Reality as Being and Becoming

What do ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides, the early 20th-century main protagonist of the novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and Latvian writer and poet of the turn of the 20th century known by his pseudonym Rainis have in common? Across centuries and geographies, they all share an idea: a belief that being and becoming are the fundamental principles of reality

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Parmenides held that change is a mere illusion because there can be no such state of being as nothing. A ‘nothing’ cannot exist, it cannot be, and it is therefore impossible for something (existence) to come out of nothing (nonexistence). Based on this, for Parmenides, the reality is just Being, it simply is. There is no change, as everything that appears to come into existence must have already existed. Otherwise, things could come into existence out of nothing, being could appear from a state of non-being, which, in his view, is a contradiction and an impossibility. 

Heraclitus looked at the same topic from a different angle. He recognised the movement and change inherent in everything. Moreover, he thought that the means by which reality manifests itself is the constant tension of the opposites within a mutual unity. No opposites, no tension – no reality, no existence, nothing. This tension is in itself a movement. Heraclitus famously claimed that different waters wash over you when you step into the same river. Seemingly paradoxically, the river stays the same while its waters constantly flow. Heraclitus saw the unity of the opposites in the example of a river – it is at once the same and changing. To him, change is and is not at the same time. There is a certain continuity and certain shift we perceive in the world but what underlies and connects it all into One is the perpetual tension of opposing principles, a movement that is itself the reality.

Siddhartha, a fictional character on a spiritual self-discovery journey in Hesse’s novel of the same title, also learns a lot from a river. He observes it, listens to it, talks to it. One day he realises that the river is simultaneously there where he observes it, at its source, and at its estuary where it meets the sea. The river is in all these places at the same time. We do not consider it one river at its source, another in its middle, and a different one at its mouth. If it’s all the same river everywhere at the same time, then, Siddhartha recognises, there is no time. There is only an eternal Now, an endless Present. What we perceive as the past is just one manifestation of being. What we consider the future is another manifestation of being that we have not perceived so far. Yet, it is all Being that changes its manifestations. Continuity of Being is ensured by a perpetual Becoming. No distinct form of Being ever remains the same. Being manifests in ever-changing forms. And since they are all linked in the cycle of Becoming, all Being is a unity of flow.

Rainis, in his 1909 play “The Golden Horse”, expresses his thoughts on the fundamental principle of reality, of continuity through change – insights that echo in different ways Parmenides, Heraclitus and Hesse’s Siddhartha:

“He who changes, shall remain”  


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