The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Change is, of course, an impossibly vast subject. Virtually everything in our experience changes; the whole material world is defined by change; history and the sciences are essentially studies in different kinds of change, and literature (thanks to its need for plot) and ethics and economics (which revolve around choice) are intimately tied to the concept as well. The late sixth-century philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No man can step in the same river twice, because the second time it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.”
It is, therefore, a little ironic that one of the great fathers of all philosophy, Plato, was largely concerned with how to get beyond change. The changefulness of the world was obvious, yet it is also obvious that there is some kind of persistence over time: the things we are familiar with usually change in slow and predictable ways, and our memories attest to our own continuous identities. It was to resolve this paradox that he proposed the theory of the Forms, according to which everything that exists is in truth only a shadow of a greater, eternal reality, above the material world. To understand the Forms, in his view, was the principal aim of philosophy; the realm of being, rather than the realm of becoming, was the highest object of thought—virtually divine. His great disciple Aristotle took a similar view, but radically modified the concept of the Forms: he “located” them not in a transcendental world, but in the objects that they defined. The ship of Theseus, say, was not merely a reflection of the Form “Ship,” but a real embodiment of it in matter; matter and Form together made an object. The presence of the Form caused its stability as an object, and it would stop being a ship only if the Form were somehow taken out of it (usually by interfering with the matter in a way that made it unable to sustain the Form, e.g. by burning it).
However, this kind of change—what he called becoming and perishing, or generation and corruption—was only one of the kinds that interested Aristotle. He also identified three other kinds of change: changes in quality, or alteration; changes in quantity, or increase and decrease; and changes in place, or motion. This last, we now recognize as the subject matter of physics, in which there have been such dramatic advances in the last hundred years, along with a fresh crop of unanswered questions. This was not entirely alien to ancient and medieval science, but their assumptions and focus were different. Astronomy was, then as now, the study of the movements of heavenly bodies, but those movements appeared so perfectly regular that they were thought to be made of another kind of matter than what was found on earth. This was æther, or quintessence (literally “the fifth element”), which they believed was free of corruption, alteration, and decrease. Not until Tycho’s supernova in 1572 was it realized that the stars and planets were subject to every kind of change—a discovery which radically altered both science and the philosophy of science far more radically than Copernicus.
There is much more to be said about change in the sciences—alchemy and evolution both spring to mind; history, however, is very nearly definable as the study of change. (Whether and to what extent change and time are different things is a fascinating philosophic rabbit trail from here.) The more prosaic sorts of history stick to recording factual changes, but human beings are storytellers by nature. Some of the most ancient works of literature, like the Iliad, seem to be based in history—garbled recollections of the Bronze Age, as narrated by poets many generations removed from its fall. Imposing a narrative on history began to take quite a different form under the influence of German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel. We have of course always known that societies change with time; the idealists proposed that this change tended, inherently, to be improvement, an idea since named progressivism. This was justified on various philosophical grounds, typically aligning with Christianity or pantheism on the religious side, and with classical Liberalism or Marxism on the political.
This contrasts with (though it does not actually contradict) two older ideas, both inherited by Christianity from Judaism. One is the concept of apocalyptic. This is a rather involved idea with a complex history, but one of its salient qualities is an expectation of catastrophic change in the world as we know it. The New Testament’s frequent allusions to “this age and the age to come” are on this point characteristic of first-century Judaism; the “age to come,” associated with the Messiah, was interpreted differently by different groups, as everything from restored independence for the Jewish people to the resurrection of the dead and the eradication of all pain and evil. The hinge upon which this colossal change was to swing would be “the Last Day,” at which divine judgment would be proclaimed, and appropriate recompense for both the wicked and the righteous administered—certainly a change from the world we are familiar with.
The other, which is naturally bound up with this notion of judgment, is the concept of repentance. This is often misunderstood as “feeling guilty”; however, a more idiomatic translation in contemporary English would be something like “a change of heart.” Already a refrain of the Hebrew prophets for centuries, this became one of the central concepts of Christian theology, and two major rituals (baptism and penance) were tied to it within the first few generations of the Church. Though beliefs about these rituals vary widely between Christian traditions, the paramount importance of repentance, or conversion, remains a universal theme. The great St. Augustine wrote in his Lectures on the Gospel of John that “the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth, for heaven and earth will pass away, but the salvation of the elect will not pass away.”
Hesiod, The Theogony
The Epistle to the Hebrews
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.ii.3
Various authors, The Chemical Theater
John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image
Stephen Jay Gould, Hen’s Teeth and Horses’ Toes
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like some of our other posts on the Great Conversation, on subjects ranging from citizenship to the will; or you might take an interest in this discussion of the role of poetry in education. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored, or our seminar series led by scholars from across the country, the Journey Through the Author Bank.
Published on 28th July, 2022.