Not much is known about the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who lived in ancient Ephesus approximately five hundred years before Jesus was born. What is known about him is his belief that the fundamental essence of the universe is change. The source of change, Heraclitus believed, was that fire was the central element of the universe; fire alters everything continuously and as a result nothing is fixed or permanent in the world. The aphorism “No one steps in the same river twice” gives a concise image for his philosophical views.(1) Perhaps it might not surprise the modern reader of Heraclitus to learn that those who wrote about him characterized him as the “weeping philosopher.” His contemporaries noted that he suffered such bouts with melancholy that he couldn’t finish many of his philosophical writings.(2)
While a direct intellectual link cannot be drawn from Heraclitus to the Buddha, the belief that everything is changing is also a central part of Buddhist teachings. There is no underlying substance that is not subject to the impermanent nature of existence. Instead, everything is in flux.(3) The doctrine of impermanence or anicca, applies even to human nature. Simple observation shows that the human body, for example, develops and changes from infancy to adulthood and into old age—continually changing. All living beings change as cells develop, die, and then are replaced by new cells. On a cognitive level, most humans have had the experience of fleeting mental events, or have thoughts come and go dissolving into memories that cannot easily be accessed. And all know how time seems to slip through our fingers: the future becomes the present, which becomes the past. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan penned over fifty years ago, “The order is rapidly fadin’ and the first one now will later be last for the times they are a-changin’.”(4)
Friedrich Nietzsche drew upon both of these traditions as he looked out onto what he considered to be a crumbling foundation of Judeo-Christianity—a foundation taken down in part by continual change. He wrote:
“The eternal and exclusive process of becoming, the utter evanescence of everything real, which keeps acting and evolving but never is, as Heraclitus teaches us, is a terrible and stunning notion. Its impact is most closely related to the feeling of an earthquake, which makes people relinquish their faith that the earth is firmly grounded. It takes astonishing strength to transpose this reaction into its opposite, into sublime and happy astonishment.”(5)
In Nietzsche’s Buddhistic vision, change is the ground of reality. “Since man wanted power and control over the chaos that is both himself and the world,” one author notes, “he spun a web of ‘conceptual mummies.’ He used reason to posit unity, substance and duration where there is only constant flux and change; these errors helped him make his world intelligible and bearable.”(6) Buddhism becomes attractive to the West, Nietzsche argued, because it did not seek to overcome impermanence, but to offer detachment from it as the solution. For Nietzsche, the reality of change called forth the rugged individual, the ‘superman’ who could stare down these awful realities and overcome nevertheless.
It is not difficult to understand, given this view of the world, why nihilism characterizes much of the modern mood; for ours is a world driven by change, innovation, and novelty. The fire of change is stoked by technological advances, cultural and social upheaval and political or economic unrest. Many who feel the reality of an ever-changing world wonder what is left that remains. Is there anything solid to hold on to, or that which anchors one to a fixed or stable reality? While these responses to the reality of change articulated by philosophers and witnessed in the lived experience of humanity are not surprising, might there be another way?
Having been a student of Greek as well as Jewish thought, the apostle Paul likely encountered the thinking of Heraclitus. To the early Christians living in Corinth he wrote, for the things that are seen are transient…. Paul understood that on one level the reality of earthly existence is one of constant change. Moreover, change was not viewed as wholly negative. As it related to the transformation of the person through saving faith in Jesus Christ, change was not something to dread, but to embrace. The old has gone, the new has come.
Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. Even in a transient world that the bible elsewhere describes as shifting shadow, there is still an opportunity to live by faith, faith that sees through the challenge of an ever-changing world to the possibility of a reality based in the eternal God. Despite our experience of the world as dynamic flux, Paul argues that there is stability and a foundation undergirding it all just as gravity exists as an unseen, yet constant force that maintains stability.
The reality of change might make some of us more like the weeping Heraclitus, the defiant Nietzsche, or the detached Buddha. No one can anticipate what change will come, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot stop change from coming. As a result there will always be the human struggle with fear and worry. Yet, we do have control over the story we tell of change. In this sense, the Biblical writers tell a story of change that is not detached, defiant, or despairing. Instead, it is a process by which all things are being made new. And behind that process is an eternal God who entered the world of change in Jesus Christ. And that is a hope-filled, revolutionary narrative.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Heraclitus” http://www.plato.stanford.edu.
(2) “Heraclitus,” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://abyss.uoregon.edu.
(3 “Anatta,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/anatta.
(4) Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a-Changin’ on The Times They Are a-Changin, Columbia Records, 1964.
(5) Friedrich Nietzsche cited in Pankaj Mishra, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. (New York: Picador Books, 2004), 378.
(6) Pankaj Mishra, An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the World, 377.