History and Absolute Change
Cyclic processes always involve an element of regular repetition, like the hours of the day, or the rise and fall of the tides. The intervals between these repeated phenomena may be quite short by human reckoning at one extreme, or unimaginably long at the other, depending on the cyclic law in question. In every case, a process of change is counteracted by a return to its original state, and in this respect it contrasts with the idea of true change, where successive alterations made in the passage of time build upon one another so that each stage diverges further from the original in a way which would make any return to it ever less likely.
The world shows an abundance of evidence for both of these kinds of temporal process, and it is not easy to see how they could relate to one another, or how either could depend on the other. This issue arises in the question whether history repeats itself, and how much similarity between events could constitute repetition. Such repetitions are more easily seen in the general forms of eras than in particular events, and the cyclic pattern can be seen in the way in which a historical development leads to a state which manifests the essential features of the one it started from. For this purpose, some relevant examples can be drawn from the development of European civilization from the early Middle Ages to the present time.
Contrary to the usual practice, the term ‘prehistorical’ will be applied to the beginning of this period and the term ‘posthistorical’ to the present-day end of it. The reason for this choice of terms lies in the special meaning that the word ‘history’ itself has acquired in recent centuries. Thanks to a unique series of connected and cumulative changes, history has ceased to mean a mere heaping-up of chronicled events, and has come to mean a kind of universal and irreversible change comparable with the plot of a novel. 1
Given this conception of history, it is doubtful whether some parts of the world could be said to have any ‘history’ at all, since tribes may hunt, migrate, grow and decline, and fight among one another for millennia, without there resulting the kind of cumulative change that this word now implies. But if there can be no real history of a primitive people living close to nature, it is scarcely more possible for there to be one of a traditional civilization where all values and objectives are prescribed, not by nature, but by a code of values and priorities fixed for all time. No matter how great a disruption may be suffered by such a civilization, it returns to its original pattern as soon as it is able. The ancient civilizations were all more or less of this type, and were to that extent ahistorical, as can be clearly seen in the case of ancient Egypt, which retained the same theocratic form for some five thousand years without any radical or irreversible change in its spiritual or social order. Now it is just because Medieval Europe shared in this traditional form, in however limited a way, that it cannot be counted as historical in the same way that post-Renaissance Europe can. There was nothing in the period from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries which need necessarily have led to anything essentially different after another five hundred years, whereas the pattern of changes from the fifteenth century onward was unmistakably cumulative.
Such is the general character of our ‘prehistorical’ period, and on the same basis the present century can be called ‘posthistorical’ because the present period falls outside the historical period as defined above, just as much as do the Middle Ages, though for different reasons. Modernity can be called ‘posthistorical’ because it too offers no scope for radical change, even if this idea seems paradoxical at first sight. The present age is surely the Age of Change if there ever was one, but this must not obscure the fact that the flood of changes released in modern times consists mostly of changes that affect only matters of detail and technique, and for no great time at that. On all essentials modern civilization is now just as immobilistic as that of the early Middle Ages. It is designed for the production of endless minor changes in all manner of restricted realms, with all energies mobilized for this purpose under the headings of industry and bureaucracy, and hardly any deviations of effort are permitted from these priorities.
That unlimited change should turn out to be self-neutralizing results from the metaphysics of change itself, since change is only conceivable at all on the basis of a component which does not change, within and against which the change can be effected. It is thus dependent on its opposite, permanence, if it is to effect anything. The permanent, however, is not necessarily bound to any other condition, being self-sufficing by nature, and this puts it on a different level of reality from that of change. This is the real reason for the apparent paradox that a civilization cannot undergo real historical change unless it possesses a structure of permanent principles which impose limits on the possible scope for change. Should these limits be removed, the final result will be to make change so all-pervasive that every change will be countered by another one before it can make any difference, and the only permanent condition left will be just this condition where all forces cancel one another out.
Thus the positive principle of permanence is represented by the ‘prehistorical’ civilization, while change as such will be manifested in the ‘historical’ period starting approximately with the fifteenth century, and lastly the ‘posthistorical’ period manifests permanence again, not in its original principle, but in its lower reflection, a negative permanence of creative exhaustion and universal conflict. The state of ‘total change’ which is being approached by modern civilization is more deeply opposed to real historical change than is institutionalized permanence, since the permanent at least contains the potentiality of change, as the static traditional civilization contains the possibility of a historically changing one. Universal change, on the other hand, has no potentialities at all, since everything in it is actualized already, so that a final cessation is the only new frontier it could cross. The advance to some such finality is indicated by the fact that there is now scarcely any element in present-day culture which is not subject to more or less irrelevant pressures from innumerable others, so that the growth of anything truly new is practically ruled out. Culture is everywhere under state control, while the states themselves are tied to the same economic goals by their mutual dependence. If that were not enough, modern high-speed communications have abolished the regional privacies in which new identities could develop. In contrast to this permanence in sterility, the permanence of a traditional civilization appears as a store of energy, like that of water behind a dam, which was released in the creative processes of history, and which is now tending to exhaustion, as the original store of energy is dissipated.
Recurrence and Actual Change
Here, then, is the correspondence between beginning and end which is the hallmark of the cyclic process. It is in fact a correspondence and not an identity, because the cyclic movement involved here has not so much completed a circle as one turn of a spiral, which is why it is not to be identified with the idea of perpetual recurrence. The historical movement has been from a state superior to change to one which is inferior to it, and as with all cyclic correspondences it entails an identity between the opposite extremes under at least one aspect. Both the opposition and the identity are equally real in their separate ways, and neither need be thought to contradict the other so long as the cycle is represented by one turn of a spiral. The aspect of identity or recurrence will be represented by the completion of a single turn, while that of opposition or resultant change will be represented by the vertical interval between the beginning and the end of this part of the curve. By means of this model, it can be shown that the aspects of identity and opposition also admit of degrees, since that of opposition can in any case be increased according to the number of turns of the spiral. These two realities can be seen in the circles of the Same and the Different, whose union underlies the cosmic order in Plato’s Timaeus. A gross imbalance of either of them, it is thought, would make the continuation of the natural order inconceivable.
The modern world lies at an extreme of opposition to its origin because of the time for which the present creation has lasted, while its correspondences to its past are being steadily increased by rediscoveries and reconstructions based on archaeology, so that more is now known about some parts of antiquity than was known about them in their own times. This enlargement of historical recapitulation is also another indication that the ‘historical’ era of original developments is now over.
What has been said concerning the cyclic process and the historical phases that illustrate it is not intended to be a proof of the theory, so much as an illustration of it, drawn from generally-admitted facts. What has been said about the resistance to change which characterizes the ‘pre-historical’ and ‘posthistorical’ eras will be easier to understand if the difference between change and mere disturbance is borne in mind. Some of the major events of the twentieth century, such as World War II, have caused vast amounts of disorder and disruption without essentially changing anything beyond confirming and accelerating all the characteristics of this century which were fully present before the conflicts began. On this basis it could be said that the difference in historical meaning and value between human action and that of floods and earthquakes has practically vanished. This applies even more clearly to the innumerable violent events of today; no real change is involved, any more than if it were a matter of fights between primitive tribes.
This posthistorical situation has occurred innumerable times before at the latter stages of other civilizations, but what makes it different and doubly significant at the present time is the fact that it now embraces the whole human race and not just one part of it, as was the case in all earlier times. For the first time in recorded history there is no spiritually young and untried part of the human race by which history could be continued, as there are no peoples left which have never known any other kind of life except that of direct struggle with nature. This static condition is compensated by an ambience in which knowledge can be increased more easily than ever before, however, and the manifest unification of mankind is in itself a challenge to the understanding. If the advanced state of knowledge in modern times should turn out to be far from unique in universal time, it will in any case provide the richest resources for attempts to understand the meaning of such periodic rises and falls in the state of knowledge.
Civilization and the Natural Order
The solution to the enigmas of universal time requires a study of reality as a whole, and not merely of the aspects of it which are the province of the natural sciences. The outward appearances of the world, more or less as they appear to common sense, are as well suited to this purpose as are theoretical principles. The general appearance of the world at a given time is filled with a symbolic content which, qua symbolic, never seems to result from human intentions, even though it is as a whole the net outcome of countless human activities. This distinction answers to the way in which the world of appearance results from two systems of causality, the one being natural causality acting through the passage of time, and the other being archetypal causality acting from outside the natural forces so as to impose its eternal types upon their causal flow.
Outward appearances are in some sort the lowest point reached by the action of cosmic causality, but this aspect of triviality is compensated by a law of polarity according to which only the highest cause can extend to the lowest level of effects. This is expressed by Proclus on the basis that ‘the higher principles both begin to operate before the lower and extend beyond them to things which the lower by remission of power are precluded from reaching.’ 2
The overall appearance of a world is therefore specially fitted to reveal something of the archetypal cause it is conditioned by at the time, and this appearance includes that of both nature and of civilization. The successive phases through which civilization has passed, from Classical Antiquity to post-Renaissance, along with the parallel changes in religion and in human aptitudes, are the result of social reactions to changing cosmic conditions which are sensed rather than understood. Innumerable small changes are made to the ways in which things are done, therefore, until these small changes result in a new form for the whole. Part of this process lies in the way in which minds are motivated by successively different paradigms, not least where there is no general agreement that this should happen.
This collective attachment to ruling paradigms has a force in it which is manifested by the fact that no innovation ever prevails unless it harmonizes with the complex set of conditions which has arisen from causes beyond individual human choice. For example, the attempts by philosophers like Bacon and Locke to establish their empiricist philosophy would have had little result were it not for the fact that the collective state of mind had for a long time been moved in this direction by subliminal changes.
The same could be said of the rise, or rather restoration, of natural science in the seventeenth century, since the discoveries then made public would have been hardly less physically possible in the Middle Ages or Classical Antiquity, where the operative factor in them was the kind of technical skills that craftsmen have always had. Thus there is no physical reason why the telescope and the microscope should not have been invented centuries earlier than they were, by Roger Bacon, for example, as legend suggests he did. But in fact these developments had to await the conditions under which they could meet with a receptive response.
The fate suffered by anachronisms illustrates the same point from the negative side. Where something is achieved which could change the prevailing mindset before it had run its course, it has to lie dormant until changing conditions favor it. Such was the case with the astronomical tables compiled in the Eleventh century under King Alphonsus X, which were accurate enough to have prepared the way for the Copernican Revolution by showing that the Ptolemaic system did not fit the facts. In the event, their appearance had to wait until the late fifteenth century. The modern idea that man simply does as he pleases with his technical resources is in reality quite unfounded, except, of course in the twentieth century itself, and even this age of all-out technical liberation is part of a sequence over which the individual has no power.
This great upsurge in the sciences is not an altogether new thing, even though it is without precedent in historical times. Even in today’s world, there is still evidence for the existence of advanced scientific knowledge in more remote antiquity. Such evidence includes the units of measure which have survived from ancient times, and which can be shown to be related to exact measurements of the earth and the solar system. 3 Such facts are usually ignored, because they are meaningless to the majority who adhere to a linear conception of time.
Abstract and Concrete Time
As the form of civilization changes, its human and cosmic elements each prepare changes for one another in endless alternation. Each moment in time comprises a combination of cosmic influences which gives it the qualitative uniqueness peculiar to all different times. Cosmic influences are known to vary in a cyclical manner, but there is no repetition among the combinations they form, even though the latter will not change at random. This is the view of time which conflicts with the abstract idea of time which makes time immune from the properties of the changes which pervade it. Such an idea of time would make it an endless succession of empty intervals with no specific relation to their content. Its moments differ only numerically, therefore, so that they can be represented by equal intervals along the axis of a graph, as is required by physical science. It thereby receives continual experimental corroboration in experiments where every phenomenon but one is either excluded or is under human control.
However, if this idea of time was any more than a practical simplification justified for short intervals, it would be impossible to see how there could be all the synchronisms and anachronisms referred to above, or how the passage of time could always bring irreversible changes with it. All changes would occur more or less at random, so that there would be no temporal patterns except those imposed by human contrivance. In reality, the abstract time of science is the result of a subtractive process which removes most of what is essential to it, leaving a lowest common factor which functions compatibly with other scientific entities-of-convenience such as bodies without extension or friction, and masses and extensions without color or sound.
In contrast to this, the concrete idea of time requires there to be a special relationship between the moment and its content, so that the distinction between them exists only for thought. If it is supposed that to complicate the idea of time in this way is to forego any chance of grasping the essence of time, such as might appear when all other realities were separated from it, the objection would only be valid on the grounds that time really was just an abstract quantity of extension, so that this could be a matter of question-begging. The reduction of time to an abstraction in fact makes it harder, not easier to define.
Where successive moments are successive changes in the qualitative condition pervading the world according to a law of some kind, the result is at least a conception which is testable against experience in realms which extend much further than the controlled conditions in a laboratory. Such time is an object of direct experience, whereas abstract time is never experienced as such at all, even though it is the chosen instrument of a science which claims to reduce everything to experience.
The disappearance of radical and consecutive change in the periods referred to above as ‘posthistorical’ goes in parallel with precisely the rise of a general belief in a qualitatively empty and abstract time, in a way which is not likely to be coincidental.
Freedom and Cosmic Conditioning
The distinction between concrete and abstract time corresponds to two different ideas as regards the relation between mankind and the cosmos. If the passage of time is a mathematical abstraction with no relation to quality, the uses it serves will be likewise matters of human choice and convention, and so not grounded in the natural order. Such uses are necessarily based on the assumption that human actions, or a significant proportion of them at least, are free in relation to their cosmic conditions since man can oppose nature. However, the rules for activities of this kind are not relevant for a study of the true nature of time, which precedes the needs of technology. The concrete conception of time was common to nearly all systems of pre-modern thought, as instanced in Plato’s statement that ‘time and the heaven came into being together,’ and similarly in Chinese tradition according to Marcel Granet,4 who says that in ancient China they chose to see time as a compound of ‘eras, seasons, and epochs,’ rather than as a succession of identical units passing at a uniform speed. Such a concrete conception is well suited to embrace both human and non-human realities equally. There is a vast range of phenomena, both biological and astronomical, together with their interactions, which follow cyclic orders, to an extent that they could be said to exemplify nature’s dominant pattern. The populations of different species, the ice ages, tides, rainfall, sunspots, growth rhythms of trees, the precession of the equinoxes, volcanic eruptions, and human affairs as they appear in the volume of international trade, all reveal the same kind of regular rise-and-fall in quantity. In forms of thought where time is not abstracted from its content, therefore, the idea that time is cyclic in itself will follow naturally from the universality of this order.
The integration of mankind with the natural order, which is implicit in the way in which the cycles of human activity depend on those of cosmic origin, may invite comparison with similar views on man’s cosmic condition expressed by evolutionist thinkers. For such thinkers, the human race integrates with the cosmos simply through being a part of the biosphere as a result of having been the product of solely biological processes.
On an evolutionary basis, man cannot rationally be conceived as having any destiny outside the cycles of the biosphere. No such reductionist aim is being pursued in the present use of man’s cosmic connection, however, because metaphysical principles can comprehend this relation without any need to take natural phenomena for its primal realities. On the contrary, they too embrace both the natural order and man’s physical nature, but in a way which affiliates man and his supposed physical causes to a common set of archetypes or formal causes. According to this conception, the deep relation between the human race and its world has nothing to do with the idea of the one being physically produced by the other.
The primacy of consciousness and its cognitive functions over our experience of material realities implies that it is nothing less than our share in the reality from which the physical world originates. For all their superficial similarities, therefore, evolutionist thought and traditional metaphysics are poles apart concerning the relation between man and cosmos.
One consequence of the distinction between these two ideas of human origin is that in the one case, the cosmic relation means inescapable determination by natural forces, where only the material element is involved, while in the other, the determination is only conditional. This is because an origin from whence issues intelligible and psychical reality along with the physical, is one which cannot determine mankind exclusively by any one of these three, especially as the human state comprises all three. If there is a question of determination on the physical level at the expense of the other two, therefore, this must derive from a tendency rooted in the collective human condition, not from its First Cause.
Far from giving an account of the conditions under which human life may possibly be controlled by natural forces insofar as their role is not understood, evolutionist philosophies leave no grounds for thinking there is any alternative to cosmic determinism. Despite this, the doctrine of evolutionary materialism is popularly associated with optimism, while its counterpart is associated with pessimism, an inversion owing more to propaganda than to logic. In modern times, the way in which evolutionist thought inverts the metaphysical conception of man’s relation to nature corresponds to the outlook of a large majority, though it is hardly possible to say whether this outlook results from materialist teachings or whether it is the other way round. In any case, they are mutually reinforcing. The fact that there is no reason why ‘more evolved’ should mean ‘more desirable for most human beings’ is lost on the popular consciousness to which such ideas are directed, because of the ease with which the ‘ascending’ aspect of evolution can be can be taken to mean social progress.
The opposite conception to this one is that of the ever-rising entropy which the cyclic pattern reveals. It is equally indifferent to human concerns, and given two such opposed conceptions, one must decide which of them is the more fundamental. Neither cosmic tendency can be all-comprehensive, however, since the intelligence at very least must be extra-cosmic in its working and determined only by truth, or theories about cosmic change would be of no use. The mind which defines a set of conditions cannot itself be a part of them, on pain of absurdity. With this essential reservation, the laws of necessity may be illumined by those of reason, which has a necessity of a quite different kind.
1. This idea also appears in The Arrogance of Humanism, chap. 4, by David Ehrenfeld, quoting R. Seidenberg.
2. Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 59.
3. See John Michell, Ancient Metrology.
4. La Pensée Chinoise, chap. 1.