December 09, 2007

In idem flumen bis non descendimus

In English: We do not go down into the same river twice.

Tomorrow is the last day of the fall semester for me, and with that sense of one semester ending (so that another semester can begin all too soon!), and a "New Year" coming at the end of this month, I thought I would post this nice saying about the flow of time and existence. It is adapted from a paraphrase in Latin by the philosopher Seneca of one of the most famous sayings of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. Heraclitus is perhaps most famous for his saying that everything flows, "panta rhei" (πάντα ῥεῖ).

And just what does this mean, the idea that everything is flowing, and that we cannot step into the same river twice? Here's a nice discussion from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which gives Plato's take on Heraclitus, and then proceeds to propose what Heraclitus himself might have theorized:
Plato indicates the source of the flux doctrine: "Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river" (Cratylus 402a = DK22A6).

What Heraclitus actually says is the following: "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow." (DK22B12)

There is an antithesis between 'same' and 'other.' The sentence says that different waters flow in rivers staying the same. In other words, though the waters are always changing, the rivers stay the same. Indeed, it must be precisely because the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, rather than lakes or ponds. The message is that rivers can stay the same over time even though, or indeed because, the waters change. The point, then, is not that everything is changing, but that the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things.
In Seneca, too, this notion of change and identity comes through quite clearly:
Hoc est quod ait Heraclitus: 'in idem flumen bis descendimus et non descendimus'. Manet enim idem fluminis nomen, aqua transmissa est. Hoc in amne manifestius est quam in homine; sed nos quoque non minus velox cursus praetervehit, et ideo admiror dementiam nostram, quod tantopere amamus rem fugacissimam, corpus, timemusque ne quando moriamur, cum omne momentum mors prioris habitus sit.

This is what Heraclitus says: "Into the same river twice we go down and do not go down." For the name of the river is the same, the water has passed through. This is more clear in a stream than in a person, but a no less swift movement carries us along as well, and thus I am surprised at our folly, because we so much love this most fleeting thing, the body, and we fear that someday we might die, when every moment is the death of our prior condition (habitus)."
So, for all that I am very fond of the calendar, watching the old year turn into a new year, 2008, Heraclitus and Seneca remind me that this is an infinitely unfolding process, happening at every moment; instead of getting ready to celebrate a "happy new year" at the end of this month, I could be celebrating "happy new moment" all the time!

So, hoping your spiritual river is flowing merrily along, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2000. In idem flumen bis non descendimus.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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