28 Aug 2015

Augustine and the Myth of Eternal Return

by Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
One of the interesting, fascinating and indeed fearful topics in classical philosophy is the concept of eternal return. Otherwise known as eternal recurrence, it is the classical philosophical view that the universe, as well as time, moves in a circle and therefore that history is also cyclical. The universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form for an infinite number of times. The universe returns eternally to re-enact exactly the same course of events. What this means is that the universe and all the things in it—rocks, mountains, trees, animals and indeed, human beings—have, in the past, already existed for an eternal number of times in the same forms and will, both at present and in the future, continue to exist for an eternal number of times in the same forms. In other words all things we see around us in the present world—including ourselves—have existed for an eternal number of times both in the ‘past’ and in the ‘future’, dying and coming back to life again in the same forms, and will continue to ‘rotate’ in this way unto infinity. St. Augustine attacked this doctrine in the fifth century AD while exploring his philosophy of history in his famous work De Civitate Dei.

Today, Augustinianism is simply the most radically discarded and forgotten in the New Church. With the present topic, I merely intend to refresh the minds of few who may be thinking about St. Augustine today even as his feast day is being celebrated all over the Catholic world.

In his book Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian and philosopher of comparative religion, explores the Chaldean doctrine of the Great Year popularised in the third century B.C. by Berossus, a distinguished Babylonian astrologer, which spread through the entire Hellenic world (whence it later passed to the Romans and Byzantines).[1] According to this doctrine, the universe is eternal but it is periodically destroyed and reconstituted every Great Year. But a brief review of Pre-Socratic philosophy will show that the doctrine of cyclic time had much earlier roots in Greek thought (though the Greeks are said to have inherited the doctrine from ancient Egypt.).

The earliest Greek philosophers are called ‘physicists’ from the fact that the object of their thought was the physis (φύσις), the nature which constitutes the cosmos. This idea of physis fills the world of Homer and the poets who equate the natura with the divine. Physis is the entire universe conceived always as animated, living, and therefore in some sense divine. Aristotle considered this one of mankind’s most ancient and sacred traditions. Some historians of philosophy seem to hold that these early Greek thinkers denoted by physis a static and motionless substance. But that is not so. The primary meaning of physis is ‘growth’, and its first associations are of life and motion, not of stillness and death. ‘The mere use of this term already implies the famous doctrine which has earned for the Milesian school the designation ‘Hylozoist’—the doctrine that the all is alive.’[2] 

Originally, Greek philosophy was entirely compatible with the concept of historical growth, process and change. Aristotle made this very clear when he pointed out that growth is the etymological sense of physis. ‘Nature means the genesis of growing things’, he writes, ‘the meaning which could be suggested if one were to pronounce the Y in physis long...from what has been said, it is plain that ‘nature’ in the primary and strict sense is the essence of things which have in themselves, as such, a source of movement; and...processes of becoming and growing are called nature because they are movements proceeding from this.’[3]      

Thus Greek philosophy deals with process here on earth and in historical mankind. Process leads directly to history. It concerns the genesis, growth, development and maturation of things. History concerns such developmental processes when they take place in human groups. The Greek philosophers, however, were never able to rise to a linear and purposive concept of time and therefore of history, but rather succumbed more and more to cyclism, to the myth of the eternal return.

The human experience and observation of time was variously interpreted both by the physicists and later philosophers. Parmenides of Elea, an Italiote Greek philosopher of the 6th – 5th  century BC, and Zeno, his fellow townsman and disciple, held that change is logically inconceivable and that logic is a surer indicator of reality than experience. Thus despite appearances, reality is unitary and motionless. In this view, time is an illusion. On the contrary, Empedocles of Acragas, broke up the indivisible, motionless and timeless reality of Parmenides and Zeno into four elements played upon alternatively by Love and Strife, thereby giving the Atomists of the fifth century, Leucippus of Miletus and Democritus of Abdera, a short step to break up reality still further into an innumerable host of minute atoms moving in time through a vacuum. Granting that one single atom had once made a single slight ‘swerve’, the build-up of observed phenomenon could be accounted for on Darwinian lines. Darwin’s account of evolution survives in the fifth book of De Rerum Natura, written by a first century Roman poet, Lucretius.[4] The credibility of Democritus’ and Darwin’s accounts of evolution depends on the assumption that time is real and that its flow has been extraordinarily long. But as we shall briefly demonstrate here, Greek thinker hardly conceived such a concept of time.       

The first Pre-Socratics were citizens of Miletus, a trading port where Oriental and Egyptian influences mingled with Greek thought. The upshot was a bold, speculative cosmology, and conviction that rational explanation must start with the identification of the one primary substance, identified by Thales—as in the Babylonian myths—as water. 

Thales held that the universe is alive, that it has a soul and is full of gods. Anaximenes held that the primary substance was ‘air’ or ‘mist’ while Anaximander called it the indefinite or limitless thing (ἄπειρος). Thus it was Anaximander who first stated a systematic theory of the nature of the world—not only of the stuff it is made up of but also of the process of its growth out of the ‘limitless thing’ into the manifold of definite things. The ‘limitless thing’ is eternal and it is from it that all things came and into which they shall return. 

‘The vision of reality given us by the first philosophical speculation of the Greeks is a historical view’, writes Prof. Diano. ‘That nature (φύσις) which Anaximander and Anaximenes sought to explain ...is actually the birth of things considered in the principle which generates them. But time closes itself into a circle...And thus this historicity becomes cyclical. Because worlds are generated, grow and die away while the principle abides, it is the divine’.[5] 

There are three grades of existence in the philosophy of Anaximander. First, there are things (οντα), that is, the multiplicity of individual things we see around us. These are declared to perish into those things out of which they came into being. And those secondary things out of which natural objects came into being are the earth, air, water and fire—the primitive elements of which all bodies are composed, which were recognised long before philosophy began. The visible world groups itself into masses of comparatively homogenous stuffs, each occupying a region of its own. First, there is the great lump of earth, above it the water, then the space of wind and mist and cloud; beyond that we have the blazing fire of heaven, the aether. These are the secondary elements out of which individual things were born and into which they shall return.
However, the elements themselves are not eternal nor is their separation into distinct regions more than a transient arrangement. On the contrary, they themselves are destined to return into that from which they came—the third and ultimate stage of existence, which Anaximander identified simply as ‘‘incorruptible and undying, the limitless thing’’. Thus in the process of growth, first of all the formless, limitless, indefinite thing separates first into the elemental forms, distributed in their appointed regions, the elemental forms again give birth to the multiplicity of individual things and, when they die, receive them back again. And the process will continue in this way unto infinity.  
In a sole surviving fragment of Anaximander we read: 
‘Things perish into those things out of which they have their birth, according to that which is ordained; for they give reparation to one another and pay the penalty of injustice, according to the disposition of time’.[6] 
Thus Anaximander, in his cyclic view, holds that things perish into those things from which they were born, according to the decree of fate (moira). Those things from which they were born are the elements—water, earth, fire and air—and these themselves are not eternal, nor is their separation into distinct regions more than a transient arrangement. On the contrary, the elements themselves are destined to return into that from which they came—the limitless thing, the third and ultimate stage of existence. After that, the limitless thing again separates—first into the elemental forms, distributed in their appointed regions; these again give birth to things, and, when they die, receive them back again, and then return to the limitless thing. And reality will continue to rotate in this way unto infinity.  This is Anaximander’s concept of eternal return.     

Leaving the Ionian philosophers, we find even more pronounced among the Pythagoreans the cycle of eternal return interwoven with the complementary concept of transmigration. Born at Samos about 580BC, Pythagoras emigrated to Croton in southern Italy in 531 and there founded a religious society. Membership of the society entailed self-discipline, silence, and the observance of various taboos, especially against eating flesh and beans. Pythagoras taught the doctrine of metempsychosis, the cycle of reincarnation otherwise known as transmigration of the soul, whereby upon death the soul takes up residence in a new body. Pythagoras himself was supposed able to remember former experiences in the spiritual world. Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus and one of the chief exponents of Neo-Platonism, tells us that Pythagoras’ followers were accustomed to swear by him as the god who had left with them a symbol applicable to the solution of many problems in nature. This was the tetractys. The original tetractys seems to have been the tetractys of the decad, obtained by the addition, 1+2+3+4=10. It is a numerical series, the sum of which is the perfect number ten, which Pythagoras regarded as ‘the nature of number, because all men, whether Hellenes or not, count up to ten, and when they reach it, revert again to unity’. The Pythagorean Hippodamus tells us that this ‘revision’ is to be conceived as the revolution of a wheel:
‘All mortal things under constraints of nature revolve in a wheel of changes. When they are born they grow, and when grown they reach their height, and after that they grow old, and at last perish. At one time nature causes them to come to their goal in her region of darkness, and then back again out of the darkness they come round into mortal form, by alternation of birth and repayment of death, in the cycle wherein nature returns upon herself.’[7]            

Thus the whole nature of things, all the essential properties of physis are contained in the tetractys of the decad, which is the ‘fountain of ever-flowing nature’ and contains the periodic movement of life, evolving out of unity and reverting to unity again, in the recurrent revolution of a wheel of birth.  This is the Pythagorean concept of eternal return. Eudemus of Rhodes, a pupil of Aristotle who has a strong claim to have succeeded him as head of the Lyceum, wrote at that time:

‘The Pythagoreans teach that things return in a cycle individually identical. I therefore shall find myself staff in hand narrating the same myths to you in the future and you will be seated then just as you are now. Everything will be the same. It follows that time itself will be the same...for change itself recurs one and the same.’[8]                                              

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus of Ephesus, a philosopher of the Logos who flourished about 500BC, seems likewise to teach the cyclic concept. The frame of his cosmological scheme is temporal—the cycle of existence, that cycle whose beginning and end are the same; indeed, he appears to have identified time with his one primary substance, the unifying element in all things, the Logos or everlasting fire which is always being partly kindled and partly quenched. The movement round this cycle is not the mechanical motion of body, but the movement of life itself—the movement of the one, living and divine, soul substance, embodied in fire, which perpetually dies into all other transformations and is reborn again.    

Fire is actually the Logos and is the principle of justice. Its chief embodiment is the sun, and through all the cycle of its transformations it preserves its measures and will not overstep these measures, otherwise ‘the spirit of vengeance, the ministers of justice would find him out’. Later writers identified this ‘justice’ with ‘Fate’ (moira) Theophrastus in particular tells us that ‘‘He lays down a certain order and a determined time for the changing of the world, according to a certain fated necessity’’. Again, in Diogenes Laertius we read:

‘The all is finite, and the world is one. It arises from fire and is consumed again by fire, alternatively, through all eternity, in certain cycles. This happens according to fate’.[9] 

Thus, for Heraclitus reality passes from the living state to the dead, and round again. He maintains that this is no sorrowful weary wheel, from which any escape could be possible, for it is a movement of life, and life can take no other course, no upward flight into a mansion in the stars. This becomes more vivid in an important fragment which testifies to his denial of the creation of matter:

‘This ordered universe (cosmos) was not created by any one of the gods or mankind, but it was ever, and shall be ever living fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure’.[10]

This implies that all things that have perished in the past—inanimate objects, all dead animals and human beings, including Heraclitus—will come back to this world to repeat all the things they did in the precious world. This, we shall see, is more pronounced in the philosophy of Zeno the Stoic.   

Greek philosophy, even in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, never breaks free of cyclism nor rises to the concept of the creation of heaven and earth and all things by Almighty God.
Born in 469BC, Socrates represented the turning point in Greek philosophy, at which the self-critical reflection on the nature of our concepts and our reasoning emerged as a major concern, alongside cosmological speculation and enquiry.

Despite his ingenuity, in Socrates we see the cyclic doctrine lay implicit in the old doctrine of reincarnation which he drew out when, on the day of his death, he discusses with his Pythagorean friends the mystic view of life on earth and in the other world of the unseen.[11] Here Socrates relates ‘an ancient tradition’ that souls go to the under-world and come back to this world again and are born from the dead.[12] He argues that if the living are born again from the dead, then human souls certainly exist in the spiritual world, for they could not be born again if they do not exist there. The fact that they are born from the dead is a sufficient proof that they exist there. [13]

Apart from human beings, Socrates also considers all animals and plants and all things which are born or generated. Using the argument that contraries are produced from contraries, he argues that all things in the physical world are generated from the spiritual world; likewise, all things in the spiritual world are generated from the physical world, and vice-versa. For instance, the living are the opposite of the dead and the dead the opposite of the living. Thus the living are generated from the dead and the dead from the living. Sleeping is the opposite of being awake and being awake the opposite of sleeping. Thus sleeping is generated from being awake and being awake from sleeping. Similarly, the noble is the opposite of the disgraceful and the disgraceful the opposite of the noble. Thus the noble is generated from the disgraceful and the disgraceful from the noble. All things in the universe have opposites. Thus all things move in a circle. Between these pairs of opposites there are two kinds of generations, from one to the other and back again from the other to the first. And reality will continue to rotate in this way unto infinity. Socrates argues that if generation did not proceed from opposite to opposite and back again, but always went forward in a straight line, without turning back or curving, then in the end all things would have the same form and be acted upon in the same way and stop being generated at all. For instance, he says,

‘If the process of falling asleep existed, but not the opposite process of waking from sleep, then in the end that would make the sleeping Endymion mere nonsense; he would be nowhere, for everything else would be in the same state as him, sound sleep.’[14]

Or, he goes on:

‘…if all things were mixed together and never separated, the saying of Anaxagoras that all things are chaos would soon come true.’[15]

In the same way, he maintains, if all things that have life should die, and when they have died, the dead should remain in that condition, then it is inevitable that in the end all things would be dead and nothing would be alive; for if the living were generated from any other thing than from the dead, and the living were to die, then there cannot be any escape from the final result that all things would be swallowed up in death.

Thus the return to life is an actual fact, and it is a fact that the living are generated from the dead and the dead from the living. All things move in a circle.

The above view was of course explored by Plato in his work Phaedo. Born about 427BC, at Athens, Plato, ‘the king of thought’, stands with Socrates and Aristotle as one of the shapers of the whole western intellectual tradition.
In Plato, we find the cyclic doctrine lies at the very root of his theory of knowledge based on pre-existence. In his work Phaedrus we read:

‘For the revolution of the spheres carries the immortal souls around, and they behold the world beyond, and the intelligent soul...feeding upon the sight of truth, is replenished, until the revolution of the world brings her round again to the same place’.[16]   

Again, this is the concept of eternal return. But, as Eugene Kevane points out, Plato at times speaks of Fate in terms of an iron necessity, then again recovers his native humanism sufficiently to deplore astral fatalism and to deny eternal recurrence in the strict sense of Stoicism.

Next to Plato, Aristotle, born in 384 BC, at Stagira in Chalcidice, is one of the most influential philosophers of the Western tradition.
Aristotle assembled the instruments of thoughts for breaking the spell of the cyclic view with his penetrating metaphysical analysis of the causes and his powerful passages on the mode of existence and the operation of the eternal Prime Mover. In his work, Prote Philosophia (First Philosophy), Aristotle explores the nature of the real, the essential substance of the universe. At the base of his doctrine is the distinction between matter and form. He finds in the universe a hierarchy of existences, each of which is the ‘matter’ of that next above it, and imparts form and change to that next below. At the lower end of the scale is the primary formless matter, which has no real but only logical existence. At the upper end is the primary Unmoved Mover, an eternal activity of thought, free from matter, giving motion to the universe through an attraction akin to love. This primary Unmoved Mover he identifies with God (though Aristotle does not mention the name ‘God’).

Aristotle argues that, whatever is moved is moved by something else. A being that is moved is moved by another being and that other being is also in turn moved by yet another being which is itself also moved by another, and so on. Thus there are series of movers in the universe, and if we keep on tracing the series, we are bound to come to the very beginning of motion, the first in the series of movers who is Himself not being moved by any other being. This is the First Mover, the Unmoved Mover. Thus Aristotle held that God is the original cause of motion in the universe, while He Himself is not being moved by any other being, since He is not subject to motion. He then argues that since God is a spiritual being, He cannot have physical contact with the material world. Hence He causes motion in the universe by the attraction of His infinite perfection. God is purely perfect, and His perfection attracts the world and pulls it into motion. Thus He moves all things in the universe by the attraction of His infinite perfection, while He Himself is unmoved by anything.

The above doctrine—though with its brief errors—certainly reveals the ingenuity of the philosopher. However, Aristotle was unable to use his tools to full effect and cannot really be exempted from the error of cyclism. On the contrary, he too, like all the others, professes the doctrine openly. We see the cyclic doctrine lies implicit in his work ΜΕΤΕΩΡΟΛΟΓΙΚΩΝ (Meterologica):

‘For we maintain’, he writes, ‘that the same opinions recur in rotation among men, not once or twice or occasionally, but infinitely often.’[17]

Stoicism is a unified, logical, physical and moral philosophy. Founded in Athens about 315BC, as a school of philosophy it includes some of the most distinguished intellectuals of antiquity. Founded by Zeno, who was born about 335 BC, at Citium on the Island of Cyprus, this philosophical movement attracted Cleanthes and Aristo in Athens and later found such advocates in Rome as Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

As a youth, Zeno was inspired by the ethical teachings and particularly by the courageous death of Socrates. This influence helped to fix the overwhelming emphasis of Stoic philosophy upon ethics, though the members addressed themselves to all three divisions of philosophy formulated by Aristotle’s Lyceum, namely logic, physics and ethics.

In their physical theory the Stoics conceived the universe as a great living organism, composed of soul and body, both of a material nature, which represent the active and the passive elements. The body (earth and water) represents the passive element, and the soul (fire and air) represents the active element. The active element supervises the passive element and in fact, exists in every object in the universe. It is the presence of the pneuma that holds both animate and inanimate objects together. Thus both humans and plants have the pneuma in them. For humans, the pneuma operates in the form of psyche, which is why humans have the ability to think. The soul of the universe, though of a material nature, has all the divine attributes. They held the pantheistic doctrine that ‘god’ is immanent in the world, and this ‘god’ is conceived as the Heraclitean Fire which contains the germs of all things and actuates their becoming. Reason and providence are the coordinators of all things unto good. Hence everything that happens is the best that can happen. Everything that happens happens for the good of the universe and happens to keep the world soul going. Thus there is nothing bad in the universe. On the contrary, everything in the universe is good. What we call evil is ordained for the attainment of the universal good of nature and consequently is not a real evil at all. Every activity is reduced to movement and finds its root in mechanical necessity. What happens must happen and it is not possible for it to happen otherwise.

The cosmology of the Stoics was firmly deterministic and orderly, as the eternal course of things passes through returning creative cycles, in accordance with the creative principle or Logos Spermatikos. Here lies the doctrine of eternal return. All things in the universe originated from the pneuma (the original Fire), through Fire, and will eventually return to this original Fire through a universal conflagration. After the universal conflagration, the process will start again, and everything will be reconstructed to be exactly as they were before. The same people in the previous world will re-appear in the reconstructed world doing exactly the same things they did before. Then comes another universal conflagration that will return all things to their sources—that is, to the pneuma or Fire or Logos. Then the process of reconstruction will begin again, to be followed later by another conflagration and another reconstruction.[18]

Thus the universe, at the end of each of the never-ending series of cycles, is absorbed into the divine fire, and then starts on a fresh course exactly reproducing its predecessor. This concept has been expressed by Shelley at the end of his Hellas:

‘Worlds on worlds are rolling over
From creation to decay
Like the bubbles on a river
Sparkling, bursting, borne away’.[19] 

Chrysippus, Zeno’s disciple who is sometimes simply regarded as the second founder of Stoicism, summarises his philosophy this way:

‘The substance (i.e. the world) is transformed by fire to its original state and from it returns again in the identical order as before...At periodical intervals of time there is a conflagration in which all things perish, then return again to form this same world. For just as the stars turn around in the same orbits, so the events of the cycle just past recur identically the same. Socrates and Plato will exist anew, and so too all men, identically, with the same friends and neighbours. And the same things will be believed and discussed, and every city, every landscape will rise again identical. This return of all things happens not just once but many times—in fact, things will recur in this way forever without any end unto infinity’.[20]

With the above doctrine, history cannot be composed of unique, contingent events. Neither time nor history has any real significance.

‘Fate is the Logos of the world’, continues Chrysippus, ‘Fate is the Logos of the things which providence administers in the world...Fate is the eternal motion, continuous and ordered...The series of the causes. Chance is but a cause unknown to human reasoning...God is defined as providence: the purpose of divinity is to give order to the course of things and to provide for human affairs.’[21] 

‘In this fashion the philosophical thought of classical antiquity was corrupting the very words used to express the ancient religious belief in a personal, flexible divine providence’, writes Eugene Kevane, ‘compatible with the contingency of human life and history, utterly different from this mechanical fatalism which has hardened reality and even human history into these inexorable cycles. Man is called “free” by the Stoics, but in the manner of the modern Marxists: free to obey necessity willingly, recognising this “nature of history”, lest he has to submit unwillingly’.[22] 

Monsignor Eugene Kevane notes that the spread of this doctrine of eternal return represents the corruption of traditional religious thought:

‘Instead of teaching divine interventions freely entering and ordering human affairs, thinking had declined into myths which destroy the meaningfulness of time and history and hence of personal living. In the cyclic and fatalistic view of time there can be no hope and no real happiness for man. He has left only to turn to the transitory things of the earthly life and to live in them as though there were no God’.[23]

The doctrine of eternal return was simply common to all Greek thinkers, both the great and the minor—we lack time and space to demonstrate more of this here. As Prof. Padovani puts it:

‘The doctrine of eternal return, aside from a few insignificant exceptions, dominates all Greek thought. The endless turning of all becoming before the Immutable One, the everlasting repetition of all things and all events—this is the mind of antiquity. From this there follows the failure to achieve a rational concept of human history, because the human actors therein depend on the irrationality of matter, not created by God: they are born, they live, they die, without reason and without purpose. This is the fundamental basis of that concept of fate, the irrational necessity which presses darkly on all events and binds them like iron. This is that fearful and obscure destiny upon which in the end even the gods, suffering like men, depend. For even the Greek gods have ended bound up within the cosmic cycles of the eternal return.’[24]

As quite absurd as this doctrine may sound, it should be noted that it is in no way dead in our own time. Eternal return was “resurrected” and taught by the philosopher and classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, and was believed and applauded by many. Nietzsche embraced the doctrine in 1882, which he explored in the notebooks making up The Will to Power, and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—his aim being, unlike the Greek philosophers, to rubbish Christianity.
Augustine’s Refutation of the Cyclic Theory

In his book Christianity and Classical Culture (A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine), Prof. C. Cochrane, an Oxford classicist, traces the movement of thought from Augustus to Augustine, from the time when classical thought was at the height of its glory to the time when it had disintegrated into nihilism and scepticism and—in the work of Augustine—a new chapter was opened in the story of civilization. Classical thought, for all its splendid achievements, had been unable to overcome dichotomies between being and becoming, between reason and will, between the intelligible or spiritual world and the material world known by the senses. Human history was an unending struggle of virtue against fortune, of the skill and courage and cunning of the human will against the blind power of fate which would—in the end—always prevail. This inward and spiritual decay was matched by all too visible disasters until in Augustine’s own time the eternal city of Rome, the very citadel of classical civilization was captured and sacked by the barbarians.[25]  

Among the intellectual battles fought by Augustine by this time, which are simply beyond the scope of the present work, was his discovery of the meaning of time. Indeed, the intellectual revolution he pioneered in this field is of more than mere historical interest. Before his time, it was commonly believed in the ancient world, and in almost all cultures, that time moves in a circle and therefore that history is also cyclical. Against this myth of the eternal return, which fascinated philosophers for centuries, Augustine launched a vigorous attack, an attack on the circuitus temporum, as he calls it, ‘those arguments with which the ungodly try to turn our simple piety from the straight road, and to make us join them in walking in circles, arguments which, if reason would not refute, faith could afford to laugh at.’  

According to Augustine, the real basis of this theory may be traced to the inability of the scientific intelligence to grasp the notion of ‘infinity’ and to its consequent insistence upon ‘closing the circle’. But this, he points out, is a demand of the human reason which, not unlike the human stomach, is disposed to reject what it cannot assimilate. It should therefore be deprecated as an attempt to measure ‘by the narrow standards of a mutable human mentality the divine mind, wholly immutable, capable of apprehending whatever degree of infinity and numbering the innumerable without the alteration of thought’.

‘To the Christian’, writes Prof. Cochrane, ‘nothing could be more abhorrent than the theory of cycles. For it flatly contradicts the scriptural view of the saeculum as, from beginning to end, a continuous and progressive disclosure of the creative and moving principle. By implication, it also denies the Christian message of salvation for mankind. In the form which it assumes with classical materialism, it represents motion as dependent on forces beyond control, and, for classical idealism, it takes shape as a belief in the endless reintegration of ‘typical’ situations, a belief which does the grossest injustice to the unique character and significance of the individual historical events’.[26]

By implication, observes Augustine, the theory of cycles denies any real happiness for the soul of man, as it must proceed on an unremitting alternation between false bliss and genuine misery and back again from the other to the first, and so on. He writes:

‘For how can there be true bliss, without any certainty of its eternal continuance, when the soul in its ignorance does not know the misery to come, or else unhappily fears its coming in the midst of its blessedness­­? But if the soul goes from misery to happiness, never more to return, then there is some new state of affairs in time, which will never have an end in time. If so, why cannot the same be true of the world? And of man, created in the world? And so we may escape from these false circuitous courses, whatever they may be, which have been devised by these misled and misleading sages, by keeping to the straight path in the right direction, under the guidance of sound teaching.’[27]

There were those who quoted the passage in the book of the Ecclesiastics, “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: there is nothing new under the sun”, and took this to be referring to those circular movements, returning to the same state as before and bringing all things back to the same condition. Augustine’s repugnance finds expression in an impassioned outburst:

‘...heaven forbid that correct faith should believe that these words of Solomon refer to those periodic revolutions of the physicists, by which, on their theory, the same ages of the same temporal events recur in rotation, so that, as one might say, just as Plato, for example, taught his disciples at Athens in the fourth century, in the school called the Academy, so in innumerable centuries of the past, separated by immensely wide and yet finite intervals, the same Plato, the same city, the same school, the same disciples have appeared time after time, and are to reappear time after time in innumerable centuries in the future. God forbid, I say, that we should swallow such nonsense! Christ died, once and for all, for our sins: ‘semel mortuus est Christus pro nostris pecatis; and in rising from the dead He is never to die again: He is no longer under the sway of death.’[28]

Referring to the misinterpreted book of the Ecclesiastes, he writes:

‘But in fact the writer is speaking of what he has just been mentioning: the succession of generations, departing and arriving, the paths of the sun, the streams that flow past. Or else he is speaking generally of all things which come to be and pass away: for there were men before us, and there will be men after us; and the same holds good for all living creatures, and for trees and plants. Even the very monsters, the strange creatures which are born, although different one from another, and even though we are told that some of them are unique, still, regarded as a class of wonders and monsters, it is true of them that they have been before and they will be again, and there is nothing novel or fresh in the fact of the monster being born under the sun.’[29]

Augustine thus bears witness to the faith of Christians that, not withstanding all appearances, human history does not consist of a series of repetitive patterns, but marks a sure advance to an ultimate goal; and, as such, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is in no way cyclical but linear. As Prof. Cochrane puts it:

‘For Augustine, therefore, the order of human life is not the order of ‘matter’, blindly and aimlessly working out the ‘logic’ of its own process, nor yet is it any mere reproduction of a pattern or idea which may be apprehended a priori by the human mind. To think of it as either is to commit the scientific sin of fornicating with one’s own fancies; in other words, of disembodying the Logos in such a way as to rub the saeculum of all possible significance. For the Christian, time, space, matter, and form are all alike, in the words of Ambrose, ‘not gods but gifts’. They thus present themselves, not as causes but as opportunity. As such, they may be said both to ‘unite’ and to ‘divide’. This they do by giving us our status as individuals in the saeculum. But this status involves its specific limitations, not the least of which is the difficulty of communicating with our fellows. This difficulty is intensified by the confusion of tongues (diversitas linguarum) which results from the effort of men to surround themselves with economic and cultural barriers of their own creation; and from it not even a saint can claim to be exempt.’[30]

For Augustine, human history presents itself as a tissue of births and deaths, in which the generations succeed one another in regular order, and in this context of generations each and every individual has his own times and spaces, so that the notion of a man ‘out of his age’ is a vicious and irrelevant abstraction. The clue to human history is not in any fine-spun philosophic abstraction—such as particles of matter ceaselessly grouping and regrouping themselves, the type monotonously repeating itself in countless individuals—but purely and simply in the congenital impulse of human beings to attain happiness, and this happiness they find in order, that is to say, in a disposition of arrangement of equal and unequal things in such a way as to allocate each to its own place, apart from which the consequence is disturbance and distress, perturbatio et miseria.[31]     

Augustine thus conceives life as inherently and intrinsically order. Mankind, says Prof. Cochrane, like all creatures organic and inorganic, is subject to the fundamental appetites or urge of things, a dynamic urge which finds expression in the human soul; however, this urge is in no way blind; on the contrary, it is illumined by intelligence and attains satisfaction only as it discovers its ‘place’—that is to say, as it learns to conform to the true order of its being:

‘With unintelligent creatures the ‘arrangement’ by which this order becomes possible is merely organic; it is a pax corporis, that is to say, ‘an ordered disposition of the parts of the body resulting in a cessation of desire’. But, with rational spirits, the demands of the order go further; they are to be fulfilled only in a pax rationalis, that is, ‘agreement between knowledge and activity (cognitionis actionisque consensio). And, since man is an embodied soul, a truly human order must be at once organic and spiritual, i.e. ‘an ordered life and salvation of the living being’ (pax corporis et animae ordinate vita et salus animantis’).’[32]    

In the effort to achieve such an order, says Prof. Cochrane, success or failure will depend upon a combination of intellectual insight and moral power:

‘In this sense it becomes true to say that ‘to think correctly is the condition of behaving well’. But however salutary the admonition to correct thinking, it is by no means easy to observe. For, in the first place, it presupposes a grasp of first principles, in default of which thought must inevitably run wild. And, in the second, it involves processes which are no less moral than mental, the greatest danger confronting the thinker being that of permitting his own shadow to fall between himself and the truth. ‘It is obvious’, observes Augustine, ‘that error could never have arisen in religion, had the mind not chosen to worship either itself or body or its own vain imaginings’. That it should have succumbed to this temptation is, of course, to be attributed to pride (superbia) which thus for him, as for Tertullian, is the devil’s own sin and, peculiarly, the sin of philosophers.’[33]

In summary, Augustine says it is intolerable for devout ears to hear the opinion expressed that after passing through this life—with all its calamities—we are to return to it again, ‘to be involved in hellish mortality, in shameful stupidity, in detestable miseries, where God is lost, truth is hated, and happiness is sought in unclean wickedness’. If the theory of cycles were true, he says, then it would be more prudent to suppress the truth and wiser to be ignorant:

For if our happiness in the other life will depend upon our forgetfulness of these facts, he writes, why should we aggravate our wretchedness in this life by knowing them? If, on the other hand, we shall of necessity know them there, let us at least be ignorant here.

It is really terrible to think of the implication of eternal return. It is very fearful. ‘God forbid that what the philosophers threaten should be true’, he says, ‘that our genuine misery is never to have an end, but is only to be interrupted time and time again, throughout eternity, by intervals of false happiness’.

There is nothing to compel us to suppose that the human race had no beginning, he maintains, because there is no reason to believe in those strange cycles which prevent the appearance of anything new. Ironically, the Platonists whom Augustine has in mind here taught that the soul which follows after God and upon death obtains a view of any of the truths in the world of forms is set free from harm until the next period of the cyclic revolution. Augustine uses this against them. If a soul is ‘set free’, he says,

‘and will never return again to misery, just as it has never before been set free, then something has come into being which has never been before, and something of great importance, namely the eternal felicity of a soul’.   

Now, he says,

‘If this happens in an immortal nature, something new, something not repeated and not to be repeated by any cyclic revolution—why is it argued that it cannot happen in mortal things?’

If the Platonists assert that bliss is no novelty to a soul, since the soul is returning to the bliss which before it always enjoyed,

‘still the freedom is certainly a novelty, since the soul is set free from the misery which it never suffered before, and that misery itself is also a novelty, the production in the soul of something which had not existed before’.[34]

Augustine leaves the question whether the number of the liberated souls who are never to return to their misery can be continually increased to those who engaged in subtle argument about the limit which is to be set to the infinity of things! If that number can be increased, he argues, then certainly something can be created which has never been created before, since the number of the freed souls, which never existed before, was not just created once for all but will be continually created. On the other hand, he goes on,

‘...if there must be a fixed number of freed souls, which never return to misery, a number which is never increased, then that number itself, whatever it may be, certainly did not exist before; and it cannot increase and reach its final sum without starting from a beginning; and that beginning did not exist before. To provide this beginning, therefore, a man was created, before whom no man ever existed.’[35]


[1] Mircea Eliade Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Nork Harper Torchbooks, 1959),  p.87
[2]F. M. Cornford From Religion to Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1957), p. 7.
[3] Eugene Kevane Augustine the Educator (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1964), p. 11.
[4] De Rerum Natura, Book. V.
[5] Carlo Diano, “II concetto della storia nella filosofia dei Greci”, Grande Antologia Filosofica, II, 248 in Augustine the Educator, p.p. 11-12.
[6] F. M. Cornford From Religion to Philosophy, op. cit.  p. 8.
[7] Ibid. p. 167.
[8] Grande Antologia Filosofica, II, 355, in Augustine the Educator, op. cit. p. 12.
[9] L. Diog. Ix. 8.
[10] K. Freeman Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels’ Fragmente  der Vorsokratiker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1948), p. 26 (Heraclitus, Frag. 30) in Augustine the Educator, p. 12.
[11]F. M. Cornford  From Religion to Philosophy, op. cit. p. 163
[12] Phaedo, 70d.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16]B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato (New York: Bigelow and Brown, n. d), Vol. III, pp. 405-6 in Augustine the Educator, loc. cit.
[17] Lee, H.. D. P. (transl.), Aristotle Meterologica (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 13.
[18] Joseph Omoregbe Knowing Philosophy, (Lagos: Joja Press, 1990), p. 123.
[19] Paul Harvey The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 407.
[20] Grande Antologica Filosofica, II, 403, in Augustine the Educator, op. cit. p.13.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. p. 15.
[23] Loc. cit.
[24] Umberto A. Padovani, Grande Antologia Filosofica, Vol. I, XVI-XVII in Augustine the Educator, p. 15.
[25] Truth to Tell (London: SPCK, 1991), p. 16.
[26] Charles Norris Cochrane Christianity and Classical Culture (New York: Galaxy Book, 1957), p. 483.
[27] De Civ Dei Bk. Xii, 14.
[28] Ibid., xii, 15
[29] Loc. cit.
[30] Charles Norris Cochrane Christianity and Classical Culture, op. cit. p. 484.
[31] Ibid. p. 486.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid. p. 487
[34] De Civ. Dei op. cit. Xii, 21.
[35] Loc. cit.

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