Flux Versus Stasis

Parmenides and Heraclitus were two contrasting philosophers who lived at roughly the same time, about 480 BC.  Parmenides took the view that nothing changes.  He claimed that a goddess had shown him the way of truth versus the way of opinion, and he deduced from logical truths about the universe.  The universe, he said, is a single and unchanging entity, it always was, and always will be.

"Nothing comes from nothing," he said.  Observation shows us the illusion of change because all senses belong to the world of opinion, not to that of truth.

Heraclitus, his contemporary, took the exact opposite view.  Whereas some sought permanence amid disorder and uncertainty, Heraclitus embraced change.  Everything is in flux.  "We step and do not step into the same rivers," he said.  We call it the same river but new waters have replaced those we stepped into.

He taught the unity of opposites.  "The way up and the way down are the same."  And the same is true of other opposites, day and night, winter and summer, war and peace. He did not mean that they were identical but that they changed into each other.  Day replaces night, night day.  Everything is constantly changing. You are not the same person you were.  He denied that "a thing is what it is," because things change.

So the pre-Socratic philosophers gave us two takes on the universe, two opposing mindsets.  Parmenides was for permanence, Heraclitus for constant change.  Heraclitus was for flux, Parmenides was for stasis. 

Now we run forward to 2000 years to the year 1494 when Pope Alexander VI divided the recently discovered New World between Spain and Portugal.  It didn't last, largely because he didn't allot any of it to England, the Netherlands, or any other European nations.

I now propose to divide the world as the Pope did.  Putting on my papal zucchetto, I divide the world into the followers of Parmenides and those of Heraclitus.  It is a division between flux and stasis.

The division is between those who seek the stability and predictability of permanence, and those who are ready to embrace change – even to welcome it.

This is far from more conventional divisions into left and right.  Normally we associate conservative temperament with wanting to keep things familiar and comfortable, and resisting change as unsettling as it is unfamiliar.  Yet if we look about us today, at those who yearn for the world of Parmenides, we find some strange alliances.

Trade unions like to keep things as they are.  They resist new technology and new working practices because they threaten jobs.  They want people to remain in familiar employment as far as possible.  The early industrial revolution featured Luddites, and those who threw their wooden shoes (sabots) into the new machines and gave us the words saboteur and sabotage.

Their modern counterparts regard change as threatening.  It puts their standard of living at risk.  So union leaders, conventionally left wing, are at one with retired Tory colonels in their suspicion of change and their aversion to it.

Now look at environmentalists.  Many of them look back to when we all lived more simply and made less impact on the planet.  They urge us to go backwards, to travel less, to produce less, to consume less, to do less.  Many of them are against growth.

At heart they are deeply conservative, the children of Parmenides.  They yearn for a predictable, static world.

Those who want to keep things the same support such things as protection and subsidy for domestic industry.  They want the comfort of traditional goods produced by traditional methods in traditional places.

The admission of cheaper foreign goods threatens that stability and portends upheaval.  So tariffs are urged to protect domestic producers from competition, while subsidies from taxpayers are urged to keep them in business

Those who want things to stay as they are oppose extensions to Sunday trading, just as they opposed it altogether a generation ago.  They deplore more relaxed moral attitudes and the changing nature of the family.  If the followers of Parmenides today could put their motto in three words, it would be "legislate against change."

The followers of Heraclitus, on the other hand, know that change happens.  Nothing stays the same.  Technology changes.  Human ingenuity and inventiveness find new ways of doing things and new things to do.  As a result, practices change and society changes.  And as society changes, attitudes change and our moral judgements change.  The children of Heraclitus know that change brings upset for some, but they also know it brings progress for many.

Human beings have rational minds.  They think, and when they think, it changes things.  They think of ways to make them less vulnerable to fate and fortune.  They try instead to control their circumstances.  Agriculture enables them to store food against leaner times; buildings protect them from the weather.

At every stage humans have sought to improve their lot, to manage things better than their predecessors did.  But improvement means change, and the price of progress is learning to adapt to change, to ride with its flow.

Those who embrace Heraclitus do not try to sustain industries made obsolete by change.  They do not use tariffs and subsidies to keep the world at bay.

They might use the wealth created by change to ease the lot of those adversely affected by it, or to help them adapt to it, but they don't try to stop it.

Human beings constantly think of new ways to achieve their goals.  They test them, and those that succeed gradually spread, transforming society in the process.  It is constant flux, churn, just like the churn in economic activity.

It works better in practice than legislation does.  If a thermometer shows the room is too cold, it is possible to inform the government and have them send someone round to turn on the heater, but it's faster and more efficient to let a thermostat do that automatically.  That's what a market does – it responds to continual changes, and it responds and adapts to their stimuli.  It's like a thermostat.  Markets are a way of living with change – indeed of using change.

We can divide societies into ones that seek stasis and ones that embrace flux.  Static societies try to sustain traditional practices, sometimes relying on tradition itself and strong social sanctions against deviation from accepted norms.  Often the force of law is used to compel compliance with conventional norms, with prosecution and punishment of those who behave differently.  

Societies based on strong religious norms tend to fall into this category, with divine punishment in the afterlife threatened against those who fail to comply with social norms of this life.  Isolated societies also tend to be more static.  Without contact with other cultures or comparison with them, their ways of doing things are seen as the way of doing things, and alternatives are seen as repugnant, failing to comply with what is decent. 

People in such societies tend to live much as their parents did, with a measured rhythm of life that is repeated in each generation.  There is a psychological pattern, too, in that they do not tend to brim with inquiring minds or intellectual curiosity.  They tend to be as culturally static as they are socially.  Most people know their place and keep to it.

Societies that embrace flux are turbulent.  Changes come thick and fast and undermine stability.  Their citizens compare themselves firstly with other societies they are in contact with, and for some brave minds, with imagined societies.  There is greater social mobility, with people seeking to improve their lot in life, and to pass more on to their children than they started with themselves.  They seek improvement, which necessarily means change.  They set targets and seek to attain them.  They experiment and innovate.  People live lives that are dramatically different from the lives lived by their parents, and incomprehensibly different from those lived by their grandparents.   Their lives are characterized by progress.

The story of humankind can be told as the story of progress – by no means constant, by no means linear, but the story of progress nonetheless.  It took only 12,000 years for us to come out of our caves and plant our footprints on the moon – that's not even a tlck of the astronomical clock.

Everything changes and we either live with that or we resist it.  So now my papal division of the world has divided it between the followers of Parmenides and those of Heraclitus, between those who think things can be constant and those who think that change is the only constant.

Societies that seek stasis limit freedom.  They restrain the right to innovate, to experiment, because this threatens stability.  Societies that embrace flux tend also to embrace freedom – freedom to differ, freedom to change. 

I would like to quote from a movie to illustrate that division.  The movie is "Things to Come," made in 1936 by Alexander Korda and with a screenplay by H G Wells. I do recommend you to see the movie but I certainly recommend you to see the ending.  The closing scene takes place on the balcony of an observatory looking up at the night sky.  They have just sent a capsule carrying people to voyage around the moon.  Cabal's deputy challenges him.

"Oh God, is there never to be any age of happiness?  Is there never to be any rest?

Rest enough for the individual man.  Too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for man no rest and no ending. He must go on. Conquest beyond conquest.  First this little planet with its winds and waves. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him. And at last out across immensity to the stars.  And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time – still, he will be beginning.

But we're such little creatures.  Poor humanity's so fragile, so weak. Little animals.

Little animals? If we're no more than animals, then we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the animals do or have done.  Is it this, or that.  All the universe or nothing!  Which shall it be?"