Friday, 25 March 2011


 Heraclitus of Ephesus is credited with saying "You can never step into the same river twice". This intriguing statement shows why Heraclitus was nicknamed "The Enigmatic One" and "Heraclitus the Obscure", as Anthony Kenny  tells us.  Heraclitus also proclaimed that the world is constantly changing and full of conflict.  This might lead us believe that in his theory change and conflict are all there is.  What intrigues me is that he claims, also, that there is an underlying unity and consistency in the universe.

If we think about his statement about the river one might imagine standing by a flowing river, and it is easy to see that the water at any spot would be constantly changing.  We might ask, "Is it the same river at this moment as it was a moment ago?"  What interests me most about this idea is that the water moves and therefore different water reaches the spot, but what we perceive as the river would seem to be the same river.  One might then ask, "Is it the same river when it is in flood as it is in time of drought?"  It would seem that you need both water and a recognisable course for the water, for there to be a river. The dynamic tension between water and river is perhaps an example of the conflict to which Heraclitus refers.  There would also seem to be an underlying unity between water and river that survives change and conflict, but then when a person steps into the river it would seem that the dynamic changes again, because a third element is introduced.

One could have a whole debate about whether the man changes the river, or whether the man is changed by stepping into the river, or whether there is just a little displacement and some wetness, and that the moment is what changes.

We make what we can of the pronouncements of Heraclitus.  Anthony Kenny tells us that "many philosophers in later centuries who have admired Heraclitus have been able to give their own colouring to his paradoxical, chameleon-like dicta."  For me the fascination lies in considering the relationship between change and that which is constant.

How can relate this theme to our daily living?

As I write, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced his Budget and pundits are expounding their theories about the affects of the changes he has proposed.  For some philosophers the interesting point is not the number of and extent of the changes but the fact that the changes are limited by the nature of the fiscal "pie", for the distribution of which he is is responsible.   It is as if the "Gross National Product" is the river and the Chancellor is the person stepping into the river.

Change is seldom as revolutionary as we would like to believe.  Most change is of an evolutionary kind: an adaptation to the circumstance in which we find ourselves.  A young man's voice breaking is part of a process set in motion before his birth.  Similarly the timing of young woman's menarche will depend upon her maternal history and genetic make up, as well as upon her nutritional state and general health.  Celebrations, rituals, religious ceremonies and rites of passage attend these events. All over the world, whether or not overt acknowledgement is made of a boy becoming a man, or a girl becoming a woman, it is a significant change in the development of the individual.  It is one of those times, like becoming a parent or losing a loved one, when the world will never be the same again.  The world did not change but the individual's experience of the world did.  In some societies the individual is separated from the group at such a time of change.  This could be in order for the individual to be able to adjust to the change, or because of a fear of that a change in the individual might bring more change within the group.  This superstitious response can found in the most sophisticated societies, when someone crosses a road in order not to have to speak to someone who is ill, or bereaved or has suffered some other life-changing event.

Revolutions happen, governments are overthrown, new governments are established. But these new governments are in their turn subject to opposition and potential coups d'etat.  Hegel, who was an admirer of Heraclitus, according to Anthony Kenny, outlined this process in his explication of thesis, antithesis, synthesis and the birth of a new hypothethis.
He called this the  "Dialectical process", in which every new idea meets an opposing idea, and the resulting conflict leads to a synthesis from which  a new idea is created.  In this way change is presented as part of an ongoing and predictable, even inevitable, process.

We might say, "So what's new?"  or,  "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?"

Or we might ask, "Is anything free from change?".  "Is anything fixed and unchangeable?"

Shakespeare thought so, when he wrote:
........................."Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove :
Oh no! it is an ever-fixed mark".

Is it possible that anything can be so fixed, so immutable, so unchanging?  Is this ideal of love a romantic illusion?  Is love transcendent of change?

What happens to love when changes occur?  My own favourite poet, Milton, wrote:
"But O the heavy change when thou art gone ,
Now thou art gone and never must return."

We feel the impact of change, and we cope with it to a greater or lesser degree.  Change is a reality to those of us who have experienced changes in circumstance, in health, in wealth, in family and in expectations.  Change is welcome when it brings increased opportunity for happiness, and is unwelcome when it brings loss, devastation and distress.  Yet a tsunami, for instance, is a natural phenomenon: it is not malign in intent or designed for destruction.  It is a result of a balancing effect in the ocean, following an earthquake.

My own conclusion to is that change is neutral.  It is indiscriminate.  It is inexorable.  It is inescapable.

Next week I shall look at why change is sometimes so hard to bear or to contemplate, and at what we can do to help ourselves to cope with change.


  1. The normal rules of human development and advancement don't seem to apply everywhere, and in the Congo they appear inverted. Tim Butcher, when following in Stanley's footsteps, came across
    villagers who flee into the bush when they hear fighting, as the bush is the safer place.

    They know how to survive in the bush. And when they come back, the village is almost always destroyed and has to be rebuilt. Over the years things get worse and worse.

    Tim Butcher recounts in his book “Blood River” meeting children who had never seen a motorbike before. It is grandparents who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren.

  2. Hi SueAdmin,
    Thanks for responding.

    I have not yet read the book and what you describe is fascinating. I agree that such a development would seem contrary to what we think of as advancement and progress.

    If we take another view, from the standpoint of evolution, we see "adaptation" in order to survive. The "fittest", in the circumstances you describe, are those who are able to use bush lore, not modern machinery. The ancient skills seem to keep these people from extinction and these skills are the knowledge that is passed on now.

    There does not seem to be immediate prospect of this changing does there?

    Great contribution. I look forward to your next comment.

  3. I agree that human "advancement" is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In this case (Congo) where it seems that the only way for many people to survive modern terrorism is to revert to the old ways, it could hardly be said to be "progress" as we usually mean it.
    Conversely it could be said that many aspects of modern life which we call progress are in fact retrograde steps in terms of our abilities to think, imagine, use our interpersonal skills etc. Simple examples might be the tool of a "spell check" or video games. These are useful tools that require new skills, so we have to adapt as we learn to use them. Whether we judge these "advancements" to be good or bad is another thing, I suppose.

  4. Hi JUDY,

    You are right that we need the tools for the age we live in. I suddenly imagined an Stone Age man advancing upon a computer with a puzzled gaze and flint axe in hand.

    Whether advancements are seen as good or bad depends upon where we stand. Conservationists, especially, are concerned about what is lost or forgotten when changes occur in the name of progress. We have similar concerns when change comes into our daily lives.

    This is the focus of my next piece: Change 2. I look forward to your comments.