Slaves of Plenitude
At this point it should not be hard to see that modernity as such is based ideologically on a denial of the traditional conception of time. This position is not maintained by public opinion so much as by the small minorities who control the political and educational systems of the world’s wealthiest countries, though this is not to say that there is anything accidental about the situation. The resulting modern outlook brings with it a radical restriction of the social role of creativity inasmuch as all creative activities must now be pursued within a linear conception of time in which no part can repeat another.
Conversely, in ages when the repetitive element of cyclic time was accepted, and formed the background to all activities, the scope for creativity was at a maximum, as in Greco-Roman antiquity; there was no barrier to it other than the limits of the talents of those who engaged in it. The productions of such creativity were valued primarily in regard to the power and intelligence with which they were executed, while the originality of their content was a secondary issue. The exact inverse of this applies in cultures like that of the present time, where rectilinear time is a dogma. In this case, creativity can only mean creativity in relation to history, which confines it to things which have never been attempted before, and keeps it from the re-creation of things which were already part of a living tradition. Thus the novel content is everything, while the quality of execution is only subordinate. The field of creative endeavor is much reduced, therefore, since only a small minority has access to work which is sure of being historically original, while a correspondingly small proportion of the public can appreciate its significance. Thus far fewer people are able to participate in the creative functions of civilization, so that it could be said that the dogma of rectilinear time fosters the spread of barbarism and culture-substitutes which have a lowering effect on all values. This situation has been interpreted as a complete contrast to that of traditional man:
Thus for traditional man, modern man affords the type neither of a free being nor a creator of history. On the contrary, the man of the archaic civilizations can be proud of his mode of existence, which allows him to be free and to create. . . . This freedom in relation to his own history [author’s italics]—which for the modern is not only irreversible but constitutes human existence—cannot be claimed by the man who wills to be historical.1
The great irony here is that this immersion in history means that no one can even make history any longer, in a situation which I earlier called ‘posthistorical’. The traditional civilizations referred to above have a greater quantity of cultural creation, while their ranges of themes will be relatively limited. In contrast to them, linear civilization displays a much greater variety in its productions, since experimentation and novelty are its lifeblood. At the same time, this creativity becomes increasingly confined to elites which the average man is neither able nor willing to associate with. This separation of the higher activities from increasing numbers of people is an inevitable feature of the age, since it serves to accelerate the downward trajectory of the final cycle.
An indifference to metaphysical knowledge and a scepticism as to its possibility is also a part of this kind of culture, and such scepticism inevitably embraces metaphysical theorems like the Principle of Plenitude. This is a perfect example of a mindset which affirms with all its might in practice what it denies in theory. The pursuit of historical originality at any price is metaphysically a programme for the realization of a maximum number of different possibilities, simply because they are possibilities; a conviction that every known possibility must be realized as soon as it is known, regardless of its intrinsic value or lack of it. All this, of course, is neither more nor less than a collective human compliance with the way in which Plenitude operates in the universe as a whole. Christian morality is also significant in this context, with its emphasis on the sanctity of all human life, regardless of its social value. This can be seen as the operation of Plenitude in the propagation of all human possibilities for their own sake. Though this principle is based on love in the immediate context, its general outcome conforms precisely to Plenitude, so that these utterly different things combine inseparably.
However, modernity serves Plenitude, if not with love, with all its energies, and with so much the more conviction because it has no notion of such a metaphysical principle being in control of it. Rather, the kind of awareness that metaphysics depends on is suppressed, and this is at least partly a result of modernity’s unconscious conformity to Plenitude. Since the realization of novelty is the top priority, this will often be achieved at the price of intrinsic worth. As superior possibilities are so to speak ‘used up’, increasingly inferior ones will take over, and these will create an outlook of their own which will form a mental barrier against anything superior to them. This exhaustion of valuable possibilities appears in cultural, moral, and intellectual spheres at once, and in the extreme case it amounts to mere impoverishment, for all the novelty involved. There is no natural or physical necessity for this, since we are in principle free to realize whatever possibilities we choose. In practice, however, the control exerted by those with an ideological commitment to rectilinear historical time is enough to filter out all possibilities except those calculated to take some previous achievement a step further than it had been taken before, even though this development be trivial or pernicious.
Despite the negative effects of this ruling idea of historical time, there need be no doubt that it is part of the Providential plan for the world. No other conception of history could have the driving force to propel mankind all the way to the final bathos of the cycle. Without it, the free play of natural feeling would divert the course of history from developments which would be essentially anti-human, and the end-time would be delayed indefinitely. Only cultural control by the ‘slaves of Plenitude’ can ensure that the general happiness and welfare will always take second place to the historical process which holds the place of an idol. Poverty, for example, could have been overcome long ago if enormous resources had not been diverted into the development and production of more and more sophisticated and expensive replacements for technologies which were adequate enough. Such a world might have been adequately supplied, but would have been less technologically dynamic, and therefore not truly ‘historical’ as its masters understand the word. Related to this, there has been a huge expansion in the range of products which are not really necessary, even though this has to be at the expense of production of things which really are necessary. When one adds to these things the squandering of resources on war and preparation for war, that basic mechanism of history, the price paid for our dynamism should be clear enough.
Changes that Require Darkness
I have already remarked on the way in which slavish obedience to Plenitude results unintentionally from ignorance of and disbelief in such metaphysical principles. A parallel remark could be made in regard to the official disbelief in cyclic time. It is because this conception of time is rejected that the modern world is actually held in an iron grip by cyclic forces, and to a greater extent than ever before. Without moralizing about it, this is simply what is necessary to ensure that the end-time is approached. Thus, for example, a benighted or fog-bound traveler who is convinced that he is traveling in a straight line will not be alert to indications that he is really going round in circles. If he admitted that this could be happening, he could find how to get out of the situation, but not otherwise. So likewise with our conceptions of time. It cannot be over-emphasized that the cyclicity of time is not made known so that everyone can be more surely bound by it and locked into a system of pure repetition. Doctrinal misgivings over it are in this respect as wide of the mark as if it were thought that textbooks about diseases were written to teach people ways of making themselves ill.
By knowledge of the cyclic laws, life can be freed from their control in the ways that most matter. While a strong faith in God can do this even more directly, there is no inconsistency between the way of faith and that of knowledge, besides which, theoretical knowledge is under some conditions more easily imparted than faith. In regard to cyclic time, therefore, Christian thought could be reproached with the mistake of ignoring the superior possibilities of the cyclic idea. In other words, to escape the hostile effect of cyclic change, that is, its formal opposition to salvation, one need only realize that the mere fact that we know the cyclic laws means that our minds comprehend and transcend them, just as our rational being transcends the subtle influences of astral configurations. This is preferable by far to pretending that such laws are really not there.
When this pretence is made on behalf of society as a whole, the stage is set for the cyclic laws to take it over completely, even though some individual destinies may escape it by a strong religious faith. It is notorious that the only thing we learn from history is that society as a whole never learns from history, and this is to a large extent owing to precisely this lack of openness to the larger laws by which human life is contained. Ignorance and denial of cyclic laws is in effect the darkness in which, and in which alone, these laws can allow the working out of the worst possibilities. Their complete working out therefore requires that they be denied, in majority human thought, at least. There are in fact two opposite ways of reacting to the cyclic idea, one in the form of fatalism, and the other as a means of overcoming fate.
There is more than a passing connection between the attitude of religion to cyclic time and to astrology, although the two are by no means identical. Where astrology is concerned, there is no longer any need to deny that it is based on real knowledge, especially as it depends on phenomena which are increasingly substantiated by scientific discoveries made in the last few decades. Such denials by religious authorities were in any case really a matter of expediency, because the action of cosmic influences is always liable to appeal to our desire to avoid moral responsibility, and to act from interest rather than principle. So also in a parallel way with cyclic time. Responsible attitudes to one’s own condition and that of the society to which one belongs are for some people weakened by the emotional effect of the idea of other worlds, among which this world is far from unique. Cosmic pluralism is usually morally relaxing, if only because it presents vistas of cosmic being for which human responsibility is necessarily impossible. That is felt to carry the meaning that responsibility is only a relative thing, or even an anomaly, and so of much less importance than if ‘the world’ was synonymous with our world. The best answer to this is that no truly sincere person would think of making his or her acceptance of moral responsibility wait upon a theory about the measurements of the universe.2 However, these ideas lead us on to the next subject, the impact of cyclic change on moral absolutes.
Moral Right and Wrong—Adjustable Quantities?
Universal changes which affect moral standards prompt the question whether the amount of moral guilt in mankind is liable to vary according to the same laws. However, I have said little about this because morality is one of the least satisfactory parts of this subject, inasmuch as opposite moral conclusions can follow equally easily from the same data in this field. On the one hand, the cosmic process can seem to reduce moral responsibility; on the other hand, the descending process could mean a literal deepening of guilt. Taking the first of these alternatives, it can be seen that, although more and greater crimes will be committed toward the end of a world-cycle, they will inevitably form part of worsening conditions which will put more persons under pressure to act without principle. The increase in offences in turn brings a further worsening of conditions of life, and therewith a further increase in pressure to offend. Individuals involved in this process are usually confused as to whether they are agents or patients, that is, whether they are authors of their actions or whether they are merely instruments of outside forces.
At the same time, the rise of physical and metaphysical entropy points to an increasing weakness and a lowering of the intelligence among the majority of those who live at such times. All this would by normal standards reduce moral responsibility. That the present-day human race is on average weaker in most ways than ever before is a conclusion which is also closely linked to the huge increase in world population which has taken place over the past two centuries. The connection between the rising numbers of a given species and the weakness of its individual members is explained by Dom Anscar Vonier as follows:
Saint Thomas [Aquinas] remarks wisely that with material things, man not excluded, number supplements the weakness of the species; a species is saved from death, from disappearance, through its numbers, and the weaker the species, the greater its numbers.3
The elephant, for example, seldom needs its strength to be supported by numbers, whereas insect species are strong solely by virtue of their numbers. Such facts are coherent with a universal intuition that quantity and quality are linked in a way that makes either of them almost mathematically the inverse of the other. What these things mean in terms of increasing weakness and decrepitude can thus be quantified from the way in which world population has risen. It took the whole of recorded history to reach one thousand million by 1850, after which it reached two thousand million by 1930. By 1960 it was three thousand million, four thousand million in 1975, five thousand million in the 1980s, and is by now six thousand million. Total population has thus been multiplied by three in the seventy years from 1930. Mankind’s descent into quantity could not be more dramatic. There is thus no doubt that the descending cosmic order militates against the qualitative aspect of personality, and therefore against moral responsibility, subject to any common sense view of human nature, at least. On this basis, one could even argue that the Antichrist and his associates would not be any more guilty than his precursors who have held comparable positions in earlier times.
But such reasoning ignores the distinction between conscious guilt and objective guilt. It is possible to be objectively guilty by reason of the situation one unthinkingly forms part of, so that one’s actions are so many prolongations of it. In this case, it would be possible for general guilt to increase to a maximum at certain times, though it may not be clear how this could be free from injustice to those involved. The former perspective of reduced responsibility can be shown to be tied to a view of personal identity for which everyone is born as a kind of blank tablet waiting to be inscribed by the forces of environment and upbringing. The idea of the soul implicit in this is only a very vague one, and it allows no meaning to the idea of a climactic collective guilt.
However, this optimistic view conflicts with much that is known about heredity, since there are many indications that the beginning of life comprises much more than bare potentiality. In this case the time of conception would be one at which the whole state of being of which the parents formed part, besides their own heredity, would determine the kind of soul which was thereby drawn into incarnate life under the working of the Law of Cosmic Sympathy.4 (One must suppose innumerable souls capable of this, each having its own spiritual potential for good or ill.) The idea of identity before birth is relevant whether one believes that each one is specially created at conception, or that souls pre-exist their embodied lives. Given this idea of the soul, every soul becomes incarnate only under the conditions which permit and facilitate the expression of its inherent possibilities. As those whose innate qualities imply a greater capacity for good would be born to those who live at times that allow the greatest scope for it, the equivalent must apply to capacity for evil. There would thus be no injustice in the idea of inherited guilt on this basis; every life would be in a real sense chosen.
Such is the second of the two possible moral deductions from the cyclic law, and it should suffice to show that the truth of the first of these two cannot simply be taken for granted.
Destruction and Transformation
What is bound to happen in the last times is, on a certain level, so destructive by nature that it can only appear to be a punishment to those who are directly subject to it, and this would be consistent with the idea of a special degree of guilt attaching to those concerned. But for all that, the destructive events on the material level in no way affect the Forms or essential causes of what is destroyed. Visible destruction is only the most negative aspect of a withdrawal of manifest realities into their unmanifest causes in a way which is both necessary and benign. This is what Joseph Pieper is referring to where he says:
The end of time, inwardly as well as outwardly, will be utterly catastrophic in character, and history will debouch into its end as into a deliverance coming from outside (it does not come ‘from outside’, however, but from creation’s innermost ground of being, which, of course, absolutely transcends creation).5
In other words, the physical destruction of a world is confined solely to the outward forms of reality, and not to their essential causes, besides which even the greatest destructive forces have access to no more than the final place-time coordinates of the things destroyed. Their being through all previous times cannot be affected by any evils which concern only their last extremities. What has been achieved in the past is therefore always secure in its own part of time, while its ultimate purposes are in any case not dependent on the phenomenal world. Pieper explains that, from his point of view, there is no reason for spiritual pessimism in an unspiritual world, on the grounds that the hope which results from belief in the final reintegration of things with their eternal causes makes all activities more meaningful in the here and now; the realization of the universal purpose covers that of all subordinate purposes.
The catastrophic denouement of history could never mean a failure in the purpose of creation to realize the ends it was intended for. This is because the final realization of this purpose is by definition impossible in time, that is, as long as this purpose is still confined within the temporal order where every supposed finality soon has to give way to something else. It is very hard to dissociate oneself from the dominant form of the world which results from a sense-orientated consciousness, even when one is largely free from its causes within oneself. It was in this connection, I believe, that Guénon maintained that the end of this world ‘can never be anything but the end of an illusion.’6 When the illusion is understood as falsified perception arising from the excess of the temporal condition, the implication is clear enough.
The only positive aspect of this kind of illusion is that it is fated to unmask itself by way of its own self-extension, because everything of this kind depends for its being on what it formally negates. The collapse of the illusion in this world will however not automatically mean any personal release from it for those who live at that time. For that to be the case, one must first have become dissociated from the cause of the evil in one’s own lifetime. Failing this, one can only remain bound by the same illusion in the hereafter. Nevertheless, the self-neutralizing property of illusion shows how the perennial cosmology is beyond the usual alternatives of optimism and pessimism.
To make this better understood, I have always emphasized the distinction between physical and archetypal realities, so that the pessimistic implications of universal history can be seen to be relevant only to physical or instantial reality. Corruption and decline in this unstable realm are only known to us because rational consciousness is founded upon the absolute realities of which the material ones are but the images. This axiological property of consciousness gives rise to one of the few counterbalancing forces to the decline of traditional religion in the Western world. Many persons now seek for themselves the inner wisdom traditions of the world’s religions, whether they are members of them or not. This tendency is nurtured by the way in which everyone can now find all the greatest works of antiquity translated into their own language. Translation has removed what were once insuperable barriers in the path of authentic knowledge for the great majority, and this change has a Providential quality.
At the same time, traditional religious exclusivism appears to have served its purpose, and where it is defended with open intolerance it is liable to do more harm than good. In such cases, an acceptance of external authority is not matched by an attempt to make one’s own the truth which that authority stands for. Though the numbers of those who are prepared to take such spiritual responsibility for themselves are too small to reverse the overall situation, they do save it from being one of unmitigated degeneration. They are fore-runners of those who receive the final revelation of this world-age, prophesied by Joel:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.7
Whatever happens, the luminous core of reality is always present and waiting for events to recall it to life. There is therefore nothing final in even the most catastrophic historical changes, because all temporal realities are manifestations of eternal originals which never cease to be re-manifested at times allowed by the cyclic order. Although destructive change is evil in itself, its evil is thus limited by the fact that it has no power to destroy the irreplaceable. This point is made by Frithjof Schuon where he quotes from the Sufis:
The nature of evil, and not its inevitability, constitutes its condemnation . . . one must not accept error, but one must be resigned to its existence. But beyond earthly destructions there is the Indestructible: ‘Every form you see,’ says Rumi, ‘has its archetype in the divine world, beyond space; if the form perishes what matter, since its heavenly model is indestructible? Every beautiful form you have seen, every meaningful word you have heard—be not sorrowful because all this must be lost; such is not really the case. The divine Source is immortal and its outflowing gives water without cease; since neither the one nor the other can be stopped, whereof do you lament? . . . From the first moment when you entered this world of existence, a ladder has been set up before you.’8
For spiritual wisdom, therefore, the power of evil is much less than it is for the senses and for the imagination which is bound to the senses. When spiritual and natural evils go to extremes, they can even become useful, since they make it impossible to believe that this world is the world for which mankind was created. Extreme negation forces the mind to focus on what is being negated as long as it is not corrupted in the process. ‘The age of the realization of the impossible,’ as one traditionalist has called modernist culture, is in any case only a momentary sport of nature in comparison with the ages during which man was conscious of his true vocation and found the meaning of life in his attempts to realize it. The possibility of such a fulfilment is no less real on account of the influences which apparently belie it, and closer understanding of the short-lived substitutes for it is a sure means of making oneself inwardly free from their worst effects.
1. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, chap. 4, p. 157.
2. Christian thought has never been unanimously either for or against cycles and astral influences. This disunity results from the two opposite ways of understanding cyclic laws just referred to. This is treated at greater length by Mircea Eliade in The Myth of the Eternal Return, chap. 4, ‘The Terror of History’.
3. Dom Anscar Vonier, The Angels, chap. 4.
4. A Plotinian and Stoic conception according to which the cosmic situations of all beings make manifest their inner tendencies.
5. Joseph Pieper, The End of Time, chap. 2, .
6. The Reign of Quantity, chap. 40, end of the final chapter.
7. Joel 2:28, and see also Jer. 31:31–34.
8. Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient Worlds, chap. 4, pp. 85–86.