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Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Zeno

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
August 2, 2023 12:01 am

Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Zeno

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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August 2, 2023 12:01 am

All of us change over the years. How can we be the same people, yet different? Today, R.C. Sproul explores the philosophical ideas of "being" and "becoming."

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The professor stood up and he said, now here's the key thought of this great philosopher, and he wrote it on the board, whatever is, comma, is. I said, wow, whatever is, is?

And this guy's famous for saying something like that? What could be more obvious than whatever is, is? But there's no statement in secular philosophy that has jerked me back to contemplation more often than that one. Whatever is, is. Whatever is, is. Why did this statement from an ancient philosopher have such an impact on R.C.

Sproul? And how can it help us further appreciate the revelation of who God is in Scripture? We're surveying some of the history of human thought and its consequences this week on renewing our mind. There are echoes of these Greek philosophers all around us, and most unbelievers don't stop to ask why it is that they think the way they do.

But as Christians, that should be our habit as we seek to renew our minds according to the Word of God. Here's R.C. Sproul as he introduces us to some philosophers who are wrestling with the question of being. Several years ago, a cartoon character was brought to life on the silver screen when Robin Williams was cast in the role of Popeye. And if you recall that movie, I don't recall the exact words of what he would say, but the refrain that you heard over and over again would be, he would say, I am who I am, who I am, who I am, Popeye the sailor man.

I am, too, too. Now, I remember seeing that movie and being intrigued by that particular refrain, that repetition with respect to the assertion of being, not unlike altogether the way in which God reveals Himself to Moses in the Midianite wilderness when he says, I am who I am. Now, I understand that philosophy, like any other science, has its own language, its own lingo, and if you're not familiar with the language of the particular discipline, it can be somewhat disconcerting and even intimidating for people. And again, philosophy seems to be so abstract and removed from where we live our daily lives. And yet, there is no more important question in all of life than the question of being itself. We can hardly make a sentence in the English language without using some form of the verb to be, am, are, was, were, and so on. And every time we make simple sentences, I am going to the store.

We were in Orlando yesterday. We are falling back on some kind of idea of being. It's inescapable. And yet, when we begin to probe the idea of being itself, it's somewhat elusive and mysterious to us. Well, in that period between the pre-Socratics that we've already covered and the arrival on the philosophical scene, of the Titan of Athens, namely, Socrates, there were some philosophers who were extremely important, not only as precursors for the coming of Socrates and Plato, but really for the whole history of theoretical thought. And those two very important philosophers of the ancient world were Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Now, these philosophers were very much concerned with the question of being. Now, there's a debate, indeed a dispute, over which one wrote first and which one responded to the other. When I was in college, I was taught that Heraclitus wrote first, and Parmenides was answering him. But more recent literature would indicate just the opposite was the case, but we don't know for sure. But I'm going to work today on the assumption that Heraclitus was the first of the two, and that Heraclitus was the first of these two.

It's really not all that important in the final analysis. But Heraclitus is known principally only through quotations and allusions to him and fragments of his writings that have survived. But he is famous in popular philosophy for some of the things that he said. And one thing he said was, everything that exists is in a state of flux. Everything is in a state of flux. Or to put it another way, whatever is is changing.

Everything is in a state of change. And his illustration or metaphor by which he described this phenomenon was to speak about a river. He said the famous statement, you cannot step into the same river twice.

And what did he mean by that? I mean, you go to the Mississippi River and you put your toe in the water, step back out, and then step back in. You've still stepped into the Mississippi River. You've stepped in it not once but twice. But what Heraclitus is saying is between that first step and the second step, the river has changed.

The current has moved on. And the changes that have occurred in that river may be so tiny, so infinitesimal that they are not at all perceived. For example, every drop of water that moves along that river is making an impact on the bank of the river in a very really imperceptible way.

A tiny minute bit of erosion has taken place. And the composition of the water that you first stepped into has changed by the second time you step into the river. And so that's what he's saying is that that river is always changing. But not only is the river changing, but you are changing. And if it takes you one second to step the first time and another second to step the second time, the change in you again may be imperceptible. But if for no other reason, you're still one second older than you were the first time you put your foot in the river.

Now, this is part and parcel of our daily experience. We know what it means to age. I've said many times that there are three stages of life, youth, middle age, and the third one, you look great. You know you're old when your friends come up to you and say, you look great.

That's a euphemism for, boy, have you gotten wrinkled and gray. But we all know the ravages of time. We all know that as creatures we are subjected to generation and decay, to change. We grow older, we grow fatter, we grow thinner, whatever. We're always changing. And yet, when you look at a person that you haven't seen in 25 years, you think, wow, you know, how have they changed?

It seems so dramatic when you haven't been there watching it moment to moment. And yet, at the same time, you can still recognize that it's the same person that you knew 25 years ago, that you were the same person you were when you were five years old, or four years old. Yet, you're different. Sameness and differentness. These categories define all of reality as we experience it in the world of creatures.

So, what Heraclitus was getting at was that whatever is, is changing. He's coming up with a category that becomes very important for future philosophical studies. He's coming up with a category that becomes very important for future philosophical thought.

In fact, let me say that sentence again. I said, He comes up with a category that becomes very important for later philosophical thought. And it is the category of becoming. Becoming. Now, let's talk about these categories of being and becoming for just another moment.

There are other words that philosophers, later philosophers, used, particularly Aristotle, for these categories. Aristotle talked about actuality, actuality, and potentiality. Potentiality describes that which we possibly could become, but have not yet reached. Actuality describes what we are. So that potentiality is a descriptive term for becoming, actuality is a term for being. Now, what are you? Are you a human being, or are you a human becoming?

That's the question. As long as you're changing, you are still experiencing potential. You are still in a process. You are still moving. You are still changing. You, whatever you are, you are not eternally the same.

So, how do we deal with this? For Parmenides, he's saying everything is in a state of flux. Everything is in a state of becoming. Now, having said that, and he's known for saying that, many modern philosophers have appealed to Heraclitus as being the father of contemporary existentialism. Now, later on in this course, we'll give a little introduction to existential philosophy.

I get that question all the time from people. I say, what is existentialism? And I say, it's the philosophy of existence, and they say, oh, it doesn't help a whole lot. But this whole idea that there are no absolutes, there's nothing stable, there's nothing fixed, there's nothing changeless, there's nothing eternal, only the now, only the individual, only existence rather than essence, these are the thoughts of contemporary existentialists, and they appeal to Heraclitus as their father in the faith, as it were. But believe it or not, Heraclitus was a monist.

Heraclitus believed that all reality was one. Yet, in the one, there is eternal diversity, in the sense that there is an inner conflict within ultimate reality that is essential essential to its very makeup, that there's a dynamic involved in reality itself. His greatest model for that was fire, which seems to be alive and powerful, but it is always burning or going out.

It's kind of the ying and the yang, the tension or the dialectic within itself. Now, over against Heraclitus, Parmenides argued with his most famous statement that many people have heard me lecture, have heard me refer to Parmenides many times, when I say when I was a student of philosophy and the first time I heard of Parmenides and the quotation that was attributed to him I thought was the silliest thing I'd ever heard in a philosophy class and made me wonder why I was even wasting my time engaged in this enterprise because the professor stood up and he said, now here's the key thought of this great philosopher Parmenides, and he wrote it on the board, whatever is, is. I said, wow, whatever is, is, and this guy's famous for saying something like that? What could be more obvious than whatever is, is?

But there's no statement in secular philosophy that has jerked me back to contemplation more often than that one. Whatever is, is. What he's saying is reality, to be real, cannot be changing because that which is changing never truly is. You are not what you are because since I've started that sentence, you changed. And not even Robin Williams with the Popeye image can say, I am who I am, who I am, who I am, Popeye the Sailor Man. What he should say is, I'm potentially Popeye the Sailor Man. I'm becoming Popeye the Sailor Man because maybe I was Popeye the Sailor Man, but I'm not anymore, and even when I was, I wasn't because when I was, I was changing.

You can't freeze time with creatures who are constantly undergoing this state of flux. That's why it is a matter of great profundity that the God of sacred Scripture defines Himself as I am. Not, I am becoming. Not, I'm changing, but He is eternally perfect in His actuality. To put it another way, for God there is no potential. God has no lack or deficiency into which He must grow to realize His full potential.

He has pure actuality. And yet, as Aristotle would later discover, as Aristotle would later discover, if something were only potential, and potentially everything, it would be actually nothing. So there can't be pure potentiality, or there can't be something that is purely becoming. If all you are is change, if all you are is becoming, all that means that what you are is that you are not. You're an illusion. You're a Fig Newton of somebody's imagination because you don't have anything that really is. Now, many of the thinkers following this debate in antiquity came to that conclusion. They said, whatever is is changing, if that's true, then everything that undergoes change is just an illusion.

It can't really be. Now, what does that say about flowers and rocks and hills and rivers? The whole external world of our experience is an illusion.

What about you? If you're undergoing change, and if you're in a state of becoming, if all you are is becoming, then you aren't. You aren't anything.

You're nothing. But common sense says, well, I may be changing, but it is an I, an actuality who really is changing. But where do I find this being that keeps me from just being an illusion? Well, you're not going to find the answer in Parmenides.

You're not going to find it in Heraclitus. You're going to have to go back to Mars Hill, and you have to hear the Apostle Paul say, in Him you live and move and have your being. That the only thing that keeps me from being an illusion is the power of the One who created me, who Himself has all being perfectly within His own identity. But in any case, this is a very profound thing to be concerned about, as we will see with Plato and Aristotle, and really all future philosophy, in the sense the whole history of philosophy is an attempt to answer the debate between Heraclitus and Parmenides, between being and becoming, between actuality and potentiality, between reality and illusion. And that's why these men are so very important. Now, another person that I want to look at very quickly, in anticipation of the coming of Socrates on the scene, is a man who's famous if for no other reason. His name starts with a Z, which makes him a wonderful candidate to be chosen by those people who make up crossword puzzles for the newspaper.

And if they have a word with a Z in it, they have limited possibilities to fill in the grid. And so you'll see this fellow's name appear frequently if you're a crossword puzzle addict like I am. Zeno, the skeptic of antiquity. Zeno was actually a disciple of Parmenides, and he wanted to attack all forms of philosophy that declared the reality of either matter or motion. And he used an argument in his little games that he played that became quite important to the whole future of Western thinking and debate. He made famous the argument called reduxio ad absurdum. Now, the way that kind of an argument works is you listen to your opponent, and your opponent gives his thesis. He gives the point that he's trying to make. And rather than just counter that by giving opposite arguments for it, the person who's reasoning in the fashion of Zeno would say, okay, I'm going to adopt your position, and I'm going to see where that position takes me if I follow it to its logical conclusion.

And so Zeno would do that. He'd step into the shoes of his opponent and then reason from the opponent's premise logically and show that that premise, if reasoned out thoroughly, would lead to absolute absurdity. The Apostle Paul does that frequently, for example, in the New Testament when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15 to those who are denying the resurrection. He said, okay, if there is no resurrection of the dead, what are the implications of that? And he spells them out and reduces the arguments of his opponents to foolishness.

Well, Zeno argues against pluralism because pluralism taught the infinite divisibility of matter. And he said this is absurd, and he does this with his arguments for motion. If you want to go from Chicago to Orlando, you can't get there. And his reasoning is this. Before you go from Chicago to Orlando, you first have to go halfway.

And that makes sense. And once you reach the halfway point, to get from that point to Orlando, you have to go halfway. And once you get to that point, in order to get from there to Orlando, first you have to go what? Halfway. Now, how long does this halfway business keep up? Forever. Forever.

You'll never get there. See, that's why if I want to go from Chicago to Orlando, and I'm a disciple of Zeno, I plan my trip to Miami so that on the way I could drop in at Orlando. So anyway, this business of matter, reality, being, and becoming all set the stage for the crisis that happens in ancient Greece that is not resolved until the appearance of Socrates.

That's R.C. Sproul on this Wednesday edition of Renewing Your Mind. You can hear Dr. Sproul's love and fascination for the study of philosophy in each of these messages, and that only serves as an aid for you or your family as you work through the complete series, whether for personal study or in a small group. Our family uses this teaching as we're homeschooling our children, and it's helped them in their study of philosophy, so I recommend it to you. You can request this 35-message series on nine DVDs for your donation of any amount at This week's offer is also a special edition set with a bonus disc that's not available in the Ligonier store. You'll also receive digital access to the messages and the study guide, so give us a call at 800-435-4343 or visit us at Even if you're new to philosophy, many people have heard of Socrates, and interestingly, the time in which he lived has many parallels with the time in which you and I live today, and we'll meet him tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-02 06:08:32 / 2023-08-02 06:16:14 / 8

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