03 April 2008


"You cannot step into the same river twice." Heraclitus

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

"Lawd help me I can't change. Lord I can't change." Lynard Skynard

This post is a first pass on what is perhaps the central theme of Western literature, and because it touches so many different fields it is my favorite kind of topic. The topic is: Change. Transformation, transfiguration, metamorphosis, evolution, correction, development, differentiation, integration, becoming, etc.

It is an article of faith in serious literature that change is possible and indeed desirable in characters. It is what we look for when we read. But is that mere fiction? Can people really change?

Let's look at some "real world" beliefs:

Freudian psychoanalysis believes change is possible only if one confronts and recognizes the role childhood (primarily sexual) traumas played in forging one's psyche.

Marxian analysis believes change is possible only if the social conditions that determine one's identity are first rectified.
Maoism believed "re-education" was the route to change in the people. Stalinism saw very little room for change and opted for strategies of eradication.

Darwinian analysis is more deterministic: we are who we are by virtue of our genetic make-up and change in human nature only occurs incrementally over the long haul of generations.

Christianity holds that human nature is fallen and can only be changed if our fallen soul is somehow driven out and replaced by the Christ-soul—some hold this conversion or "second birth" is an instantaneous result of professing faith, others that it occurs through a lifetime of good works. Yet, for the most part, Christianity does not believe in the perfectibility of humanity. Salvation is a supernatural thing and is determinative of one's status in the afterlife, not in reality.

Humanism believes human nature is essentially good and merely needs proper nourishment to self-actualize. I'm not sure that is precisely change.

As on most things, philosophers are split. The majority, classical position believes human beings are unchanging substantive entities (Being, essence, Monad, etc.) with a changing list of contingent properties. The minority position believes that existence preceeds essence: that becoming trumps being, and change is the primary feature of human identity.

Sociologically, as a matter of principle, caste- or class-based societies do not believe in change—in fact, they are formed precisely in opposition to it and can be violently resistant to ideas of progress or change.

Politically and juridically: The U.S. has a prison population of over two million, nearly one in one hundred adults—one of the, if not the, highest rates and greatest numbers of prisoners of any country in the world. Are Americans worse as a people or is our legal system simply meaner? A society's belief in the possibility of change is reflected in its theory of criminal jurisprudence: punishment/retribution, isolation, deterrence, rehabilitation. For example, a society which holds humans are capable of change will sport a theory closer in nature to rehabilitation and deterrence. A society that believes humans are incapable of changing will adhere more to a punishment/retribution, isolation theory of criminal justice and will, as a result, have a higher population imprisoned.

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