Christians Want Progress

Me Fourfold Root


From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time

By Melina Costello & David Arthur Walters

July 19, 2004



Madame Melina,


I am moved to progress with our time-consuming discourse on time although it might appear that we are saying the same thing over and over endlessly because that happens to be our fate. In that event, not enough has been said about the history of the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. I’m sure thou wilt not blame me for repeating myself.

The doctrine appertaining to the endless and exact repetition of life-cycles was attributed to the Pythagoreans by Eudemas, a pupil of Aristotle. Eudemas, who usually paraphrased Aristotle, wrote a book on physics.

The learned community is uncertain whether or not the scientific faction of the Pythagorean brotherhood actually espoused the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence; perhaps the Doctrine was Aristotle’s notion. We do know that the brotherhood religiously adhered to and developed the Orphic doctrine of metempsychosis, i.e. the transmigration or the crossing over of souls into other bodies, although there is some doubt that Pythagoras himself taught metempsychosis.

The relationship of the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence — which is a rather amoral (some say immoral) doctrine because cycles of relatively good and evil are endlessly repeated — to Metempsychosis — which allows the moral individual who does his duty to escape from vicious cycles — is a matter of some intellectual interest. With that in mind, we quote Eudemas:

“If we are to believe the Pythagoreans,” said Eudemas, “I shall once more gossip among you with this little staff in my hands, and again as now will ye be standing before me, and likewise will it be with all the rest.”

Thus we have an expression of a universal law of identical cyclic successions or circular courses, a theory about what precedes all beginnings and follows all ends; that is, the same thing.

The Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence is similar to other hypotheses derived from the will to live and the wish to survive the obvious death of the body with its simultaneous disappearance of its spirit or breath. Death is similar to sleep, hence one might conjure up a permanent soul, and imagine that, although the dead body apparently does not arise, its soul, the principle of permanence behind apparent change, might awake somewhere else, unseen, in another sort of body, or perhaps in a replication of the body left behind.

Of course some ancient peoples believed that the same body would be resurrected, and even buried the body standing up, for its convenience upon resurrection. Of course modern adherents to the belief in resurrection of the body would not cremate the body. For the same reason, the Chinese ancients abhorred the mutilation or dismemberment of the body, wanting it resurrected whole – the eunuch carried his severed member in a box so he might be rejoined with it upon death.

Notwithstanding those who want the same body resurrected, a person who views the decay and dissolution of a corpse and observes the ebb and flow and transformation of other things on Earth, might be led to imagine that a soul survives the death of its housing, or, if you will, throws off its cloak and migrates from body to body, perhaps in a circular or spiral course, from form to form, until, if he so wishes, it is released from the wheel of birth. And many were those who entertained such a wish, and conceived of the body as the soul’s grave, from which it might escape: the pilgrim could by virtue of the right purification conduct including right faith atone for the original sin of his race and ascend from the hellish muck, to heaven, and join the gods for dinner.

Westerners know very well one old story about the tainting of human nature: Zeus and Persephone begat Zagreus-Dionysus. The Titans wanted to kill the child, so he turned into a bull and fled. The Titans caught up with him, killed and ate him. Athena however rescued his heart for Zeus, who swallowed it, then struck the Titans with a thunderbolt. Mankind arose from their ashes, part Dionysian (good) and part Titanic (evil). The objective of the moral or pure life is to purge the evil part and save the good. The poet Pindar informs us that, after humans die, some of the most distinguished among them are reincarnated after eight years, and become heroes – this assuages Persephone’s grief over the murder of her child. Pindar gives an alternative – a more democratic theory: worlds are places of reward and punishment; those persons who lead three good lives after this world are released from further births.

As for right conduct, the Pythagorean brothers, for example, eschewed beans and meat among other things, and asked themselves three questions before they went to sleep: In what have I failed today? What good have I done today? What did I do today that I should not have done?

But the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence does not allow the soul to inhabit a variety of forms during different life cycles; there is no progress or regress: the same cycle of life is lived over and over again. Welcome to Groundhog Day! Such an endless repetition is not very attractive to human beings who love progress and variety. If people have to live “the same damn life” over and over again, say some, then, may we thank the god of ignorance that we do not know we are stuck in a rut! On the other hand, say others, if that is all there is, an endlessly repeated life, the same is sufficient for anyone who truly loves life, no matter how happy or miserable it might be.

Christians especially demand an alternative to circularity; they want some sort of trajectory. Yes, said the spiritually inclined predecessors to Christianity, there might be a vicious wheel of existence, but the aspiring soul can break the law of cycles; fly off on a progressive tangent; progress to a favored X, or to infinity, or to death. Some of the great escapees might periodically return to save the rest of mankind from time to time, just as heavenly bodies return over immense tracts of time, say, at the end of a great year, a year that might be a century or a thousand centuries according to our world clock. Periodic correspondences between heaven and earth were posited by the astrologers: Conflagrations when the planets are in Cancer; floods when in Capricorn – fire at the summer solstice; water at the winter solstice. Perhaps all the cycles are subject to single, cosmic cycle. Perhaps, as the Stoics supposed, the universe, a sphere surrounded by an infinite void, is burned up by a central fire, then the whole cycle recurs again, exactly as it did before, again and again, ad infinitum.

The Stoics, who did not believe in the transmigration of souls, faced the world as conscientious stalwarts and stoically accepted the fatalistic Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. A moral man conducts himself morally despite the external circumstances of the world; morality is a human thing originating not in distant stars but in the family, tribe and clan.

As for the amoral (or immoral) Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, it was not necessarily inferred from astronomical observations of the boring revolution of spheres – life on earth also has it regularities. We should note, if we are to believe Eudemus, that the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence was held by the Pythagoreans, that Chaldean astrology had little known influence on Pythagorism. Theophrastus, fellow-pupil of Eudemus, expressed astonishment as the “sham-science” of Babylon.

We can be certain that Christian theology rejects the transmigration hypotheses. The idea that a man’s soul might take an animal form, say that of a pig or chicken, perhaps because the deceased ate ham sandwiches or chicken salads, is particularly repugnant to meat-eating Christians. They have also rejected the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, for it postulates not moral progress but rather a simultaneous resurrection of innumerable souls in identical bodies at the death/birth of each one of them. Whatever exists is not good enough for the ascetic spiritualist; he must have something better, something good; and, in time, good requires a pre-existence evil. That is, Christians want personal salvation now if not moral progress on this Earth, that the soul may survive and not perish with the body.

Of course secular or evolutionary progress can be had by virtue of the extinction of individual lives for the progress of the species. Alcamaeon of Croton, the “father of physiology,” opined that man is godlike because he is always moving by virtue of a vital force or spring of life which at once puts both body and mind in constant, progressive motion towards the ultimate goal of individual life: death. Life is not cyclical, observed the ancient physiologist: “Men perish because they are unable to join their beginning to their end.”

Although Christianity rejects metempsychosis, Pythagoras himself was much admired. Ambrose, for instance, believed Pythagoras was a Jew and placed him as a great authority between Moses and Plato.

St. Augustine of Hippo held that cyclic repetition is incompatible with the Christian spirit. He rejected the recurring cycles mentioned by Aristotle, and insisted that creation and salvation are unique, unrepeatable events. Time started with the creation of the universe and is independent of the motion of its bodies hence is not derived from their movement. We might delve into absolute time or time without events elsewhere, since we cannot make much sense of it at the moment.

So it seems that Christians believe in progress, that although they have bemoaned existence on this bitter earth, they are optimistic about the better place funereal ministers speak of, a place where they hope they will wind up as long as they have faith.

Madame, the more I progress in my research on this timely subject, the more I believe history is a mistake, and the more I am gladdened that time moves in one direction, forward.

Your Faithful Groundhog


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