5

The Rhythms of Time

Time’s Union of Opposites

The title of this chapter refers to the other principal property of cycles, their discontinuity and repetitive pattern. Rhythms result from breaks in the temporal flow which appear as breaks in the continuity of sensory phenomena at one level or another. Time is to be identified with the flow of phenomena because the idea of an absolute time which would continue to elapse even if nothing existed only makes it harder to understand while giving no new insight, and seems in any case to rest on nothing more than an unsupported assertion. The content of the temporal flow consists of the instantiations of Forms which do not as such have any part in it, since they are not subject to any kind of corruptive or destructive change. The content of time is wholly subject to change, while its causes are eternal.

Here then is the first pair of opposites involved in time, namely, the eternal and the ephemeral. The material world cannot separate from its formal cause, but neither can the two be combined directly. Complete separation could only mean dissolution for the world, and a lesser degree of it would give change such a dominance that created beings would cease to exist as soon as they began to do so. Given direct union, on the other hand, the world would again perish, but this time by absorption. One way, and possibly the only way, in which an intermediate nature between the changing and the changeless can be formed is in a kind of change which continually progresses through the same stages and returns to the same starting-point. The most obvious instance of this is to be seen in circular motion. Insofar as the natural order is dominated by motion of this kind, then, it will participate in the changelessness of its origin, but in a way which will allow change to remain itself.

Though it is not part of the argument, the cosmic background to this could hardly be more comprehensive: every planet and star revolves about its axis; every moon about every planet; every planet about its star; and every star about the center of its galaxy. All these motions are more or less circular. Time, motion, and rotation seem to be inseparable, as was observed in antiquity:

Proclus remarks that time revolves as the first among things that are moved; by its revolution all things are brought round in a circle. He says explicitly that the advance of Time is not like a single straight line of unlimited extent in both directions, but limited and circumscribed. He understands Plato’s phrase ‘throughout all time’ (36e) as meaning the Great Year, the ‘single period of the whole,’ which embraces all the periods of the planets and contains all Time, ‘for this period has as its measure the entire extent and evolution of Time, than which there can be no greater extent, save by its recurring again and again; for it is in this way that Time is unlimited.’ (ii, 289) The motion of Time joins the end to the beginning, and this an infinite number of times.1

A motion which always returns upon itself is also a pattern for other forms of change, like the life-cycles of living beings, which are able to conserve the species which are subject to change, keeping the destructive powers of change within bounds. Just as it is clear that cyclic time unites the unchanging with a world of change, so it is clear that the abstract idea of rectilinear time does not. The latter belongs to a materialistic philosophy for which the universe is self - existent as though it were another God. It has no place for causes operating outside time, or for the intrinsic patterns of time.

The irreversibility of time or of natural processes comprises another reason for the cyclic structure of time, one which connects with what was ascribed to it in the last chapter. The dissipation of Form from the world and the reduction to matter obviously cannot go on indefinitely, since this must bring about the cessation of the very conditions within which any further change could take place. This points to two alternatives, namely, that there is one world, finite in duration, before which and after which there is nothing, or that there is a series of such worlds, all developing according to the same basic pattern of alternate restoration and deterioration. The former possibility requires the assumption that the created world adds nothing to God, not just relatively, but absolutely. But in this case, creation could only be a play of illusions, like that of Maya. If this were true, one could consistently believe the world to be finite in all respects and without either predecessors or successors. However, if God has created a world, it must in some sense be a manifestation of God, and ought therefore to reflect the Divine eternity by extending through endless ages of its own time. This, however, is a simply question of fitness, and does not follow from the cyclic concept. In this case, an absolute cessation of the world would imply a negative change in God and in the archetypal causes. This is why an indefinite succession of worlds is consistent with a real creation in a way that a ‘short-lived creation’ is not.

Consequently, ‘the world’ can be a collective term for an indefinite series of worlds which are physically independent of one another, though all belonging to the same order of space, time, and matter. This requires three premises, (a) that each successive world is finite in duration, (b) that the relation of Form and matter in each world develops qualitatively in one sense only, that is, at the expense of Form or quality, and (c) that the cosmic time-process as a whole can have no inherent limits to its extent.

The beginnings and endings of cycles, and especially of those which comprehend the existence of whole worlds, are necessarily the discontinuous aspect of time, which is just as necessary as the continuous. These two realities form another pair of opposites which the passage of time must unite in its own process. Continuity and discontinuity are woven equally into the structure of all cosmic conditions, and they are comprehended in what Plato meant by the circles of the Same and the Different, which signify more universal realities than the Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic, which are really only symbols. If continuity prevailed alone, distinct beings and events would be impossible, and there could be no world. But if there were only discontinuity, no order or development would be possible, because there could be no elements common to all beings, and therefore no basis for the relations that form a world. If we can say that X has changed, there must be some part of X which has not changed, or there would be nothing in regard to which the change could have taken place, and consequently there could have been no change, but just different things at different times.

The temporal flow, not being separate from the entities which compose it, therefore unites the two conditions of continuity and discontinuity, and the manifestation of this union is the cyclic order. Rectilinear time differs from this by comprising only the continuous aspect, which is another factor which shows it to be an abstraction. From the nature of a cycle it results that the longer the cycle, the greater is the discontinuity involved in its beginning and ending, and the greater the rupture that results, balancing the extent of its erstwhile continuity. At the same time, its repetitive property mediates between change and non-change, and in this way eternity and change, and continuity and discontinuity are all combined in a dynamic structure.

No Eternal Recurrence

The recurring property of cycles is always liable to cause confusion between the repetition of the general forms of events and of the beings engaged in them, and the exact repetition of those beings and events themselves. In the latter case, the implication would be the eternal recurrence of everyone and everything, albeit at enormous intervals of time. A widespread and instinctive feeling that this is physically impossible, even if possible mathematically, is often used as a means of discrediting the idea of cyclic time itself. The question as to whether there can be any such thing can be considered either on the basis of a materialist cosmology, or on a creationist one.

Beginning with the materialist hypothesis that the world consists in a finite quantity of matter in finite space which exists in infinite time, it would seem that in this case matter must always return to the same combinations, as all its possibilities of combination must be worked out. Let it be supposed that one thousand million years must elapse before any given person, event, or thing is identically repeated by the random combinations of atoms. But where random changes are involved, this period of time can only be an average. If recurrences really were possible on this basis, therefore, a tiny proportion of them should occur within the time-span of a human lifetime. There is even no reason why the recurrence should not be contemporaneous with its original in one or two cases, nor is there any reason why two or three recurrences should not also occur together in a short period of time. In reality, identical repetitions of persons and historical events are never experienced, and the fact that they do not occur on quite short time-scales implies that they do not occur on the longest, either.

However, it might be argued that the universe may end and be succeeded by another one, identical with it. This hypothesis involves the question of creation, however, because the end of the universe on any material basis must exclude the possibility of anything else after it. Once ended, only God could bring another universe into being, and this would cancel the present hypothesis. Only an endless, continuous existence of the same universe meets the materialist criterion. There could not therefore be any random recurrences if they depended on new universes, subject to the materialist model. It might well be that the recurrence of any one individual could not really be possible without the recurrence of everything else at the same time, but as this requires a series of new universes, the whole idea must depend on creation and not on natural causes alone, if it is to be realized.

Moreover, the idea of randomly formed (not created) recurrences does not take account of the fact that every person and event is the outcome of an individual history, which involved a passage through innumerable combinations of place and time. Now even if phenomena of a very similar nature could be made to recur in all those same places, there is no question but that they must be at very different times. All place-time combinations are necessarily unique. Recurrences could therefore only occur if moments of time differed solo numero, although this is a hypothesis for which there is no evidence, however useful it may be for simplifying calculations. The passage of time is rather experienced as a flow of qualitative change. Closely connected with this is the question of ever-rising entropy, which conflicts with any possibility of recurrence in one and the same universe. Random recurrence is in any case dependent on the assumption that space and the quantity of matter are both finite, while time is infinite, although reason would either take all three as finite or all three as infinite, given that there seems to be no way of proving that they differ in this way.

If the creationist conception of the world is taken as a possible basis for eternal recurrence, the consequences only differ from the above by being even more clearly negative. For God, or indeed any being in eternity, recurrence can have no meaning. What is possessed there is possessed always, and to think otherwise is to conceive the Creator as another temporal entity such as ourselves. Secondly, if the creation of an identical recurrence was proposed as an option for God, it would appear that this could come about for one of only two reasons: that He wished to create something different but was not able, or that He was able but chose instead to withhold it and prevent any new extension of the good in that sphere. The former case conflicts with omnipotence, and the latter with goodness. So little is repetition or recurrence compatible with the action of an infinite and all-powerful Creator that we never even see it where it might be supposed not to matter—every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree, every snowflake, is a unique formation. Although eternal recurrence attaches to the cyclic idea of time like a kind of shadow, it has no share in the validity of the latter. It is in fact one of the most incoherent notions to infect the human mind, whatever stimulation it may afford the imagination as a nightmare scenario.

The Law of Cyclic Analogy

The objection that recurrence is never manifest in everyday instances is by no means transposable to the cyclic conception itself. It is in everyday examples that constant manifestations of it occur. The passage of time in cycles of the very greatest scale is reflected in the cycles of day and night, and then in the lunar cycle, and then in that of the four seasons. The existence of these minor natural cycles does not prove the existence of world-cycles, but they are nevertheless what one should expect to find in accordance with the principle that the Whole is always liable to appear in the part. Every concrete experience of time is perforce a part of the cyclic series referred to above, so that we could reasonably conclude that cyclicity pertains to the essence of time in the absence of proof to the contrary.

When one starts from the cycles of days and seasons, the imagination has no difficulty in envisaging ever greater cycles built out of them, as minutes enfold seconds, hours enfold minutes, and so on, and this can account for the belief in cyclic time which was common in pre-modern times. Until modern times the association between time and the celestial phenomena which measured it impressed itself on nearly all minds, so that time and the rotation of the firmament were taken to be practically the same thing. This identity appears in Plato’s cosmology:

Time ‘moves according to number,’ being measured by a plurality of recurrent ‘parts’, the periods called day, month, year. Nothing that we can call time can exist without these units which both measure and constitute its substance. These in turn cannot exist without the regular revolutions of the heavenly bodies, the motions of the celestial clock. Time is accordingly said to ‘come into being with the Heaven,’ in the sense that neither can exist without the other.2

By treating time in this manner in his cosmology, Plato was continuing a tradition which had long been typical of antiquity, and Aristotle expressed it no less clearly:

Neither alteration nor increase nor coming into being can be regular, but locomotion can be. This is why time is thought to be the movement of the sphere: it is because the other kinds of change are measured by locomotion and Time by this (circular) movement. This also explains the common saying that human affairs form a circle, and that there is a cycle of all other things that have a natural movement and come into being and pass away. This is because all these things are discriminated by Time and have their beginning and end as though in a certain period; for even time itself is thought of as a sort of circle [author’s italics]. The reason, again, is that Time is the measure of this locomotion and is itself measured by it; so that to say that many things which come into being form a cycle is to say that there is a circle of Time, which means that it is measured by the circular movement.3

Circular motion is declared to be a reality basic to the physical world, while this philosophy excludes the idea that any of its primal realities exists as an object of sense. In other words the manifest circular motion is also the instantiation of a Form, like any other reality of sense.The operative principle is the archetype of the cosmic circular motion rather than the circular motion alone, and this has an additional significance owing to the way in which this Form coincides with the soul’s power of self-motion. The circulation of the cosmos would on this model be primarily the instantiation of the self-motive power of the universal Soul, and secondarily that of all the souls in whose representation the world is manifest. The world has an existence independent of its representation in human awareness, but this independent existence results from its affiliation to the universal Soul, of which it is the instantiation. What I have indicated already about the mediation of the cycle between the Forms and the material world is paralleled in the microcosm by the function of the soul, where it mediates between the realms of intellect and of sense.

The division of the cosmic process into cycles which are themselves composed of lesser cycles is an expression of the way in which the whole is manifest in the part. This results from a property of causality itself, according to Proclus:

It [the cause] is not in part everywhere and in some other part nowhere; for thus it would be dismembered and disparted from itself. . . it is entire everywhere and likewise nowhere. Whatsoever can participate it at all attains it in its entirety and finds it present as a whole. . . .4

The first cosmic cause is the revolution of the All-Soul, and the greater cyclic periods are causes of the lesser, not vice-versa, and so the primary revolution is recapitulated on successively smaller scales. In this way theoretical principles point to a system of analogies which was once grasped intuitively.

Time, Creation, and Causal Transmission

Some of the most far-reaching implications of causality apply to the transmission of a world-order through all its different levels of being, and not in ways that present problems for common sense. The causal powers behind the cosmic process can be understood on two different levels, namely, that of the archetypal causes which both act in and transcend what is caused by them, forming no part thereof, and the relative, whereby the state of the world at any given moment is the cause of its state at a later moment. However, it will be seen that there are general theorems on causality which apply to it on both levels equally:

Whatever is complete proceeds to generate those things which it is capable of producing, imparting in its turn the one original principle of the universe,5 [and] every producing cause brings into existence things like to itself before the unlike.6

Here is expressed in the most direct manner the necessity for a causal basis for the self-propagation of the cosmic process and the necessity for this cause to excel in power whatever follows from it. That no productive power can produce anything greater than itself or equal to itself is thus the basis of the idea that the beginning of a world-cycle is also its most perfect state or ‘golden age’. The first age is closer by nature to the eternal prototype of the world as a whole than is any subsequent age, each successive time being the cause of another which deviates further from the norm, in essentials at least, in comparison with those before it. This is an application of the principle that ‘something does not come out of nothing,’ which excludes the idea that a richer and more complex state of the world could be produced by one which was less so.

The principles of cause and effect related to this show that the cyclic order of time is not so much an addition to the creationist doctrine as a rigorous consequence of it. It is even clearer that this idea of causality and cyclic time are inseparable, since any productive cause logically implies a series of sub-causes through which its activity is distributed in so many downward steps. This aspect is expressed by Proclus as follows:

The originative cause of each series communicates its distinctive property to the entire series; and what the cause is primitively, the series is by remission.7

The examples of this principle that most easily come to mind lie more in the personal realm than the cosmic. It is specially significant for theories of personal development, for which personality is shaped by events in early childhood, the early happiness or trauma being the ‘originative cause’ and all the subsequent times of the person’s life being the ‘series’. Nevertheless, the scope of this conception is universal. By means of it we can see the reason for the irreversibility of time, when time is not abstracted from its content. It is at one with the irreversibility of cause and effect, which is itself based on the necessity for a productive cause to produce only what is subordinate by nature to itself.

If the series is ‘by remission’ what the cause is ‘primitively’, the same distinction will be reproduced between successive members of the series, producing a uniform pattern and direction of change. This continues until the originative cause is hardly discernible at all in its last consequences. In this way, every degree and modality of the original will have been realized as an object or action. Apart from the very first and very last members of the series, each of its members is both an effect in relation to the one before it and a cause in relation to the one after it, albeit subject to the restriction that these relations are understood as causes more or less in the scientific sense of the word, and not as Form to instantiation.

There are many examples to illustrate this action of causality in the way natural forces spread their effects. The power of an explosion or an earthquake is experienced at its true level at its center, not some miles away; the heat of a fire is most like the thing itself at close quarters, not at a distance; things which deteriorate with use work best when new or newly restored; the ageing of the body results from its having repeatedly to make copies of copies of its DNA pattern, which grow less true with the passage of time.

The way in which I have ascribed causal power to the state of the world at one time in relation to its state at subsequent times agrees with the common sense idea of causality, and partially with the scientific, in spite of the fact that the latter recognizes only efficient causality. The action of the Forms produces effects, but not in the same way as this, and in order that they too can be included in the causal category the idea of cause is best enlarged after the manner of Aristotle. Applied to the example of the potter and the clay, four different kinds of cause can be found for the finished product, these being (a) the Formal Cause, which is the design of the vessel in the potter’s mind, (b) the Material Cause, which is the clay it is made of, (c) the Efficient Cause, which is the manual skill and activity of the potter, and (d) the Final Cause, which is the purpose for which the completed vessel is intended.

Subject to this analysis, it can be seen that cause-and-effect relations between earlier and later events in time all belong in category (c), that of Efficient Causality. Formal causality is, however, required in this connection as well, because the things brought into being through temporal change owe their being just as much to the ideas or Forms they embody as to the physical activity involved. Similar remarks could be made for the other two kinds of cause, but they are outside the limits of the present purpose, for which it is enough to concentrate on the way in which the prime force of causality takes precedence in time. Most of what follows in the later chapters will be a detailing of the consequences of this and its associated causal principles.

Causality Theory and Theology

The cyclic conception thus derives on the one hand from a study of the nature of causality, such as that of Proclus, and on the other from a universal analogy with days and seasons together with innumerable natural processes. The latter more empirical approach is the more effective insofar as time is not conceived as an abstraction apart from the phenomenal flow of nature. Taken together, these two approaches make a combination of the a priori and the empirical which places the subject in a region where philosophy and science cover similar ground. In its relation to theology, it shows how belief in creation is the key to a cosmology with a rigorous causal principle. One part of the cyclic idea, that of ontological descent, follows directly from this, while that of periodic reascent does so more indirectly.

This conception of the world avoids making it the closed-in mechanism it is for Deism, since it is animated throughout by the continual self-extension of the first act of creation, and at the same time it avoids the identification of Creator with creation made by Pantheism. In relation to this form of the cyclic idea, both Pantheism and Deism can be seen to be extreme positions which equally distort the truth from opposite points of view. If this alternative to Pantheism and Deism is nevertheless ruled by necessary causes, that is simply the condition for there being a cosmos. As such, it is the ‘ground-level’ of reality upon which more personal and more spiritual modes of existence may or may not be developed. The determined cosmic movement is in reality no worse than neutral in regard to the spiritual aspirations of human beings, though this fact is often obscured by the way in which the cosmos impresses itself on some minds to a degree which stifles their own sense of identity. The sentiments, common among both materialists and fundamentalists, according to which cosmic necessity must be surrendered to or utterly denied are in either case merely results of an immaturity which is itself part of a failure to develop one’s awareness in the different realms open to it. Thus there result two contrary reactions to the same deluded over-estimation of a physical reality.

In any case, doctrinal suspicions are inconsistent in this realm, as can be seen where the natural sciences construct a world of physical necessity without any necessary denial of man’s spiritual nature. Even more basically, the universal necessity upon human life to be born, physically mature, reproduce, and die is never made grounds for the denials of free will which are sometimes ascribed to the idea of cyclic time. The objection is thus inconsistent. Failures to develop the freedom of the will are owing to the will itself, not to the universe.


1. F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 37c–38c, pp. 104–105.

2. F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, quoting Timaeus 37c–38c.

3. Ibid.

4. Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 98.

5. Ibid., prop. 25.

6. Ibid., prop. 28.

7. Ibid., prop. 97.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!