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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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CYCLES
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CYCLES

The cyclical Theory of History is a doctrine that all
events occur in cycles that are more or less alike. It
has two main forms, one that posits cosmic cycles and
one that posits cycles only in human affairs. Though
the second of these concepts is logically independent
of the first, it is sometimes found in company with it.
One must also distinguish those thinkers, like Plato and
Aristotle, who believed in periodic cataclysms and
beginnings, from those, like the Stoics, who believed
in the return of identical events. The doctrine in some
of its forms is found in ancient India, in Babylonia,
and in Greece.

I. COSMIC CYCLES

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


622

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


623

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-
osis
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
examined.

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


624

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.

II. CYCLES IN HUMAN AFFAIRS

1. Plato. That the cosmos itself goes through a series
of changes is clearly stated by Plato in the Statesman
(269D). During one period, he says, God accompanies
the course of the world but “when the periods have
run the measure of time allotted to it by him, he leaves
it, and automatically it moves in the opposite direction,
for it is a living creature endowed with thought by
him who constituted it in the beginning.” As in the
Timaeus, God organized the world; He did not create
it. Its history has two periods, one in which God is
its guide and one in which it changes its course and
moves under its own power. The reason for the reversal
is its corporeal nature. Only the incorporeal has the
power of remaining unchanged. Hence when the world
is left to itself, it can only reverse its direction and
this happens “through myriads of times.” The change
of direction entails a “very great destruction of all
animals,” and only a few humans are left alive. After
this, history is just the reverse of what we are used to.
The living grow younger and finally disappear and a
new race is born of the earth. All this is related by
Plato in the form of a myth, but it was a myth more
or less harmonious with Greek folklore, and the birth
of the postdiluvian race from stones. The occurrence
of catastrophes in the past which annihilated almost
all life was not an uncommon belief. One finds a similar


625

story in Ovid's account of the Deluge in his Metamor-
phoses
(Book I).

Plato's account of such catastrophes is given in
Timaeus (22C) where he tells the story of Solon's
meeting with an Egyptian priest who says: “There have
been and will be many and diverse destructions of men.
The greatest by fire and water, and the lesser by thou-
sands of other means.” When a flood occurs, only those
who live on mountain tops are saved, but those who
live in cities are borne into the sea by the rushing
waters. Happily Egypt is preserved for it has no high
mountains from which torrents can descend; its waters
well up from below. But in other parts of the world
the celestial waters pour down and drown all but the
“illiterate and uncultured,” who naturally have no
memory of what has transpired in ancient times. That
is why the Greeks speak of one flood, whereas there
have been several. A similar account of cataclysms is
given in Critias (111B) and in The Laws (677). The
latter version also includes the story of man's progress
after the Deluge. The main difference between this
version and that given in the Statesman is that the race
whose history begins the new period is not earth-born
but descends from those few shepherds who lived on
the hills.

The details of these stories are fanciful but it is likely
that the principal fact of multiple cataclysms was taken
seriously by Plato. For he had no conception of the
“infinite perfectibility of mankind,” such as was enter-
tained by Condorcet and others in the eighteenth cen-
tury. He knew that any change this side of Heaven
must come to an end. But since there was no logically
deducible end for human affairs, and since they could
not continue unchanged forever, the best way to ex-
plain their cessation was by a conflagration, a deluge,
or a plague. Such catastrophes could in turn be ex-
plained by a myth and that myth we have seen in our
previous reference to the Statesman. Put in its barest
terms, Plato's view is that all history is advance and
retrogression. These occur in cycles. But only the most
prominent features of them are repeated, not the de-
tails; and, if we are to believe Solon's Egyptian priest,
the calamity varies in its severity, Egypt being specially
favored. It is clear that none of this anticipates the
notion of the Great Year.

2. Aristotle. The general idea of cyclical history is
repeated by Aristotle, but only in passing, as if it was
so generally accepted that it needed no support. He
flatly says in the Metaphysics (1074b. 11) that the arts
and sciences have been lost and regained many times;
in the Politics (1264a. 1) that all ideas of any value
have already been discovered and tried; and in De caelo
(270b. 19) that the same doctrines have been discovered
innumerable times. But he gives no account of how
and why men lost their acquired knowledge, no story
of cataclysmic destruction of races or nations. Nor does
he attempt to connect the periodic recurrence of ideas
with any set of cosmic cycles. In the Meteorologica
(352a. 32) he does mention Deucalion's Deluge, but
limits its extent to the Greek world, though later
(352b-353a) he speaks of geological changes as occur-
ring at all times, but not in identical cycles. In the
Politics (1269a. 3) he accepts the theory of cataclysms
as possibly true and that of primitive men as either
born of the earth or survivors from some catastrophe.
In the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata (910a. 35) the
Deluge is again mentioned. Aristotle apparently dealt
with periodic catastrophes in his lost work On Philoso-
phy
(frag. 8) in which he also described the rebirth
of civilization after the Deluge. But none of this is
precise and we have no speculations about the length
of cycles nor about the similarities of their details.
Aristotle's works do, however, show how widely ac-
cepted was the idea of periodic cataclysms and the
periodic rediscovery of the arts and sciences.

Aristotle is also responsible for the idea (which was
to be developed by Polybius) of the degeneration of
forms of government. There are, he says in his Politics
(Book III, Ch. 7, 1279a. 23ff., and 1279b. 1ff.), three
kinds of good government: the rule of one man, Mon-
archy; of a few, Aristocracy; and of many, Consti-
tutional Democracy. Corresponding to these are three
forms of bad government; tyranny, which is govern-
ment in the interest of the ruler; oligarchy, in the
interest of the rich; democracy, in the interest of the
needy. But he is careful to point out that the number
of people in the governing body is not so important
as wealth. Government by the rich is an oligarchy even
if the rich are numerous; government by the poor is
a democracy even if the poor are few. So far nothing
has been said about historical changes in governmental
forms. But later (1286b. 7) he points out that the first
governments were monarchical. They degenerated into
oligarchies, then into tyrannies, and finally into de-
mocracies. But Aristotle does not say that monarchies
will arise anew out of democracies. The process is not
eternal, though one suspects that after a flood or con-
flagration the kind of government that will arise will
again be monarchical.

3. Polybius. The Aristotelian formula was taken up
by Polybius (ca. 204-122 B.C.). For him, as he says in
his History (Book VI, 3), there are six kinds of govern-
ment, as in Aristotle, but they occur in a definite series.
By a natural growth monarchy comes first and turns
into “kingship” by the aid of art and the correction
of defects. Both are government by one man. Monarchy
inevitably turns into tyranny against which aristocracy
is organized. Aristocracy in turn degenerates into oli-


626

garchy. Revulsion against oligarchy produces democ-
racy which in its turn becomes mob-rule. All this pro-
ceeds as by a natural law.

Governments, says Polybius, are instituted after the
human race has been destroyed by floods and famines,
“as tradition tells us has more than once happened and
as we must believe will often happen again, all arts
and crafts perishing at the same time.” Then the survi-
vors herd together because of their weakness. The
strongest and most courageous rules over the others
and thus monarchy arises. Primitive monarchy is the
rule of force. But once order is established, notions of
goodness, justice, evil, and injustice arise because of
the conduct of ungrateful children “and others.” There
thus is formed an idea of duty and a benefactor wins
gratitude and respect.

At that point the monarch is obeyed because of his
administration of justice and then reason replaces force.
The people trust in the descendants of their kings from
the conviction that their qualities are inherited. But
the heirs yield to their appetites, even wearing special
clothes, and live so that their conduct gives rise to envy
and offense, hatred and resentment. At this point tyr-
anny takes over. The noblest members of the commu-
nity, however, being unable to tolerate tyranny, con-
spire to overthrow the government, succeed, and
establish an aristocracy. Unfortunately the children of
the best may be bad. They give in to love of money,
to lust, to pleasures of all sorts; and aristocracy becomes
oligarchy. Oligarchy then becomes intolerable and
turns into democracy; and, for the same reason that
kings become tyrants, aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats
become mob-leaders.

Thus Polybius anticipates Lord Acton's dictum that
power corrupts. But to Polybius' way of thinking the
cycle is established by natural law: it is the course
appointed by nature in which constitutions, states, the
arts change, disappear, and finally return to the point
from which they started. Polybius is so convinced of
this position that he says it may be used as a basis for
prophecy. The only remedy is a mixed constitution.
He found one, he thought, in Rome, where the Consuls
were monarchs, the Senators aristocrats, the Many
democrats. Nevertheless the course of history was one
of constant decay.

4. The Italian Renaissance. Reflections upon the
course of human events were reoriented during the
Middle Ages when the moral behavior of states was
of more importance than natural law. But early in the
Renaissance the ideas of Polybius were revived. Before
Polybius was translated from Greek to Latin and
printed in 1473, we find in Giovanni Villani's Chronicle
of Florence
the cyclic pattern emphasized. Whether
Villani (ca. 1275-1348) could have read Polybius in
Greek is doubtful since the Greek manuscripts came
later to Italy. Villani's cycle depends on the supposed
psychological fact that success engenders pride, pride
sin, and sin brings on decline.

It was Machiavelli who carried on the tradition of
Polybius. In his Discourses (Book I, Ch. ii) he argues
that the mixed form of government is the best and that
it was found in Rome. He bases his argument on the
same points as those made by Polybius. Also Francesco
Guicciardini in his Ricordi argues that the future re-
peats the past and that only the names of things change.
But the history of this particular idea, which is one
of the bases for the program of mixed constitutions
belongs elsewhere We shall here merely point to its
outcome in the Constitution of the United States.

III. TWENTIETH-CENTURY
DEVELOPMENTS

Only two influential theories of cycles need be cited
as representative of twentieth-century thinking on this
problem, the theories of Oswald Spengler and those
of Arnold Toynbee.

According to Spengler, and Toynbee as well, human
history must be divided longitudinally into the biogra-
phies of civilizations, cultures, nations. These historical
items are to be considered under the metaphor of a
living organism which is born, matures, and dies. In
Spengler's view, as given in his Decline of the West
(German 1918; English 1926-28), people begin in a
creative state of mind, which he calls “Faustian”—very
similar to what Nietzsche had called in his Birth of
Tragedy
“Dionysian,” where music and the dance,
where the dramatic and the lyrical, are the dominant
features of life. This period he calls that of a culture.
But as a culture develops, it inevitably gives way to
rationality, and the Apollonian attitude, where the
geometric, the static, the formal predominate. When
such features reach their height, there is no longer a
culture, there is only a civilization. As a result the
people's creative spirit dies. The Decline of the West
is the story of how this has happened in the Occident.
The same story has been repeated and presumably will
be repeated again in the Orient. Thus the cycle of
culture-civilization-death-culture goes on forever.

Toynbee is a bit less discouraging. For to his way
of thinking there have been twenty-six nations or civi-
lizations so far in world history. All have undergone
the same stimuli, known as challenges. To these chal-
lenges they have responded in various ways and the
ways are what we call their histories. So far none has
succeeded in successfully meeting the challenges which
have been put to them. But there is always the possi-
bility that some civilization will succeed in doing so.
The latter half of the twentieth century will see how


627

successfully occidental civilization can meet the chal-
lenge which has confronted it. Just what this challenge
is, is far from clear, unless it is the challenge that
communism has put up to capitalism. But since capi-
talistic countries have absorbed certain socialistic de-
vices and communistic countries have either retained
or introduced capitalistic devices, there must be some
other explanation that Toynbee has in mind. What
recurs eternally in both Spengler and Toynbee is the
general pattern of history, not the individual events.
There have been and probably will continue to be
international wars, for instance, but no given war will
be repeated. The problem that such historians have
to face is how to use their classifications, how much
similarity they will demand of those events to which
they give the same name. In one sense of the word,
every time a person is born there is a repetition of
a set of events. But what is born, beyond that which
is named by the noun “person,” is individual and
different from every other member of his class. This
problem is one that few historians have been willing
to face, for it carries one off into the regions of meta-
physics.

Related to the doctrine of historical cycles is that
based on the metaphor of the swinging pendulum,
according to which an historical movement will reach
an extreme and then turn back until it reaches an
opposite extreme. Thus radicalism and conservatism in
politics, romanticism and classicism in art, skepticism
and authoritarianism in religion, have all been said to
occur in this manner. But the extremes have never been
clearly defined except possibly by Hegel, whose histor-
ical theory is discussed elsewhere.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

For Empedocles and Heraclitus, see John Burnet, Early
Greek Philosophy,
4th ed. (London, 1945); cf. A. O. Lovejoy
and G. Boas, Primitivism... in Antiquity (Baltimore, 1935),
pp. 79ff. For Pagan testimony to the Stoic doctrine of cycles
and the ekpyrosis, Cicero, Academics, II. 37, 119; idem, De
natura deorum,
II. 46, 118, trans. H. Rackham (London and
Cambridge, Mass., 1933), pp. 621 and 635 respectively;
Seneca, Consolatione ad Marciam, XXVI. 5 to end; idem,
Consolatione ad Polybium, I. 2, in Moral Essays, trans. John
W. Basore (London and Cambridge, Mass., 1935), II. 95,
357; Plutarch, The E at Delphi, 388 F, in Moralia, trans.
Frank Cole Babbitt (London and Cambridge, Mass., 1936),
V. 221f.; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VII. 19; XI. 1. For
the “reverse in cosmic history,” see Plato, Statesman, 269D;
for conflagrations and floods, Timaeus, 22B; for cataclysms,
Critias, 110A, Laws, 677. For historical repetition in Aris-
totle, works as indicated in the text above; for political
cycles, Politics, III, 7 (1279a. 23ff. and 1286b. 7). For the
same in Polybius, see History, Book VI. 3 and 5. For political
cycles in the Italian Renaissance, see Louis Green, “Histori
cal Interpretation in Fourteenth-Century Florentine
Chronicles,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 28, 2 (April-
June, 1967), 161-78; Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Ch.
ii; Guicciardini, Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance
Statesman
(Ricordi), trans. Mario Domandi (New York,
1965), pp. 60, 89. For comment on cycles in early Christian
writers: Justin Martyr, Apology, I. 20, trans. Marcus Dods,
George Heath, and B. P. Bratten (Edinburgh, 1872); Origen,
De principiis, Book II. Chs. 3, 5 from Patrologia Graeca,
Vol. XI, col. 192, trans. Frederick Crombie (Edinburgh,
1871) p. 84; idem, Contra Celsum, Book V. Ch. 20, from
Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XI, cols. 1213, 1216, trans. Alexander
Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh, 1872). F. W.
Nietzsche, Complete Works, ed. Oscar Levy, 18 vols. (Lon-
don, 1909-13), 16, nos. 237-47; Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche, trans.
Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz (Tuscon, 1965),
pp. 352ff.

GEORGE BOAS

[See also Analogy in Early Greek Thought; Christianity in
History; Historiography; Periodization in History; Primitiv-
ism;
Renaissance Literature and Historiography.]