Watch: “Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Zeno” (25 min)
Several years ago a cartoon character was brought to life on the silver screen when Robin Williams was cast in the role of Popeye. And, if you recall that movie, I don’t recall the exact words of what he would say, but the refrain that you heard over and over again would be – he would say, “I am who I am, who I am, who I am; Popeye the sailor man I am.” Toot toot.
Now, I remember seeing that movie and being intrigued by that particular refrain. That repetition with respect to the assertion of being. Not unlike all-together the way in which God reveals himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai when the Israelites were in the Midianite wilderness. He says, “I am who I am.”
Now, I understand that philosophy like any other science has its own language, its own lingo. And if you’re not familiar with the language of the particular discipline it can be somewhat disconcerting and even intimidating for people. And, again, philosophy seems to be so abstract and removed from where we live our daily lives. And yet, there is no more important question in all of life than the question of being itself. We can hardly make a sentence in the English language without using some form of the verb “to be” – am, are, was, were and so on. And every time we make simple sentences: “I am going to the store.” “We were in Orlando yesterday.” We are falling back on some kind of idea of being. It is inescapable. And yet, when we begin to probe the idea of being, it is somewhat elusive and mysterious to us.
Well, in that period between the pre-Socratics that we’ve already covered, and the arrival on the philosophical scene of the titan of Athens, namely Socrates, there were some philosophers who were extremely important, not only as pre-cursers for the coming of Socrates and Plato, but really for the whole history of theoretical thought. And those two very important philosophers of the ancient world were Heraclitus and Parmenides. These philosophers were very much concerned with the question of being.
Now, there is a debate, indeed dispute, over which one wrote first and which one responded to the other. When I was in college, I was taught that Heraclitus wrote first and Parmenides was answering him. But more recent literature would indicate just the opposite was the case. But we don’t know for sure. But I’m going to work today on the assumption that Heraclitus was the first of these two. It’s really not all that important in the final analysis.
But Heraclitus is known principally only through quotations and allusions to him and fragments of his writings that have survived. But he is famous in popular philosophy for some of the things that he said. And one thing he said was, “Everything that exists is in a state of flux.” Or to put it another way, “Whatever is, is changing.” Everything is in a state of change. And his illustration or metaphor by which he describes this phenomenon was to speak about a river.
He said the famous statement; “You cannot step into the same river twice.” What did he mean by that? You go to the Mississippi and you put your toe in the water, step back out and step back in, you’ve still stepped into the Mississippi river, you’ve stepped in it not once, but twice. But what Heraclitus is saying is that between that first step and the second step the river has changed. The current has moved on, and the changes that have occurred in that river may be so tiny, so infinitesimal, that they are not at all perceived. For example, every drop of water that moves along that river is making an impact on the bank of the river, in a very almost – well, really imperceptible way. A tiny, minute bit of erosion has taken place. And the composition of the water that you first stepped into has changed by the second time you step into the river. And so, that’s what he’s saying. That river is always changing. But not only is the river changing, but you are changing. And if it takes you one second to step the first time and another second to step the second time, the change in you, again, may be imperceptible, but if for no other reason you are still one second older than you were the first time you put your foot in to the river.
Now, this is part and parcel of our daily experience. We know what it means to age. I’ve said many times that there are three stages of life – youth, middle age and the third one is “you look great.” You know you’re old when your friends come up to you and say, “You look great.” That’s a euphemism for “Boy, have you gotten wrinkled and gray.” But, we all know the ravages of time. We all know that as creatures we are subjected to generation and decay – to change. We grow older, we grow fatter, we grow thinner – whatever. We’re always changing.
Yet, when you look at a person you haven’t seen in twenty-five years you think, “Wow, how have they changed!” It seems so dramatic when you haven’t been there watching it moment to moment. Yet, at the same time you can still recognize that it is still the same person that you knew twenty-five years ago. That you are the same person you were when you were five years old, or four years old. Yet, you’re different. Sameness and differentness, these categories define all of reality as we experience it in the world of creatures.
So, what Heraclitus was getting at was that whatever “is” is changing. He is coming up with a category that becomes very important for future philosophical thought. In fact, let me say that sentence again. I said, he comes up with a category that becomes very important for later philosophical thought. And, it is the category of “becoming.”
Now, let’s talk about these categories of “being” and “becoming” for just another moment. There are other words that later philosophers use, particularly Aristotle, for these categories. Aristotle talked about actuality and potentiality. Potentiality describes that which we possibly could become but have not yet reached. Actuality describes what we are. So, that potentiality is a descriptive term for becoming; actuality is a term for being. Now, what’re you? Are you a human being or are you a human becoming? That’s the question. As long as you are changing you are still experiencing potential. You are still in a process. You are still moving. You are still changing. You – whatever you are – you are not eternally the same. So, how do we deal with this? For Parmenides, he’s saying, “Everything is in a state of flux. Everything is in a state of becoming.” Now, having said that, and he’s known for saying that, many modern philosophers have appealed to Heraclitus as being the father of contemporary existentialism. Now, later on in this course we’ll give a little introduction to Existential philosophy. I get that question all the time from people. They say, “What is Existentialism?” And I say, “It’s the philosophy of existence.” They say, “Oh.” It doesn’t help a whole lot.
This whole idea that there are no absolutes. There’s nothing stable. There’s nothing fixed. There’s nothing changeless. There’s nothing eternal, only the now, only the individual, only existence rather than essence. These are the thoughts of contemporary existentialists, and they appeal to Heraclitus as their father in the faith, as it were.
But, believe it or not, Heraclitus was a monist. Heraclitus believed that all reality was one. Yet, in the one there is eternal diversity. In the sense that there is an inner conflict within ultimate reality that is essential to its very make up. There is a dynamic involved in reality itself. His greatest model for that was fire. It seems to be alive and powerful, but it is always burning or going out. It’s kind of the Ying and the Yang – the tension – the dialectic within itself.
Now, over against Heraclitus, Parmenides argued with his most famous statement that many people who have heard me lecture have heard me refer to Parmenides many times, when I say, “When I was a student of Philosophy and the first time I heard of Parmenides, and the quotation that was attributed to him, I thought was the silliest thing I had ever heard in a philosophy class. It made me wonder why I was even wasting my time engaged in this enterprise. The professor stood up and he said, “Here is the key thought of this great philosopher Parmenides.” And he wrote it on the board. “Whatever is, is.” Wow – whatever is, is? And this guy is famous for saying something like that? What could be more obvious than whatever is, is? But there’s no statement in secular philosophy that has jerked me back to contemplation more often than that one. “Whatever is, is.”
What he’s saying is, the reality to be real cannot be changing. Because that which is changing never truly is. You are not what you are, because since I’ve started that sentence you changed. And not even Robin Williams with the Popeye image can say, “I am who I am, who I am, who I am – Popeye the sailor man.” What he should say is, “I’m potentially Popeye the sailor man. I’m becoming Popeye the sailor man. Because, maybe I was Popeye the sailor man, but I’m not any more and even when I was I wasn’t because when I was I was changing.” You can’t freeze time with creatures who are constantly undergoing this state of flux. That’s why it is a matter of great profundity that the God of sacred Scripture defines himself as “I am” not, “I am becoming” not, “I am changing,” but he is eternally perfect in his actuality. To put it another way, for God there is no potential. God has no lack or deficiency into which he must grow to realize his full potential. He has pure actuality.
And yet, as Aristotle would later discover, if something were only potential, and potentially everything, it would be actually nothing. So, there can’t be pure potentiality or there can’t be something that is purely becoming. If all you are is change, if all you are is becoming, all that means is that what you are is that you are an illusion, you’re fig newton of somebody’s imagination. Because you don’t have anything that really is.
Now, many of the thinkers following this debate in antiquity came to that conclusion. They said, “Whatever is, is changing.” If that is true then everything that under goes change is just an illusion. It can’t really be.” What does that say about flowers and rocks and hills and rivers, the whole external world of our experience, is an illusion? What about you? If you are undergoing change, and if you are in a state of becoming, if all you are is becoming, then you aren’t anything. You are nothing. But common sense says, “I may be changing but it is an I, an actuality, who really is changing. But where do I find this being that keeps me from being just an illusion?”
You’re not going to find the answer in Parmenides. You’re not going to find it in Heraclitus. You’re going to have to go back to Mars Hill and have to hear the Apostle Paul say, “In him you live, and move, and have your being.” The only thing that keeps me from being an illusion is the power of the one who created me, who himself has all being perfectly within his own identity.
But, in any case, this is a very profound thing to be concerned about, as we will see with Plato and Aristotle and really all future philosophy. In a sense the whole history of philosophy is an attempt to answer the debate between Heraclitus and Parmenides – between being and becoming, between actuality and potentiality, between reality and illusion. And that’s why these men are so very important.
Now, another person that I want to look at very quickly in anticipation of the coming of Socrates on the scene, is a man who is famous if for no other reason, his name starts with Z, which makes him a wonderful candidate to be chosen by those people who make up crossword puzzles for the newspaper. If they have a word with a Z in it, they have a limited possibilities to fill in the grid. So, you will see this fellow’s name appear frequently if you are a crossword puzzle addict, like I am.
Zeno, the skeptic of antiquity. Zeno was actually a disciple of Parmenides, and he wanted to attack all forms of philosophy that declared the reality of either matter or motion. And he used an argument in his little games that he played that became quite important to the whole future of Western thinking and debate. He made famous the argument called, “reductio ad absurdum.” The way that kind of an argument works is, you listen to your opponent and your opponent gives his thesis. He gives the point that he is trying to make. Rather than just counter that by giving opposite arguments for it, the person who is reasoning in the fashion of Zeno would say, “Okay, I’m going to adopt your position. I’m going to see where that position takes me if I follow it to its logical conclusion.” And so, Zeno would do that. He would step into the shoes of his opponent and then reason from the opponent’s premise logically and show that that premise, if reasoned out thoroughly would lead to absolute absurdity.
The apostle Paul does that frequently for example in the New Testament. When he writes in First Corinthians 15 to those who are denying the resurrection, he said, “Okay if there is no resurrection of the dead, what are the implications of that?” He spells them out and reduces of the arguments of his opponents to foolishness.
Well, Zeno argues against pluralism because pluralism taught the infinite divisibility of matter. And he said, “This is absurd.” He does this with his arguments from motion. His famous ones include the race between Achilles the Greek Olympic athlete, and the tortoise. It’s sort of like the fabled race between the tortoise and the hare. But in this case since Achilles is so speedy, being a fair sportsman, he gives a head start to the tortoise and so we have the racetrack, and point A is where Achilles begins. Down the way the tortoise begins. And so, Achilles has to catch the tortoise to win the race. So for him to catch and win the race he has to cover the distance between his starting point and the starting point of the tortoise. So he races as fast as he can from point A to point T where the tortoise started. But no matter how fast he runs, time elapses. And during that time that has elapsed, what is the tortoise doing? He’s moving. So the tortoise has moved on. So now, Achilles is much closer to the tortoise than when he started and he has a much smaller distance to make up and so he races as fast as he can from the point he now is to the point where the tortoise is. He covers it very briefly, but by the time he gets to where the tortoise was, the tortoise has moved on. By logical extension, reasoning in this manner, Zeno, tries to show that at what point will Achilles catch the tortoise? Never. The tortoise will win the race.
His second illustration is that if you want to go from Chicago to Orlando, you can’t get there. His reasoning is this; before you go from Chicago to Orlando you first have to go halfway. That make sense? Once you reach the halfway point to get from that point to Orlando you have to go halfway. Once you get to that point, in order to get from there to Orlando, first you have to go HALFWAY. Now, how long does this halfway business keep up? Forever. You’ll never get there. That’s why if I want to go from Chicago to Orlando, and I’m a disciple of Zeno I plan my trip to Miami so that on the way I could drop in to Orlando. This business of matter, reality, being and becoming all set the stage for the crisis that happens in ancient Greece that is not resolved until the appearance of Socrates.