Water on the brain

Water is so essential to life that its first mention in Genesis implies its pre-existing God’s very act of Creation: ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (Genesis, 1:2) But what were those mysterious ‘waters’? Some stagnant pond or a vast ocean, covering a submerged primeval land? For Muslims, the holy Kaaba, in Mecca, is the very site of Adam’s house, rebuilt by Noah after the deluge, in other words, a safe earthly foundation above an unpredictable watery expense. Out of the five interacting elements to be found in Chinese philosophy, Water quenches Fire, rusts Metal, nourishes Wood and is absorbed by Earth. For the fourth-century BC Chinese philosopher, Mencius, ‘Water indeed will flow indifferently to the east or west, but will it flow indifferently up or down? The tendency of man’s nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. There are none but have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards.’
Greek philosophers and especially pre-Socratic thinkers, regarded water, earth, wind and fire as the potential primary elements from which all life forms originated. Thales of Miletus was the first to put forward the idea that water is that fundamental element and the very source of all creation. However, it was Heraclitus who gave philosophy its first water analogy when he compared life to an ever-changing, flowing river. The impermanence of water and human life was summarized by Plato in the famous aphorism: ‘Everything changes and nothing remains the same; you cannot step twice in the same stream.’ Narcissus was the first victim of the lure of water as he could not keep away from his own reflection and was condemned to admire his own image, even when he reached the underworld and could still see his reflection in the black waters of the Styx.

The German philosopher Hegel broke Narcissus’ spell when he compared the act of artistic creation to a boy throwing stones into a river and wondering at the concentric circles appearing in the water. Hegel’s young boy becomes conscious of his own identity as he leaves his mark on the physical world. Water has proved a source of enduring poetic inspiration far more than a legitimate topic for philosophical investigation. When Romain Rolland, suggested to his friend Sigmund Freud that religious belief had its origin in an ‘oceanic feeling’ of awesome wonder and boundless communion of the self with the cosmos and an ultimate Being, the scientifically-minded Doctor commented that such a feeling was nothing but an illusion, born out of our sense of helplessness in an infinite, Godless universe. Perhaps, we should bear in mind that the founder of psycho-analysis was never attracted to the pleasures of the seaside nor the charms of the Danube but much preferred the Vienna woods where he went for Sunday walks which often ended at the top of the Bellevue hill from which he enjoyed a panoramic view of his beloved city.

2 Comments
  • Scott morone
    May 19, 2011

    The quote attributed to Plato derives from Hericlitus.

  • triplea_jmp
    June 19, 2012

    ‘Hericlitus’ is actually Heraclitus (of Ephesus)!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*