Saintly Thoughts

Musings Concerning Linear and Cyclical Historical Trends

I was thinking the other day about how we experience the passage of time.  In one sense, time is cyclical in that it follows a set repetitive pattern.  Each year follows the same pattern of winter, spring, summer, autumn, and winter again.  Each day begins in darkness, follows the progression of the sun, and ends in darkness.  The phases of the moon wax and wain and wax again.  From whence did this pattern begin and whence will it end?  On and on, perhaps from an eternity of beginnings into an eternity of endings.  This is, in fact, a cosmology that was adopted by many of the ancient pagan philosophers, an image of endless cycles.  And so, if one looks at the universe from the perspective of an eternal multiverse and not from the perspective of individual persons, it very well might be; though our current scientific cosmology does seem to suggest that this circularity is itself somewhat illusory, and will someday end.  However, even if the cosmos are immortally reborn, if one looks at the cycles of human persons, and on a grander scale human civilizations, one sees a different progression which presents itself to us as linear.  Individual human persons (and nations) are born, grow into maturity, face a decline, and then finally die (at least, this is the normal way of things; obviously sometimes the pattern is interrupted) never to be reborn.  From the perspective of our own story then, the story of humanity, time is linear.  There is simply no other way for a creature which is aware of the reality of its own mortality to view existence.  And not only is this story linear, but it follows a distinct arc.  But we don't merely perceive the one or the other trend, but both at the same time.  And we have developed ways by which we can quantify and perceive the dictates of this process by breaking it down into distinct units of days and weeks and months and years which preserve both the rhythmic circularity and the progressive tension.  Is it any wonder then that we are often confused when considering history, unsure as we are whether we perceive that element which is cyclical or that which is linear?  For both of these approaches carry within them their own forms of stories, and both forms of stories are true only insofar as they apply to the proper conceptualization of time's motions.  The question naturally arises, cannot help but arise, as to whether there is any ultimate point to the whole damn thing--a teleology if you will--or whether the whole thing is merely one long string of repetitive cycles ending in the inevitable deaths of those with eyes to perceive.  If we think upon the various cosmologies which humanity has developed over the course of our history (and here I gladly include the mythological, the religious, the philosophical, and the scientific) we find some which tend more in the direction of eternal repetition and some which tend more towards a final apocalypse; in other words, the tend towards either the cyclical or the linear.  In my estimation neither approach is very satisfying, but both approaches seem in some way necessary--which makes sense if time is both cyclical and linear.  We do a disservice to ourselves if we reject either approach in some misplaced desire to construct a logically consistent story--for to reject one or the other is to attempt to construct an incomplete cosmology.  

Where does this leave us?  In the end, I'm not sure, for I do not see a future in which we fail to continue to construct falsely structured cosmologies.  I wish to say, as do most peoples who have grown up well ensconced in the tradition of modernity, that truth derives from observation of that which is (in some sense) empirical.  I do not mean to say that such an assertion has any real firm ontological basis, formed as it is mostly against the backdrop of failed authority structures.  In some sense, the system which this empiricism rebelled against was almost certainly truer than the system that we have come to accept as empirical.  And yet, the empirical approach is the necessary starting point of our experience.  This approach eventually coalesced--more or less--into the scientific method, and was meant as a buffer against the over-exuberant metaphysics and logics of the medieval school-men and the [at least perceived] corrupt power of the old priests.  The result was the over-turning of a story of ourselves, a story which had attempted (and, in my estimation failed) to synthesize these two historical movements--the pagan and cyclical with the Christian and progressive.  The observations of the empirical were then, supposedly, freed from any overarching theory of existence and pre-existent power structures and allowed to exist upon their own, as self-existent autonomous properties.  This view eventually extended to compass human persons.  Thus arose the new story of the human person as a self-actualizing autonomous actor.  But the person acts not in a vacuum, but in fact acts against the backdrop of a continuous story, as one is forced to concede empirically.  We know this whether we admit it or not.  So, ironically, the force which decoupled empiricism from the preexisting authorities threatens to overturn our cosmology of empiricism.  Thus, throughout the whole course of humanity's period of enlightenment, we have done little else but attempt to reconstruct the story of ourselves in the image of our new understanding, in the image of our observations of ourselves while yet denying the authority of these observations.  And so continues the muddle of human existence, as we strive after the God which we do not wish to find and are now nearly incapable of finding.  We are trapped in a cyclical moment (as we have always been) and need a means by which we may perceive the next chapter in our story (as we always have needed).