If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Saturday 25 August 2012
Read gnomica 1-100 here!
‘All is in flux.’
Heraclitus (floruit late 6th/early 5th BCE)
Change is a changeless reality of all life.
Permanence is an impermanent fact of all existence.
If you step into the same river today that you did yesterday, was it in fact the same river yesterday that you step into today?
Yes … no … sort of.
After all, that particular bit of river you encountered yesterday today has moved far downstream, so it is not the same river. But – let’s not play semantic games here – surely any reasonable person would grant that of course it’s the same river, just a different part of the same river. Maybe the problem is not one of phenomenological precision but of linguistic inadequacy: without becoming so clumsy as to be unwieldy, the language simply does not sift with a fine enough mesh to sort out meticulous distinctions of this kind. We simply accept – on a kind of tacit and impercipient understanding, to be sure, but we do accept it — that the word “same” designates not a conceptual isomorphism vis-à-vis reality but is, in general quotidian practice, allomorphic: that is, at a deeper level it has a lot of ‘meanings’, but formal disambiguation by means of individual (and how many?) linguistic signs would clutter the language intolerably. We’ve all contracted as it were to make do with the inevitable imprecisions.
The so-called pre-Socratic philosophers, of whom Heraclitus was a prominent and very interesting one, asked questions about the nature of physical reality (what were the constituents of the universe?), about τὰ φυσικά (ta physika ‘the things in nature’). These questions and speculations veer into and come to verge on metaphysical questions (τὰ μετὰ φυσικά [ta meta physika ‘the things after the things in nature], as in the case of the present epigraph, and, while definitely adumbrated before him, are associated primarily with the Platonic Socrates (469-399 BCE) whose speculations turned — in a rough analogy — from the ‘outward’ (e.g., what is fire, what is water, etc.) to the inward (e.g., what is love, what is courage, etc.).
The brief but famous two-worder by Heraclitus above is open to any number of translations besides the one I have plunked down for. Like that of any translator, my translation is (I believe) accurate, but also tendentious, in that I favor a spin that addresses the points I want to address off the original. Thus, one could also translate πάντα ῥεῖ as simply ‘Many things flow’, and infer whatever specifics you will from a closer context.
Here the point is rather straightforward, the by now banal one (which was no doubt not always banal) that ‘things change’. (And I guess the inference from this bit of ancient enlightenment is something like, ‘Live with it!’) This theme, if you will, of change – ameliorating as well as pejorating change — was one that interested the ancient Greeks on any number of levels, and so too the Romans (think most gloriously of Ovid’s [43 BCE – 17/18 CE] Metamorphoses !).
If my ruminations here strike you as a fatuous expatiation regarding the obvious, I did earlier do a longer and less transparent piece on some other things Heraclitus dealt with, and you are of course welcome to check out that ‘heavier’ item here.