And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens. So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
Why did the philosopher cross the river?
Time: ca 500 B.C.
Place: a river somewhere in neutral territory
Characters: The philosopher HERACLITUS* and his followers, a noisy, busy band of clowns, and the rival philosopher PARMENIDES** and his followers, a staid, stately group of stiffs, converge on opposite sides of the river.
HERACLITUS. Ah! Parmenides of Elea. We meet at last!
PARMENIDES. Heraclitus of Ephesus, greeting! Our encounter was in the stars and thus there is a sense in which we have always met.
CLOWNS (ad lib). Huh?? What’d he say? What the–!
H. thought you might say that. But even as you speak, time passes, and the Parmenides I now behold is not the same man who spoke moments ago.
STIFFS. (all with question marks over their heads and puzzled expressions)
P. Nice try, Heraclitus. But you and I both know you’re just being cute. The world could not possibly operate on your principle.
H. Au contraire, Parmenides! I present to you the evidence. Observe this river.
CLOWNS comically observe with popping eyes.
H. I place my foot in, like so—
extends foot into water
H. And now I withdraw my foot . . . .
The foot comes up, dripping.
H. And when I do, it is no longer the same river, because all the water that first embraced my foot is past, never to return. Ergo: you cannot step in the same river twice!
CLOWNS cheer, turn cartwheels, slap high fives, etc.
P. (arms folded, surrounded by followers who do the same) That’s ridiculous.
H. I beg to differ, esteemed sage! We cannot escape the stream of time. Everything that is, is in a state of flux—you, me, this river, this tree. Everything is on its way to becoming something else.
P. Something else? Does that mean you are only Heraclitus temporarily? Will I one day have the pleasure of meeting a Demetrius or Sophocles instead of you?
H. Well . . .
P. Will this river cease to be a river?
H. Uh . . .
P. Will this tree become something other than a tree?
H. No, but—
P. Will your nose migrate to another position on your face, or become an eye, or a mouth?
H. Don’t be silly.
P. Then how can you call anything by its name, other than by reason of its being, unchangeably, what it is?
STIFFS. (in unison, uniformly pleased) Bravo, Master.
H. (grabbing a clown baby from among his followers) Remember when you were this age, Parmenides? Would your followers have recognized you?
P. That’s not fair . . . .
H. And when you’re old and gray and can’t remember where you put your stylus, will they still be around?
P. Let’s not get personal. Just tell me what matters most: being, or becoming?
H. Without becoming there’s nothing to be!
P. Without being there’s nothing to become!
H. So it seems we’re at the same place we started—
H and P. (together) IMPASSE!
The argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus is still going on. It’s a fundamental question—if not the fundamental question—of both philosophy and science. Is life a matter of being or becoming? Is reality best described as particles, or process? If “life is but a brief candle” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5) that burns brightly for a relative second of time and then disappears in a trail of smoke, what was that all about?
Something tells us there’s more to life than movement and cessation. If selfhood means anything, there must be an essential self, a being that is immutably Ben or Asaph or Samarra, who will somehow survive its death and live on in some fashion (He has also planted eternity in the heart of man, Ecclesiastes 3:11). We resist growing older, continually express surprise at how fast babies develop and kids lunge from childhood to adolescence, even though it literally is the most natural thing in the world. We accept that newborn Sarah is the same as septuagenarian Sarah, but it just doesn’t seem right.
Yet who would live forever, unchanged? In Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, a family drinks from a secret spring whose water keeps them from ever growing older. The main character, a ten-year-old girl, is offered some of that same water but eventually refuses it. As anyone should. As frightening as our forward motion through time, feeling sometimes as rudderless as Noah in his ark, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Change is where things happen.
But not just for the sake of happening. During my teen years the daytime soap opera Dark Shadows, with its two romantic leads Barnabas and Quentin Collins, was all the rage. Barnabas was immortal and had a propensity for biting lush young females on the neck. Quentin had an unsettling habit of growing facial hair and sharp teeth during the full moon. Every day’s episode would end on a typical cliffhanger, ensuring the audience would be back the next day even if they had to cancel a dentist appointment or rearrange their shopping schedule (no TiVo or cable then). One summer I watched an episode to see what all the excitement was about, then watched another, and another, and found myself hooked.
Besides paranormal sexiness, change was the attraction, as it is for every soap. Every single day brought new plot developments and twists and secondary characters tracing their arc across umpteen episodes. Would she, won’t he, could she, will he—and suddenly I realized that the show had no being, only becoming. Barnabas’ story would never resolve; nor Quentin’s. Just endless cycles until, like me, everybody got fed up. Dark Shadows was a smashing success for about two years. When the novelty wore off the mechanics of change-for-the-sake of-change were exposed for all to see. Other soaps, like Days of Our Lives and General Hospital ran on the same principle, but doctors and rakes and gamblers and vamps have more than one trick up their sleeves, and could keep an audience guessing longer than vampires and werewolves.
That’s the problem with Heraclitus. Change for the sake of change ultimately satisfies no one.
Everybody wants to be somebody, and I don’t mean Somebody with a capital S. We simply want to know ourselves. Project yourself back to high school—or worse, junior high—and recall how desperate you were to know how to act. “Just be yourself,” the grownups said. But the swift changes of adolescence had swept you away from who you were. Everybody was looking sideways at the cool kids, trying to pick up cues. Did you just give up and set out to be a nonconformist, only to find you didn’t have the courage for it, and maybe that wasn’t really you either?
But Parmenides has his problems too. Change can come too hard and fast, but what if it never came at all? The weightlessness of adolescence terrifies, but it also exhilarates.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split couds and done a thousand things
You have not dreamed of . . . .
(John Magee, “High Flight,” 1941)
Any history of human flight begins with the dreamers who launched themselves from cliffs, flapping madly their homemade wings constructed of canvas and balsa wood. Only to experience a hard landing, ha, ha.
Except for fulsome phrases about “man’s longings to soar,” these jokey introductions to human flight hardly ever pause to speculate in depth as to why an otherwise sensible human being would feel compelled to leap out into empty space. Our body structure, weight and substance are not in any way adaptable to larking about in the sky. Nothing could be more obvious, and there’s plenty to do on land, so why even think about it? Why dream about it, as many of us do? “I dreamed I was flying,” we say, and the implication is almost always good. We love those dreams. What is the source of this deep-rooted envy of our fellow creatures who can simply lift their wings and launch into three-dimensional movement?
Swimming is the closest we can manage under our own power, but only the best swimmers experience it, and for only as long as their breath holds out. If I could choose an animal to be for a while, my choice would hover between an otter and a whale. Otters have more fun, but they are subject to killing and eating by larger predators. Nobody bothers a whale (except of course for humans, but we can leave them out of the equation for now). And they seem to have their own kind of fun, as I gather from videos of them launching their huge bodies out of the sea to kiss the air in a shower of sunlit drops. Wouldn’t that be the life—no predators, no food shortages, full rein of the boundless ocean, living large while propelled solemnly about on massive flutes.
Air and water—home of three-dimensional movement, of effortless fight and endless wave, darting and dodging, soaring and diving, never at rest. And never—to speak figuratively—in the same place twice. Birds build their nests and salmon return to their spawning beds, but their symbolic habitat is the never-ending Now, where no creature plants a foot or fin.
We need both: we need the solid ground, where we can build and plant. But our hearts yearn for the waters and the air, for “High Flight” and trackless sea:
I must go down to the sea again; to the lonely sea and sky
and all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.
(John Masefield, “Sea Fever”)
To be fully ourselves, we need to venture out in unexplored territories and uncertain futures. We need to grow and change: a human who doesn’t grow and change may have more qualities in common with an amoeba.
But also, to be fully ourselves, we need to be . . . ourselves.
On Day Five, God creates inhabitants for the depthless sea and the lofty sky. Their scales flash in the sunlit water; their feathers strain light as they lift for flight. Though they live measured lives, they cannot measure. Birds don’t build birdhouses; whales don’t plant plankton farms. They are there to feed us, and to be fed, as a Jewish teacher pointed out during a sermon on a hillside: “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. And yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).
On another hillside, or perhaps even that same one, after the sermon, he confronted a crowd of 5000 hungry people. Time for a practical application, as five small fish multiplied in his hands like a huge haul in a net, and fill every person there to the full.
The inhabitants of sea and sky feed our bodies, but they also feed our imaginations. Our bodies can’t fly, but our minds can.
- Think back on your childhood, from as early as you can remember, up through early adulthood. Are you still 7, or 10, or 17 somewhere inside? Do all those stages of yourself still exist? What age to you best remember, or most identify with?
- How would you divide the phases of your growing-up years (e.g., early childhood 4-11, pre-adolescence 12-13, adolescence 14-17, young adult 17-25)? What color would you give each phase?
- What’s different about you or your surroundings from last week to this week?
*Heraclitus of Ephesus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, ca. 500 B. C. Though little is know about what he actually taught, he is credited with the idea that all matter is continually in flux.
**Parmenides of Elea, born ca. 515, wrote a poem called “On Nature,” of which about 100 lines survive, sketching his view of nature as all one thing and change as an illusion.