This article is adapted from a presentation given at the “STOICON-X: MILITARY” event that occurred on May 15, 2021. While the original talk was prepared for a military audience, the ideas and concepts have important applications for our everyday social lives.
Our Changeful World
We live in a constantly changing world that not only shapes, but is also shaped by, the social fabric of our human lives. Through our many interactions and relationships, we frequently encounter new information, diverse perspectives, and unique ideas that give us pause to reconsider the world around us and adapt. What is more, the rate of such change can only increase in proportion to our interconnectedness, which, to be sure, is multiplied through the advance of technology.
However, the notion that our world is ever-changing is not new. One of the earliest mentions regarding the changeful nature of our world was from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who lived circa 540 to 480 BCE. For Heraclitus, change was fundamental to the way of life. He espoused this philosophy of change in what he called Panta Rhei, which has been translated as “everything flows” or “all things are in flux.” The central idea is that there is no stasis in life, but that we are only ever on our way to becoming something else.
This notion of impermanence was epitomized in Heraclitus’ famous maxim that “no man can step into the same river twice.” To the casual observer, the river appears as one continuous flow of the same thing: water. Yet, that river is moving and no same patch of water is the same from one instant to the next as it moves forward carrying with it different elements, nutrients, and mineral deposits.
Similarly, accepting the impermanence of our world is a key theme in Stoic doctrine. Although Heraclitus was not a member of the Stoics, having died more than a century before Zeno of Citium was even born, his ideas of flux and flow certainly aligned with Stoicism, if not having some sort of influence (Hadot, 2001; Long, 1986; Long, 2001). Indeed, Marcus Aurelius (2006) not only commented on Heraclitus in Mediations, but also repeated the metaphor of a river several times to depict change and flow as central aspects of our existence:
To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river… (2.17)
There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way. (4.43)
Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being, are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety; scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. (5.23)
Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? (6.15)
The universal cause is a torrent, sweeping everything in its stream. (9.29)
In Aurelius’ writings we see an acceptance of an impermanent world – one that is defined by a continuous and rapid flow of change. Moreover, life is not made of stable entities, but is rather composed of dynamic processes that facilitate dissolution, change, and regeneration (Aurelius, 2006, p. 99). In the face of such flux, we are now left wondering what action we could hope to take to flourish in such a changeful world.
Finding Wisdom through Imagination
Applying the ideas above to our social world, the very core of human activity is change and flow. There is plenty of research on individual and social psychology demonstrating that we are not dictated by instinct and that our patterns of behavior are not fixed (Gergen, 1994). Our very survival not only required the ability to detect novelty, but to engage in it as well. As a result, the only constant in our social world is change. We are the very source of the conditions that create our changeful world. How are we to survive and thrive if all we can count on is the unpredictability of change and flow?
The simple answer is that we must not fight change, but engage in its flow. The best way to do it is through Wisdom, that first pillar of Stoic ethics. In Stoicism, Wisdom is the search for truth and knowledge so that we might flourish. In fact, it is our ability to think, that cognitive act of contemplation, which underpins our species’ self-proclaimed label of Homo Sapiens, the “wise man” (Seligman et al., 2016). We are wise because it is our deliberate thought of what we should do to flourish that informs our action. Wisdom is what grants us knowledge of where we have control in a changeful world. The “Serenity Prayer” highlights Wisdom’s role in navigating the dichotomy of control perfectly: serenity to accept what cannot be change, courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.
However, rather than seeing wisdom as an accumulation of knowledge, let’s take a different perspective, one that allows us to not only embrace, but also engage in, the changeful nature of our world. William James, the father of modern psychology, stated that, “My thinking is first, and last, and always for my doing” (1890, p. 960). However, as the philosopher Peter Railton (2016) adds, if all of our doing extends forward in time, then our thinking is for what we do next. The human capacity for cognitive thought is what helps us contemplate what we might do before we do it. We can envision possible courses of action and adjust our behavior. This cognitive ability of ours is the crux of the famous maxim (often attributed to Viktor Frankl) that “between stimulus and response there is a space; in that space is our power to choose our response.”
If characterization of our species as wise is due to the fact that we can think about the future in order to adjust our behavior in the present, then wisdom requires change – a deviation from the status quo. Put more simply, it requires imagination and innovation. Wisdom, therefore, is not about knowledge as some objective and unchanging truth to be controlled or managed. Rather, wisdom denotes that knowledge is also subjective and adaptive, and that we can imagine multiple futures and create new behaviors. Flourishing in this changeful world, then, requires that all-important thing that makes us human – imagination. When thinking and talking about the future, we should aim to be less predictive about what will be, and more prospective about what could be.
Prospection as Practical Imagination
In a recent research study on a military unit developing their organizational vision (Sim, 2021), I had the chance to explore how our prospective capacity unfolds through collective discussion. What I learned offered some interesting take-aways for the importance of imagination in thinking about the future and how it helps us flourish.
First, imagination is a collective effort. Engaging with others’ perspectives allows us to look at the world differently and come up with new ideas. If we attempt to make sense of situations as an individual effort, our cognition would rely solely on our own previous mental models (Weick, 1979) to construct the future, thereby limiting our ability to discover new possibilities for change. However, hearing different perspectives through group discourse creates multiple views of the future and allows us to challenge our own hidden assumptions and explore new meanings about what the world could be.
The second point is that imagining the future as a group effort builds a stronger community. Allowing others to voice their ideas creates buy-in for the resulting changes, even if some of the specific ideas are not used. People feel a sense of cohesion when they are listened to, which allows them to be open to new ideas and accept change more readily.
The final point is that imagining the future prompts mindfulness of the present. Envisioning the future as a changed state that aligns with one’s values brings about feelings of optimism and positivity, particularly when it inspires new options for action and change in the present. By thinking about the future as a changed state, people actually become more desirous for change in the moment. Imagining different courses of action allows us to break free from the repetition of the past and adjust our behavior moving forward.
If we apply these points to our everyday life, three key insights for action emerge. First, more generally, is that the unpredictability of life can be paralyzing or liberating. The uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds can give a sense of no control. This can engender feelings of anxiety and doubt, which constrains action. However, the core concept of Stoicism is to understand that what we can control is how we respond – that is, what we do next. Leveraging our wisdom through imagination – that cognitive space between external events (stimulus) and what we do next (our response) – is the key to liberation. By envisioning new and positive futures we will find more freedom for action in the present.
Second, and more specifically for developing novel possibilities for action, both individually and organizationally, developing positive relationships and empowering collective work is key when facing an unpredictable future. Listening to others’ perspectives offers a new lens for looking at the future by challenging our assumptions to perceive new possibilities. In our organizational life the easy button is to assume that leaders have all the answers. To do so narrows our view of what is possible and makes us less resilient in the face of change. By empowering the team to be part of the decision-making process not only allows for new possibilities for action, but it generates a more positive mindset whereby team members become resilient by becoming part of change.
And finally, using our imagination to conceive of things to come is all for naught if we do not start moving toward them. We live in the present where action is required to achieve the goals we imagine for our future. If the future is unknown, then our cognitive capacity for imagining possibilities in the future is wasted if we do not use it to live today. As Seneca (2014, p. 119) notes, “All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.”
In closing, change is necessary for a world whose reality is based on continuous movement. Thriving in this Heraclitean changeful world requires not only embracing its flow, but also taking part in its flux. To be successful we must leverage our imagination, that cognitive capacity that makes us Homo Sapiens, to both welcome and create the kind of change that is essential to the nature of our world:
What can ever come to be without change? Or what is dearer or closer to the nature of the Whole than change? Can you yourself take your bath, if the wood that heats it is not changed? Can you be fed, unless what you eat changes? Can any other of the benefits of life be achieved without change? Do you not see then that for you to be changed is equal, and equally necessary to the nature of the Whole? (7:18; Aurelius, 2006, p. 61)
- See discussions on process philosophy by Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James for a modern translation of Heraclitus’ philosophy of change. The ideas behind process metaphysics are particularly fascinating.
Aurelius, M. (2006). Meditations (M. Hammond, Trans.). Penguin Books.
Gergen, K. J. (1994). Toward transformation in social knowledge. Springer-Verlag.
Hadot, P. (1998). The inner citadel: The meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press.
Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy. Bristol Classical Press.
Long, A. A. (2001). Stoic studies. University of California Press.
James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology (Vols. I & II). Harvard University Press.
Railton, P. (2016a). Introduction. In M. E. P. Seligman, P. Railton, R. F. Baumeister, & C. Sripada (Eds.), Homo prospectus (pp. 3-32). Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo prospectus. Oxford University Press.
Seneca, L. A. (2014). Hardship and happiness (E. Fantham, H. M. Hine, J. Ker, & G. D. Williams, Trans.). The University of Chicago Press.
Sim, J. H. (2021). Making sense of the future: How generative images of change emerge from a visioning event (Order No. 28323412) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Addison-Wesley.
John Sim has been a student of Stoicism for almost 10 years. His interest in the dynamics of change and the impermanence of life led him to study organizational development and change at Fielding Graduate University where he recently earned his PhD.