The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is often quoted as saying: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” When I was living in Philadelphia in the United States, John Carvalho, who is a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy at Villanova University, told me that this is the wrong translation of Heraclitus’s saying, and erroneously gives the impression that everything is always changing to such an extent that there is never any moment of relative stability. The right translation, according to Carvalho, was this: “On to the person who steps into a river, different waters flow.”
How does this differ from the first translation? The first one only stresses the changing nature of the river; the second one distinguishes between the river and its flowing, ever-changing waters. In other words, the second one highlights identity and change; not only incessant change like the first one.
How is it possible to think of something as having an identity and as changing incessantly? Heraclitus seems to have thought differently from Aristotle, who, in his logic, took the principle of “a = a” as fundamental, meaning that if something is identical to itself, it cannot be different from itself at the same time; hence it follows that “a does not equal b”.
Heraclitus was wiser than Aristotle, and his wisdom was confirmed by Plato in his “creation” (or cosmological) dialogue, the Timaeus, where he introduces a concept that was subsequently employed by both Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, namely the “chôra”. The chôra is a form of causality that — like Heraclitus’s river, which is, and is not, the same — is, and is not, in space, to be able to conceive the transition from the world of forms (outside of space and time) to the incommensurate world of space and time in which we live.
Heraclitus and Plato therefore anticipated what has become, in my estimation, the most important philosophical school of our time, namely poststructuralism, the underpinning ontological logic of which is “both/and” instead of the Aristotelean “either/or”. In the work of Jacques Lacan, for example, we encounter the tension among three irreconcilable “registers” of human subjectivity — the real, the imaginary and the symbolic (language).
The “real” is that in us which cannot be symbolised, that is, put into language, because the moment you do, it is no longer what it is outside of language. JH van der Berg’s two-volume work The Human Body (which should be available in English; it first appeared in Dutch), traces the totally irreconcilable linguistic descriptions of the human body from antiquity to the 20th century — incommensurate descriptions in terms of the science of each era, and yet, this is the “same” human body, in terms of the “real”.
The imaginary is the register in which our sense of “self” or “ego” is inscribed — that is, the “self” that you can describe to someone by referring to your birthplace, your looks, your address, etc; in other words your sense of a “stable” self. On the other hand, the symbolic, or language, is the register that is subject to abrupt (or perhaps gradual, but decisive) changes in terms of self-description: yesterday you were religious, today you are no longer; yesterday you were married, today you are no longer.
In poststructuralist language: “The signifier slides incessantly along the chain of language.” (For a more detailed discussion, see my paper, Lacan’s subject: the imaginary, language, the real and philosophy; South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 23 (1), January 2004, pp. 1-19 – available online at Academia.edu and ResearchGate under my name.)
Against this backdrop the title of this post should be more comprehensible: we are thoroughly paradoxical beings, because we “are” and simultaneously “are not” who we are; in brief, we remain stable and change at the same time. This is not something to regret or lament; on the contrary, we should embrace it, because that is what makes us human.
There is a very specific reason for my saying so — at this precise moment as the US presidential election takes place in the midst of a so-called pandemic. “So-called”, because more and more voices — some of them very credible ones — are being heard to the effect that the pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by powerful agencies, such as pharmaceutical companies, with sinister agendas.
I leave it to you to decide for yourself; as for me, I’m not receptive to conspiracy theories of the vulgar kind, but when you listen to the lengthy explanation in this video by Dr Reiner Fuellmich, a respected trial lawyer in the US and Germany — as I hope you will, to fully understand my arguments — and you realise that more and more people, among them lawyers, medical doctors and various scientists, are expressing the same concerns, you have to sit up and listen.
My reason for elaborating on our paradoxical human nature, above, is to highlight something intimately connected with it, namely, that — even if most of the time we toe the conventional line and live law-abiding lives, there are some circumstances under which our paradoxical nature can, and perhaps must — assert itself in a manner that says: thus far, but no further.
The philosopher Albert Camus elaborated on this paradoxical capacity, which is essentially a capacity to rebel, in his book, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. “What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command … Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right. It is in this way that the rebel slave says yes and no simultaneously. He affirms that there are limits and also that he suspects — and wishes to preserve — the existence of certain things on this side of the borderline. He demonstrates, with obstinacy, that there is something in him which ‘is worthwhile’ and which must be taken into consideration. In a certain way, he confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.”
It goes without saying that such rebellion on the part of people or individuals who are not in a position of power may, and often does, lead to disastrous consequences for the people who rebel, but I’d wager that, if one could ask them if their rebellion was worthwhile, they would say yes, it was.
Lacan talks of “the mugger’s choice”, which goes like this: “Your money or your life?” and represents a lose/lose situation; whichever you choose, you lose something. But the true ethical choice assumes a different form: “freedom or death”. And this time, Lacan argues, it is a win/win situation.
How can that be, when one option is death? Because what is at stake is not just physical death, but — if I can put it this way — “moral” death. When you know your fight is justified, as the leader of the slave rebellion against the might of Rome in antiquity, Spartacus (who tested the Romans to the full), knew, it was worth fighting against the oppressor even if he died in the end, because he died a free person, no longer in chains.
It could be that this is the situation, particularly as far as the pandemic and a vaccine is concerned, that one may soon face (and I fervently hope I am wrong about this), if what is emerging from various quarters (such as the one discussed by Fuellmich in the video linked above) is true. We’ll see.
To repeat: I hope it is not true, because if it is, we’re in for a rough ride. We may have to face the ethical choice: “freedom or death”, even if the latter is not literal, but figural in the sense of being effectively hamstrung by various measures used to control populations when people refuse to take a vaccine against Covid-19.
Philosopher and psychoanalytical theorist Julia Kristeva puts it in a different idiom where she writes, in The Sense and Non-sense of Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis, Vol. I: “Happiness exists only at the price of a revolt. None of us has pleasure without confronting an obstacle, prohibition, authority, or law that allows us to realise ourselves as autonomous and free. The revolt revealed to accompany the private experience of happiness is an integral part of the pleasure principle.”
What Kristeva is stressing here, is that justified “revolt” against an unjust law (think of apartheid, or laws discriminating unfairly against minorities) is something that is intimately related to the psychoanalytic “pleasure principle” — not in the sense of sensual or sexual pleasure, but in the more lasting meaning of “pleasure”, which is gained from rebelling against a set of circumstances where one is unjustly oppressed by those in power — even if you lose, you know you have done the ethically right thing. This, too, is paradoxical, but it is what keeps our humanity alive.