Cyclic Time and Progress
The esoteric aspect of time, and the law of metaphysical entropy contained in it, is the subject of this study, which has the aim of exploring a radical alternative to what is popularly believed about the meaning of history. The psychological conditions for such an alternative have been provided by the steady decline of a once-universal belief that almost everything was subject to a law of inevitable progress, in the moral realm as much as in the material. This idea tends increasingly to be the doctrine of minority groups with an interest in forcing changes on the public which are mainly for the benefit of their instigators, along with many forms of standardization and encroachment against nature. Belief in progress involves a special evaluation of historical time which has come to seem ever less assured in the wake of a series of geopolitical catastrophes, including the two world wars, the advent of nuclear war, and the overcrowding of the earth. The very technical advances which once supported a belief in progress now show tendencies which can do the opposite.
But no matter how doubtful the progressive view of history may have become, it still seems to many to be the only theory of history which is workable at all, and to be without credible alternatives. Even a bad theory is better than none. Since time is the most fundamental and universal condition of life, one which affects it more intimately than any other, there must be an overall conception of the nature of historical time if the meaning of life is to be understood. Without it, there would be no way of evaluating the results of historical trends, so that good and bad, great and trivial, would be brought down to the same level. Such is the state of confusion toward which present-day opinion is in fact tending, and the waning of the idea of progress has left an ideological vacuum which no rival theory has yet begun to fill. As the once-credible theory becomes beset by its own contradictions, some react by simply making it a political dogma which can be relied on to have popular appeal, but this is to ignore the fundamental problem. If we can assume that world conditions will remain opposed to a revival of this theory, it will be worthwhile to rediscover the conception of time out of which the modern one grew, the one which was typical of times when mankind saw itself as largely unable to control its own fate by material means.
Was there in fact only one premodern conception of time? And if in Europe it was a part of religious orthodoxy, was it something peculiar to Christianity, or was it really something older still, which was adapted to the doctrines of later times? To answer these questions, a significant point of departure is the fact that the Bible is arranged in the form of a world history. This sacred history embodies something essential to the premodern ideas of time, and it is one which was abandoned in the face of what was felt to be overwhelming evidence against it in the form of scientific advances. Not only is the traditional time-scale limited to a few thousand years, but it offers no scope for the idea of material progress, firstly because it is tied to the idea that the beginning and the end of the world are both supernatural events, between which the consequences of the Fall continue alongside salvation history, as if in another dimension. The biblical message is firstly a history of the increasingly complete revelation of God, but the Bible nevertheless shows this against an ever-darkening background, as mankind as a whole descends from an original perfection to depths of confusion and corruption which end with the Apocalypse. After this, a new world was said to begin, though the world-drama is one which is conceived as beginning and ending in eternity, and to this extent it could be called a cycle.
Such is the conception of historical time which is now felt to belong to ages of relative ignorance, partly because the eternal and the supernatural are so often taken to be merely means of filling gaps in one’s knowledge of nature. But now that belief in progress is losing conviction, it should be possible to reconsider the merits of ancient and medieval ideas without too much conflict with prejudice. Modern research discovers natural explanations for almost everything except the modern world itself, because such explanations, even if they were forthcoming, would be too much on the same level as the thing explained to be of any use. Real explanation can only come by means of a method which gets conceptually outside the modern world, along with all particular eras, and the special merit of traditional ideas is that they do this very thing.
The biblical chronology can be shown to contain more specifically cyclic elements than the general idea referred to above, and this will be examined in a later chapter, along with its implications for the way in which we need to understand the Jewish and Christian traditions. A further general indication for the present is the fact that, in Greek, the word aion can mean either ‘world’ or ‘age’ equally, so as to form a dilemma for New Testament translations. The Hebrew word olam has the same double meaning, showing how far ancient thought was steeped in the idea of successive worlds.
The Need for a Theory of Time
However, a proposed recovery of premodern ideas of time may be mistaken for a rationalization for a reactionary and negative outlook, which is typically the distortion made by those who reject the cyclic idea, ignoring the fact that the great achievements of the ancient civilizations were by no means spoiled or diminished by it. On the contrary, the element of pessimism in the ancient world-view acted so as to filter out false expectations and deceptive values, whereas the optimism of modern times allows anything to win influence and acceptance merely by being the latest thing to be produced. This belief that the new must be the best nearly always works in favor of the bad. Just as a frank acceptance of the fact that one’s own body is subject to degenerative changes is the rational basis on which one can resort to the relevant measures of exercise and diet which can minimize the effects of such things, so the health of a civilization depends on a frank understanding of its degenerative processes. It is obvious enough that to refuse to contemplate such facts where they concern one’s own health is simply neurotic, and tends in any case to allow maximum scope for the very evils which are not faced, but not everyone sees the danger in the equally neurotic reaction in regard to the health of a civilization, although the parallel is a close one. Besides this kind of reaction, there is another, which stems from the perception that a non-progressive theory of world history at this present time must reflect on the competence, or even the legitimacy, of those in positions of power and authority. This was not the case before the idea of progress was made current, of course, but since it has become so, it confers an added dignity on those who are in controlling positions, whether political, religious, or academic, and who are therefore liable to see the cyclic idea of time as subversive. It confronts them with the idea that the world over which they preside in the eyes of the public is really controlled by forces which are no more subject to their wills than to anyone else’s. If, then, the ideas examined here should happen to be generally repressed by prejudice, fear, or entrenched self-interest, the reasons for that should be clear enough.
The progressive idea of time contains an element of truth which can nevertheless be comprehended within the cyclic idea, even though the latter cannot be contained in the former. Cyclic time allows full scope to both natural and supernatural realities without either confounding them or keeping them without relation. The central issue is an idea of time which transcends the categories of optimism and pessimism, or of progress and reaction, which result mainly from a projection of subjective attitudes onto the outside world. It is a study of the original reality out of which these notions arose through a long period of spiritual deviation, which has gone to such extremes that ‘the end of the world’ has under some aspect or other become an issue for many minds, and by no means only in a religious context.
A Reason for Pessimism?
In the natural world, cycles appear as life-cycles, where development peaks and then goes through an inevitable decline ending in death. The process of decline implicit in the cyclic conception is one which applies primarily on the cosmic level, while it may or may not control the interior lives of individual persons to some degree at the same time. It is most directly in opposition to the world-view based on the constant progress of science and technology, since the latter is a progress in things which are only ancillary to life’s needs, not in what is essential to life. While there is no point in denying the reality of progress in numerous forms of human consciousness, where it works in specialized fields, as well as in industrial products, all such things serve only to mask a relentless loss of both a consciousness and of a spiritual energy of a far more essential kind.
The achievements of technical progress over the centuries are directly demonstrable and tangible, so that they can almost stifle any sense that something else may have been lost at the same time. Yet there is a widespread emotional dependence on the past which reveals an unspoken conviction that the passage of time is in fact marked by a relentless draining away of something irreplaceable. As to what this vanishing value may be, a relevant but misleading answer would be ‘consciousness’. It could be misleading because on the one hand consciousness of the contents of the sensory world has hardly ever been so active or so fully developed as it is today; but on the other hand consciousness also extends into realms far beyond sense, and where these ramifications atrophy, the meaning and value even of sensory consciousness is threatened. To clarify this further, more will be said about the special nature of human consciousness in later chapters.
If there were a universal ebb tide of consciousness in the fullest sense of the word, it would have consequences which would cut across all arguments as to whether the fine arts are or are not in a state of decline, and whether traditional religion is in decline or merely changing. Regardless of the numbers of persons who practice a religion or engage in creative or interpretative arts, the real loss will be interior and nearly invisible, as the higher reaches of consciousness become closed or darkened. While this should undoubtedly give rise to outward signs of decline, therefore, the latter will be of interest only as symptoms of some more profound change. This kind of change is at too deep a level to be corrected by any possible increase in practical activities.
However, it is not only technical progress which shields modern man from a sense of inferiority or insecurity from such things, because he now is able to look back over more than twenty centuries of continuous recorded history and dozens of generations. He knows them, and in some ways more about them than they knew themselves, while they of course do not know him. This gives rise to a sense of superiority such as comes from the way that human beings know flora and fauna without being known by them. But the fact that such knowledge of the past is confined mostly to externals can only mean that such feelings of superiority are ill-founded.
Even if it is admitted that this points to the need for an alternative to the idea of universal progress, however, it may still be asked whether it can be justifiable to advance in its place such a seemingly negative idea as that of inevitable cosmic decline. Such a conception is clearly full of dangers for those who may see it only as a justification for a hopeless fatalism, or even as a rationale for new evils. In less abnormal times, this could be an adequate reason for making little mention of it, but at the present time there are in any case so many causes for such attitudes that the risks from adding to them are minimal.
The course of modern history can easily create the impression that the traditional beliefs and values under attack today must be devalued or even invalidated by the sheer scale of the historical forces ranged against them. In particular, this is shown by the position of the historical Christian churches, whose ritual and doctrinal influence on society has been in retreat for the past three hundred years. Even with temporary revivals, the trend remains relentlessly downward, with the perverse result that those who are intellectually mature enough to have a need for more than a blind faith are the ones who are under the most pressure toward unbelief, in proportion to this need.
The best answer to this is to make known the root cause of the evil in as much detail as possible, so that it can be seen to be neither more nor less than a subtle cosmic force which has no more bearing on truth than have the cruder forces of the elements. For this purpose it must be understood that spiritual truths are in no way dependent on the degree to which they are manifest in the world, and the more clearly this is seen, the closer one will be to the liberating discovery of what it is in us which can not only escape the cosmic process, but can actually reverse it, in the life of the individual at least. The effects of such a truth, when lived, can have far-reaching consequences in proportion to the extent to which truth and reality outweigh falsehood.
A further reason, related to the above, why the cyclic idea of time is relevant today is directly owing to modern science, which employs a time scale for the age of the universe which reckons not merely in millions, but in thousands of millions of years. For a long time the conviction that this is fact and not theory has subverted the historical position of the monotheistic religions, since its history extends at most about four thousand years from the time of Abraham. There are immense psychological difficulties in seeing anything very meaningful about a period of four thousand years when it is appended to one of four thousand million, and similarly, the idea that the earth has been mainly the home of dinosaurs serves only to drive home the same problem in a more concrete way.
Under these conditions, a surer basis for a rational faith would be a combination of the orthodox idea of a created world occupying some thousands of years, with the perspective of innumerable other such creations, arising and falling in succession across a vast time scale like that of science. Such is the cyclic conception of time, and it thus forms a natural solution to the problem posed by the inhuman scale of the scientific universe, as to how humanly-meaningful eras can be integrated into the immensities which surround them.
Modern and Ancient Sources
A common fault with the usual accounts of modernity is that they have no foundation in metaphysical principles, and so cannot form part of a kind of knowledge related to reality as a whole. A notable exception to this rule is to be found in a book by René Guénon, written during World War II, translated as The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. In it, the cyclic idea of time is developed in all its ramifications. The modern world is judged in relation to a set of ideas which are all strictly part of traditional wisdom, in a way which challenges the modern belief that the ancients could not have had their own means of understanding all the ages of the world, including our own.
As the point of view taken in the following chapters will be similar to that of Guénon in some respects, I would like to make its points of divergence equally clear. No attempt will be made to continue the Non-Dualistic thinking which was always a basic element in Guénon’s work, because there is no reason to suppose that the present subject is not treatable by the intellectual principles of the Western tradition, or that it should need quasi-mystical means of support.
Where this is not understood, the cyclic idea of successive worlds can evoke, subjectively at least, the reincarnationist idea of ‘successive lives’, this idea being logically a part of monistic kinds of doctrine. This is because reincarnation is a natural and effective means of inculcating the idea that all finite beings are illusory, and that only the Absolute is real. This belief assumes the unreality of personality, for otherwise, the idea that one person was another would be incoherent. For an illusionist metaphysic, personality has nothing supra-phenomenal in it. For this reason, cyclic time and reincarnation are closely associated in some kinds of Orientalizing thought, like that of Theosophism. Guénon, however, rejected the idea of reincarnation, but still retained a non-personal idea of God, along with cyclic time.
However, there is even less logical connection between cyclic time and non-personal ideas of divinity, and I shall therefore approach the cyclic idea of time on a theological basis conformable to Christian and Platonic principles, hence the divergence from the Hindu sources which influenced Guénon.
Although cyclic time in itself is mathematical rather than personal, it can still be all part of the providential mode of action of a person as easily as the cycles of day and night or the phases of the moon.
It would in any case be unfortunate if this book were to be identified with the indiscriminately negative judgement of Guénon and his closest followers, because the implications of cyclic laws do not lend themselves to simplification. Oversimplified views of them can easily give rise to reactions of anger, hysteria, and fundamentalism, which could only cancel the advantages gained from metaphysical insight. While it is true that the traditional idea of time implies a grave judgement on the values of the modern world, there are some important compensating factors to be allowed for.
The spiritual superiority of the ancient traditions is limited in a way which is usually ignored by modern idealists. Pre-modern members of the traditions indeed held their beliefs with a purity of conviction which is rare in today’s world, but there was a price to be paid for this. Traditional man for the most part held his religious beliefs simply out of acceptance of what his society saw as the most advanced state of knowledge as it then was. Thus religious beliefs were held as we, as members of modern society, believe that viruses and bacteria cause diseases and that the earth moves round the sun. As a result of this, the number of such people who lived out the truth of their beliefs as individuals may not have been so much greater in earlier times as is often supposed. By no means everyone realized the higher possibilities arising from God’s greater manifestation at such times; all too often, it only made defiance of God more obstinate and more impassioned.
Be that as it may, the fact that traditional religion in recent centuries at least was not always tied to personal understanding and commitment shows why the loss of tradition is irreversible. Such religion is largely unconscious in just the same way that no one is conscious of being part of a modernist movement just because they believe that atoms can be split. Another reason why there can be no return to the original form of tradition lies in the development of scientific knowledge. The ancient traditions, for all their metaphysical depth, were nearly all wedded to pre-scientific cosmologies which not even the hardiest modern fundamentalist is able to believe. A Christian example of such things is the belief that everything in creation is there for the satisfaction of human needs. This belief lives on in the minds even of those who are ‘post-Christian’, and who make excessive demands on technology. This means that modern man has to determine what is truly of religion and what is not, whereas archaic man could confuse it with the theocratic culture which grew out of it. Any return to tradition must perforce bean act of conscious individual choice, therefore, and for this reason it differs necessarily from the original, even though its theological constituents may be the same. Another compensating factor with regard to traditional ages is the fact that it is really only a minor achievement to live spiritually in an age when spiritual values are established and expressed everywhere and the unspiritual is marginalized. This is related to the impersonal and collective way in which it was possible for many to practise a religion at such times. The true way is only fully realized when everything is more or less opposed to it. Such is the meaning of the Cross, as well as the purpose of ensoulment in the material world.
There is in practice no longer any clear dividing line between the traditions and the secular world, however separate they may be in theory. On the contrary, the need for a tradition to survive may cause it to take in even more of the spiritually deviant culture around it than would be accepted by many individuals relying only on their own judgement. Here is the contradiction of unqualified neo-traditionalism: if one grants absolute authority to a tradition as a denial of the point of view of modern secular culture, one is thus making an open-ended commitment to that very culture, as boundaries between tradition and anti-tradition dissolve. In this way, the normal function of tradition can actually be inverted under modern conditions, for the naive and the unaware, at least. For example, the three monotheistic religions have each grown increasingly absorbed by their historical social roles, so that it has become an exercise of awareness to relate to the spirit which they nevertheless embody. However, the very excessiveness of the trend against authentic spirituality in the modern world can also unmask itself inasmuch as every denial is an inverted affirmation of what is denied, for those who are willing to see this.
The issues referred to above are implicitly apocalyptic, and this book proceeds as far as calculations of the time-span for their appearance. This may evoke the Scriptural warning: ‘But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven. . . .’ (Matt. 24: 36)
However, these words were addressed as a correction to people who believed that the end of the world was imminent, as many Jews did at that time, and besides that, this text is balanced by another where the Pharisees are accused of blindness to their position in time: ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’ (Matt. 16 :3)
To prevent any other misunderstandings, I would like to make it clear that this theological issue is separate from the central objective of this study because the applications of cyclic chronology which it concludes with are used to determine the time for the end of a universal era which began shortly before the beginning of the third millennium BC. Although this must be a formidable event, the cyclic conception gives no grounds for believing that this event must necessarily coincide with ‘the end of the world’ and the Second Coming. That is simply a possibility, and it is quite separate from the more limited objective of understanding the end of a major world-cycle.