(Constantin Brâncuși, The Column of the Infinity, Târgu Jiu Park, Romania)
The eternal return is an original Mesopotamian concept taken up by several philosophers, according to which the world history takes place cyclically. After thousands of years (“the Great Year”), the same sequence of events is repeated, identical to the previous, with recomposed elements. The word used by the Greeks is palingenesis (παλιγγενεσία), the close concept meaning “again genesis,” “rebirth” or “regeneration”.
According to the Mesopotamians
Babylonian astronomers had discovered that the synodic revolutions of the planets, annual revolutions of the Sun and Moon, are sub-multiples of the same common period, the Great Year, after which the Sun, Moon and planets resume their initial position relative to the fixed stars. They concluded that life in the universe is periodic, it ever returns through the same phases, following a perpetual rhythm. This is the idea of the Eternal Return. The basic cycle is the sharos that lasts 3,600 years; the eclipse cycle of 223 lunar months therefore reproduced in 28 years 11 days; etc. For Berosus, the Great Year spans 432,000 years. And the Great Year undergoes two cataclysms. The first is a fiery cataclysm (a conflagration), the summer solstice of the universe, at the conjunction of the planets in Cancer; the second is a cataclysm of water, so a flood that occurs on the winter solstice of the universe, at the conjunction of the planets in Capricorn.
”Berosus, the translator of [the records of] Belus, affirms that the whole issue is brought about by the course of the planets. So positive is he on the point that he assigns a definite date both for the conflagration and the deluge. All that the earth inherits will, he assures us, be consigned to flame when the planets, which now move in different orbits, all assemble in Cancer, so arranged in one row that a straight line may pass through their spheres. When the same gathering takes place in Capricorn, then we are in danger of the deluge. Midsummer is at present brought round by the former, midwinter by the latter. They are zodiacal signs of great power 2 seeing that they are the determining influences in the two great changes of the year. I should myself quite admit causes of the kind. The destruction of the world will not be determined by a single reason. But I should like to apply in this connection as well, a principle which we Stoics adopt in regard to a conflagration of the universe. Whether the world is a soul, or a body under the government of nature, like trees and crops, it embraces in its constitution all that it is destined to experience actively or passively from its beginning right on to its end ; it resembles a human being, all whose capacities are wrapped up in the embryo before birth.”
– Seneca, Natural Questions, III, 29
According to Heraclitus and the Stoics
Heraclitus, like all thinkers of Ionia (Thales, Anaximander) thinks “that, the substance remaining, only its states change,” that “nothing is created and nothing is destroyed” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, A, 3) . He sees all things in a place of contradictions and is considering the overcoming of these contradictions in harmony. He adds the idea of time, Great Year, estimated at 10 800 solar years.
“Heraclitus believed that at one time the world ablaze and at another time it reconstructs itself again from the fire, according to certain time periods, in which, he says, it is lighting to some extent and off to some extent. Later Stoics shared the same idea.”
– Simplicios, Heraclitus, fragment A10.
The most famous defenders of the eternal return in the West were the first Stoics, Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, before Diogenes of Babylon and Panétios. The concept is of Babylonian origin. Several ideas are contained in the concept of eternal return:
- Astrological cosmogenesis. Initially, the primitive and divine fire created, by condensation, Air, Water and then just finally settles Earth (Diogenes Laertius, VII, 142). The planets are then aligned. According to Porphyry, which is Platonist, not stoic, “theologians have established two doors, Cancer and Capricorn, which Plato called two holes [The Republic, 614-615]. Cancer is one through which souls descend, while their rise is by Capricorn. But the Cancer is located to the Boreas [the North] and suitable for the descent, while Capricorn is near Notos [south] and clean the rise “(Antrum of nymphs).
- The cycle. Babylon Diogenes evaluates the Great Year, that is to say the period at the end of which the planets found the position they had at the time of the birth of the world, 365 times 10,800 years; Plato speaks of the “cycle enclosed in a perfect number” for humans (3x4x5)4, presumably corresponding to 3600 x 3600 (The Republic, VIII, 546;) and Berosus 432 000 years.
- Final kindling (ekpyrosis). The conflagration is seen as the destruction of the world and its absorption in the Divine Fire.
- Repetition. The events come back alike.
- Eternity. This cycle is repeated endlessly:
“When each of wandering stars [planets] returns exactly in longitude and latitude, to the point in the sky where it was in the beginning, when the world was formed for the first time, these wandering stars occur at the end of periods of well determined time, the burning and destruction of all beings. Then, when these stars are starting again the same course, the world is reconstituted; the stars again describing the path they have traveled, everything that had occurred in the previous period is fulfilled, a second time, a fully similar way. Socrates will exist again, and Plato, and each man with his friends and fellow citizens; each of them will suffer the same things, will handle the same things; every city, every village, every field will be restored. This reconstruction [apocatastasis] of the universe will occur, not once, but many times; or rather, the same things recur indefinitely and incessantly. “
- About the survival of the soul, the opinions are divided.
“For Zeno, the soul survived to the body a long time, but eventually would dissipate. For Cleanthes, souls remained until the conflagration. For Chrysippus morons souls succumbed to the moment of death or shortly thereafter; only those of the wise, who had resisted the passions, involved in this limited immortality. “
Aristotle seems to adhere to the idea of eternal return:
“Not once, not twice, but an infinite number of times, let us know it well, that the same opinions come back to us.”
Bartholomew the Englishman (1230), Siger of Brabant (circa 1277) and Pietro d’Abano (circa 1316) discuss the theory that after 36,000 solar years, history will repeat every detail, since the planets and constellations find their original places.