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.