Friday, August 17, 2012

The more things change

Having been slowly reading Plato's Republic for some 18 months now, I much slowed down at book seven,  trying to follow, with understanding, the education of guardians regarding things of the mind, as opposed to matters of utility and sense.

And I was much struck by this phrase:

οὐ μὴν ἕν, ἀλλὰ πλείω, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, εἴδη παρέχεται ἡ φορά, ὡς ἐγᾦμαι. τὰ μὲν οὖν πάντα ἴσως ὅστις σοφὸς ἕξει εἰπεῖν:

Roughly, "And I said, not one, but many are the species of motion, in my view, though perhaps it would take someone quite wise to name them all."

I know this makes no sense out of context.  Plato has been listing the disciplines his guardians will have to learn preliminary to reaching the highest one.  First, number, then plane geometry, then spatial geometry (much underdeveloped, he laments), and he has just added astronomy--but astronomy, not so much as the mere observation of the heavens, but as a discipline of motion, the movement of the celestial bodies in perfect figures.  It is after he notes another discipline of motion, music, that he makes the observation above, about the many disciplines of motion that perhaps only the wise can ennumerate.

And it occurs to me that the great heyday of attempts to account for motion, for change, in our sense, was the nineteenth century.  Kind of a leap, I know.  And yet, that century did spin out two powerful, pervasive models of change which permeate our thinking, intermingled, yet actually quite distinct.

The first was the Hegelian dialectic, the notion of change through the generation of the opposite, and the synthesis of the two.  The idea of progress springing from that conception obviously underlay Marx's material version.  But the powerful idea of an engine of history, quite apart from the providential history of the Christian religious vision, took hold in a way that is still much with us.

The other model was that of Darwinian evolution, confined at first to explaining how living species originate through random mutation reinforced when those mutations increase survivability.  Quite obviously the idea of evolution has long burst the bonds of it biological origin, and has been used to justify everything from unbridled commercial competition to human altruism. 

Though these two models are plainly entirely incompatible with each other, they have tended to blend imperceptively into a single cultural assumption of progress.  Marx, for example, if I remember rightly, saw Darwinian evolution as a confirmation of his analysis of class struggle.

Recent events also call to mind a third model of change, considerably less influential, but distinctive and important, Newman's conception of the development of Christian doctrine, a notion, not of dialectic antithesis and synthesis, nor competition and survival, but a notion of deepening reflection which can be both change and no-change, progress in that which cannot alter the faith once delivered to the saints.

It was the nineteenth century when these questions of change, and process, and history, were generated, and they continue to confound us, and be confounded with each other.  Each arose in a particular sphere, and the first two have since aspired to a universal explanatory power.   I doubt that they have achieved it, but it seems quite probable to me that they appear to many to have done so.


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