Panta rhei, “everything flows”
Πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei) “everything flows” either was not spoken by Heraclitus or did not survive as a quotation of his. This famous aphorism used to characterize Heraclitus’ thought comes from Simplicius, a neoplatonist, and from Plato’s Cratylus. The word rhei (cf. rheology) is the Greek word for “to stream”, and to the etymology of Rhea according to Plato’s Cratylus.
The philosophy of Heraclitus is summed up in his cryptic utterance:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν, ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.
Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei
“Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.”
τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν
Ta onta ienai te panta kai menein ouden
“All entities move and nothing remains still”
and in 402,a
“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei kai dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”
Instead of “flow” Plato uses chōrei, to change chōros.
The assertions of flow are coupled in many fragments with the enigmatic river image:
Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”
Compare with the Latin adages Omnia mutantur and Tempora mutantur (8 CE) and the Japanese tale Hōjōki, (1200 CE) which contains the same image of the changing river, and the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence.
Also in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’:
‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists. Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image. Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river. For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new. For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.’
And from Ovid to Shakespeare:
We have to look no further than Shakespeare (who read Ovid in Golding’s translation) to confirm this point. Shakespeare, quite literally, plundered Ovid for stories and moved them directly into his plays – in Titus Andronicus or A Midsummer Night’s Dream for example – and, like so many of his contemporaries used Ovid as a sort of handbook for classical allusions and similes (as sad as Niobe, as crafty as Ulysses, as vain as Narcissus, as impetuous as Phaethon, as foolish as Icarus, and so on). Shakespeare lifts whole speeches from Ovid and adapts them to his purposes (so, for example, Prospero’s famous invocation of the spirits in the Tempest is adapted directly from Medea’s similar speech in Metamorphoses (a speech Shakespeare had used before, in Macbeth). In Shakespeare’s early work, something like three quarters of the classical imagery is derived directly from Ovid’s poem. And if we want to see modern poets doing the same thing, we have only to look at, say, Eliot’s Waste Land, in which images and references to Ovid are just as frequent. In fact, if one wants to have any sort of historical appreciation for the development of English poetry, understanding the influence of and the reference to Ovid is essential.