Tradition of Change: an oxymoron?

Thales, who lived around 625 BC, is called the ‘first philosopher and the first scientist’. He is considered to be the first thinker to propose a single universal principle of the material universe, “a unique substratum that, itself unchanging, underlay all change.” When we think about this problem of comprehending change we recognize that there must exist something that is essential to change that remains unchanged.

When we look around us we are struck with the fact that things constantly change. Thales is said to have asked the important question does everything change or is there something that remains unchanged? If there is not something that remains unchanged then how can we recognize anything as being what it was before change? We recognize continuity as well as change. Even when we recognize that something changed appearance we are confident that something remains of the original source. Is there one primordial thing that never changes?

The questions and answers developed by Thales are extremely important because for the first time we observe a human not resorting to animistic (attribution of conscious life to objects) answers for that which is observed. He did not settle for the answer “I do not understand so it must be just the nature of the gods made it happen”. He also followed a new human inclination to believe that the mind is capable of comprehending what happens in the world. Philosophy was born.

If we added to traditional thinking the abstract idea of change our world becomes tremendously complex. The way we manage the complexity is that we create; we create by introducing generalizations plus other abstractions.

Absent the concept of change we humans need deal only with the here and the now. We can include the past and the future but only in that they are an extension of the here and the now. Since the past and future are extensions they must be a unity like the present, the past and future can be only what now is, they can be nothing else.

Thinking, that excludes change, eliminates a great deal of complexity. It simplifies greatly our task of thinking, because we need deal only with concrete things; we need to deal with only what we sense here and now. Some call this a traditional mode of thinking. It exemplifies the thinking of primitive humanity up to the Greek period that began around 500 BC. It is, I think, a good way to comprehend what myth is all about.

Philosopher, tycoon, philanthropist, author, and international political activist George Soros says in his book “The Age of Fallibility” that “Once it comes to generalizations, the more general they are, the more they simplify matters. This world is best conceived as a general equation in which the present is represented by one set of constants. Change the constants and the same equation will apply to all past and future situations…I shall call this the critical mode of thinking.”

Soros identifies the traditional mode of thinking with an ‘organic society’. He further identifies the critical mode of thinking with the ‘open society’. Each society must find a means to deal with factors that do not conform to the will of the members of that society. In a traditional society, even though it focuses primarily on phenomena that are generally static, nature can be obdurate.

In the traditional mode of thinking the central tenet is that things are as they have always been and the future will be likewise—thus they cannot be any other way. The status quo is fate and all we need do is learn that fate and to organize our lives in accordance. In such a world logic and argumentation has no place because there exists no alternatives.

When we examine the nature of epistemology--what can we know and how can we know it--in such a mode of thinking we quickly illuminate the advantages and drawbacks. In a traditional society there is no bifurcation between thought and concrete reality. There exists only the objective relationship between knower and known. The validity of traditional truth is unquestioned; there can be no distinction between ideas and reality.

Where a thing exists we give it a name. Without a name a thing does not exist. Only where abstraction exists do we give non-objects a name. In our modern reality we label many non-concrete things and thus arises the separation of reality and thoughts. The way things appear is the way things are; the traditional mode of thinking can penetrate no deeper.

The traditional mode of thinking does not explain the world by cause and effect but everything performs in accordance with its nature. Because there is no distinction between the natural and supernatural and between reality and thought there arise no contradictions. The spirit of the tree is as real as the branch of the tree; past, present, and future melt into one time. Thinking fails to distinguish between thought and reality, truth and falsehood, social and naturals laws. Such is the world of traditional thought and the world of mythological thought.

The traditional mode is very flexible as long as no alternatives are voiced, any new thing quickly becomes the traditional and as long as such a situation meets the needs of the people such a situation will continue to prevail.

To comprehend the traditional mode we must hold in abeyance our ingrained habits of thought, especially our abstract concept of the individual. In a changeless society all is the Whole, the individual does not exist.

The individual is an abstraction that does not exist whereas the Whole, which is in reality an abstraction, exists as a concrete concept for traditional thought. The unity expressed by the Whole is the unity much like an organism. The individuals in this society are like the organs of a creature; they cannot last if separated from the Whole. Society determines which function the individual plays in the society.

The term “organic society” is used often to label this form of culture. When all is peaceful with no significant voices placing forth an alternative then this organic society exists in peace. In this organic society a human slave is no different from any other chattel. In a feudal society the land is more important than the landlord who derives his privileges from the fact that he holds the land.