Mon 8 Sep 2008
Sometimes it’s hard to get things started. Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was reported by Aristotle to have argued that it was impossible. Before you can cover the first half of a journey, you have to cover the first fourth, and before that the first eight, and the first sixteenth, and so on . . . (Though Zeno’s argument is aimed at the difficulty of reaching the end of the journey, Alfred North Whitehead has pointed out that the real difficulty is ever getting started.) It would seem that even getting started requires an infinite number of finite tasks. With such a daunting task in front of us, one can see how we might get discouraged.
You might think that just doing anything, including lying in bed, will make a start of things, albeit not a good one. Every journey begins with a single step, and it doesn’t even have to be in the right direction. But this is really not right either. Another of Zeno’s paradoxes, the Arrow in its Flight, shows why. If we look at an arrow at any instant of its flight, as in a single frame of a motion picture, there is no motion. At each instant it is just what it is and where it is. It isn’t anything or anywhere else. At the next instant it is something and somewhere else, as when you advance the film one frame at a time. The motion seems to have occurred between the frames or between the instants. Where does the change lie, and how can it begin?
Zeno was right to think that if time were a series of discrete frozen instants, then change would be impossible. To change you have to start being something different from what you are. But if at any moment you are just what you are, how can you do this? The existentialists were wrong to think that you are just your existence at this instant; just as their opponents were wrong to think that our essence was a finished frozen thing that precedes us. If the past, or the present, were just itself, how could it ever be any more. But all things are in motion. All things fall, tumbling through time. The rhythm and timbre and tone of a thing’s travels are its very nature. We never start from a dead stop, and Zeno was right to say it was impossible.
We always find ourselves in the midst of many natural motions. Beginning is always just a matter of nudging and channeling the momentum we already have into a new pattern. We find ourselves already moving to the beats of our bodies, to the waves of the seasons, and the revolutions of night and day. The impetus of our past actions, our habits, and desires drive us forward, constrained by our connections and commitments. A beginning simply guides these forces to converge into patterns that have a new type of unity, an integrity distinct from the flux from which it arose..
Without even thinking about it, you can be swirled into action of this semester, your life guided by the schedules, habits, and assignments that will swallow you up if you let them. Something is beginning, even if you aren’t the one starting it. And when those beginnings, and all of your beginnings, have reached their end, the world will still be starting anew. It can’t help it. It will go on without you. Streams of the world’s flux will converge in you and then part again. The questions is how much of you will remain as it flows away from you. On the one hand you must exert enough guidance on the momentum of your habits and circumstances so that you become a separate little stream with a beginning and ending of your own. Yet you must also harmonize your ends and your rhythms to leave a mark on the streams that run along side you and that will endure beyond you. Every beginning sees to its end and aims beyond it. If you can guide the momentum of each day to come to an end that you create, and if that end aims at empowering a new day to its own end, then the day will have been well begun. And well begun is more than half done; well begun implies a good end.