Rivers in philosophy

Philosophy author Mark Vernon traces our relationship with rivers through ancient Greek and Chinese thought to 20th-century psychoanalysts


Rivers in ancient Greek philosophy: everything is in flux

Ancient cultures tended to not imagine their rivers as geographical features, as we do today. Instead, they tended to think of them as alive, or even as gods. You can catch an echo of this way of thinking in Heraclitus’ famous remark: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Today we think of this as a paradox. But if you think about it, it make sense. You can’t step into the same river twice. Because a river is always flowing, or it ceases to be a river. The water is always changing, always on the move. The person has been changed by time too – both through physical processes (ageing) and experiences (getting his legs wet in the river). Both the river and man are altered. Heraclitus uses the river as an allegory to propose that nothing in the material cosmos is static; things are what they are because they are fluid.

Rivers as principles: exploring ancient Chinese and Egyptian thought

Other cultures came to think of rivers not as a geographical feature, which you could name and define, but as a principle, or a power or presence. The ancient Chinese called the Yellow River, “Scourge of the Sons of Han” (a scourge was a whip used to punish people). The powerful river caused frequent and devastating floods, so the people related to the river as a power that could cause harm and suffering.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t even have a name for the Nile, which was a later Greek invention. Instead, they invoked the god, Hapy, meaning flood. The river was an inundation, more like a wind or a season. Even the River Thames was named after another Egyptian deity, the mother Isis, who embodied the feeling of risky transformation. “You have your changing powers, Isis!” says one incantation.

Returning to the East – water became an essential part of Daoism (the religious and philosophical tradition that originated in China, also known as Taoism). When trying to explain Dao or Tao – the Chinese word being ‘way’ or ‘path’, used to describe the way of the universe – thinkers often used water as a metaphor. Just like the Dao, water is omnipresent, yielding and ever-transforming. It embraces all living things and is forever seeking balance and harmony.

Rivers and the divine: from Moses to the Hindu gods

Thinking of rivers as a power or energy sheds light on one strikingly common myth in which the founders of religions or new cities are found in rivers. There’s Moses cast in a basket on the Nile. The River Tiber, who saves Romulus and Remus after they’ve been exposed, carrying them to the wolf who suckles them. The old Norse god, Sigmund, floats down a river before finding nurture from a doe. Then there’s Karna, one of the warrior heroes of the Mahabharata (a Sanskrit text from ancient India). His mother, Kunti, places him in a basket on the river like Moses’ mother, Jochebed. The Hindu epic adds to the mysterious association by saying that men are like rivers, whose origin is often unknown.

Rivers and the unconscious: meet Carl Jung and the psychoanalysts

With no clear beginning, no definitive end, no fixed sides and no steady motion – rivers frightened Socrates. One of Plato’s dialogues is set beside the River Ilisus, and it allows Socrates to tell us how they disturb him. The Ilisus is home of the river god, Achelous, and the divine presence creates a seductive mood, putting you off-guard: “Feel the freshness of the air; how pretty and pleasant it is; how it echoes with the summery, sweet song of the cicadas’ chorus!” says Socrates. Only it mesmerises the talking philosophers and, as their discussion proceeds, it’s clear that the river blurs the usual sense of difference between self and other, spirit and matter, reason and love.

A similar idea was picked up by psychotherapist Carl Jung, who linked rivers to the unconscious. Like the parts of the psyche that are nascent, rivers are never fully formed. Like the parts of a personality that are unacknowledged, rivers carry hidden detritus. Like a frontier or borderline, rivers can appear in dreams symbolising boundaries that block or that the dreamer fears to cross.

Socrates’ advice is not to interpret the meaning of rivers too strongly, or demythologise their symbols. Relate to them instead. Retell their stories. Appease their spirits. Jung agreed. It is often better to think of them as powers or as gods. That way, you can avoid the mistake of believing that rivers stay in one place, as if settled like a blue line on a map. You can become conscious of the hubris of thinking you can step into a river, when in truth it’s already filled you. “Sullen, untamed and intractable” was how T.S. Eliot imagined this “strong brown god”. There’s wisdom in considering rivers divine.

If you’d like to delve more into the significance of rivers in regions and traditions, listen to Radio 4’s Rivers of Faith. Our Waterfront podcast also picks up this theme in one of our earlier podcasts: Sacred Canals.

Mary Kuper