The content of October’s backpack is nothing new. But instead of experiencing disappointment when we recognize its familiarity, we October philosophers find ourselves unapologetically rejuvenated by its steadfastness. October’s philosophy simply has to be found in a bat bag, and it must be about cycles and change — and the World Series, of course.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that along with October’s theme, we find the ancient pre-Socratic, Greek philosopher Heraclitus, standing in a river between first and second base, discussing change as the only constant in this month’s backpack. Chatting up his concept of the eternal recurrence, probably standing on the third base line, is the controversial philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Thrown into the mix is the baseball writer A. Bartlett Giamatti and his essay, “Baseball as Narrative,” discussing the repetition of the American Story as is preserved through our national pastime.
Using cycles as our unit of analysis, October baseball offers the perfect medium for our investigation into the human condition. The cycles of life and death, the cycles of seasonal change and, obviously, hitting for the cycle exemplify the importance of circularity and balance to our existence.
In this month’s pack, we celebrate the reliability of change as we ready ourselves for impending, yet resolute transformations, the dependability of flux and the familiarity of adjustment and revolution. The baseball field, according to Giamatti, with its “squares containing circles containing rectangles; precision in counterpoint with passion; order compressing energy,” is the intersection of time and space where we learn about what Heraclitus meant when he famously argued that “change alone is unchanging.”
He mysteriously proposed that we can’t step in the same river twice. Or, as Jonathan Barnes summarizes Heraclitus’ philosophy in the book “Early Greek Philosophy,” “All things come about in accordance with fate, and the things that exist are fitted together by the transformation of opposites. All things are full of souls and spirits.”
Giamatti tells us that baseball “believes that symmetry surrounds meaning, but even more, forces meaning. Symmetry, a version of equality, forces and sharpens competition. Symmetrical demands in a symmetrical setting encourage both passion and precision.”
This idea of continuity through opposition is reflected in Nietzsche’s philosophy when he argues that Dionysian chaos is a necessary counterpoint to balance Apollo-like harmony and order in the world.
October postseason represents this transformation and balance through opposing forces: We have the rookies and the veterans, the walk-off singles and the grand slams. We have teams with history and fans with memories; we have personal rivalries and profound camaraderie. We have records and statistics, turnaround seasons and terrible showings, heartaches and triumphs. And all the while, “things are full of souls and spirits.” There are wild beards and focused hitters, stories of strong cities and stories of legends, there is chaos and yes, there is harmony.
As Nietzsche argued that life eternally repeats itself, Giamatti, too, wrote of the necessity of baseball’s repetition. He shows within baseball, “only repetition can bring satisfaction. The game on the field is repetitious — pitch after pitch, swing after swing, player after player. ... Repetition within immutable lines and rules; baseball is counterpoint: stability vying with volatility, tradition with the quest for a new edge, ancient rhythms and ever-new blood — an oft-told tale, repeated in every game in every season, season after season.” And so frequently, in every back yard.
Competition turns to bonding, fences are crossed but windows are broken, alliances forged and friendships transformed. Baseball solves our problems, creates frustration, distracts us, welcomes us back to the play, reminds us of our history and shows us our future. It is a reliable river of constant change, stalwart in its offerings of exhilaration, tears and cycles.
Giamatti reminds us, “we have been a nation constantly moving. ... (T) he concept of home has a particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another. ... (T) he tale of leaving and seeking home is told in as many ways as one can imagine, and there still occur every season plays on the field that even the most experienced baseball people say they have never seen before. ... If baseball is a narrative, an epic of exile and return, a vast, communal poem about separation, loss and the hope for reunion — if baseball is a Romance Epic — it is finally told by the audience. It is the Romance Epic of homecoming America sings to itself.”
There is a great deal of comfort in the consistency of change and the cycle of leaving home only to return again. The way in which we travel around the bases will always surprise us, how we get there will be a balancing act of courage and humility, but the thrill of feeling at home is always worth the effort. There is constancy in the nine innings, in the cycle of the play, but each microcosm of our “great and glorious game” holds within it a Heraclitean uncertainty, a Nietzschean repetition, a world of change. We stand at home, alone and yet supported, ready to embrace the unknown.
A quality at-bat awaits, it’s time to play ball. They’re singing our song.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.