Stepping twice into the same river

river

Have you ever heard that you cannot step twice into the same river? I have met this saying for the first time probably when attending a high school and learning about ancient Greek philosophers and their teachings. I was taught that it means the following: Everything changes and nothing stays the same. When you step into the same river for the second time, the water is not the same anymore and you are not the same either. At least your cells got older but you may also be more experienced, see life from a different perspective.

I liked it and used the saying many times, emphasizing that when you do the same, it’s not the same because you can’t step… You know.

As the time was passing, I found out that some people were using the saying in different and even contradictory meanings. Some of them sounded wise, others not quite apt. They were speaking about a hockey player who re-entered the same team and thus broke the rule that you can’t step twice into the same river. They were writing about an actor who played a character successful some time ago and was successful again, breaking the said rule as well. They were pondering over meaninglessness of doing the same things repeatedly with the intention to achieve the same result because the result could never be the same. They were talking about importance of savouring each and every moment of one’s life as it is unique and will never repeat.

Then I went through a personal experience that changed a bit the angle of my view. When I got married, we were moving several times beginning in a small flat of 18 square metres situated in a city. We exchanged the small flat for a bigger one and another yet bigger one and then we settled in a house in a village. In every flat we moved to I wanted to start afresh. To change my relationships with neighbours, to change my stereotypes, to change those traits of myself I didn’t like. I never managed that while living in those flats. I was stepping into the same river again and again. I was older, more experienced, the flats and our neighbours were different but my personality persisted. Something permanent amidst the changes. I managed to start afresh in the house but not because I changed. Simply all aspects clicked into place.

Suddenly I wanted to learn more about the saying. I was browsing the Internet to find its historical background. I dusted off my long forgotten memory reminding me that Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher of Ephesus (540 – 480 BCE), is its author. But as I was digging deeper into disquisitions, I got to know surprising pieces of information. I read that Heraclitus wrote just one philosophical book but it’s lost and moreover, even in his time it was regarded as unfinished and incomprehensible. His work is preserved in a very limited way, in fragments. The fragments are sorted out into three groups – quotes of other authors about him, his own quotes and fakes and imitations. They are not easy to understand and many scholars have been studying and debating them.

And here we come to an interesting fact. Yes, Heraclitus was claiming that everything is constantly changing. But it was another Greek philosopher – Plato – who told us that according to his belief Heraclitus had said you could not step twice into the same river. The saying is Plato’s interpretation of Heraclitus’s thoughts! Moreover, according to fragments of Heraclitus’s quotes, Heraclitus probably stated something quite different: “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” Something permanent amidst changes? That rings a bell!

I feel fascinated by the history of the saying which Heraclitus might have never expressed but which has been ascribed to him and used in so many different ways.

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30 Comments

  1. Hi, Petra. I just read your post, and that saying was unfamiliar to me. Your research into it was interesting. I doubt if you'll find yourself using it as frequently as you may have in the past. 🙂

  2. Sondra

    I have not heard that phrase before…but it reminds me of the phrase we use a lot, "you can never go home"…
    And I can attest to that being true…I went back to my geographical home but nothing was as I had remembered and it has NOT been the same…
    A great subject to explore Petra.

    1. Sondra, thank you for your comment. I was a bit browsing, looking for the phrase you were citing and found out a similar one “You can never go home again.” The explanation was that it is the title and theme of a book by Thomas Wolfe. He wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

  3. Marcie

    Fascinating how words can be ever so slightly twisted and turned and interpreted in so many different ways. I somehow like Plato's interpretation of impemanence and constant change… but maybe it's true that some things do remain constant. Beautiful and thought-provoking post.

  4. Ginnie

    This is exactly why I love Greek philosophy, Petra…not that I've studied it much in the bigger scheme of things. I just love these nuggets that surface from time to time. You have done a delightful job of looking at this beauty from different angles, applying it to the truth about yourself. I love it! Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Deborah

    Your image of the river, with the huge trees that almost look as though they are kneeling into the water, is so serene and makes me long for Spring!
    I think that the saying you speak of has a lot of truth in it. We are different today than yesterday. This earth seems to continue to evolve, and the changes in nature are affecting all of us.

  6. Sue

    I have often used the saying "You cannot step into the same river twice" but have never really thought seriously about the origin – or any deeper meaning of – the expression. Thank you for challenging us to seek the historical significance behind expressions we all too often use without truly knowing or understanding.

  7. Elena Caravela

    Thank you for teasing this apart for me Petra. It's something I haven't thought about, but is worthy of thought, especially as questions like these become more relevant every day. Your photo BTW, is enchanting.

  8. Carola

    I have to admit that I have never heard of this saying, but what you wrote about it is fascinating to me. It is interesting how a meaning can be so different if you just twist the words a little bit. And something permanent amidst change rings a bell for me, too. I had to laugh when I read how with every move you wanted to change – this sounds like me. Perhaps it's the feeling of new beginnings that wants us to change, but in the end we are who we are.

  9. Barbara

    And I'm familiar with a quote, "the water you touch in a river is the last of what has passed and the first of that which is coming."
    Probably the same type meaning. I love rivers for this movement, this life, this energy.
    I spent a whole semester my senior year at the University studying rivers, especially in literature (English major).
    Your image is spectacular – those trees are spectacular. Yes, they seem reverant in a way.

  10. Jennifer Richardson

    i love that rivers are always flowing
    even if slowly
    and so the same water
    is never in the same place
    twice.
    i think anything that is really living
    is always changing and moving
    on some level.
    i love the swollen waters in your photo:)
    -Jennifer

  11. Susan

    I never know when I come here what I will be given to think about … this has my mind churning! I'm not familiar with this saying but it makes sense to me.
    And, boy! do I love this image, serene and moody.

  12. Soosie

    What a glorious image to express something which I have been considering for a while. While my cells are older, I do believe that a part of me (my soul?) remains the same. When I step into that river somethings have changed and others have not. It is up to me to recognise and adapt to the changes and consider the value of the things which remain the same.
    Thank you. Many times.

  13. Catherine

    Petra I never heard this before and the flowing river is a beautiful metaphor. I too find Greek thinking brilliant and insightful. I now find myself mulling over your writing in a similar way…..you always get me thinking!!

  14. Juli

    Petra! What a powerful piece! I have always heard the quote as you've noted, and to see it traced back to its origins, well, for me I find it quite profound. The influence the quote – in its 'evolved' form, has had is (I believe) mostly positive – reminding us (well, me!) that change is constant. But, to see it now, in it's 'original' form, speaking of permanence within change…allows for a whole new exploration. I love that! and, I love the way you've opened this up! Stepping twice into the river of this quote is certainly not the same! 🙂

  15. Donna@Gardens Eye View

    Wonderful words to ponder that have such a fascinating history…our words and those of others are always colored by our perceptions of life at the time…

  16. Zena (Healingmoments)

    I have enjoyed reading your text. That´s the great thing about ancient philosophy that when we go deep into it we find fascinating pieces of information. I have heard this quote for the very first time when I was quite young and I learnt that its meaning was the one you´ve explained in your first paragraph (I have never heard the second version, and I have never considered this quote to mean that we can meet up a challenge succesfully twice).
    Indeed, I have used many times along the years, but now, while reading your post, I have realized that I have been using it in different ways all this time. And maybe this prove it to be true. Everything is changing constantly, even the way we look at this simple truth.
    PS: Wonderful Image

  17. RuneE

    I have never heard this saying before, but it makes sense to me in the initial interpretation that you mention. The discussion is interesting, and the apparent misuse of it in many instances is just to be expected (after all that is a very common phenomenon with many sayings). However, I'm not sure whether I totally agree with the last variant. After all, nothing still stays the same. The arrow of time (however one defines that), still points forward – so we still "move on".

  18. Honey

    i like stepping into v&v periodically, and seeing petra's post reminded me of why i liked being in this river with all of you.
    nicely done, petra. thanks for reminding me how many meanings words can have….guess it explains all the human misunderstandings!

  19. Monica Devine

    Richly constructed, Petra. I too, have thought about this quote many times as my life has been intertwined with rivers for many years; living on them, fishing every summer and filling our freezers for the winter, hearing the rush and flow of ice at break-up. My favorite time on the river, however, is winter. Hush. Quiet. Austere. Every year a fresh transformation. Like a new snowfall…it always feels like the first time…though you've seen it many many times before.

  20. Kelly

    What a wonderful lesson… I love sayings like these, and loved hearing about the origins of this one. One of the things I love about poetry, and these sayings are just bits of poems if you ask me…. is that everyone brings their own interpretation to them, our own experiences filter what the mean to us.
    What a great post!

  21. Maery Rose

    I love the curiosity in which you've dug into this saying. I believe I've heard it or something like it but in the context of talking about the wonder of rivers themselves and how important it is to safeguard them.

  22. Thank you for your nice and thoughtful comments, they are really inspiring. In my opinion, both of the interpretations are true. That everything changes and nothing stays the same as well as that there is something permanent amidst the changes. Self-contradictory, isn’t it? But consider an electron that can behave as a particle as well as a wave based on what we measure (are looking for). Isn’t it similar here and the interpretation depends on the angle at which we look at it? Our angles differ but all may convey truth.

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