"I am grieved by the transitoriness of things," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in a letter to Franz Overbeck, dated 24 March 1887. (Quoted in R. Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life, Penguin, 1982, p. 304)
What is the appropriate measure of grief at impermanence?
While we are saddened by the transience of things, that they are transient shows that their passing is not worthy of the full measure of our sadness. You are saddened by loss, but what exactly did you lose? Something that was meant to last forever? Something that could last forever? Something that was worth lasting forever?
Sadness at the passing of what must pass often indicates an inordinate love of the finite, when an ordinate love loves it as finite and no more. But sadness also bespeaks a sense that there is more than the finite. For if we had no sense of the Infinite why would we bestow upon the finite a value and reality it cannot bear?
Sadness thus points down to the relative unreality and unimportance of the world of time and change while pointing up to the absolute reality and importance of its Source.
But Nietzsche, of the tribe of Heraclitus, could not bring himself to believe in the Source. His bladed intellect would not allow it. But his heart was that of homo religiosus. So he had resort to a desperate and absurd measure in reconciliation of heart and head: the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, as if the redemption of time could be secured by making it cyclical and endless.
This is no solution at all.
The problem with time is not that it will end, but that its very mode of Being is deficient. The problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time in the first place. For this reason, more time is no solution. Not even endlessly recurring time is any solution. Even if time were unending and I were omnitemporal, existing at every time, my life would still be strung out in moments outside of each other, with the diachronic identifications of memory and expectation no substitute for a true unity.
To the moment I say, with Faust, Verweile doch, du bist so schön (Goethe, Faust) but the beautiful moment will not abide, and abidance-in-memory is a sorry substitute, and a self diachronically constituted by such makeshifts is arguably no true self. Existing as we do temporally, we are never at one with ourselves: the past is no longer, the future not yet, and the present fleeting. We exist outside ourselves in temporal ec-stasis. We are strung out in temporal diaspora. The only Now we know is the nunc movens.
But we sense and can conceive a nunc stans, a standing now. This conception of a standing now, empty here below except for the rare and partial mystic fulfillments vouchsafed only to some, is the standard relative to which the moving now is judged ontologically deficient. Time is but a moving and inadequate image of eternity.
So we of the tribe of Plato conceive of the divine life as the eternal life, not as the omnitemporal or everlasting life.
We too weep with Heraclitus, but our weeping is ordinate, adjusted to the grade of reality of that over which we weep. And our weeping is tempered by joy as we look beyond this scene of flux. For as Nietzsche says in Zarathustra, "all joy/desire wants eternity, wants deep, deep, eternity." All Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe, Ewigkeit!
This longing joy, this joyful longing, is it evidence of the reality of its Object? Great minds have thought so. But you won't be able to prove it one way or the other. So in the end you must decide how you will live and what you will believe.
A. J. Baker on John Anderson: ". . . there are no ultimates in Anderson's view and in line with Heraclitus he maintains that things are constantly changing, and also infinitely complex . . . ." (Australian Realism, Cambridge UP, 1986, p. 29, emphasis added)
Change is a given. From the earliest times sensitive souls have been puzzled and indeed aggrieved by it. "I am grieved by the transitoriness of things," Nietzsche complains in a letter to Franz Overbeck. But are things constantly changing? And what could that mean?
We need to ask four different questions. Does everything change? Do the things that change always change? Do the things that always change continuously change? Do the things that change change in every respect?
1. Does everything change? The first point to be made, and I believe the Andersonians would agree, is that it is not obviously true that everything changes, or true at all. There are plenty of putative counterexamples. Arguably, the truths of logic and mathematics are not subject to change. They are not subject to change either in their existence or in their truth-value. There is no danger that the theorem of Pythagoras will change from true to false tomorrow. If you say that the theorem in question is true only in Euclidean geometry, then I invite you to consider the proposition expressed by 'The theorem of Pythagoras is true only in Euclidean geometry.' Is the truth of this proposition, if true, subject to change?
Here is an even better example. Consider the proposition P expressed by ‘Everything changes.’ P is either true or false. If P is true, then both P and its truth-value change, which is a curiously self-defeating result: surely, those who preach that all is impermanent intend to say something about the invariant structure of the world and/or our experience of the world. Their intention is not to say that all is impermanent now, but if you just wait long enough some permanent things will emerge later. Clearly, P is intended by its adherents as changelessly true, as laying bare one of the essential marks of all that exists. But then P’s truth entails its own falsity. On the other hand, if P is false, then it is false. Therefore, necessarily, P is false. It follows that the negation of P is necessarily true. Hence it is necessarily true that some things do not change. The structure of the (samsaric) world does not change. The world is 'fluxed up,' no doubt about it; but not that 'fluxed up.'
2. Do the things that change always change? I take ‘always’ to mean ‘at every time.’ Clearly, not everything subject to change is changing at every time. The number of planets in our solar system, for example, though subject to change, is obviously not changing at every time. The position of my chair, to take a second example, is subject to change but is obviously not changing at every time.
3. Do the things that change continuously change? To say that a change is continuous is to say that between any two states in the process of change, there are infinitely many – indeed, continuum-many – intermediate states. To say that a change is discrete, however, is to say that there are some distinct states in the process of change such that there are no intermediate states between them. Now although some changes are continuous, such as the change in position of a planet orbiting the sun, not all changes are continuous. If I lose a tooth or an eye, that is a discrete change, not a continuous one. To go from having two eyes to one, is not to pass through intermediate states in which I have neither two nor one. A switch is off, then on. Although a continuous process may be involved in the transition, the change in switch status -- 0 or 1 -- is discrete, not continuous.
Hence it cannot be true that each thing that changes continuously changes.
4. Do the things that change change in every respect? No; consider the erosion of a mountainside. Erosion of a mountainside is a change that is occurring at every time, and presumably continuously; but there are properties in respect of which the mountainside cannot change if there is to be the change called erosion, for instance, the property of being a mountainside. Without something that remains the same, there cannot be change. There cannot be erosion unless something erodes. Alterational change requires a substrate of change which, because it is the substrate of change, precisely does not change. There is no alterational change without unchange. Hence if change is all-pervasive, in the sense that every aspect of a thing changes when a change occurs in the thing, then there is no change. Compare Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 277.
In sum, I have given reasons to believe that (i) some things are unchangeable; (ii) among the things that are changeable, some are merely subject to change and not always changing; (iii) among the things that are always changing, only some are continuously changing; and (iv) there is no (alterational as opposed to existential) change without unchange.
Therefore, those who lay great stress on the impermanence of the world and our experience of it need to balance their assertion by proper attention to the modes of permanence. For example, if we are told that everything is subject to change, does not the very sense of this assertion require that there be something that does not change, namely the ontological structure of (samsaric) entities? And if a thing is changing, how could that be the case if no aspect of the thing is unchanging? Furthermore, how could one become attached to something that was always changing? Attachment presupposes relative stability in the object of attachment. Jack is attached to Jill because her curvacity and cheerfulness, say, are relatively unchanging features of her. If she were nothing but change 'all the way down,' then there would be nothing for Jack's desire to get a grip on. But without desire and attachment, no suffering, and no need for a technology of release from suffering.
It is a mistake to think that change is all-pervasive. So those who maintain that all is impermanent need to tell us exactly what they mean by this and how they arrived at it. Is it not onesided and unphilosophical to focus on impermanence while ignoring permanence?
If all being is pure becoming, then there is no being -- and no becoming either.
Getting back to Anderson, if his claim is that things are constantly changing, what does that mean? Does it mean that everything that changes changes always, or continuously, or in every respect, or all three?