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Human Beings and Human Becomings

‘You cannot step into the same river twice.’

So says the enigmatic ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, in this, his most famous aphorism. Heraclitus saw the universe as a place of constant flux where nothing was permanent and all things were subject to an unending process of change. If the river is the universe and the water is all the stuff that happens in it, then every time you step off the bank to cool your feet, you are paddling in different stuff - and the stuff flows by, ceaselessly.

Nietzsche was an admirer of Heraclitus and subscribed to this belief in the universal flux. It’s demonstrably true that everything is impermanent, of course. Even the pyramids at Giza will be worn away to nothingness by the desert winds, in time. The sun too will fizzle out, in the far future.

But that’s all very abstract - for Nietzsche, even the most familiar and dependable everyday things are undergoing a dynamic process of change. We deceive ourselves that there are constants in our lives - often because the pace of change is too slow to perceive clearly - but the milk in your fridge will curdle, your bicycle will rust away to nothing, your house will subside and collapse and everybody you know will die and be forgotten.

But perhaps that’s still too abstract? After all, these distressing facts are so easily put from our minds. It’s almost like we have a need for, or a faith in, permanence, in cast-iron certainties - against our better sense. Where could such a faith come from?

Could it be from two thousand years of christianity?

In christianity and other religions there are postulated absolute, eternal and unchanging things. God, for one, morality for another - truth, also. What about your ‘immortal’ soul? Your body might die but your soul is supposed to be imperishable, enabling it to be consigned to interminable flame or unending bliss at the whim of the most high. Such metaphysical absolutes have been part of the core programming for the western world since the time of the Romans. Earlier actually, because it was that other mysterious ancient philosopher, Plato, who really introduced these delusions into the psyche of western civilisation.

Writing in third century BC Athens, the very 'cradle of civilisation’, Plato postulated a non-material realm of forms; a metaphysical plane where the flawless blueprints for all earthly things could be found. Of course, the earthly, material copies (or shadows) of these heavenly objects and concepts tended to undergo some degeneration in the process of being copied into the real world, hence the lack of absolute perfection in everyday life, but the original forms remained eternally unsullied. In case it isn’t obvious yet, Plato's perfect realm of unchanging forms was the prototype for the idea of the christian heaven. This unchanging otherworld was regarded as superior to our apparent world because, well, it was unchanging.

It was all nonsense, naturally.

Though we have lost most of the metaphysical baggage in our modern secular societies, the belief in, and the desire for, the unchanging persists. The unchanging feels safe and predictable. The true character of the world - flux, accident, randomness and unpredictability - that causes us anxiety.

Fear of the fluctuating character of the world; of the chaotic, conditional and contingent nature of life, is one of humanity's pathologies, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. As he writes in Beyond Good and Evil: 'the slave wants the unconditional’ - that is to say – the most base part of our human selves requires the comforting fictions of an absolute morality, absolute truth, absolute purpose.

On the other hand, the higher kind of human being embraces the ever-renewing chaos of existence.

The contrast is summed up by Nietzsche as ‘the desire for the fixed and the immortal, for being, on the one hand, or rather the desire for destruction, for change, for novelty, for future, for becoming, on the other.'

As comforting as the unchanging might be, the need for such reassurance butts up against the true character of the universe. When Nietzsche writes ‘I love ignorance of the future, and do not want to die of impatience and the foretaste of promised things.’ this is not Nietzsche choosing change and uncertainty over fixity and predictability - it’s Nietzsche choosing to accept that this is just the way life is. Nothing has finished. Nothing is completed. Everything is always in progress. Even feelings, fears, needs and desires evolve, devolve and transform. The reason we set out on a journey may not be the same reason we complete it. We too are Becomings rather than the Beings we may feel ourselves to be.

'At any given moment you are a different person’ The Gay Science

This blog is a case in point. It is a laboratory and a testing ground. It is a stretching of the limbs. I am committed, in perpetuity, to nothing I have written. Lines of enquiry are pursued and abandoned. Direction changes over time. That is as it should be.

‘Only those who change themselves remain kindred to me.’ Beyond Good and Evil

In the next post we will look at the ways in which our society promotes the idea of the unchanging and what effects this has on our sense of ourselves.

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