesus, was born c. 535 BC to affluent parents, but, as an adult, he forsook wealth and status to live as a lonely thinker. He was known as a misanthrope, and was seemingly prone to bouts of depression, becoming known as the weeping philosopher.

Circa 500 BC, Engraving of Greek philosopher Heraclitus (fl. 500 BC), shown weeping. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The reputation of being disillusioned with humanity extended into the Renaissance, when, In Raphael’s School of Athens, Heraclitus (modeled after the likeness of another misanthrope, Michelangelo) is shown sitting by himself and ruminating gloomily.

Detail from Raphael’s School of Athens depicting Heraclitus in purple, bottom right

Another name Heraclitus was known by was “Heraclitus the Obscure.” This was because he often spoke and wrote cryptically and with much wordplay. Indeed, his philosophy itself sometimes also seems paradoxical. He did not support democracy, but also believed that everyone should live together in social harmony and that “thinking is common to all.” He believed that the cosmos was physically made of fire but also that the world existed in agreement with reason (“logos”). He is also best known for his theory of flux or becoming as the characteristic feature of the world. In this, he believed that everything in the universe was unified but also constantly changing, like how a singular river is always a river, but never made up of the same particles of sand or droplets of water from one moment to the next. In line with this, he believed that all of reality was related to each other through a series of opposites; for example, health and disease, good and evil, and hot and cold are each indefinable without the other.

It is from his ideas of flux that today’s first quotation comes. But we’re also featuring a second quotation from Heraclitus, the Latin phrase panta rehei, meaning “everything flows.”

We hope that either quotation will be an inspiration to you to contemplate the nature of reality and change. Even as each day may seem the same as the last, it is helpful to remember that so much changes from moment to moment, day to day: from the color of our Central Coast hills (transforming from brown to green to brown again) to the way our children grow each day (often undiscernably, but present nonetheless). We can’t step into the same river twice, so enjoy your rivers for what they are today.

 

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