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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The notion of the rhythmical recurrence of cosmic
events may well have developed out of the charac-
teristics of the solar year, the periodicity of the lunar
phases, the round of the seasons in regular order, the
life cycle of the individual human being. That the idea
of birth, maturation, senility, and death followed by
rebirth interested the ancients is shown by the many
myths and rites in which this series of events is figured.
We no longer possess the documents which might have
provided the evidence on which the concept was based,
assuming that such documents ever existed, but there
are certain hints from early intellectual history which
suggest an answer. The observation of astronomical
rhythms goes back to Babylonian times; the Pythagor-
eans as early as the sixth century B.C. had speculated
on numerical repetitions such as are found in decimal


fractions; in India various theories about ages, pe-
riods, recurrences were elaborated; and the early Greek
philosophers in general were given to mentioning
cyclical changes in the transmutations of the four ele-
ments: earth, water, air, and fire. In many of the think-
ers who believed in cosmic cycles one also finds traces
or definite assertions of the transmigration of souls.

1. India. In India the doctrine appears in the form
of the four yugas, or ages, which make up the
mahâyuga (Great Year), a period lasting for 4,320,000
solar years. Each of the yugas differs from its prede-
cessor much as the Ages of Hesiod did, in that wicked-
ness and general evil grow greater. The last yuga in
the series is our own, and will come to an end with
a great conflagration followed by a deluge. Between
each two ages there is a twilight and a dawn lasting
for one tenth of the duration of the preceding or fol-
lowing age. By the time the fourth age, the Kaliyuga,
has come to an end, the world is made ready for the
beginning of a new Great Year. But Indian imagination
was such that the Great Years themselves were orga-
nized into groups of a thousand, called kalpas, a con-
cept which was introduced at the time of the Emperor
Asoka, in the third century B.C. It should be observed
that the yugas varied in length: the first, the Satyayuga,
corresponding to the Golden Age in Greek mythology,
was the longest; the Kaliyuga, which began on 18
February 3102 B.C. will be the shortest. It is interesting
that the four yugas have some of the characteristics
of the human life-cycle in that the capacity for com-
mitting evils enters after childhood and increases until
old age.

2. Greece and Rome. In Greece a distinction must
be made between those philosophers who believed in
cycles and those who believed that each cycle repeated
the characteristics of its predecessor, or what was
called by Friedrich Nietzsche the Eternal Recurrence.
Among the latter was Empedocles (fifth century B.C.),
but even he, as far as the evidence goes, did not say
that every event was endlessly repeated. Yet Empedo-
cles did assert that the general course of each cycle
was repeated in its successor and he also seemed to
believe in the transmigration of souls. The course of
cosmic history ran from a period when the force of
Love was in command, a time very like the Golden
Age or the Age of Kronos. This was followed by the
entrance of Strife upon the scene, to be followed in
turn by the predominance of Strife, apparently the
worst of times. But when Strife was uppermost it began
to give way again to Love, and finally Love returned
to take over the management of the universe. The
rhythm was endless.

None of the Greek philosophers believed that the
cosmos had a beginning in time; that idea entered the
Western world with Judaism and Christianity. In
contrast to the mythographers, the philosophers all
believed the world to be everlasting, though the pres-
ent condition of the world might come to an end. Even
Plato in his Timaeus, which was later used as a creation
myth, held that the matter out of which the world was
made was everlasting, and for him the work of creation
was the forming of this preexisting matter into a cos-
mos. If then the world was endless in its duration, there
were either no changes in it at all, or the changes must
have occurred in random or orderly fashion. The Greek
philosophers, like their modern successors, were un-
willing to accept a chaotic world and indeed some
changes were so obvious that they could hardly escape
the notice of a normal man. Among such were the
familiar examples of birth and death, the apparent
disappearance of matter when it is burned or dissolved
in water, the freezing and melting of liquids and solids,
sickness, growth, decay, the processes of digestion, and
the chemical changes involved in metallurgy. It was
one of the intellectual achievements of the early Greek
philosophers to attribute all such changes to various
phases of one or more of what were later to be called
the “elements.”

By the time of Heraclitus (early fifth century B.C.)
three and possibly four of the elements were already
distinguished: fire, air, and water. This might seem to
be a great reduction in itself of complexity to simplic-
ity, but Heraclitus went further. We find him saying
in one of his fragments, “Fire lives the death of air,
and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death
of earth, earth that of water.” There are justifiable
grounds for doubts about the authenticity of the details
in this series of changes, but that the author believed
in a general pattern of elemental transmutations is
clear. This pattern becomes even clearer in Aristotle
and the changes occur in definitely described manners.
Fire changes to air by losing its heat and earth changes
to water by losing its dryness. But Aristotle does not
say that at one time the cosmos was entirely composed
of one of the four elements and then produced the
others step by step, after which they all eventually
returned to their primitive material unity. The changes
occur as the sun moves along the ecliptic and to that
extent there is a cosmic cycle in Aristotle's thinking.
Each year brings about the same series of elemental
changes but the whole never changes as a unit.

The Stoics are responsible for the clearest theory
of cosmic cycles, though they attributed the source of
the idea to Heraclitus. According to Stoicism there
would occur at a given time a general conflagration,
the ekpyrosis, after which the world would begin again
as it was in the distant past. The cycle as a whole was
called by Cicero the Great Year (Annus Magnus). Its


length was variously calculated, now being 18,000 solar
years, now 10,800. But that it was the year of all years
is clear enough. What was desired was the length of
time which it would take for the heavenly bodies to
return to the position that they had held at a defined
time, thought of as a beginning.

One of the founders of Stoicism, Cleanthes (early
third Century B.C.), is said to have described the ekpyr-
as a process of death and growth. The fire burns
up all things but is followed by a period of moisture
in which the “seeds” of everything remain. These seeds
begin to grow again at the proper time and eventually
the cosmos is restored to what it was. The seeds in
question were called the spermatic logoi or perhaps
“principles,” (for only a vague word can name them),
which are material but probably as everlasting as fire
itself. Mysterious as the doctrine is, the world turns
out to be self-destructive and self-regenerative, like the
phoenix which may indeed be a symbol of the process.

According to Cicero one of the later Stoics, Panae-
tius (second century B.C.), did not accept the doctrine
of the ekpyrosis. But in spite of Cicero's well-known
admiration for Panaetius, he himself did accept it. He
describes it in his treatise On the Nature of the Gods
(Book II, 46): “There will ultimately occur a conflagra-
tion of the whole world, because when the moisture
has been used up neither can the earth be nourished
nor will the air continue to flow, being unable to rise
after it has drunk up all the water; thus nothing will
remain but fire, by which, as a living being and a god,
once again a new world may be created and the or-
dered universe restored as before.” The process is based
on sensory observation. Moisture, i.e., water, is dried
up by fire; the air, which normally is found between
the level of fire and that of water, is exhausted by the
combustion, and thus fire alone is left. What happens
to earth is not revealed. But by the time of Cicero
Greek science was either the collection of data, such
as are found in Pliny and Seneca, or it had turned to
mathematics, astronomy, and geography. One finds
little scientific clarity in the philosophers.

The other pagan witnesses to the Stoic belief in the
ekpyrosis and the renewal of the world are Seneca,
Diogenes Laërtius, and Plutarch. But they add little
in the way of detail, and for the most part we are
forced to rely on Christian writers who referred to the
process in order to combat the ideas on which it was
based or its supposed implications. It is they who tell
us that the details of a given age will be repeated
identically in later ages. Tatian (second century A.D.),
for instance, in his Adversus Graecos says, “Zeno [the
founder of Stoicism] has shown that after the ekpyrosis
... men will be resurrected as they were. And I say
that this must imply that Anytus and Meletus will again
bring their accusation [against Socrates] and Busiris
slay the Strangers, and Hercules perform his labors.”
It is Tatian clearly who draws this inference, though
Eudemus, a pupil of Aristotle, had attributed the same
belief to “the Pythagoreans.” In fact the accusation
and trial of Socrates became a favorite example of what
the eternal recurrence involved.

Yet Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue also plays on the
theme and mentions specific events and individuals that
will reappear in the new age which is to come. In our
own time Shelley in the final chorus of his dramatic
poem, Hellas, imitated Vergil, verbally in places; and
a less important literary figure, George Moore, the Irish
novelist, in his story “Resurgam,” depicts the destruc-
tion of the world and its restoration in some detail.

3. The Christian Fathers. There were two basic
reasons why the Christian apologists tried to refute the
doctrine of cosmic cycles. First, it seemed to contradict
the essential Christian dogma of free will, for if every-
thing recurs in the same manner ad indefinitum and
if the same identical persons commit the same deeds,
then all choice is eliminated. This was the position of
Origen. Since his statement in De principiis is clear,
it may be well to quote it in full.

The disciples of Pythagoras, and of Plato, although they
appear to hold the incorruptibility of the world, yet fall
into similar errors. For as the planets, after certain definite
cycles, assume the same relations to one another, all things
on earth will, they assert, be like what they were at the
time when the same state of planetary relations existed in
the world. From this point of view it necessarily follows
that when, after the lapse of a lengthened cycle, the planets
come to occupy towards each other the same relations
which they occupied in the time of Socrates, Socrates will
again be born of the same parents, suffer the same treat-
ment, being accused by Anytus and Meletus, and con-
demned by the Council of the Areopagus.... We who
maintain that all things are administered by God in propor-
tion to the relation of free will of each individual, and are
ever being brought into better condition, so far as they
admit of being so, and who know that the nature of our
free will admits of the occurrence of contingent events...
yet we, it appears, say nothing worthy of being tested and

But, he goes on to say, we do believe in the resurrection
of the body. In view of Origen's mistaken idea of
Plato's views, it is probable that he did not understand
what the Stoics said either, and we quote his words
not as testimony to what any Platonist, Stoic, or
Pythagorean actually said, but as testimony to current
opinion among the Fathers.

One of the difficulties that the Church Fathers faced
is the verse in Ecclesiastes which says that there is
nothing new under the sun. Where Stoicism was held


to imply the recurrence of individuals, this verse was
interpreted as implying only the steady occurrence of
the same kinds of things. Saint Augustine in his City
of God
(Book XII, Ch. 13) takes this up and replies
that it does not imply the total recurrence of the past,
but speaks simply of the course of generations, solar
phenomena, floods—in short, of the coming into being
and the passing away of kinds of things. It does not
mean, he says, that the philosopher Plato, who in a
certain century in Athens in a school called the Acad-
emy, formed of his pupils, must reappear in the future
during an infinity of centuries in the same city, in the
same school, before the same public, and teach the
same lessons. For otherwise, and this is the second
objection that the Christian apologists had to the doc-
trine of cosmic cycles, it would mean that Christ would
have to be born again, crucified again, resurrected
again. And this thought is repugnant to Saint Augus-
tine. He knows that Christ died once for our sins and
furthermore that His resurrection has freed mankind
from death forever. The world will last for six thousand
years and then be destroyed, but its destruction will
not be followed by its resurgence.

The doctrine of cosmic cycles plus that of the eternal
recurrence was dropped by Christian writers, though
their continued exposition of it and arguments against
it must imply that it had a certain popularity among
the laity. It was revived again by Friedrich Nietzsche
in the nineteenth century, but his arguments in support
of the idea were different from those of the Stoics, as
far as we have the latter. The idea seems to have come
to him while resting after a walk from Sils-Maria to
Silvaplana. He thought that since there is no end to
time, and presumably only a finite number of possible
events and things, everything now existing must recur.
The obvious basis of this argument is that any calcula-
ble probability must happen in infinite time. Nietzsche
took the reasoning seriously and contemplated writing
a book (for which only notes remain) to be called The
Eternal Recurrence.
In Thus Spake Zarathustra (par.
270-71) we find the Superman saying:

The plexus of causes returneth in which I am intertwined,—
it will again create me! I myself pertain to the causes of
the eternal return.

I will come again with this sun, with this earth, with
this eagle, with this serpent—not to a new life, or a better
life, or a similar life: I come again eternally to this identical
and selfsame life, in its greatest and its smallest, to teach
again the eternal return of all things,—to speak again the
word of the great noontide of earth and man, to announce
again to man the Superman.

In the notes for The Eternal Recurrence he extends
the reasoning to this end. The extent of universal en-
ergy, he says, is finite. Since all events are the result
of changes based on the expenditure of energy, the
number of kinds of things is finite. Since the duration
of time is infinite, has already lasted for an infinite
series of moments and will continue to exist for another
infinite series of moments, all possibilities must have
been already realized and the future will inevitably
repeat the past. It is perhaps unnecessary to point out
that at most this argument would imply the recurrence
of kinds of things, something that every man has ob-
served in his daily life. This is very different from the
recurrence of identical individuals. But Nietzsche had
been a professor of classical philology and, though he
may have forgotten his Stoic forebears, he was repeat-
ing their conclusions if not their reasoning.

The importance of the argument for him was its
supposed ethical implications. To accept to the full the
eternal recurrence meant for him to live “beyond good
and evil.” Good and evil could be relevant within the
context of a given cycle, but had no transcendent
importance. Believers in Judaism and Christianity,
however, had grown up in the belief that good and
evil were standards laid down by God eternally, not
for now and here. And since Nietzsche above all
wanted to liberate his reader from what he called the
slave-morality of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he per-
ceived an escape in this idea of eternal recurrence.