Being vs Becoming

Most people have either heard or uttered the phrase, “The only constant in life is change.” At first glance it is an obvious oxymoron; if all things change then the rule that all things change must change as well. However, there is a certain power behind the saying, which I believe harkens back to the first serious problem and dialectical struggle western philosophy experienced: being vs becoming.

Around 500 B. C. Heraclitus proposed the thesis that all things are becoming:

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others, go flowing on.

Time is a child, moving counters in a game; the royal power is a child’s

Here Heraclitus is affirming the reality of transience and primacy of the present. All things are becoming, and that which exists now will not abide in the future.

A generation or so later,  Parmenides proposed an opposing thesis:

There remains, then, but one word by which to express the [true] road: Is. And on this road there are many signs that What Is has no beginning and never will be destroyed: it is whole, still, and without end. It neither was nor will be, it simply is—now, altogether, one, continuous…

Parmenides affirms the reality of permanence. Nothing becomes or ceases to be. Past, present, future, becoming etc. are at best secondary and at worst illusions (i.e. not real).

This problem was not to be solved for over  a hundred years. One can imagine what a crippling problem it was (and we can of course empathise knowing the struggles of our own times). Many turned to skepticism, which provides psychological comfort but no real answer. Plato provides a solution to the being vs becoming dilemma in the Timaeus, as follows:

  1. Some things always are, without ever becoming.
  2. Some things become, without ever being.
  3. If and only if a thing always is, then it is grasped by understanding, involving a rational account.
  4. If and only if a thing becomes, then it is grasped by opinion, involving unreasoning sense perception.
  5. The universe is a thing that has become.
    1. The universe is visible, tangible and possesses a body.
    2. If a thing is visible, tangible and possesses a body, then it is perceptible.
    3. If a thing is perceptible, then it has become.
  6. Anything that becomes is caused to become by something.
  7. The universe has been caused to become by something.
  8. The cause of the universe is a Craftsman, who fashioned the universe after a model (apparently from 7, but see below).
  9. The model of the universe is something that always is.
    1. Either the model of the universe is something that always is or something that has become.
    2. If the universe is beautiful and the Craftsman is good, then the model of the universe is something that always is.
    3. If the universe is not beautiful or the Craftsman is not good, then the model of the universe is something that has become.
    4. The universe is supremely beautiful.
    5. The Craftsman is supremely good.
  10. The universe is a work of craft, fashioned after an eternal model.

Plato’s solution works by positing the existence of an unseen “world of models” in which nothing changes (i.e. a world of being from 7, 8 and 9). The world in which we live is a world of becoming (5). This explanation also bears similarities to cosmological-type arguments, with Plato’s Demiurge playing the role of the Craftsman of the becoming universe.

21 responses to this post.

  1. […] Aristotle and Plato have (or had) the universal quality of being human. Looking again at a previous post, we can see that Plato uses a system of universals (namely Platonic idealism) to solve the […]


  2. […] dilemma and the problem of the one and the many. If the human body is in a constant state of flux (like Heraclitus’ river) and the whole exists only as a relation to its parts, then how can human identity be continuous? […]


  3. […] BC pre-Socratic Greek philosopher – is famous for his part in the dialectical struggle of being vs becoming where he claimed that change (or becoming) is impossible and that all that exists is unified, […]


  4. […] that the answer to the problem of the one or the many is that there is One and the answer to being vs becoming is that there is only being. Consequently, there is no such thing as change or […]


  5. […] third argument is called the argument from affinity. In his solution to the being vs becoming dilemma and rhetorical devices such as the allegory of the cave, Plato sketches out his idea of two worlds […]


  6. […] was a monist – for him the world was one, eternal and unchanging. Through his solution to the being vs becoming dilemma, Plato introduced his own philosophical dualism. According to Plato, there is the physical world […]


  7. […] But why does Plato formulate his arguments in the first place? Another layer down and one will see that the philosophers philosophise to solve some kind of problem. For Plato and Aristotle, their primary concern was how something could change yet remain the same (i.e being vs becoming). […]


  8. […] drive to find a solution to the being vs becoming dilemma was the catalyst for the development of Greek philosophy. The Greeks (namely Plato) posited the […]


  9. […] these emanations is called in Greek the nous or the Intellect. Plotinus identifies the Intellect as Plato’s demiurge. This demiurge is an image of the one and is the archetype for all things. The nous is the highest […]


  10. […] to “From nothing, nothing comes”. The first example of this thesis was argued by Parmenides and the idea was primary in Ancient Greek philosophy and has been ubiquitous throughout history. Ex […]


  11. […] classical period of philosophy was dominated by the Socratic philosophers Plato and Aristotle and their various theories of the forms. Augustine is generally considered to be […]


  12. […] there is nothing really modern about it. Consider Parmenides role in the dialectical struggle of being vs. becoming of Pre-Socratic philosophy. Parmenides offers a powerful argument against the reality of […]


  13. Posted by writergrlrox on 10/24/2013 at 2:32 pm

    Reblogged this on My Tilted View and commented:
    The lasting plight of humankind.


  14. Posted by HIMAYAT DOSTAIN on 02/20/2014 at 6:07 pm

    can anyone simply define that which philosophers were called being and becoming


  15. […] thinker who became a pivotal figure in the development of modern philosophy. Kant is similar to Plato in that he set about solving the problems of the two major philosophical schools of his time […]


  16. […] on this blog and arguably the primary problem of philosophy is the dialectical tension between being and becoming. Recall that the classical solution Plato offered was his dualistic theory of the forms, where he […]


  17. […] the metaphysical stage. By metaphysics, Comte is not referring to the philosophical systems of say Plato or Aquinas, but rather to  France prior the revolution when thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire […]


  18. […] of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure […]


  19. Posted by Ogwang on 07/10/2016 at 7:44 am

    I used to mistake that Plato is the father of this Philosophy of being vs becoming, yet he only comes in after Heracletus


  20. Posted by Richard Eden on 09/07/2020 at 8:02 am

    Being and Doing must be synonymous. How can one exist without the other? Whatever causal effect created the universe IT must be both and we mirror those qualities constantly. To me, a MIND,- a one Mind is all.


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