“Being” and “Becoming”: How Plato Can Help Us Understand and Accept Social Change

Why do we get bored? Why do we try new things? Invent new hobbies? Travel to different countries? On the flipside, why do we prefer routine? Why do we cling to tradition? Why is repetition so comforting?

As human beings, we have a complicated relationship with permanence and change. On the one hand we want things like truth, justice, happiness, and meaning to be unchanging fixtures of our existence, and yet we seem to have a perpetual longing for newer, greener pastures.

Some of the changes we long for are internal (changes in attitude, intellect, experience, and feeling) while others are external (changes in physique, performance, scenery, location, and culture). Some changes are trivial and negligible, while others are serious and have life-changing effects.

However, from a very young age we also begin to realize something alarming about the idea of change: namely, that we are not the sole agents of it. In fact, we discover that much of the change that happens to us and around us does so without our knowledge, will, or consent.

It is this type of change – the change we cannot produce, predict, or control – that scares us most. In the face of this overwhelming force, we feel powerless and small. We realize we are a small boat set adrift on the open ocean without a sail, a map, or a clear destination.

Still, being the resourceful beings that we are, we learn to adapt to our frightening predicament. We have created various conventions and traditions which aim to enshrine the values we wish to uphold, and have constructed various belief systems and institutions to help further anchor those values in culture. Over time, the dual threat of meaninglessness and ultimate change (death) has transformed us into experienced navigators of our world.

However, as history shows us, the problem with our attempts to encounter and deal with change is that even the structures and systems we build are also subject to change. To keep our prized conventions, belief systems, and institutions afloat, we have learned that these things must be stable enough to ward off death and meaninglessness, but not so rigid that they become suffocating and maladaptive. One only needs to look at the history of Christianity for an example of this.

Of course, this confrontation with the changing nature of reality is hardly new, and goes back to the Presocratics of ancient Greece. Roughly one hundred years before Socrates, a philosopher named Heraclitus first remarked on the impermanence of being and reality by making a simple observation about stepping into a river: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.

In making this statement, Heraclitus described the transient nature of reality – namely, that we are creatures in a state of perpetual change, as is the environment that surrounds us. Therefore, according to Heraclitus, each time we attempt to step into the same river, not only are we stepping into an entirely new river, but it is an entirely new we that does the stepping.

On the one hand, this idea seems to ring true, especially in light of human history. In a biological sense we can trace our evolution back millions of years to a shared ancestor, and in a chemical sense, can trace the elements in our bodies to the stars. As social beings we feel the effects of changing laws, traditions, and institutions. As intellectual beings we can observe the never-ending permutations of language, culture, and thought found in the ebb and flow of countless ideologies and philosophies. In this way, it is clear on some level that we are in a state of “becoming.”

And yet, despite this ever-changing nature of reality, we can also observe human patterns which appear to be fixed: universal principles, thoughts, and behaviors which are repeated across time, and which seem to transcend culture, language, and religion.

Again, we can look to another Pre-Socratic philosopher named Parmenides for an ancient perspective on this issue. Contrary to Heraclitus, Parmenides had a very different take on the issue of change. In fact, he basically denied it outright: “What Is has no beginning and never will be destroyed: it is whole, still, and without end. It neither was nor will be, it simply is—now, altogether, one, continuous…” For Parmenides, change was simply an illusion. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

Here too, history seems to reflect this apparently unchanging nature of reality. On the atomic level, science suggests the universe behaves as it always has; on a biological and psychological level we still possess the same drives for sleep, food, sex, and socialization; and on a moral level we continue to create ethical systems, traditions, and institutions to help regulate and organize our lives. In this sense, we can also recognize that we are in a constant state of “being.”

This, of course, begs the question: Who was more right? Heraclitus or Parmenides? Plato’s answer was that they both were, as his own Theory of Forms sought to reconcile these two seemingly opposing concepts of change and permanence.

According to Plato’s theory, the changing, visible world is an imperfect world of “becoming”: a mere reflection of the invisible, eternal realm of perfect forms (i.e. the world of “being”). Plato argued that only through reason and intellectual contemplation could these true forms be realized and wisdom be obtained. This applied to everyday objects like chairs and rocks, but also to virtues like justice, love, and truth.

However, even if we don’t buy into Plato’s idea that there is an invisible, eternal world floating around somewhere beyond our physical reality, the distinctions Plato makes between fact and opinion, appearance and reality, imperfection and perfection, accepted convention and universal ideal, are all deeply important to the progress of civilization toward Enlightenment.

The ability to distinguish fact from fiction, discern principles that underlie social conventions, and recognize what is changeable versus was is unchangeable are all valuable intellectual tools with far-reaching moral implications.

For example, consider the generational and/or cultural differences in views regarding the issues of marriage, gender roles, and parenting. These issues are especially contentious nowadays, not just because they are offer differing views about what should be the case, but because they rely on differing foundations about what is the case.

Philosophically speaking, they are debates about ontology as much as they are debates about ethics. They are debates about the definitions of words, symbols, and institutions, as much as they are about their respective consequences.

To illustrate the idea more concretely, if a person views the conventions of marriage, gender roles, and parenting as changeable, imperfect forms rather than perfect ones – as modes of “becoming” which are subject to change over time – then that person’s reaction to changes to those conventions during their lifetime will be perceived very differently than someone who mistakenly treats them as rigid, eternal structures.

Where the un-philosophical person engaged in the tribalistic worship of conventions might feel a sense of panic due to the perceived erosion of reality, meaning, and identity, the philosopher instead perceives the natural progression of the world toward Enlightenment.

By recognizing the conventions of marriage, gender, and parenting as imperfect societal forms, not only do we allow ourselves to see the picture of reality more clearly, but we become better equipped to make ethical decisions within that reality. The more we reflect on the ways in which these imperfect forms promote or fail to promote the underlying universal forms of love, fidelity, equality, and justice, the more we obtain the wisdom necessary to achieve those ends.

In this sense, philosophy has the power to make us more receptive to change, allowing us to understand it as a necessary progression rather than an inconvenient assault on reality and identity. It allows us to see the structures, systems, and institutions we create not as ends in themselves, but as approximations toward true knowledge of ourselves and the world.

In order to pursue meaningful, productive, and happy lives, we have learned the value of rooting ourselves in particular systems of thought and modes of operation, but it is philosophy which helps us to adapt, revise, and improve those systems in order to better make sense of who we are, and in order to create a happier, more thoughtful, and more accepting world for future generations.

“Whether we are caught in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God as lord of the universe has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of mankind are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us.” – Seneca

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