Cosmic Descent in Western Tradition

The Four Mythical Ages

Possibly from an analogy with the four seasons, there is a universal myth which teaches that the world began with a golden age, which was followed by ages of silver, bronze or brass, and iron. The qualities of these metals were understood as symbols of the prevailing qualities of the four ages, and have no connection with the bronze and iron ages of archaeology, which simply result from the periods when these metals came into general use. The sequence of ages involves the idea of a certain constant deterioration of the world which man cannot prevent, at least on the collective scale. The golden age is said to owe its quality to that of the beginning of the world when nature and the supernatural were still in harmony, and all things had the fullest degree of perfection possible for them. Among its sources in Greek literature, it appears in the poetry of Hesiod, who wrote in the eighth century bc. A fifth, or heroic age, is added by him to the four, between the ages of bronze and iron, but it does not alter the picture of decline from the original state of the world:

First of all, the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with arms and legs never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.

The ages following this one end with that of ‘the race of iron’, when ‘men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night’:

The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with the father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city.

Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man. . . and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.1

It is said in the same place that ‘the race of iron’ will so degenerate that even the new-born will bear the marks of old age, until finally Zeus destroys it. Aidos and Nemesis are said to take leave of the world, representing the loss of any sense of shame at wrong-doing and of any righteous indignation at wickedness. Far from being peculiar to the Greeks, this is in full agreement with other traditions, not least with biblical tradition, but before that, I will compare the above with a later development in Greek thought which has connections with it.

A Platonic View of Universal Time

The full extent of the ever-recurrent course of cycles appears in the view of the world contained in Plato’s dialogues. It is to be taken as a myth, but it must nevertheless be a myth about realities for which we cannot have historical knowledge, owing to the totally disruptive character of the changes involved:

When the time allotted to these events was fulfilled. . . the helmsman of the world, abandoning the rudder, so to speak, withdrew to his lookout post, while the universe was turned back in the opposite direction by its destiny and natural tendency. All the local deities, who assisted the supreme divinity in his rule, recognizing at once what was happening, likewise abandoned the parts of the world entrusted to their care. Turning this somersault, which involved a complete reversal of its direction, the world produced within itself a mighty upheaval, which once again destroyed animals of every kind. Later on, after the passage of sufficient time, when this cataclysmic upheaval had ceased, the universe followed its normal and appointed course, watching over and controlling both itself and all that it contained, remembering as best it could the instructions of its author and father. At first it managed to carry out those instructions exactly; but toward the end its fallibility gradually increased owing to the corporeal principles of its constitution and to the inherited characteristics of its primitive nature, which included a large element of disorder before attaining the present cosmic order. From its maker it received all that it has of beauty; but all the ills and evils of the world flow from its former state, whence it receives them and whereby it produces them in living beings. Insofar, therefore, as it enjoyed the aid of its helmsman in nourishing the living creatures it contains, it engendered (with few exceptions) nothing but great good. Once separated from him, on the other hand, it begins by still doing all for the best; but as time goes on and it becomes subject to forgetfulness, so do the remnants of its primitive chaos gradually regain control, until at length confusion bursts into full flower. Then indeed benefits are few and far between, and so numerous are the evils of which it is compounded that it is in danger of destroying itself together with all it contains. Wherefore the god who organized it, seeing its perilous situation, begins to fear lest it break up amid the waves that buffet it, and sink in the bottomless ocean of dissemblance. So he takes his place once more at the helm: regrouping the parts that have been damaged or dislodged in the cycle just completed, he puts it in order and restores it in such a way as to render it immortal and imperishable.2

This account endorses both the ideas of alternating decline and restoration and indefinite repetition of the general order of universal change. It appears that Plato thinks of each cycle as divided symmetrically into two halves, one of making and the other of unmaking, each being of 36,000 years. The immortality he attributes to the universe is owing to the way in which it always rises to new life after every decline to death, owing to the action of the demiurge, although with the difference that it is a living creature with a consciousness of its own by which it can collaborate with the periodic transformations. It has also been observed3 that there is more than a hint of these cosmic reversals in Hesiod’s idea that the signs of old age appear at the start of life when the world itself is nearing the end of its cycle.

The substance of the material world is at bottom a thing of chaos, but while it is conceived to be under God’s direct control it is mastered by the informing and ordering principle. However, this never means that this chaos is abolished, but on the contrary, as soon as the creative power is relaxed it begins to break loose again and reveal its presence ever more widely, in a manner already referred to in the reduction of instanced Form in relation to matter. This shows how Plato understood the meaning of what is known today as rising entropy, millennia before it was scientifically formulated. The descent into chaos or ever-greater randomness can only be reversed while natural forces are acted on by a spiritual reality; nature by itself can only deteriorate.

One aspect of this which can only be mentioned in passing is that the cosmic reversal from a positive to a negative circulation is, according to Plato, also manifest in an inverse manner in the life of an individual person. The birth of a human being throws the revolution of his soul’s motion into a negative, disorderly direction, while the process of growth and the acquisition of wisdom reverses it again and brings back its true order. In this connection, what Plato says in the above should be closely compared with what he says about the ‘circles of the soul’ in the Timaeus. This is one respect in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm in reverse, because an autonomous tendency of self-motion is a necessary condition for the self-individuation of spiritual substances, which can be said to consist in a specific flow of volition, as I have explained elsewhere.4 This opposing tendency which arises from the soul’s self-motion is also linked to what was said in chapter 2 about the returning movement which balances the outgoing movement of creation. While the full realization of this returning order of motion is anything but automatic in the individual life, it serves to underline the point that the cosmic deterioration cannot necessarily inflict itself on the individual. Insofar as the downward cosmic movement does replicate itself in human life, however, the signs which manifest it are known universally, as can be seen in what follows.

The End Time in Biblical History

The biblical account of world history corresponds to the cyclic one inasmuch as this history begins with the earthly paradise of Eden and is followed by ages corresponding to those of silver, bronze and iron, each marked by successively shorter lifespans ascribed to mankind. The earliest patriarchs after the Fall are said to have lived for over nine hundred years, and although these figures may not be intended as literal, they convey the idea that cosmic conditions were profoundly different at that time.

The same conception is apparent in the vision of world history in the book of Daniel5 in the form of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The figure seen in this dream symbolized the succession of ruling empires, and was made of all four of the symbolic metals, having a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. This prefigured the empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, with a final prolongation added to the latter, adding a fifth element to the basic four. The last of these four is presented as the most evil of them, symbolized by its iron quality, and this is matched by the fourth and most destructive of the four apocalyptic beasts which appear in a later vision,6 where they also correspond to four empires.

This not only illustrates the universality of the four metals as symbols of the world order throughout time, it also shows that the pattern of change governing the world as a whole is continually recapitulated on a smaller scale, since the empires represented by the four main parts of the figure occupy only the period from about 600 bc to 400 ad. The ‘golden age’ of this vision, equated as it was with the period of the Babylonian Empire, comes nowhere near the Edenic or original golden age of this world, but it follows from what has been said of the cyclic law that it should recur on varying scales of magnitude within the same universal cycle. While this concept has a clear biblical basis up to a point, doctrine has mostly limited it to the perspective of one universal cycle, and has not considered the idea of its being a member of a succession of worlds or re-creations.

There was some practical justification for this position in times before the idea of other worlds contemporaneous with this one became current, because a belief in the uniqueness of this life can give an added urgency to the question of its meaning and purpose, though this is not supported by modern cosmology. The idea of worlds or creations multiplied in time is in fact no more than the natural correlate of their being multiplied in space. What has been said already about infinity and finitude is equally applicable to time and space, so they should not be treated separately. The orthodox view of universal history takes it as beginning and ending in eternity, and this union between beginning and ending is enough to accommodate it to the cyclic order.

What is said about the last times of this world is broadly similar in both Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, as I shall try to show. The prophecy against Gog7 presents a picture of evil as in the form of a world power expanding to an unprecedented degree before bringing about its own destruction. A similar vision is rendered in Daniel, and some of its features reappear in Revelations. In the Apocrypha, the same tradition is taught in the book of Esdras:

Nevertheless, as concerning the tokens, behold the days shall come, that they which dwell upon earth shall be taken in a great number, and the way of truth shall be hidden, and the land shall be barren of faith.

But iniquity shall be increased above that which now thou seest, or that thou hast heard long ago.

And all friends shall destroy one another; then shall wit hide itself, and understanding withdraw itself into his secret chamber, and shall be sought of many, and yet not be found: then shall unrighteousness and incontinency be multiplied on earth. . . .

At the same time men shall hope, but nothing obtain: they shall labor, but their ways shall not prosper.8

The progressive detachment of religion from tradition, combined with a belittlement and incomprehension of it, and a consequent spread of moral anarchy characterize the end time according to the New Testament as well. The fate of religion reveals in high profile the latent collective condition, while the relentless contraction in the general mental horizon means that life is robbed of many vital realities. The involution of a world and the involution of the faculties by which that world is known are equally part of the same invariable pattern. Early Christians who thought they were living at the end of the world were not mistaken in the general nature of the ‘signs of the times’ they read, therefore, even if they were so in the application of them:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, un-holy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, and fierce haters of good.9

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.10

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared.11

For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called God or object of worship. . . proclaiming himself to be God. . . . Therefore God sends upon them strong delusion. . . .12

The Gospels confirm these indications and link them to a corresponding disorder in nature as well, according to the constant relation of inward and outward realities:

For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. . . . For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.13

For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders. . . . Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.14

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood. . . nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts.15

No change in the moral disposition of mankind is brought about by the first cosmic irruptions, and the process of dissolution then continues to its limit:

But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men. . . . But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. . . . But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.16

The last verse anticipates both Heaven and the renewal of nature that is to follow the end of the present world-cycle, and this theme is continued in the book of the Apocalypse:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.17

There is no accident in the association between man-made and natural evils which scripture emphasizes, since the appearance of the world and the mental state in which the majority of mankind perceive it influence one another reciprocally. The real world is the sum total of the objective world and the combination of all individual representations of it, in a way which recalls the derivation of the true infinite from the union of infinite and finite in chapter two. Minds or souls have, moreover, the power of choice by which they create their own scales of value and priority in the world they experience, and these priorities may or may not be an adequate reflection of the order of realities as it is in itself. The world comprises material, psychical, and intellective realities which differ markedly among themselves in meaning and value, and if the scales of value in individuals differ extremely from this, there will result a deformation of the world which, if widespread enough, would result in a breakdown of the perceptible structure of the cosmos.

One of the passages quoted speaks of the stars falling from the heaven, a text which has been regarded from the earliest times as one not to be taken literally. However, if the natural order in itself is not capable of any such thing, the same cannot be said of its manifestation in the collective human consciousness. If it is legitimate to think of the world in human minds as a kind of conditional prolongation of the world in itself, there is no reason in principle why an extreme collective derangement of mankind’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual condition should not result in the collapse of the world as it is humanly comprehended. The fact that there is an objective world known to science would not then be an adequate objection to this, since the world of science is a logical deduction from some parts of experience, and is never itself experienced. For this reason, the close connections made in some texts between cosmic and human realities have a meaning which is in no way reducible to pre-scientific speculation. The conception of the world as representation shows how scientism and fundamentalism are not merely a false opposition, but that they are really just two opposed postures of the same one-dimensional outlook.

The Hermetic Apocalypse

The parallelism between interior and exterior goods and evils in traditional writings is no less a feature of the Hermetica, or writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient Greek version of an Egyptian wisdom tradition. I include it last in order of time as its relatively late date of composition (second or third centuries ad) is so much insisted on by modern scholarship. Here again is a vision of universal descent and universal restoration:

For she, the Holy [Land], and once deservedly the most beloved of God, by reason of her pious service of the Gods on earth—she, the sole colony of holiness, and teacher of religion [on the earth], shall be the type of all that is most barbarous.

And then, out of our loathing for mankind, the World will seem no more worthy of our wonder and our praise.

All this good thing—than which there has been fairer naught that can be seen, nor is there anything, nor will there ever be—will be in jeopardy.

And it will prove a burden unto men; and on account of this they will despise and cease to love this Cosmos as a whole—the changeless work of God; the glorious construction of the Good, comprised of multifold variety of forms: the engine of God’s Will, supporting His own work ungrudgingly: the multitudinous whole massed in a unity of all, that should be reverenced, praised and loved—by them at least who have eyes to see. For darkness will beset before the Light, and Death will be thought preferable to Life. No one will raise his eyes to Heaven; the pious man will be considered mad, and the impious a sage; the frenzied held as strong, the worst as best.

For soul, and all concerning it—whereby it doth presume that either it hath been born deathless, or that it will attain unto deathlessness, according to the argument I have set forth for you [all this] will be considered not only food for sport, but even vanity.

Nay, [if ye will] believe me, the penalty of death shall be decreed to him who shall devote himself to the Religion of the Mind.

New statutes shall come into force, a novel law; naught (that is) sacred, nothing pious, naught that is worthy of the Heaven, or Gods in Heaven, shall [e’er] be heard or [even] mentally believed.

The sorrowful departure of the Gods from men takes place: bad angels only stay, who mingled with humanity will lay their hands on them, and drive the wretched folk to every ill of recklessness to wars, and robberies, deceits, and all those things that are opposed to the soul’s nature. Then shall the earth no longer hold together; the sea no longer shall be sailed upon; nor shall the Heaven continue with the courses of the Stars, nor the Starcourse in Heaven. The voice of every God shall cease in the great Silence that no one can break; the fruits of the earth shall rot; nay, Earth no longer shall bring forth; and Air itself shall faint in that sad listlessness.

This, when it comes, shall be the World’s old age, impiety—irregularity, and lack of rationality in all good things.

And when these things all come to pass, Asclepius,—then He, [our] Lord and Sire, God First in power, and Ruler of the One God [Visible], in check of crime, and calling error back from the corruption of all things unto good manners and to deeds spontaneous with His Will [that is to say God’s Goodness]—ending all ill, by either washing it away with water-flood, or burning it away with fire, or by the means of pestilent diseases, spread throughout all hostile lands—God will recall the Cosmos to its ancient form: so that the world itself shall seem meet to be worshipped and admired: and God, the Maker and Restorer of so vast a work, be sung by the humanity who shall be then, with ceaseless heraldings of praise and [hymns of] blessing.

For this [Re-] birth of Cosmos is the making new of all good things, and the most holy and pious bringing-back again of Nature’s self, by means of a set course of time—of Nature, which was without beginning, and which is without end. For that God’s Will hath no beginning; in that ’tis the same and as it is, it is without an end.18

This text has been quoted at some length, not only for its beauty and for its agreement with the cyclic conception, but for its parallels with biblical texts, some of which have already been quoted, for example, the time of wars, persecutions, famines and earthquakes. It may also be relevant to compare ‘the great Silence that no one can break’ with Rev. 8:1, ‘there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’ There is besides a similarity between ‘nor shall the Heaven continue with the courses of the Stars’ and Rev. 8:12, ‘and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars.’

The statement that ‘the sea shall no more be sailed upon’ compares with another text from the Apocalypse, this time concerning the fall of the great Babylon, Rev. 18:17–19, ‘and all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning.’ They, along with kings and merchants are said to be left desolate by the downfall of the great city, as though a similar breakdown in civilization was prophesied by both texts.

The Hermetic text differs from the New Testament texts inasmuch as the former ends with an affirmation that the restoration of nature by God is all part of a cosmic life which goes on without end, on account of its being willed by God’s eternal will. The same position was declared in the Platonic text, and the fact that it does not appear explicitly in the New Testament may nevertheless not rule out its presence there. The ‘new heaven and new earth’ are certainly an indication that this is the case. To examine this more fully, and to determine whether the whole of time could exist in a single world-cycle without successor or predecessor will form part of a consideration of time and infinity later on.19

Disorder a Condition for New Order

From the texts quoted, it appears that the decline of civilizations is closely associated with a spread of moral corruption and a corruption of religious beliefs. But while this can be verified, moral corruption is as much an effect of as a cause of the process as a whole, which points to the existence of yet other causes of corruption in the realm of consciousness. There are other tendencies in human nature which, though apparently reasonable, are no less fatal in the long run. They spring from a flaw in the quest for self-realization.

In connection with the realization of all possibilities, I have indicated the way in which this gives rise to the uniqueness of the individual, not merely in persons, but even down to such things as pebbles and blades of grass. In conscious beings, moreover, uniqueness is not held passively, but is rather the pattern of a potentiality waiting to be lived out and fully achieved. In the extreme, this is taken to mean that the individual must seek only goals, criteria, and activities peculiar to himself and his generation, and so reject those of previous generations. Anything else would be a denial of something essential to personal identity, and this is the ontological root of the passion for originality. When human beings act in this way, they unwittingly act in accordance with the Principle of Plenitude, realizing possibilities mainly because they were hitherto unrealized in this world. When this is done, the choice of a new development will be determined more by the fact of its being untried than by the extent to which it connects with the higher values. Thus with the passage of time, the possibilities realized will become generally ‘lower’, that is, less conducive to the full intellectual, moral and aesthetic development of the individual, when the only alternative would be to continue the ‘higher’ ones which were already realized elsewhere.

It may be observed that the purpose of spirituality is largely that of realizing personal uniqueness in ways which do not require it to be exclusive, so that the present analysis may be taking too low a view of human nature. However, spirituality is not a majority occupation, and it is the behavior of majorities which is decisive from the cosmological point of view. The statistically normal tendency is to see the uniqueness of the person on the level of physical fact alone, with the consequence that it must primarily be realized in externals.

The constant selection of new alternatives which have ever less scope for universal values leads back to the question of moral corruption, and the element of punishment implicit in the downfall of civilizations, and of separate parts of civilizations. To bring together the different kinds of criteria used so far, their negative meaning can be summed up as loss of analogy, the loss of analogy between the world of sense and its archetypal cause and pattern. The religious ritual, social hierarchies, arts and sciences, which have been inherited from past ages were, among other things, humanly-devised and socially functional forms of analogy between natural life and the realm of Forms or archetypes. Ontological analogy is the only mode of connection between the eternal and the temporal, and by means of it society has a way of participating in the stability of supra-temporal reality. Nature, on the other hand, possesses this cosmic analogy as part of its very being, so that it is inherently open to God in a way that the human world is not. The secularization of civilization and the destruction of natural environments therefore work together for the suppression of analogical order in both human and non-human realms equally, as though it were decided that nothing was to be able to escape the final conditions of this age.

However, the sustaining analogical forms which attach the human world to its Formal causes are by no means confined to visible practices, symbols and organizations, because the most essential realm of cosmic analogy is the human soul, wherever it fulfils its role in transcending the natural conditions of life. By living according to its own principle, the inner being lives so as to be assimilated to the inner law of nature, a law of which all its particular laws are dependent derivations. It is for the furtherance of this growth of the soul into a membership of the formative realities of the world that all the more or less exterior analogical or symbolical forms are maintained.

Insofar as this part of the human vocation ceases to be understood, the world will be deprived of the elements by which it can continue to form a distinct reality. At the lower limit of this change, the deprivation of in-forming realities can no longer be remedied from within, and the result of this is not a cessation of being, but rather an ‘implosion’ of the Formal cause into the world which finally reverses its decline. History has shown how this has happened in relative ways where a decayed civilization is taken over by one which is still vital, but this kind of change is in principle capable of happening on a much more universal scale. With the reduction of the qualitative principle, the state of the world approximates to that of matter in the absolute sense of the word, and matter has by definition no power to prevent the entry of Forms and of entities which instance Forms to a special degree. The reduction toward matter is in reality a removal of Form which prepares the way for a new influx of it, so that the word ‘implosion’ is suited to what happens; disorder is ultimately self-correcting. In this connection, the common saying that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ shows how widely Plenitude is at least partly understood. Mankind is situated between the natural and the supernatural, and so is at the center of the universal decline and restitution described in the Platonic, Biblical, and Hermetic sources, which express the human aspect of these changes.

1. Works and Days, 109–115 and 182–201.

2. Statesman, 272e–273e.

3. See James Adam, The Nuptial Number of Plato, pt. 2, sect. 6.

4. Person, Soul and Identity, chap. 2, sects. v–vii.

5. Dan. 2.

6. Ibid., 7.

7. Ezek. 38 and 39.

8. 1 Esd. 5:1–2, 9–10, 12 (The Apocrypha, Authorized Version).

9. 1 Tim. 3 :1–4 (R.S.V., Catholic Edition).

10. Ibid., 4:3–4.

11. Ibid., 4:1–3.

12. 1 Thess. 2:3–12.

13. Matt. 24:5–7, 11.

14. Matt. 24:21–24, 29.

15. Rev. 9:20–21.

16. 1 Pet. 3:7, 10, 13.

17. Rev. 21:1–2 (R.S.V., Catholic Edition).

18. Thrice-Greatest Hermes, G.R.S. Mead Edition, vol. 2, ‘The Perfect Sermon’, pp. xxv–xxvi.

19. See chapter 12.

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