What might Heraclitus mean by claiming that, ‘We step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.’? Discuss as an issue concerning our knowledge and perception of the world.


Heraclitus was borne from an early age of human enlightenment, at a time when the study of religion and poetry proved simply not enough to satiate a human hunger for knowledge and understanding of nature and existence. Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, though linguistically direct, were not omniscient and, given the few bones or fragments known to us via successive writers, Heraclitus appeared unwilling to dispel spiritual existence altogether. His work may be viewed as a bridge between ancient, divine poetry and modern, philosophical and scientific thought, a radical and valuable place in human development.
Heraclitus was critical of the few great Western thinkers before him. Pythagorus, he suggested, had a highly selective formula for wisdom and maintained a ‘bad craft’ of learning. Understandably, his words have been interpreted by others as misanthropy. But the value of his critiques, the notion of radicalism as catalyst for the change, may be key to the assemblage of our knowledge to date. He himself may well have been a misanthrope, and wished Homer ‘beaten’, but we would be wrong to constrain our assessments of great ideas by inferred personal weakness. We’d have to dismiss much of attained human understanding to date.
Priest says the pre-eminent role of philosophy is to ‘challenge, question and object’, to be prompted ‘out of mistakes, stupidities and complacencies’ and so to encourage creative and constructive ideas. Levy hopes that by encompassing the history of philosophy, or let us say, remembering, perhaps continental and analytic disciplines can unite in a combination of relevance AND depth. Where better to look than the history of Heraclitus’ mysterious river fragments, the linkage between this fragment and his elegant notion of ‘Logos’, as the principle of order and knowledge.

‘…in the midst of all nature’s constant flux and opposites, Heraclitus saw an Entity or one-ness. This “something”, which was the source of everything, he called God or Logos’. ( Jostein Gaarder).

The Milesian school of thinkers, chiefly, Thanes and Anaximenes, had already begun to define all things by uniformity and searched for cosmic laws outside the influence of the gods. Heraclitus is noted as a monist in that fire is the underlying and universal substance of all things. I question this assertion. Heraclitus’ fire is sacred, therefore, divine and not necessarily material, that ‘the unity of things was to be found in their essential structure or arrangement rather than their material’. Herein lies a fathomable heresy: There is no substance.

Heraclitus’ fragments amount to over one hundred separate sentences, probably part of a more finished work entitled, ‘On Nature.’ They have been documented by successive authors, not least in Plato, Cratylus and by Aristotle. The Stoics, with their metaphysical ideas on divine fire like the Pyrrhonists, referenced him also, and we may continue to see Heraclitus’ influence down through the centuries, philosophical threads woven through time and the human cause.

The River Fragment

There seems two major literary references viable as Heraclitus’ original words.
B12. potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei. On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. (Cleanthes from Arius Didymus from Eusebius) or The G.W.T. Patrick translation ‘To those entering the same river, other and still other waters flow’.
B49a. potamois tois autois … Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not. (Heraclitus Homericus)
Although I am asked to respond to B49a, scholars such as GWT Patrick and Prof. James E. Mahon are minded that the first translation is more likely to have been derived from an Ionic Greek syntax during the 69th Olympiad. Kirk, Raven and Schofield’s view is that there is uncertainty on authenticity but a translation as follows reveals a more ‘natural and unforced Ionic (language) and having the characteristic rhythm of archaic prose’. They translate,
‘Upon those who step into the same rivers different and different waters flow.’

Unity of Opposites, the Logos and Spirit

Heraclitus, of The City of Ephesus, along with a limited number of free and able contemporaries around five hundred BC, looked for permanence in a reality of apparent change. Unlike others he sought not to absolve constancy nor change but celebrated the tensions between. A Unity of Opposites applies to all things, not least the forces within us; life-death, waking-sleeping, youth-age and the change is changing. If change is in flux then the Logos, the oneness of all things, is fluidity, like a river.
The river is an analogy, but it is also something tangible. The river, Heraclitus supposed, shared characteristics with the Logos, something to which we can all relate through time. Others have compared the river to our human soul. ‘For, wishing to show that the vaporized souls are always of an intellectual nature, he (Heraclitus) compared them to a river, saying, “To those entering the same river, other and still other waters flow.” And souls are exhalations from moisture’.

Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.

Is this Heraclitus’ dictum, law and deduced by logical thinking? I think not. Heraclitus is appealing to the senses in the first instance ‘into the rivers we step’, to draw us in to the coolness and wetness of rushing water, the flow of being. It is a life affirming thing to do. He then appeals to our sensibilities, because we can decide not to step into the flow, to remain without experience of what is most enriching. If we choose not to experience the flow through our senses, then we deny ourselves the fullness of being.
Obliqueness is purposefully constructed for the adventure of philosophical inquiry. We may view the fragment as an open question, presented as a doxa or teacher’s argument. Heraclitus invites us to explore with our our ultimate goal (The Telos), being the uncovering of the Logos. The Ethos is finding our spiritual path to truth and this is a good thing.
Additionally, since nature prefers to hide, as a conscious intent, humans have to be particularly deliberate and ‘awake’ to find and ‘step into’ it. Here stands Heraclitus somewhere along a line of tension between God and Science, a bridge between the Logos as infinite and Earthly as finite.
Perhaps what also sets Heraclitus apart from early Western predecessors is his view that the Logos is within us all. We are part of nature and subject to its fluidity. We are a unity of forces in flux. The pattern of human life and the pattern of cosmic order are the same. And here we may see a connection with the mystics of the East and West. God is within, and so we see a deeply spiritual connection. The Port of Ephesus was also a key trading hub, with ships coming in from the Orient and so likely also to bring novel ideas, from Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius and earlier, perhaps the Vedanta religion from India.

Literal Relevance

Change or universal ‘flux’ is as pertinent and profound today as it was at any other point in time. During the Anthropocene, this age of man-made climate and rapid biodiversity changes, it would be remiss to neglect Heraclitus. We may well find no finite resolution but insight in that all states of existence pass. In many ways science is still investigating truth in this claim, post Einstein’s Theory of Relativity via metaphysical space time theory and temporal logic. But by consciously analysing the fragments, memory may be transformed by modernity, as Hannah Arendt implies, ‘in order to’ progress.
The river analogy demonstrates both the sameness of what we universally recognise as a geographical feature, the different states of the river and one’s relationship to them at any singular point in time or space. The argument holds that a wholeness described can also be made up of several different entities and connections. In the case of rivers, we can perceive and understand through scientific investigation, that they consist of water molecules, energy, light, geology and life all in a state of aerobic and anaerobic process across the fourth dimension, time.
A river, therefore, is a pattern, subject to change, with dynamic phenomena that can be studied in some detail, for instance, by the science of hydromorphology.
But we also allocate Proper Nouns, in order to make a specific river distinguishable from another. To name is to find commonality for reference, culturally or otherwise. It can also unify a collective, as in a watershed, and ultimately enrich meaning and communal responsibility in our lives.
The River Wye in the Welsh Borders used to be known as the Vaga. Some say this derives from the Latin, ‘wonderer’ or the Anglo Saxon, Weag (and Gwy in Welsh), and the river surely has wondered across the land and also in human consciousness. It has been altered by evolving ecologies, particularly by the current dominant ecological stressor, Man. Some parts of its course have been modified for irrigation. Farming methods, riparian tree clearance, pollution, invasive introductions and fishing all continue to play a part. Never-the-less, to humans it remains the ‘Wye’. For all other life, we do not know.
The Cayster River, the Küçük Menderes, “Little Meander”, or the Kaystros, rises from Mount Ida, flowing westward through Homeric Trojan battle fields and into the Aegean at Pamucak beach near Selçuk, Turkey. It once flowed into the Port of Ephesus, which is now silted up. The coastal zone has advanced and the ruins of Ephesus now lie miles inland.
Heraclitus must have known The Cayster very well, which is perhaps why the river fragment exists at all. The river was also key in Homer’s stories of the Trojan War, as backdrop to infamous battles scenes. But one imagines, the two men related to this river rather differently.
At whichever point I visit along the length of the Wye, I often lose perception of my own sense of time. This is a very good thing for me, and may have been so for Heraclitus. There are healing processes at work. Worries and fears dissipate into the strong vortex of life, water and rock that is the ‘river’. It compels and sustains. But an ancient river has worth of its own exceeding all of our combined human needs. It is, from source to sea, in a seemingly perpetual cycle, responding to climate by expanding and contracting, like breath. Its course wanders over, under and through time, melting towards the sea. Geology, morphology, ecology, war, plunder, possession; it has endured the changes. And the river will respond accordingly to our meddling with the atmosphere and climate, building on flood plains and decimating structural woodland, by flood and by erosion. It is in the river’s nature, The Logos, the nature of energy, to want to spread out.
Long into the future, perhaps the winds may change direction, continents will divide again, the Wye’s entire length may disappear, consumed by new geological action and climates. There may be traces of its ancient form and life in the rock, and these may, in turn, erode to dust and silt the rivers a billion years from now. A cycle within cycles.
‘A river revealed in a flash of lightning is as thick and quivering as gelatin. And yet, measured against a millennium, a mountain melts down the sides of the valley and pours into the sea’. (Kathleen Dean Moore)
One person’s lifespan is a blink of an eye to the river. All things relative, of course: My own perceptions of time may be faster than the veteran oak or the pearl mussel, slower than the needle fly or sand martin. And we experience the river as uniquely as we are species. Fast or slow. Yet it is our meeting point. Ebb or flow, whirlpool or riffle, all the senses engaged, memories will be in the making. The Wye is different, yet the same.


There are difficulties, of course, firstly that language must be used carefully in finely distinguishing one moment from another, aspects of the river and the ones who steps into it, through time. Socrates is said to have been critical of Heraclitus’ vagueness but one might also judge any obscurity as intentional and provocative. Heraclitus’s opaque use of language may have been be symbolic of his frustration with the Artemisian faithful, as if he wanted to provoke discussion outside of the norm of political discussion and challenge religious dogma. Laertus tells us Heraclitus was scathing in his criticism of those who remained ‘asleep’, for the blind faithful can be easily mislead. To have faith is to trust blindly, and Heraclitus wished not to be blind. But his language was not monumental and unmoveable but open to interpretation, ephemeral and fluid. Like a river.
Secondly, The Logos, the word, the One True God, is referred to as a Proper Noun, something which Heraclitus claims to understand and know well, as opposed to all others. This can be viewed as elitism, as Geldard says Popper implies in his book, The Open Society and its Enemies. Elitism is not a virtuous thing unless you are minded that hierarchies and closed systems are good and that all things are not equal. Perhaps the only constant is change itself, so God is change, and this may be Heraclitus’ most heretic claim. Heresy? Geldard calls it aversive thought, through which ‘we might learn via provocation and not instruction’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson also suggests.

Fire and the river; a cycle of rebirth

To Heraclitus, sacred fire was eternal. It is not hard to imagine the significance of fire for people of the Eastern Mediterranean, so near to the South Aegean Volcanic Arc. Around a thousand years earlier, the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri was destroyed by the catastrophic phreato-magmatic eruption of Mount Thera, now known as the island of Santorini. Heraclitus will have most likely read Titanomachy in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was inspired by traditional oral storytelling of the event passed down through generations.
We know that a fire can sequentially ignite and snuff out, which does not occur at the same time unless, perhaps, in parallel universes. But if Heraclitus’s ‘fire’ is energy, or better still, entropy, which he could not have perceived scientifically at the time, then we are seeing something extraordinarily consistent with recent theories of the cosmos. That the energy of the Logos, the constant change, is the arrow of time. Couple this with the idea that the universe itself is in a symmetrical cycle of expansion and contraction, like a hand opening and closing, we can see here a constant state of flux but one that renews again and again in a way that a river is constantly refreshed by evaporation and condensation causing rain in the hills, which drains to the sea and so on.
The Big Bang theory becomes something other than the beginning, but a part of an enormous rhythm of energy amongst matter, where the universe expands and contracts repeatedly like love and hate or the ‘Brahma opening his third eye’ each time all things begin again.
The sequence of days, the cycle of months, the rhythm of seasons, form years. Time flows constantly like a river, like life and death, change and recurrence. As the River Cayster silted at its mouth, eventually rendering the City of Ephesus a distant memory, the river is ever dying and reborn, it preserves the form of ‘river’, one specific to its history, current existence and its future. Without joy, there is sorrow so where there is joy there follows there shall be sorrow.


The unity of opposites provide the tensions needed in nature for existence. One could take it further still and say that all things exist in a unity of opposites, in that all can either exist or not. Life, for example, flows from the tension between existence and non-existence, the fight for survival; conflicts, large or small, which all encounter and hopefully mediate in order to find peace and to flourish.
Are opposites always to be in conflict? Often there is an assumption that we have to make choices between opposites. Capitalism OR Equality, Rural OR urban. Nature OR agriculture. Perhaps it is not always A OR B as our adversarial political system would so frequently have us believe. A and B are often ill-defined intentionally, to reinforce prejudice and encourage division amongst the populous for the sake of political gain. As an example, we may be forced to choose, say, between energy and black-outs, when it is energy and climate which are actually at odds but intrinsically connected.
I would disagree that these ‘connections’ exist in a permanent state of conflict. However we may find ‘JUSTICE’ somewhere along the line of tension. This could be interpreted as compromise, of course, but maybe in doing so, perhaps, we can see the merit of what Heraclitus was proposing. The identity of a ‘river’ remains in tact, but its structure is in a constant state of alteration. ‘The identity of the river is one of form and physical continuity, but not of material identity or preservation of the same content’ Flux, like a flickering flame, is the nature of time, and time is a multiplier of all things. Yet all things may unify again perhaps via a subatomic strata of existence. But also the river is external to us and universal energy is something in which we step in and out. River, energy, flow may be seen as a symbolic construction. It is here that we may see Heraclitus demonstrating language as a microcosm of the cosmos and we’d do well to pay more attention to it.


‘Listen to the Logos and not to me’ says Heraclitus and you should expect the unexpected. The Logos informs us, or not, via our own newly discovered alertness. Heidegger says this is what is called thinking “from the start tuned in a negative key” or otherwise known as an apophatic paradox. All that is put to us may be questioned. Nothing is, therefore, taken for granted and so we may become dedicated to the ‘road to truth’ .
Catherine Osborne proposes that Heraclitus may have presented fire as one stage of a sequence, the Bang of the Big Bang, to which all things return and begin again. But if we set his words in the context (Ephesus around 500 BC), Osborne’s assertion of Heraclitus’ vision of fire is a radical discontinuity of matter, like death and rebirth. He may not, therefore, be the monist he is purported to be.
‘His system bears some resemblance to Empedocles’s thesis of eternal recurrence, and what Nietzsche found so familiar in Heraclitus was not a material cosmology but the tension of opposites that defined the world as a kind of warfare.’
The process of organic adaptive change driven by chance, and now proven to a great extent by genetics, is the Darwinian evidence to support Heraclitus, in that it is change, but not necessarily conflict, which drives evolution. We couldn’t say that inorganic, physical tensions of vulcanicity or continental plate-tectonics are consciously in battle, though consciousness does still concern science today.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, based on variation, inheritance, struggle and adaptation is the first aspect of his contribution to human thought. But it is his second point, on life’s common ancestry, the tree of life in which we may find the interconnectedness between all things and the organic moral community. Does Heraclitus, as Nietzche suggests, ‘raise the curtain on this greatest of all dramas?’ War is not, however, the fundamental truth to all things though it may be the behaviour of organic life from time to time. The pragmatist, John Dewey, like Darwin, saw nature as a system in constant change, as indeed are philosophical problems themselves. Existence is a risk, and we are compelled to adapt to survive. There is uncertainty in choosing which path to follow. Firstly, there is the path of appealing to a higher Being to reveal our destinies. Secondly, there’s the path where we ourselves begin to unveil nature’s mysteries and therefore our own destinies. Taken to extreme, however, the first path can lead to apathy, and the second path could lead to a very anthropocentric world whereby we can learn to control nature only to suit our ends. The two opposites can soon be seen as being in tension with each other. The second path can lead to a great epiphany, by unravelling the mysteries of nature, and is therefore more of a good thing than bad. Heraclitus shows us that ethics and metaphysics are also bound.
Wittgenstein insisted Darwin’s work has had no impact on philosophy and is entirely separate. I can’t agree. If we look at Heraclitus’s philosophical assertions on flux and Darwin’s scientific analysis of adaptation, we can see that both are inherently interconnected by cause and effect. With the principles of progressive evolution and the theory of natural selection, moreover, we can see that tension is essential.
If tension between opposites did not exist then Heraclitus is proposing the universe may fall apart. But peace and war, rather than tension, is limited to organic matter. Absolute peace might mean the collapse of ecosystems but war is not an end in itself. It is just as possible that truth is peace, and that peace is attainable, in the same way that there is a difference between myself and the river into which I step. I am not the Logos, but the Logos is within me and the River.


The Logos may be a quasi-spiritual flow of energy that both surrounds us and pulses within. It is something we cannot be, but it is part of us. We are and we are not. The universe, within and beyond our knowledge may be ephemeral in that it is in a constant state of change. The cosmos contains a series of opposing factors, between which oscillates existence along a connecting line of tension.
It is difficult to separate Heraclitus elegant notion of Logos from his rivers fragment, as one demonstrates the existence of the other twofold; by the unity of opposites (the sameness and differences) and by the amorphousness of flux. It is only by awakening from our own slumbers and making a personal journey that we may reach true enlightenment. That flux and opposites exist, even if we do not perceive them, means that we must partake in actively discovering them.
Heraclitus is right to suggest that each person, nee life form, entering the same river will perceive it slightly or intensely different from any other life form. Literally, both it and we are changing, therefore, change is the constant as it is throughout the universe (via entropy). If the river, as GWT Patrick asserts, means the exhalation of our soul, then this too will evolve, flux and alter each time it is revisited. We grow.
As the fragments are generally short and synonymous they may be interpreted as ideas Heraclitus expects us to challenge. Heraclitus might, therefore, be an instigator of philosophical reactive thought, as by example, Aristotle reacts, ‘ But one could quickly force Heraclitus himself to admit that contradictory propositions can never be true in the same respect…the very saying is false, that the same thing can both be and not be at the same time’.
In turn, we may contest Aristotle. A river can be good for you in that it provides sustenance. It can also be bad for you, when it breaks its banks in a torrent of flood and you are swept away. The river is birth and the river is death, yet it remains the ‘river’.

Reason and perception

The ethos of learning by doing is one to value, but we are limited by our senses and by
perceptions, as Axanimander found when he perceived the world as a flat topped drum. Eleatic philosopher, Parmenides, argued the opposite, in that our every day perceptions of the world are completely wrong and all is, in fact, One (God). Nieztche says God is dead, the starting point for recognising that a true life is one firmly rooted in reality rather than theory, and that it is only in this real world where we can progress: An existentialist development influenced by Sartre.
There is indeed, a pragmatism in spending our lives in search of wisdom, but Heraclitus, in the unity of opposites, demonstrated that both perception and reason were connected and necessary for enlightenment. Patterns are undergoing change all the time, like a moving kaleidoscope, and so is philosophy itself. Does philosophy still ‘yield the enrichment and increase of power’ that we have come to expect from scientific theories? Dewey asks of philosophy whether clarity and opaqueness are in tension. I think so.
As a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, Heraclitus enables us to imagine that we too are able to gather wisdom, independently of godly guidance or dogma resulting from ignorance of the Logos. We are invited to live our lives as seekers, because searching oneself for truths is to be ‘awake.’ Nietzche, like Heraclitus, viewed wisdom as the most precious moral good. Good and evil are a unity of opposites, with good being revelation of the Logos and evil rooted in the ignorance of it. Within ourselves, there is the tension between Mind and Body, a circular flow between which exists and cannot be separated.
A complete philosophy cannot be assumed from Heraclitus’ fragments, yet we have enough to imagine it. If he did leave his book in the Temple of Artemis, then it was an offering only to the gods with content enduring but pages and ink subject to Earthly decay. Heraclitus may well recognise this as just if he were alive today.
On justice, the Logos should nourish our written laws, somewhere on the tension line between theocracy and Platonic Philosopher King, but Heraclitus chose to abandon the chaotic corruption he was privy to witness in the City of Ephesus, to think ‘cosmically’ whilst being an individual. He made a decision to isolate himself in rural existence outside the City walls, which after all, may not have been an act of misanthropy but an act of necessity in order to think clearly. One may also see this as courageous. His private understanding was not that of a man dreaming of the mundane, but that of a man awakening to the spiritual evolution of human nature.
Emerson refers to the ‘Universal mind’, the consciousness that is ever expanding. In this sense, Heraclitus’ preference for an ‘ethos’ of self-discovery and enlightenment of all things fits well. Better still, there is now a collective drive to accumulate this individual knowledge. The cosmos still consists of unapparent physical and ecological connections and we may look no further than the mysteries of rivers as living systems. As Geldard implies, Heraclitus ‘served as as the bow releasing the arrow of exploration into the vibrant air’.


About seasonalight

Ginny Battson, Wales. Writer, Getty Image contributor ~ ecology, enviroethics, intrinsic value of biodiversity, geodiversity, ecoliteracy. Currently studying MA Applied Philosophy.
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2 Responses to What might Heraclitus mean by claiming that, ‘We step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.’? Discuss as an issue concerning our knowledge and perception of the world.

  1. Matthew Montgomery says:

    Thanks Ginny for this thought-provoking and inspirational piece. I’m a fan of both Heraclitus and Nietzsche – though I wouldn’t want to live in a Nietzschean world.
    Please keep on writing


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