The Waters of Metaphysics
“Water is everything.—So said the first Greek philosopher, Thales. Water is storied in spiritual traditions throughout the world, and has ritual significance in every religion. How right, then, that the core questions of metaphysics—cosmology, identity, modality, and being (ontology) can all be understood through careful attentiveness to water.”
By Timothy Stock
The oceans of the earth feed the clouds, the clouds precipitate and freeze, and the melt- water feeds the rivers of the earth, which in turn run to the sea. Water behaves like being: endlessly changing, yet ever the same.
All the philosophers … may be marshaled in one line … “Oceanus the origin of the gods” … [as] all things are the offspring of flow and motion.
—Plato Theaetetus, 152E
In 1992 thousands of rubber ducks fell off a boat in the middle of the Pacific and washed up on the Alaskan shore. Three years later they started to appear in Japan, Hawaii, and Australia. After eleven years they appeared in Massachusetts following a long, slow migration under the Arctic ice. And in fifteen years they had reached the UK, on the opposite side of the world. The Greeks thought of the Ocean as the largest river, one that circumscribed the world. The ocean was the birthplace of the gods, and the deep, subterranean element to, from, and through which all things were thought to move. In a sense, they were right. The ocean is water in flux and change to a sublime degree, but is also the continuity of currents and the origin of the trade winds. It feeds the earth with its gifts while at the same time ravaging it with storms. Even Poseidon, the mighty and changeable god of the Mediterranean, was a weak shadow of the great Oceanus.
Philosophers today commonly misconstrue the river as the ideal of change and flux for the Greeks, largely because of Heraclitus’s famous (and infamously misquoted) dictum “You cannot stand in the same river twice.” But rivers are hardly changeable in comparison to the vast ocean. A river may change its course, flood its banks, or dry up in drought, but each of these events is a reversal of our expectations, a catastrophe. The ocean is flux on a cosmological scale; it is that into which and out of which all things go. Modern ecology tells us that all elements eventually move throughout the ocean and thereby through the food chain. And according to evolutionary theory it was these elements—the salt, detritus, and waste dissolved in the vast ocean—that struck the spark of life for all species. Just as Plato saw fertile “flow and motion” in the Titanic god Oceanus, we now see the ocean as the solution upon which all life depends, and the dissolution into which all life returns; all being, becoming, all becoming, being.
Cosmology is the study of the world in its totality, and the Ocean is a venerable cosmological metaphor. It is the “purest and impurest water,” according to Heraclitus. In a simple sense, this is a reflection on the fact that for the creatures of the sea the chemical composition of the ocean is ideal, whereas for others, like us, it is hazardous and even fatal to drink. More subtly, the oceanic paradox teaches us that purity is relative, at least at the species level, and that “pure water” would be an ecological curse. Yet this is perhaps the most important way that the ocean teaches us about the substance of being. To speak of one unified substance is always to speak ambiguously about purity and impurity. We can speak of cosmology as being in its unity, but such unity is only comprehensible as a unity of diverse forms. In this sense water behaves like being: salt, brackish, and fresh, it surrounds us, saturates our world, and provides life or death to us all, depending on its solution.
Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.
—Heraclitus, fragment 12
Yet even the infinite ocean must be distinguished from the water that makes it up, just as in metaphysics one distinguishes between speaking about being as a whole, and speaking about the forms of being. Knowing that all things flow from the ocean, the whole, the totality, is markedly different from knowing the twisting paths it traverses. These twisting paths, local ecologies, and different peoples are best understood through the waters of the earth’s rivers. The children of the Titan Oceanus were the innumerable gods of rivers, and their significance is visible in their name: the Potamoi, related to our word “potable.” The rivers are those waters that affect humanity most proximally, they are the waters that quench our thirst.
We identify ourselves by rivers. The borders of states and nations, of cultures ancient and modern, are all tied to rivers. The Fertile Crescent, the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Mississippi all serve as the agricultural and economic impetus for a people to flourish, to come into being. And peoples are defined and redefined by rivers in their dominion; consider the disputes of the various factions that fought back and forth across the Rhine: German and French, but also Roman, Celt. The banks of a river stand as the most stable of national boundaries, as well as a reminder of the catastrophic floods of humanity that can overflow borders in times of crisis and ambition.
And yet a river does not need war to shape the identity of its people. The Yellow River, also named “China’s Sorrow,” speaks to the grand scale of a river’s impact on human life. Its fertile soil deposits have fed the Han people for more than four millennia, and yet the depth and breadth, indeed the very damp richness of these deposits, have also caused it sometimes to flood or catastrophically change its course. This steady stream has nurtured the Han throughout their long history, save for the few unlucky generations that were swept away when diversions in the river wreaked near-total destruction.
Like all political and economic arrangements, life on the river is both fruitful and fragile. The Zen Master Shenshan told his dharma brother Dongshan, “If I make a mistake in my steps, then I won’t live to cross the river.” In reflecting on the episode the Zen Roshi John Loori observes, “the river treats all things equally.” This captures nicely the paradox often noted by metaphysicians, that the river represents both the stability and the unpredictability of being. As I mentioned earlier, Heraclitus is often misunderstood in having said “one cannot step in the same river twice,”most notably by Cratylus who one-upped his teacher to state that one could not even do it once. But Heraclitus merely stated that the river is the metaphysical problem of identity:
while the river is the same, the water is ever changing. We have learned that we must take great care to protect our fragile river ecologies, but the river has more to teach us about the precarious balance between prosperity and destruction. The river shows us that our world is not simply stable and not simply fluid, but that when we take a step into the world, we must step into one or the other, stability or fluidity: for our own benefit, at our own peril.
Strepsiades: Come on, Clouds, give me some good advice. … Clouds: Lap it up—make haste/get everything that you can raise./Such chances tend to change and turn/into a different case.
—Aristophanes, The Clouds
There is no greater metaphor for the caprice of our world than the caprice of the cloud—weightless, ephemeral, ever-changing. Aristophanes used the image to ridicule the philosophers in their shifting vagaries. Clouds are the bearers of fortune, opportunity, and chance. Physicists will sometimes speak of “clouds of modalities,” for example, to express the phenomenon of electrons moving about the nucleus of an atom. One cannot speak of the electron’s position and velocity accurately, but must speak of the different modes, or valences, of its activities. The cloud is vagueness, the coexistence of possibility and necessity at one and the same moment.
Who hasn’t sat idle on a summer afternoon, simply to search for shapes in the clouds? The cloud can become anything, can adapt to any form of being, because of the simplicity of its material structure. And yet each cloud coheres with itself; it always looks like something—“giants, animals, ships and castles,” as Tomie de Paola described them in his Cloud Book. The waters of a cloud show us the indifference of being to form, as well as our constant need to give form to being. And yet any form we give the cloud is simply one possibility; we blink, and the vapors have shifted, become new, become something other. Modality, the study of possibilities and necessities, has always been informed by the ancient observation that only by exploring fortune, opportunity, and chance can we understand the endless flux of time that carries us forward. The clouds are one elegant demonstration of the conflux of mode and time. As one shifts, so too, almost imperceptibly, does the other.
Hence, the careful observation of clouds is not simply idleness. Clouds tell us as much of the future as we can know: when and how the rains will come, whether there will be warmth or cold, storm or calm. In our childhood games with the clouds we learn water’s central lesson, that the heart of all prudence lies in attentiveness to the changing forms of our world, and it is upon this attentiveness that our flourishing rests.
Where there is motion within but not outwards and the total remains unchanged … we have a parallel in our earth, constant from eternity to pattern and to mass … there is always water: all the changes of these elements leave unchanged the Principle of the total living thing, our world.
—Plotinus, Second Ennead
The questions of metaphysics are often very, very old, yet like the waters of the earth they are constantly renewed. What happens to a question when it ages? It is asked and asked again, transplanted from native to foreign soil, shaped into new linguistic forms and saturated with the thinking of countless individuals. We could imagine a rain- drop, which begins with a speck of dust that falls towards the earth, collecting greater mass and speed even as its form constantly changes.
But perhaps a raindrop is not the best metaphor for the history of metaphysical contemplation. Philosophy constantly expands, but the moments of its history do not amalgamate into an undifferentiated body. Philosophy gains mass as it moves through time, but it also gains substance. Perhaps metaphysics is more a hailstone, which is tossed by wind and pulled by gravity into cycles of collecting and freezing, collecting and freezing, until it falls to earth with each layer of ice preserved. When we contemplate the waters of metaphysics, we do not simply study an idle object; we encapsulate the oldest thinking within our newer knowledge. We lend mass, substance, and force to what were already its strongest points.
Our passage from Plotinus speaks to this legacy, as well as our role in it. The possible shapes, sizes, and layering of hailstones are infinite, yet each is a form of the fundamental substance, water. Like the hailstone, being itself constantly accretes around its most central aspect (what Plotinus called the monad, the One or the Unity), emanating outwards from the center and yet, paradoxically, making up the substance of being itself in the process.
Substance has been the primary object of study in ontology since Aristotle. Substance, like the water that makes up the hailstone, is essential Being, the ultimate uniformity, but also the ultimate heterogeneity. In this conception, being emanates from itself, and must thereby combine with anything it encounters or touches. The being of water is its impurity—it is absolutely solvent, absolutely able to admix with every other element. “Pure” water, like “pure” being, would mean absolute death, a wiping clean of all the diversity of life. And thankfully so, for, just as it is the universal impurity of water that allows for life, so too it is the impurity, heterogeneity, and universal solubility of Being that makes metaphysics itself both possible, and necessary.