Some Things Never Change – A Metaphysical Reflection

I’ve already written on the nature of love and caritas in Frozen and Frozen II, but now I wish to turn my attention to the least important character in the films – Olaf. You see, Olaf is there for the laughs, the unexpected punchlines, and any void of seriousness. Occasionally, though, he offers some really solid lines, the ones that matter.

“There’s your act of true love—riding across the fjords like a valiant, pungent, reindeer king.”

“I just thought of one thing that’s permanent – love.”

The reason that these lines stick is because the audience doesn’t expect them. Man, if cartoons aren’t worth analyzing, then surely Olaf isn’t. Except there is something that stands out about him. Because he maintains such a sideline position for the majority of the films, he gains a unique outsider position and a unique authority.

One specific vein of discussion that routinely arises around Olaf is the nature of change, especially around himself. In the first movie this notion is subtle, as he exposes the fact that he is entirely ignorant and naïve about change. In the end he doesn’t even face the consequences of change when Elsa preserves him with his own little snow flurry.

As he progresses into the second movie, though, it’s clear that his preservation of form, from snow flurry to a layer of permafrost, is not synonymous with a preservation of naivete. He has learned more about life (albeit not nearly enough), and is becoming aware that not everything around him gets to have the same blessing of a personal snow flurry or a layer of permafrost. He asks Anna:

“You’re older and thus all knowing. Do you ever worry about the notion that *dramatic look* nothing is permanent?”

This sparks, of course, an entire song where we get a glimpse into Anna’s fragile sense of love, the power that a sidekick character like Olaf has to cause. His question is nothing to laugh at, however. How would you answer him? If your own small child walked up to you and asked you this question, are you able to answer?

We humans are always worried about any time but the present. The future is unknown and scary and our past good times (which weren’t all that good but they seem better than what we have now) are always fleeting and have run away. Food satiates us for a short while with our hunger but then we just get hungry again. Have you ever thought about how boring it is to have to keep up with eating sometimes? That beautiful sunset that graced our eyes is all of a sudden gone again and all that lives of it is our memory. But Anna tells him this isn’t true – some things never change. Yet, from my other article we know that Anna’s understanding about what doesn’t change is clearly not reliable. So is Olaf right? Does everything change?

Funnily enough, this is a philosophical question that people have been thinking about since the time of the Greeks. Our first point of reference is Parmenides. Parmenides was an ancient Greek philosopher who proposed something quite wildly opposite to Olaf – he said that nothing changes! He said that everything that we perceive to actually be changing is just an illusion caused by our mind.

How? Essentially he thought through the following.

  1. Things either exist or they don’t.
  2. Being is that which exists, and Non-being is that which does not exist.
  3. If Being is going to change, then it has to be caused from outside that Being.
  4. The only thing outside of Being is Non-Being.
  5. Non-Being cannot cause anything.
  6. There is nothing to cause change in Being,

Therefore:

change does not exist.

 

This is quite the proposal. It assumes that everything we experience as change is just an illusion and experience of the mind. It is a bit radical, and Aristotle thought so as well. To claim that there is only Existence and Non-Existence without any sort of nuance is a lot to propose.

Aristotle took a look at this work and argued that there is a little more that happens in the span between Being and Non-Being. Rather than start with the premise that things either exist or don’t exist, Aristotle suggests that in every thing that changes there is a bit of existence and a bit of existence that could happen, which is a bit like non-being except that the potential for something to happen is something that actually exists, albeit not physically. He calls that which exists in a thing act or actuality, and that which could exist potency or potentiality. Change, Aristotle says, is the reduction, or realization, of potency into act.

If you have some rubber, it can be nice. But if you had a rubber ball…well that’s just a lot nicer. You see, the potency of a rubber ball exists within rubber, as it is a potential reality for that rubber, but it won’t exist unless some other thing reduces that potency into act. Aristotle allows that another being (i.e. a person) has the ability to do this, the only two options for reality not being Being and Non-Being (like what Parmenides thought). So, therefore, we can define change as change exists – as reducing potency to act. That is what happens all around us all of the time.

Now, does everything reduce from potency to act? That might be a bit of a tall claim. In fact, Aristotle does not think that everything undergoes change. You see, if you think about some change, like a person making rubber into a rubber ball, you can see that one change is always dependent on some other change. That change needs be complete, though, in its own way. That is, the act, and not potency, of something else is what is needed to effect change. The potency for a person to shape a rubber ball is not what causes the change, but the act of a person shaping. So the reduction of rubber’s potency for a ball to the act of a ball is done by something else in act. But the act of a person’s hand shaping the ball is only possible because that reduction of act to potency was caused by something else that was in act, namely the movement of muscle. And that was supported by a change in neurons, and that was supported by a change in chemicals, and that was supported by active molecular bonding. And that was…

This can go on forever. Or can it? Now we get to the root of answering Olaf’s query. Is nothing permanent? Aristotle and later philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, argue that something has to be permanent. In a single slice of time, the shaping of a ball is supported by an incredibly large number of changes that happen in a supporting fashion. Aristotle and Aquinas argue that underneath all of these changes there must be something in act that does not require a reduction out of potency like everything else. There must be something that actively sustains everything else which is self-supportive. Think here of a philosophical or metaphysical bedrock on which everything else is supported.

This one metaphysically necessary thing, this one permanent thing, is not some passive agent, either. It is actively involved in the support of everything that changes in the Universe. If something changes, it first must be sourced in this thing that is not changing. It cannot get it’s change from nothingness, as Parmenides had to have some idea about truth, it has to get change from something else that exists positively. This permanent thing is what Aristotle refers to as the Unmoved Mover. In Aristotelian language ‘move’ is another word for change. We could rephrase the term as the Unchanged Changer.

Now if you’re as pagan as Aristotle, or if you just leave the argument there, then this may feel insignificant. So what if there’s an Unmoved Mover? Looks like it will keep supporting you so that’s fine. Moving along. But if you keep reading around the tradition of philosophy that surround the Unmoved Mover, you will see that it doesn’t just stop there. This Unmoved Mover has quite a few other traits that can be surmised from other philosophical arguments. Aquinas says that the Unmoved Mover is that which we call ‘God.’

Again, Olaf tells Anna:

“I just thought of one thing that’s permanent – love.”

There is a necessary priority about the existence of things. The Unmoved Mover, the Universe’s metaphysical bedrock, has to exist prior to everything else. We don’t exist first and demand that the Unmoved Mover keeps up with us; no, the Unmoved Mover exists and therefore we exist dependently on it. But if the Unmoved Mover can subsist all by itself, why should we exist at all? We aren’t necessary the way that the Unmoved Mover is. Whence comes our purpose for existing?

The answer is that there is a part of volition, or willpower, on the part of the Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover desires that we exist, and therefore it is possible for us to exist and makes choices. The second that the Unmoved Mover removes the will for us to exist, then *poof* we’re done. We don’t hold the metaphysical power here, the Unmoved Mover does. What Olaf points to, and what none of the characters perhaps realize, is that they have hinted at caritas, as you may remember from my last article. Caritas is love, specifically a love that wills the good of the other for no other reason than that they fulfill their good. Our existence is good, and our existence is literally willed by the Unmoved Mover, for no other sake than the fact that our existence is a good thing. In short? The Unmoved Mover, or God, if you will, wills our good for own sake. He loves us.

 

Thanks Olaf!

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