Most people, if they know anything about Greek philosophy, probably know something about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the three primary philosophers whose work survives that bridge the end of Greece’s Classical period (ca. 510-323 BCE) and the beginning of the Hellenistic period (323-27 BCE, more or less, dependent on what end point one wants to pick). And it has become increasingly popular to talk about some of the philosophical schools that emerged in the Hellenistic period after, in expansion of, and in response to these three: namely, the disciples of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the Epicureans and the Stoics, respectively. The general student of Early Judaism, Jesus, the early Jesus Movement, and early Christianity may well also know that these schools changed over time: that the Platonic Academy went through a number of phases, importantly the “Middle” Platonism of Antiochus of Ascalon and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus; it absorbed and assimilated the insights of Aristotelians and Stoics (but, regrettably, never really gave Epicurean ideas a fair shake). It is typically people specializing in classics or ancient philosophy who know very much about the pre-Socratics—those philosophers who, as the name suggests, preceded Socrates in the various regions of Magna Graecia during the late Archaic period and throughout the duration of the Persian Wars, and some of whom were Socrates’ contemporaries.1
This is a genuine pity, because the pre-Socratics—figures like Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, Democritus, and so forth—are often the origin of certain salient features of the Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, and Stoic traditions with which we are more generally familiar. To no small extent, Plato’s dialogues—especially those named for pre-Socratic philosophers like, for instance, the Gorgias—are attempts to make sense of the major ideas of preexisting schools through the literary character of Socrates.2 Preeminent among those philosophers who left a strong impression on Classical, Hellenistic, and Late Antique philosophy were Herakleitos and Parmenides, who were received and understood by later Greek philosophers as representing two opposing attitudes about the nature of identity and change.3
In broad outline, Herakleitos’ philosophy is one of change as, paradoxically, the rule of identity. “All things flow and nothing remains,” Plato attributes to him (τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει; Cratylus 402a). The famous analogy he is alleged to have given in several of his surviving fragments is that of a man and a river: a man cannot step into the same river twice, because it is not the same river, and it is not the same man (B12; B49a; B91a).4 Again, this is not quite a Heraclitean rejection of the concept of identity, or “sameness” (from the Latin idem, “same”), but rather an objection to one particular way of identification that rests on a notion of changelessness. Take the river and the man: near where I live, generations have referred to a particular flow of rather muddy and uninhabitable water as the Missouri, but if by “the Missouri River” I mean an unchanged and unchanging reality that I can put on a map one day and expect to find accurately represented there a year or two later, then what I mean by “the Missouri River” does not exist. Likewise, I am a year and some change shy of 28; what I habitually mean when I self-identify as “David Armstrong” is, if by it I mean the selfsame human being that existed at least three (possibly four) cycles of cellular renewal ago, that the infant given that name and the schoolchild, adolescent, and young adult who have all borne that name are the same person, then I cannot maintain this without admitting that fundamental to what it is to be “David Armstrong” is mutability—that in fact, there is no “David Armstrong” that is not understood to be the collected series of changes that “David Armstrong” has undergone.
Parmenides flourished slightly later than Herakleitos and may express some level of critique towards his system and those of other pre-Socratic philosophers that preceded him. More scholarly debate exists about how best to understand Parmenides’ big idea than does around Herakleitos’,5 but what is typically taken to be the main substance of Parmenides’ position is preserved in Simplicius’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 145.1-146.25 (fr. B8):
[H]ow can what-is be hereafter? How can it come to be? /  For if it came to be, it is not, not even if it is sometime going to be. / Thus coming-to-be has been extinguished and perishing cannot be investigated. / Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, / and not at all more in any way, which would keep it from holding together, / or at all less, but it is all full of what-is.6
Parmenides’ point appears to be that generation and decay are impossible in light of the supervening unicity of the world. Reality’s oneness makes change impossible or at least illusory. This monist interpretation was only lightly qualified by the ancients: Aristotle, for example, reads Parmenides as saying that “that which is one” is incapable of change, but unity is not necessarily predicable of all things in the absolute sense (Aristotle, Cael. 3.1.298b14-24). Indeed, this view is that of Plato, Aristotle, and later Platonists more generally: Parmenides speaks to the immutability of the intelligible realm, while Herakleitos correctly describes the mutability of the phenomenal, sensible realm. The famous thought problem expressing their apparent differences posited by Plutarch in Theseus 21, about the ship in which Athens’ mythological king returned from Crete and whether it remained the same ship even after each of its planks had been replaced, would have been answered by Plutarch himself with both a “Yes” (as regards intelligibility) and a “No” (as regards sensibility).7
Herakleitos and Parmenides are broadly paralleled by debates in South Asian culture around identity and change. Siddharta Gautama, Sakyamuni Buddha, is remembered as having taught a strong doctrine of anatta (anatman in Sanskrit; अनात्मन्), “non-Self” or “no-self” which underlies the mutable transmission of experiences, thoughts, memories, and bodily change, whether subtle or phenomenal (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya I.130).8 What exactly anatta means has never been a point of consensus internal to Buddhist traditions or among scholars of those traditions. It is clear that for mainstream Buddhists it is one of the three fundamental qualities of samsara, together with dukkha (दुःख), “suffering,” and anicca/anitya, “impermanence” (अनित्य); it is less clear exactly what it is designed to convey. Superficially, in the context of a culture where the early Upanisadic resources of later Vedanta were being formulated, with their strong teaching of atman (आत्मन्), the fundamental Self which is identical with the infinite, absolute reality of brahman (ब्रह्म) beneath the transient elements that are habitually, conventionally misidentified as the Self (body, mind, ego, etc.), it is easy to take anatta as simply the rejection of a fundamental, underlying spiritual essence. On that reading, existential realization of anatta in the form of attaining nibbana/nirvana (निर्वाण) would amount to a kind of nihilism; and while this is how many Westerners habitually misread Buddhist teaching, it is obvious to Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism that simple cessation of existence is not the ultimate goal of liberation in Buddhist disciplines.
Anatta is probably better understood as a method of disabusing ourselves of the mistaken idea that the Self is identifiable with any of the mutable elements of our identity. This is not quite the same as reading the Buddha’s teaching through the personalist lens that both ancient, medieval, and modern Buddhist practitioners and scholars have gone to great lengths to oppose, as though the Buddha really does believe in a metaphysically supreme Self; rather, it is the acknowledgment that Buddhist texts are often more concerned with what is useful for achieving liberation and not with abstract questions of metaphysical ultimacy. The point of anatta is really to stress that our concepts of a permanent Self, however identified, are often the source of our own suffering and those of others: our eagerness to preserve, serve, and secure the Self and the cravings we perceive to emerge from it are the greatest cause of our own violence and the suffering it inflicts. Letting go of the notion of a stable, spiritually perennial “Self” assists us in letting go also of our claims to those things we conceive the Self to depend upon and require (rather similarly to the Jain notion of aparigrapha).
Yet, while Buddhists are historically unlikely to affirm some modified understanding of Self as a genuine category, it is worth pointing out that the Vedantic notion of atman against which the Buddha is supposedly teaching is not really so dissimilar from his own doctrine of anatta. For Adi Sankara (8th c. CE), at least, atman as he understands it in the Upanisads, the Bhagavadgita, and the Brahmasutras depends on a similar kind of disentanglement of Self from mental and physical phenomena we habitually misidentify as the “Self.” Indeed, profound similarities exist between Vedanta and Mahayana at this point: brahman, understood as infinite satt, citta, and ananda is not fundamentally different from Buddha Nature understood as the true ontological substratum of all things, or the Chan Buddhist understanding of enlightenment as something always, already true of everyone.9 The true Self of Advaita is not a finite, discrete individual, but the qualities of being and consciousness that underlie all things; the doctrine of anatta, at least as understood by the majority of Mahayanists, proceeds from a vision of reality that presumes infinite mind as totally empty awareness (sunyata) as the ground of being. If Buddhists are more Heraclitean, and Advaitins more Parmenidean, there are ways of performing a Platonic-style synthesis of their position in the South Asian context as well; it is not for nothing that Sankara was often accused of being a crypto-Buddhist.
Questions about selfhood predominate in all stages of development in individual and collective consciousness: as we physically evolve, as we grow up, as our families and societies morph, as new events unfold and shape the way we see things, we become more aware of how we stand in relation to that which is beyond us. In the transition from Ancient Judah to Early Judea, for example, the tragedy of the Exile, the deportation to and return from Babylon, and life under Persian, Greek, and then Roman rule, ancient Jews came to change the way they thought about the Self and its moral agency.10 Early Jewish and Early Christian encounters with Greco-Roman philosophies also shaped emerging senses of selfhood: the translation of a Hebrew term like ruach (רוח) as pneuma (πνεῦμα) in Greek, for example, probably at first signaled simply the closest equivalent notion of “wind” or “breath” or “spirit,” and then, as pneuma continued to evolve in significance in the Greek world, took on equivalent meanings in Jewish and Christian thought.11 Jewish and Christian notions of selfhood continued to develop apace in the late antique, medieval, and early modern periods, sometimes in concert, sometimes in competition, always in contemplation of mystery.12
What is common to most of these visions of selfhood is some notion of fluidity. Paul’s “self,” for example, is a conglomerate of disparate elements—pneuma, psyche (ψυχή), sarx (σάρξ), haima (αἷμα)—which can be variously embodied in dishonor or glory, in psychic or pneumatic states. The “self” of the Epistle of Barnabas is “earth that suffers.” Origen’s “self” in the De Principiis is a union of different parts that can assume a spectrum of qualities dependent on the illumination or darkening of the spiritual intellect.13 The rabbinic and kabbalistic selves are also pluralistic—involving numerous souls that come and go between present and future bodies. If by “self” is meant something stable and unchanging as the source of identity, then Jews and Christians are much more Buddhist than they often let on: no such “self” is fronted in scriptural texts or traditional resources, though, certainly, most modern Christians find South Asian religions deeply uncomfortable precisely on the grounds of identity’s fluidity. In the evangelical and Catholic worlds, for example, hopes abound for personal afterlives that are animated by a notion of the stable self, by hopes for the self’s fulfillment and enjoyment of future rewards, of consummated intimacy in the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and so forth; these seem, at least superficially, at odds with belief that much of what we identify as “myself” is transient and subject to generation and decay. Contemporary Western Christians are decidedly Parmenidean in their attitudes about self and world, and it shows in the ways they conceptualize final bliss as simple continuity with the present.
But in Christian antiquity, the unstable self, the Heraclitean anatta, was also precisely what made possible a more glorious eschaton. The intrinsic mutability of finitude was, first for Origen and then more explicitly for St. Gregory Nyssen, the logical ground for epektasis, a ceaseless ascent into the infinite God “from glory to glory” (1 Cor 3:18; Origen, De Principiis 2.11; Gregory, Vit Moys II; Cant 6; 8; An et res, PG 46, 105).14 Where modern Christians find discomfort with the notion that my finite identity may not be capable of stasis, ancient Christians found radical comfort in the vision of a never-ending quest for more of the God who is the only true, unchanging Self of every one of us, whose infinity our finitude may cleave to in an ever-ascending movement of knowledge and love. God does not change, but that is indeed why he creates: that what by nature is not subject to generation may become so by condescension, that what by nature is transient may experience the grace of the unconditional. Sailing down Herakleitos’ river, we yearn for the farther shore; we and all that we have been, we and all that we are and will be; yet reaching that shore consists precisely in realizing that our constancy in God is precisely in our creaturely inconstancy, reconciled in Christ, that nirvana is samsara, that this atman is always, already brahman.
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.
For a general introduction and translation, see Robin Waterfield, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); see also Patricia Curd and Robert D. McKirahan, A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia (Indianapolis: Hacket Classics, 2011).
I leave to the side and take no position on whether the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is really Socrates as Plato remembered and interpreted him or Socrates as the mouthpiece for Plato’s own aporetic philosophical method.
For a general introduction to Herakleitos, see Daniel W. Graham, "Heraclitus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus/>; for Parmenides, see John Palmer, "Parmenides", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/parmenides/>.
For an excellent visual presentation of this idea, see here; for another treatment, see David Egan, “Can You Step Into the Same River Twice? Wittgenstein v Heraclitus,” Aeon (2019).
Palmer lists Strict Monist, Logical-Dialectical, Meta-Principle, Aspectual, and Modal Interpretations of Parmenides’ surviving fragments.
The translation is, in this case, from Curd and McKirahan, A Presocratics Reader, 59-60.
See also Plutarch, Colotes 1114D; for the most recent and culturally popular treatment of the idea, see here.
For a general overview, see Christian Coseru, "Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/>.
See Peter Hershock, "Chan Buddhism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/buddhism-chan/>.
See Carol A. Newsom, The Spirit Within Me: Self and Agency in Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).
See Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); idem, John and Philosophy: A New Reading of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); idem, Paul on Identity: Theology as Politics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021); David Bentley Hart’s articles here and here; and my own article on Paul and pneumatology here.
See, e.g., Benjamin Blosser, Become Like the Angels: Origen’s Doctrine of the Soul (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012); Jonathan Garb, Yearnings of the Soul: Psychological Thought in Modern Kabbalah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); and a piece I did here.