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Some Pre-Socratic Ideas of Change and Permanence

by Diana Kendall

When change is viewed as a continuous set of alterations in the same thing, and not as the substitution of one single item by another, questions arise. What is this “same” thing that persists and yet is different from what it was? What are the “changes” that occur without altering the identity of this “same” thing?

Many of the pre-Socratic thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. were particularly interested in such questions. They wanted to make clear what gives the universe permanency in the face of all its changing aspects, whether these were periodic as in the case of the seasons or seemingly unpredictable as with the first raindrop in a particular spot.

They had much in common in their outlooks. They were sure that the cosmos is more than a mere container of randomly occurring transient objects and events. They were convinced that there could be an explanation of everything, one that goes beyond the day-to-day. They were sure that the human mind could reach it.

In their theories regarding the nature of the living universe man plays an insignificant part. Neither did the supernatural in figurative or transcendental terms loom large in their analysis of the world’s phenomena. Where they did refer to any such it was taken for granted to be part and parcel of the order of things in the universe, unbroken by either beginning or end. Nor did they mark a distinction between the material and the spiritual when referring to the way the world worked. Its vibrant, self-perpetuating nature was as one to them.

But though these thinkers had much in common, their views were various concerning the question of the permanent nature of this moving universe.

This article is an attempt to interpret their outlooks: to show how there are connections between them and how each stimulated the other. For though the schools of philosophy during these two centuries were scattered over the Eastern Mediterranean in the Greek colonial city-states bordering the sea, travel by ship was relatively easy and they had contact with each other.

Now the earliest known thinkers in this era took for granted the common-sense view of the universe: that in it, over time, things come into existence and then pass away. To explain this they postulated that the cosmos is entirely composed of a basic “stuff” which contains its own power of generation. From this, they surmised, there could separate out the developing objects of the world, receiving them again into its mass in due time. Such generations and returnings would happen repeatedly. So here the permanent feature in all things is their composition: this self-generating “stuff”. And the changes in it are the recurring items that dividing off come into existence and then return to the massed whole to enable further “changes” to take place. There is, however, a limit to the extent of these “changes”. There must not be too many of them nor too few. There must be sufficient to guarantee the living nature of the universe but not so great a number that it loses balance. The universe to be as it is cannot be devoid of such transience, nor can it be composed solely of separated things.

Following this train of thought, further thinkers turned to this need for balance in the living universe. It was this rather than the constituent “stuff” that they thought gave permanence, that kept in harmony, in working order, as a whole the conglomeration of items that come in and out of existence. The right balance of the universe was maintained, they thought, by everything existing in “right proportion” both in itself and in relation to its position in the entire cosmos. In their eyes size and the actual constituency of all things did not matter, so long as the arrangement of all parts kept to a certain form. It was this form of arrangement within the whole universe and within its parts that must persist if permanence is to be shown. The number and the composition of the “stuff” of all things may change as they come into and pass out of daily life but always according to the need to maintain their right arrangement within and as part of the cosmos.

A criticism of both these outlooks rose. This was that they, depending on the common-sense view of a world of separate objects, failed to understand the right way of looking at their experience. The living world is a developing world and postulations about permanent constituents in it fail to emphasise this. For, this view held, the permanence of the world lies in the perpetually unfolding process of change itself. This unifies the striving of seeming opposites, reconciles generation and decay, attunes the continuous movement of all creation to the need for a balanced and harmonious world. Without the ever-moving course of change there would only be a set of inert disconnected objects.

Whilst concurring with the denial of the common-sense view of the cosmos being composed of objects that come into being and then disappear, an otherwise radically opposite outlook was held. Associating the idea of a changing world with experience it held that experience gives us false information. In this philosophy change is merely a figment produced by man’s limited and partial sensations. It is only of use as a way to carry out a life lived from day-today. It is not apposite when man uses his reason aright and realises that his sensations can give him only particular information at a particular moment. But such information is misleading. It makes conceivable a world where things come and go, seeming out of and back to nothing. Yet “nothing” cannot be apprehended. And man’s particular bits of experimental evidence hide the fact that understanding of any one thing depends on the whole context of influence and surroundings. Man is deceived when he thinks he can be sure of this context. He is wrong to rely on his rough-and-ready assessment of what constitute events and items. For the moment of change is never caught precisely; the times of a birth or death, the beginning and ending of boundaries cannot be pinpointed beyond all doubt. All of this indicates that man’s mind, not his senses can tell him the whole story : that the only reality of the universe is that of a permanence beyond the particulars and the seeming changes in these. This reality is a seamless whole existing perpetually. It cannot be reconciled with the transient world of the senses which have no meaning for those who think properly, go beyond the immediate.

Following such a devastating denial of any meaning to everyday life an attempt was made to salvage a connection between the mental acceptance of a permanent universe and the experience of a changing existence. Here, reality, the whole universe is envisaged not as inconceivable in sensory terms but merely indiscernible. It is composed not of a single undifferentiated whole but of an infinite number of such wholes, tiny particles perpetually existing in constant motion, indivisible, too small to be perceived by man. These can come together at intervals to form aggregations of worlds and items in these worlds, and disperse to form perhaps further collections. The minute additions or subtractions from any collection make the processes of development or decay unobservable, whilst the total effect can be apparent to the senses. In this fashion change occurs and the notion of permanence – the elementary particles – is linked with it. In this philosophy there is no pattern, no apparent moving power to govern all this activity. There is only an acceptance that this can happen.

Socrates, the great influence on all Greek thought, met his death by execution in 399 B.C. In the years before this, many philosophers who had studied these pre-Socratic thinkers asked how such various and often contradictory accounts can be given of the universe. Some became sceptical – that there can be no knowledge beyond the fact that they were sure of nothing in particular.

But there is convergence with pre-Socratic thinkers. They were all sure that there is a permanency to the universe. They all pointed out that mens’ experiences lead them to associate change with the movement of living things, of the unfolding of events. Their accounts differ because they are human beings speaking from relative points of view about the fact they accepted as certain – the entirety of all there has, is and could be. It is part of the human condition, of being part of this entirety that it cannot portray it in absolute terms.

Socrates himself, in Plato’s dialogues, though showing the influence of his predecessors, puts forward a further view. He stated that man, if he is to lead a satisfactory life, needs to understand his function in the scheme of things. And this understanding comes from assessing the functions of all else. Ideally this should lead to realising the point and purpose of everything as a whole and all functions meshing together. And here would be permanence – an eternally binding purpose. But man is limited by his experience and mental capacities. He can never be sure what ideals should be striven for, and is, if he is wise, continually aware of his ignorance. Nevertheless he endeavours to form working hypotheses. It is the constant checking of the actions they involve, their likely reforming that constitutes change – making it a mental process here with the hope of a permanent end.

© Diana Kendall 1991


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