Associate Professor John Armstrong, Visiting Philosopher
Often we feel obliged to be in favour of change.
In Annie Hall, the Woody Allen character and Annie are talking about the problems of their relationship: ‘you never believed in change’ she complains; ‘change is death’ he pleads—to which she responds with a fulsome Manhattan expletive.
The point? Annie’s thesis can be expressed as follows: If you are a good modern, lively person you will automatically be into ‘change’. If you are suspicious of change your attractive partner will leave you. She does not argue—this is not a carefully reasoned attitude. But we get the message: pro-change is good; suspicion of change is bad.
Was Churchill funny?
It’s striking that this positive evaluation of change is relatively recent. There’s a saying attributed to Winston Churchill, reflecting moodily on a cabinet discussion: ‘they keep talking about the need for change… Aren’t things bad enough already?’
I find this quietly hilarious, but I tried it on some students doing a master’s degree and they were simply bemused. For them ‘change’ is so obviously a positive, that Churchill’s comment is baffling. I tried to work out how it must have sounded to them: perhaps they internally translated it along these lines: ‘They keep talking about the need to make things better. Aren’t things bad enough already?’ which comes across as cynical or depressed or just incomprehensible, rather than witty. What I was picking up on was the fulfilment of Annie’s avant-garde attitude. Now my whole class was agreeing with her and sharing her basic assumption: change is good. Whereas Churchill’s joke depended upon an ambivalent attitude to change. He admits that some changes might be for the better, but has a vivid awareness that all too often change is loss, failure, disappointment and destruction. There’s a line from an old hymn that speaks of just this fear: ‘Change and decay in all around I see’.
I think that any discussion of change should start with a healthy (though slightly embarrassing) recognition of the sensible, reasonable, intelligent and decent hostility to change. This may not be where we end up in our thinking about change, but I feel it is crucial not to push aside an attitude just because it is not fashionable.
Aristotle, Shakespeare and Keats: the case against change
For a very long time, change had a negative spin. In fact, when Aristotle outlined his list of undesirable qualities (like cowardice, dishonesty, boorishness) he included one ‘changeableness’ that make some modern readers squirm. To change is seen as a defect, a flaw: the characteristic of corrupt and damaged entities.
We can catch an echo of this attitude to change in Shakespeare’s evocation of love as unchanging in Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
So it is precisely the capacity to resist the pressure to change that is revered and sought. Shakespeare is extolling an attitude that is inflexible, unresponsive to context and that resists change. What is good about love, he says, is its constancy. We are reminded of our admiration for that which does not change.
A related attitude can be discerned in the poetry of John Keats. His poem Endymion, opens with the striking words: ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever’ which, certainly does not express a positive evaluation of change. As Shakespeare articulated the ideal constancy of love, so Keats gives voice to the longing that what we love, and find to be beautiful, will never lose its wonderful power.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever;
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways::
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
It is not that Keats can somehow be magically assured that beauty will forever retain its power to delight and move. But he is giving voice to a longing, not to a factual claim.
So, here we have two major thinkers who express resistance to change as noble and loving—as good. They are not, of course, saying that all and every desire to keep things the same, to be wary or weary of change, or just sad at the prospect of loss of what is familiar and understood, is justified. They help us look intelligently and generously at anxiety towards change. They do not pretend that one should simply brighten up and get more excited.
I believe that one of the cultural services Philosophy can provide is to assist us in mining the hidden value of awkward experiences. Fear of change is not at present a prestigious emotion, but it is very human. I believe we should get to know it, and that Shakespeare and Keats help us see what wisdom might be active within the experiences we typically overlook.
Darwin’s painful lesson
Change, however, is part of nature. Darwin initiated an account of change in the animal world. He observed certain species flourishing in one region but absent in another; he saw significant variation with one kind of monkey in one environment and another in another. And the same with plants. Genetic mutation, we now know, occasionally furnishes some living things with certain competitive advantages. The offspring are more likely to survive and reproduce that modification. Therefore the form and capacities of a species gradually changes over time, or, as we say, evolves.
This is intellectually elegant and an amazing discovery. But Darwin’s nature is at odds with human longing. It paints a fearsome picture of random processes, in which large numbers of creatures fall by the wayside. Each individual is simply faced with altering circumstances to which it, as an individual, has no power to adapt. The species might continue, because of chance genetic mutation. But this has nothing whatever to do with the actions of any individual.
It’s not very nice to say so, but I think that we should accept that the world in which we live has many Darwinian characteristics—that if you don’t compete you gradually get squeezed out; that if you pretend that there isn’t competition, you wake up one day and find you have been marginalised; that the world is not all that generous to good intentions on their own. That change is inevitable and coming fast.
You could say that the human condition is the tension between the Darwinian nature of competition and the poetic aspect of value. We live in a world that changes a lot and doesn’t change because we want it to and doesn’t change with an eye to our welfare. It just changes. Yet, on the other hand—and at the same time—we cannot but be drawn to things that persist, that maintain their value and worth despite altered circumstances.
In this situation, I think there are two skills that can help us. That is, that can make it a little easier to find good continuity in a world of change and to draw out the genuinely advantageous and beneficial possibilities that change allows, but certainly does not give a guarantee.
Refinement (referring to a psychological quality rather than an oil-industry process) is not something we often talk about which is a pity, because the process it names is extremely important. Essentially, it is the skill of identifying more accurately what is important—of extracting the valuable minerals from the ore in which they are embedded.
The first instinct of admiration, love or enthusiasm (all the positive emotions of evaluation) is a kind of wide-eyed, whole hearted liking. It was a great film; it was an excellent holiday; it’s a fine school; I love this building… That is fine—until you need to act on your relationship, because so far there isn’t enough insight into why and what. What is it about that building that makes it good? What do you like about the film, and why that? What do you admire in that person’s character and why do you admire it? Of course, these questions can feel a bit intrusive, perhaps they strike one as a touch analytic, complicating what should just be happy and simple. But such knowledge, such refinement, is absolutely crucial. For it allows the increase, renewal, extension and development of what you care about. It allows you to understand what you love and hence get more of it.
Accumulation is the opposite of randomness. Our cultural disposition is in favour of diversity; we feel we should nurture and support many things with enthusiasm and be always on the lookout for new forms of stimulation and excitement. But this attitude leaves aside a very interesting and important question: what does it all add up to—how do we accumulate?
There’s a quotation I very much like from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: life, he says ‘lies before you, like a quarry before an architect; from the heap of material to hand you must build a lasting and beautiful home.’ This is to speak against randomness: we want the different elements of our lives to come together as much as possible so that each enhances and supports and completes the others. As in a building we don’t just endlessly accumulate material: we have to organise, and fit things together. When it comes to change, randomness is what we fear. We fear that we’ve just been going in one direction for a while, and started to get used to it, but now we will start going in another direction. Each might in its own way be plausible enough. Only we fear that what we have learned and gained will be lost. They are just different and disconnected. Accumulate is the voice of hope: that we can put one stone on top of another and integrate a new part into the whole.
Refinement and accumulation are two skills and capacities which help our best hopes have a chance of survival and competitive success in a Darwinian world. On reflection it seems to me right that the discussion of change should end up renewing our interest in continuity. This is a tantalising thought. Could it be that continuity and change are not necessarily enemies?
Associate Professor John Armstrong