Image: Democritus and Heraclitus, Richard Gaywood, ca. 1630-1680, The Met
Here we present the winners of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XXVI: Change. Once more, we received a record number of entries from around the world, from Milan to Texas to Canberra to London. In first place is writer Michael Ellis for Stories of change and in second place is Beloit College Emeritus Professor of English Tom McBride for Heraclitus on talk radio.
By Tom McBride
Whatever the philosophical merits of the subject, I have a made a little on the side talking about change. That’s because over two decades ago I got involved in a project called the Mindset List, an annual inventory of what has always or never been true during the lifetimes of entering college students. Wire-rimmed glasses no longer meant John Lennon but Harry Potter. LBJ is no longer Lyndon Johnson but LeBron James. Funds of information change, and professors had better learn to adapt when they teach their charges, who grow younger each year. The Mindset List became popular and brought its authors, such as me, to interviews and appearances on national and international media. Time magazine once called the term “now part of the American lexicon”.
We Mindset List authors have been on lots of talk shows, where the public calls in to say, over and over again, that the Annual List makes them feel old and out of it. They cannot believe that so much has changed “since these college kids were born eighteen years ago”. They will chuckle about it, but one can tell that they feel a bit insulted and hurt. Change can be hard even when it’s gradual and soft.
I find myself wanting to refer them to Heraclitus. Some of them may know his most famous fragmentary apothegm, that one never steps into the same river twice – I once heard it quoted in the original ancient Greek and got a rush at the fluid rhythms of the syllables. Heraclitus was a clever stylist. If I had referred these dismayed call-in listeners to Heraclitus, I might have said, “This fellow from ancient Greek civilisation, Heraclitus, said change is incessant, so we all have to get used to it.”
That would have been a fine radio retort, but I would hardly have exhausted the nuance of what Heraclitus thought, since he was much interested in permanence as he was in change. He’s sometimes opposed by Parmenides, who thought change was an illusion, whereas Heraclitus thought change happened all the time and was real. Well, apparently Heraclitus did think change was real, but in deeming it constant he was also saying it was fixed. The river is always fluid, but its flow is always fixed. It is the very pan-persistence of change that gives our being its grounding. He was among those who objected as Homer and Hesiod called the gods drunken fighters and fickle lovers. No: A god presides over the permanence of change, the fixity of fluidity. If only we could see things from a god-like perch, we would not be so distressed by change. But that requires us to stop thinking about gods as rapists and bullies, wanton and wild. The river is always changing, and we are always changing between steps into it. But that’s just it: we are always changing. Heraclitus said elsewhere that the bow and arrow seem two but are really one. Shooting it entails both life and death. Opposites unite, but that’s, again, is just the point: they are opposites but always caught up in the same cycle of life and death. Spatially they are diverse and changing, but temporally they are the unmodified same: animation and mortality at once.
Gerard Manly Hopkins, one of the most interesting of poets from a philosophical perspective, and the most novel of Victorian poets, once wrote a dazzling poem called That Nature is A Heraclitean Fire, and an elemental fire burns and goes out and flames again. It nourishes us via the sun and burns us in a fever. This is suggested, though never quite stated, in Hopkins’ ear- and eye-ravishing lines, chocked with shimmering neologisms of spectacular change (“yester-tempest”, “air-built”) and shifting clouds and ooze and dust and the dark and pulsating void of blinding sun and, over time, the absence of Christ, who is welcomed abruptly near the end of the poem as He whose trumpet blows away the relentless chaos of change without end.
For Father Hopkins, a Jesuit, the permanence of change was no comfort. Only the resurrection of Christ, “who was what I am now”, can offer solace. It’s as though, for Heraclitus fans, Hopkins ruined his brilliant display of Heraclitean fire, of great philosophical interest, with theology. The title of the poem adds, “And the Comfort of the Resurrection.” But then Heraclitus was not writing or thinking for a Christian audience hundreds of years off, nor, it seems, were the callers into shows on the Mindset List comforted by their priests.
Even if change is the one temporal constant we have, it can seem profound – which must have been what drew Heraclitus’ attention to it in the first place. This aspect of change is illustrated with wit in a poem by another philosophically arresting writer (one of the most so, according to Simon Critchley), the American Wallace Stevens. In Anecdote of the Jar, Stevens wrote a little verse about an impenetrable wilderness in Tennessee and the placement of a single homemade jar in that overgrown mélange of fecund flora. The poem is apparently about change: the wilderness suddenly gathered round the homely jar as though to worship it, “like nothing else of bird or bush in Tennessee.” Precipitous change, right? A single rounded artifact changes our perception of the wilderness? You could almost put it on the Mindset List: “A home-fired jar has always tamed a wilderness in Tennessee.” Change, right? Wow!
Wrong. The poem is not about change but about fire. It too shows us the empire of a Heraclitean fire. The sun beams upon the wilderness and lets it grow incorrigible, undomesticated, and thick. But another fire shapes the jar. Chaos and order: it’s all fire. Both the seeming and the seminal role of fire, which Heraclitus thought the primordial element of all there is, offers a logical stay-ness as a sponsor for the sudden transformation of aesthetic vision, in which a single artifact shapes perception of an unbridled wilderness. It’s just that we have to see the change from a god-like Olympus. Fire creates the silicon that runs digital devices, on which more and more consumer products are sold, which in their making and discarding heat the planet, likely too much. Change and fire – all the way down.
However much he may have flinched from the worldview of the pagan Heraclitus in one of his poems, Hopkins also the perfect poem, I think, about what Heraclitus was trying to get at. It’s called “Spring and fall.” Once more Hopkins shows not only his innovative word-smithery and metre but also his sense of Heraclitean change through a young girl’s (Margaret’s) eyes as she contemplates the baleful falling of the leaves (“golden grove’s unleaving”). In a poem that takes less than a minute to read, Hopkins merges the blight of the falling leaves with “the blight that man was born for./It is Margaret that you mourn for.” The world’s ablaze with change – Hopkins, mostly via sound, makes the dying leaves spectacularly poignant – and we and Margaret weeps that it cannot stay spring forever. Yet we are more stable than we know, as the fiery cycles of modification are our immovable lot. Young Margaret is like those talk show callers who mourn that today’s young people have no appreciation of the Cold War. As with Margaret, are grieving for themselves. A more god-like vision would reveal to them the Heraclitean system and offer them comfort: they are not alone. Hopkins, a devout believer, does not give little Margaret the comfort of the Resurrection that will put a stop to all this unity of nourishing and burning up, in which conception is a death sentence, but he may hope, in a way, that she will come to see it as the way things are—she is not being singled out, and this might be her, and our, comfort, sans the solution of Christ, who makes philosophy unnecessary for anyone who signs up with Him.
When I do interviews about the Mindset List and hear those callers lamenting generational change, I wish I could put Heraclitus himself on the air. He might well say that I’ve got him all wrong. But if he had a good translator, he’d be a hit on the radio, and I think he’d say that change is the law and as the law it is unchanging.