Heraclitus vs. Parmenides

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson we will compare the theories of two ancient Greek philosophers: Heraclitus, the philosopher of change, and Parmenides, the philosopher of permanence. What ways they are different and how they are alike?

Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Among the pre-Socratic philosophers there are two who often contradicted each other: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Pre-Socratic philosophy just means the philosophy that came before Socrates (470-399 BCE).

The School of Athens, Parmenides (right) and Heraclitus (left).
school of athens

Heraclitus, The Obscure

Heraclitus (535 - 475 BCE) lived in Ephesus. He was known as 'the Obscure' because he expressed his thinking with phrases that are often difficult to interpret. His main points were:

  • Fire is the principle from which everything proceeds. Like many pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus sought a creative principle, a force from which all things proceeded. He identified with fire. But it is necessary to understand that for Heraclitus fire is a symbol. It's always in movement, and represents the constant change of the universe.

  • Panta rhei. In Greek, panta rhei means 'everything flows'. Life is a continuous change. This is the essential point of the doctrine of Heraclitus. All this change is not chaotic though, it is ordered by a law that Heraclitus calls logos ('word', 'thought' or 'reason'). The logos is an invisible universal harmony that governs and orders the continual change of the world. Therefore, all things change, but the logos remains.

The most famous affirmation of Heraclitus refers to the continuous change: ''we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.''

Heraclitus, the Obscure.

Parmenides, The Permanence

Parmenides (about 540 - 470 BCE) lived in Elea. The most important work of this philosopher was a long poem composed in hexameters (verses of six syllables) in which he explains his philosophy. It has an epic form, but instead of telling the life of a hero, Parmenides explains his philosophy, his conception of life and existence.

The poem tells us that there are two ways to access knowledge: the Way of Truth, which allows us to access real knowledge and the Way of Opinions, which is deceptive and full of contradictions. Moreover, in order to arrive at true knowledge, we must be guided by reason (logos), not by sensations.

To understand Parmenides' thought it is essential that we examine the concept: that it is not. 'That it is not' can not be named, not even thought. Therefore, philosophy must be based on that it is. Nothingness does not exist, so it can not found any thought.

Once we admit the impossibility of nothingness, of 'that it is not', we can see the characteristics of 'that it is'.

  • 'That it is' is eternal - it is neither born nor dies; it has always existed and will always exist. This is because if it were not eternal, we would have to accept that there is a moment, at birth or death, in which being becomes non-being. And not being is impossible.
  • 'That it is' is unique and cannot be divided. For in order to be divided a void must exist, which is nothingness, which does not exist.
  • 'That it is' is immobile, it does not change, because in order to be able to move or change it would be necessary again the presence of the void, of nothingness.

Parmenides represents the 'that it is' as a sphere because in a sphere the matter is distributed in a perfectly uniform way, without empty spaces.


Heraclitus and Parmenides: the Contrasts

We see here, therefore, two thinkers of classical antiquity who developed ideas that seem contrary. On the one hand we have Heraclitus, the defender of eternal change and continuous movement, on the other hand we have Parmenides, who asserted that what exists is eternal, always identical and immobile.

In the following chart you can see some of the most striking differences between the two philosophers.

Philosophy Subject Heraclitus Parmenides
On the world There is a perpetual change. There is no change, the world stands still.
On knowledge As a consequence of perpetual change, the way to reach knowledge also changes. There is only one way to reach knowledge, the way of truth, and it's always the same.

Heraclitus and Parmenides: the Similarities

Heraclitus tells us about a world that flows, that changes. But Heraclitus asserted that this change was governed by a law, the logos, universal harmony. And this law never changes, it is eternal.

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