The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change
Excerpt: Heraclitus, fragment
(Introductory Note: Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived about 100 years before Plato. He wrote a book around 500 B.C. which has not survived, but over 100 fragments from his book are known today based on quotations found in the works of other ancient authors.)
Upon those who step into the same rivers flow other and yet other waters.
All things . . . are in flux like a river.
The change that occurs in a river is vivid and unmistakable. By claiming that the change we see in a river is true of our world in general, Heraclitus challenges the idea that some things simply stay the same: we may not see the change so clearly, but change is occurring nonetheless. This might be easiest to accept in the physical realm, where, for example, on the level of atoms, there is constant motion in all physical objects, no matter how solid and stationary they may seem. And certainly it is easy enough to see that the bodies of all living things are constantly changing, not only aging but also going through various biological processes and exchanges with the environment, such as breathing. But what about other realms? Heraclitus might not have been thinking about things such as relationships and love, or a person's identity, but his insistence on the fundamental fact of change encourages us to consider whether change is not inevitable in such aspects of life as well.
If we take Heraclitus’s model of the world as a guide, change is not only something we must accept, but it is actually something to celebrate. Heraclitus saw the world as a system in flux, but in his view that very flux is also what keeps the world the same, in a sense. In a famous re-statement, Plato leaves out that aspect of Heraclitus’s view: “Heraclitus, you know, says that everything moves on and that nothing is at rest; and, comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step into the same river twice.”1 So, according to Plato’s way of stating the idea, the river itself is a different river from moment to moment, since the water flowing in it is different: if you step into a river at one moment and step out, and then step back in, you are stepping into a different river. But if we look carefully at the fragment from Heraclitus, we see that although he says the waters are changing, he does not say that the river is different. Heraclitus specificallly claims that it is the same river although its waters are constantly changing.2 So according to Heraclitus there can be an overall stability despite, or perhaps because of, constant change: The river is the same river although it is changing--it’s just part of what it is to be a river that there is this constant change going on.
Even if we do not agree with Heraclitus that all things are like this, still we may find in many realms of our lives that the only way some things can exist is by changing. A child, for example, is something that we all accept and enjoy as a constantly changing thing. A child, like a river, doesn't become a different child with each change. Being a child simply involves changing all the time. A certain kind of change seems to be a part of the basic nature of some, if not all, things.
Heraclitus’s insistence on the process of change as fundamental to the world poses a question to us when we are facing difficult changes that we might want to deny or resist. By insisting that something or someone stay the same, could it be that we are destroying the very thing we wish to preserve? In any particular case, when we are resisting change, we might ask ourselves, is this like trying to stop a river’s waters from flowing?
Posted: August 2004
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