Heraclitus and Parmenides – Short Essay

From my recent exam – going to do some work on this, add some pieces from my first assignment piece on this, and polish

Heraclitus and Parmenides sit at opposing sides of a dichotomy. Where Heraclitus places emphasis on ‘becoming’, Parmenides only sees ‘being’.

Heraclitus considers change and motion to be constant in the world. Just as a river constantly flows, so that you are in a ‘new’ river at every step, so too flows nature.

This is sharply contrasted by Parmenides, who claims that, while this may be how things appear, this is merely opinion. What is truth, is that at the fundamental level of reality, there is only ‘one’, a unity which is whole, ungenerated and eternal. It is, and cannot ‘not be’. It is entirely necessary.

Heraclitus in part agrees with Parmenides ‘unity’, but takes it to the other extreme. There is not a unity consisting of a single thing, it is a unity stemming from the diversity of nature. ‘From a unity comes all things, and from all things a unity’. There is a constant interplay of opposites, since knowledge of one half requires its opposite; hot is meaningless without an understanding of cold, justice is meaningless without injustice.

Another point of similarity is their ‘source’ of knowledge. Both claim knowledge of a ‘logos’ – reason. For both, the logos is an ordering principle, in that to reason correctly, one must understand the underlying order of things. However, for Parmenides, this is grasped entirely separate from our ordinary sensory experience, since experiential data comes from the ‘way of opinion’; he is a rationalist, in the sense that knowledge comes from looking within, prior to, and even instead of the empirical data. Heraclitus also thinks reason is required for knowledge of the logos, however first one must consider the sensory data one is presented with. Only after considering experience, do we have the information to reason with. Heraclitus leans towards Empiricism.

This simple dichotomy is again noticed in the arguments against motion. Paarmenides argues that motion is impossible, because ‘what is draws nearer to what is’. There is no space for ‘what is’ to move, so motion is impossible. Like his river analogy states, Heraclitus rallies against this. One need only look to the senses.

This notion of constant change and motion has often led to the idea that Heraclitus thinks there is no stability in identity. This is incorrect. What he is saying is that it is this change, this movement, that is fundamental to the nature of every ‘thing’. A river could not BE a river if it was not moving – it would be something else. A person cannot be a person without change, and motion – being alive requires specific change and motion.

Parmenides would relegate all this to mere opinion, claim his ‘unity of the one’ and take a more idealist route; we are perhaps simply ‘ideas’ or modes of the one. There is only the one thing, perfectly balanced.

As noted, Heraclitus considers a multitude of things, we are grounded in this reality through the senses, and like everything else in the cosmos, and we are ‘lighted in measures and extinguished in measures’. Balance for Heraclitus is not a whittling away to nothingness, it is the acceptance and maintenance of the natural order of things.


All constructive criticism is welcome! What do you think? What could I do better? Reading suggestions are welcome too!

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