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Fragments on Fragments #1: Being Human in a Pandemic

Fragments on Fragments #1: Being Human in a Pandemic



Heraclitus was one of the very first philosophers, active around 500BC. What survives of his writings are quotations and comments in other authors, hence the title ‘Fragments’ given to them when they were collected together. Reading them this summer, I found that they provided a starting point for me to express my own fragmentary thoughts and reflections on the coronavirus pandemic through which we have all been living.


These ‘Fragments on Fragments’ are offered as little morsels for reflection; I hope you will find them useful at least as jumping off points, as I found Heraclitus, for you to make of them something for yourself. You may well go in other directions from mine, and that’s just fine. My own versions of Heraclitus’ sayings are sometimes more paraphrase than translation, unashamedly pointing in the direction I wanted to go. So please feel free to pick up the baton and run the race.


Fragment #1

1 You cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs


It is only human to look for stability and certainty. How much we need will differ depending on our personality, experience and stage of life, but what Heraclitus seems to suggest here is the stuff of nightmares. In our dreams, especially those which are most terrifying, shapes shift: what in waking life seems most reliable and unchanging can transform into mortal danger. None of us can live with that degree of flux.


For some, the pandemic has been a waking nightmare. I’m thinking here not only of those who have suffered the disease itself, but also the many more who have had their sense of personal stability decentred. The threat of the illness itself has been compounded by the radical, constant and sometimes contradictory changes and messages about our daily lives. Governments and others in authority have been just as much in the dark as anyone else, and they haven’t been able to hide it. Policies change daily. It would be kind, but untrue to say that they have evolved, as that would give the impression of a continual, purposeful development. Instead there have been backtracks, diversions, roadblocks. I am reminded of driving through woods in a storm, watching for trees that might be about to fall, ready to stop and reverse when the way is blocked, turning off the main road onto narrow and unsignposted lanes.


It’s hard work, driving in those conditions, especially compared to the relaxed way we can normally take the main road, knowing all will be clear ahead. It’s hard work psychologically, living in a world in which the boundaries and frameworks of our lives are always changing. If there is any comfort to be had, it is that the stress many of us feel is not because of a fault or weakness in ourselves. The situation itself is stress-inducing, so feeling stressed is perfectly normal. The question is how we support one another and look after ourselves, within and through this time.


Fragments on Fragments are written by the Right Reverend Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon in the Church of England. He introduces the whole series here.. Alongside the words is an image by Alison Clark of a broken sand dollar, gilded in reference to the Japanese practice of kintsugi: you can find more of her work here.


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Simon Burris

There is a good “one-upper” by Cratylus (Athenian contemporary of Socrates), who is quoted in Aristotle’s Metaphysics as having said: “You could not step into the same river even once!” (trans. Kirk and Raven, Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed., p.196.

This saying is usually taken to prove that Cratylus was a fanatic follower of Heraclitus, but I have to wonder whether he was simply having a bit of fun at the latter’s expense.

Be that as it may, the Cratylus line reminds me that when we talk about “things changing,” we usually are not admitting that things have always been on a knife’s edge, so to speak.

To put it in Covid terms: We have always been taking our lives in our hands by going to church, hugging people, driving on the freeway, teaching a class, or visiting the sick.

I think we need to step into the river, whether it is the “same” one or not, whether the water is cold or not. God made our feet to get wet.

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