The Phoenix and the Cyclic Nature of Traditional Time
That which is born dies and that which dies brings new life
I’ve always been fascinated by the imagery of the phoenix as it is found in various ancient mythologies. Though most typically associated with Greek mythology, the phoenix, under various names, could be found in mythological systems ranging from the Egyptian to the Chinese to the Arabian to the Armenian and beyond. The phoenix represents an older, Traditional way of looking at time, and therefore the world around us. This more Traditional view of time, as expressed across many different cultures for thousands of years, also found expression in conceptually related mythologies such as that of the ouroborus, the self-devouring worm or snake. This conception of time is one which is completely foreign to the modern world with its progressive-driven, “arrow of time” mentality which views history as an eschatological teleology which has an “end” towards which we are inexorably moving.
As with most things that we find in mythology, the really important thing to understand is not the exoteric, “bare bones” of the myth itself, but rather the symbolic and allegorical message behind the imagery. So it is with the phoenix. In its classical expression the phoenix, the unica semper avis, was a bird which would periodically (often every 500 years) be consumed in an inferno of flame but then would rise again from the ashes to a renewed life. In some systems, the phoenix merely died, decomposed, but then was reborn. From this imagery the phoenix was associated with the concept of rebirth and renewal, of the never-ending cycles of life and our lived experiences. That which is born dies and that which dies gives rise to new life. This is reflective of the concept of chronotopy as deduced by Mikhail Bakhtin, by which meaning from language (in this case the mythological stories) is transferred into the logosphere, grounded in the perception of the flow of events in a mythological or literary system. In many ancient writers this was applied to everything from the natural world to the Roman Empire and beyond.
This is an excellent representation of the Traditional understanding of cyclic time, itself based upon the ongoing observation of both the natural and sociological worlds. Man living in accord with the world around him is most cognizant of these cycles - the cycles of the sun rising and setting each day, the monthly cycles of the moon, the seasons which come and go and which govern agricultural man’s own activities, the cycle of life and death and new birth as one generation passes away and another is born. These are inescapable for the Traditional man (which should not be understood as synonymous with untechnological, by the way). In a sense, the Traditional view of time is fractal - cycles within cycles that may be ever smaller or larger in scale, but which exhibit a type of conceptual self-similarity invariant to scale.
The modern, linear view of time is unnatural and forced, reflecting modern man’s alienation from the world around him, from himself, and from his fellow man. This unnatural view of time works synergistically with the unnatural divisions of modern man’s way of living. Breaking up our days into non-intuitive units of activity creates dissociative strains upon man’s inner constitution and likely goes far to explain much of the dissatisfaction and depression which modern man feels toward his life. There is nothing that SSRIs can do to ward off the harm done by punchclock time keeping and year-round monotony that a return to a more rational and intuitive pattern of time and life couldn’t do a thousand times better.
Cyclic time reflects the experience of authentic life not only in things like the recurrence of days, months, season, and so forth. It is also reflected within the social life of Traditional man in everything from the recurrence of ritual and feastday to the rise and fall of empires and their successors. While modern man’s life is a monotony of waking, working, eating, and sleeping, governed by machines and clocks and schedules, for our ancestors (as well as for the remaining traditional societies still extant today) life was not only simpler, but also broader and deeper in its social implications. Traditional man understands organic community existence and the sacredness that comes with it. Modern man, living a socially atomised life, can only understand the desacralised, broken society of the dehumanised robot. The traditional view of time reflects holistic reality while the modern view exhibits an artificiality not grounded in nature, human or otherwise.
The cyclic nature of time and man’s interaction with it can be seen even in the advent and passage of those greatest of aggregations of man, polities and empires (as well as civilisations, and even religions). I strongly believe that this forms the broad, “macroscopic” basis for the cycles seen in human societies as expressed in demographic-structural theory (DST) and related sociopolitical concepts. Many readers are probably familiar with the “bad times → strong men → good times → weak men → bad times” cycles that essentially forms the basis of most cyclical theories of sociopolitical history. This cycle exists because of the fundamental charactre of man (what, in Christianity, we would call the sin nature) that leads from strength to degeneracy to weakness to restoration. As expounded by Turchin, Goldstone, and others, DST is merely the quantitative measurement of this cyclicity. It also shows that while these cycles of history may not be absolutely repetitive, there is still a distinct stutter to history even as it is affected by complexity and chaotic non-linear interactions between the multitude of its moving parts. Qualitatively similar conditions will lead to qualitatively similar responses and all that.
This cyclic nature of social and civilisational rises and falls suggests a deep connexion between the nature of man and his surroundings, such as I noted in my previous discussion about anthropological holism. This connexion is one which the modern world studiously seeks to suppress and ignore due to the modern belief in the essential interchangeability of people, people groups, and environmental conditions. Yet, even prior to and in tandem with scholars such as Turchin, many thinkers all the way back to the classical era understood this cyclic nature of man working hand in hand with that of his surroundings. Indeed, this formed the basis of ibn Khaldun’s study on this in the Muqaddimah. Try as he might, though, modern man cannot escape the cyclic nature of either himself or his sociopolitical surroundings. The Traditional view of time and its outworkings in the “real world” always reassert themselves.
We should note that a superficial understanding of this cyclicity has given rise to a particular, though erroneous, view of time as an absolutely deterministic ideal of “eternal recurrence.” In this belief, it is held that given enough time, everything repeats itself in an absolute sense, so that, for example, there have been perhaps an infinite number of times in the past that I have sat down and written out this blogpost exactly as I am doing now, and an infinite number of times that you have read it and responded to it in whatever way that you have. Forms of this view were posited as far back as the Pythagoreans and Stoics in the classical to Hellenistic world (though it was refuted on both logical and soteriological grounds by Augustine of Hippo). More recently, Nietzsche adhered to a modified version of this understanding of time as well.
Eternal recurrence was initially taken up as a belief by P.D. Ouspensky via his interaction with Nietzsche’s works, as well as through his understanding of the phenomenon of déjà vu, which he understood to be our recollections of these previous times in which we had already experienced what we were experiencing (again). I was first exposed to this idea by reading of Ouspensky’s view in J.B. Priestly’s book Man and Time. Ouspensky later modified his view toward the acceptance of change between cycles (and hence, something more in line with a “real” Traditional view of time as opposed to one driven by absolute determinism) as a result of his correspondence with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff.
Of course, eternal recurrence finds expression in modern science, under the guise of Poincaré’s recurrence theorem. This theory posits that within at least some dynamical systems, the dynamic configurations of the constituent parts (atoms, molecules, etc.) will eventually return to states that are extremely similar to an arbitrarily chosen initial state. This has been extended by some to the very universe itself, supposing that given incredibly long periods of time the universe itself will eventually return to a previous configuration and “repeat itself” infinitely, even down to our living our lives over and over again (which is well beyond what Poincaré was actually proposing). Given the evolutionary timescales involved, this is of course fantastical, though we should remember that evolutionism itself - as a philosophy - is closely tied to the modernistic mindset.
It is perhaps as well to oppose this view of eternal recurrence, since it is not truly Traditional as it rejects the capacity and moral agency of man to interact with his environment, to “sacralise” it through a genuine, rather than mechanical, participation in the cycles themselves. Man, through his rituals and his authentic interaction with the cycles of life, can do more than merely repeat a predetermined set of events over and over and over again. Indeed, this sort of determinism smacks of exactly the kind of mechanisation of life that characterises modernism and degenerating social systems. It’s no surprise that the ancient expressions of it - Pythagoreanism and Stoicism - both arose during the decay and collapse phases of their civilisational secular cycles. One can certainly argue that the modern “scientific” version did as well.
No, if we wish to speak of any cyclic recurrence, it would perhaps be better to stick to the mythological sense of eternal return as found in the works of Durkheim, Eliade, and other sociologists of religious experience. It is here that we find the genuine expression of Traditional time as the sacred reflection of deeper spiritual realities. Through myth (which, properly understood, merely describes a condition of legendarity without overtones of being “false” or “delusional”), we return to that “mythical age” in which the events of a belief system occurred. This is implied, for example, in the Christian rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In both of these, the identification with Jesus Christ the Saviour is attained by participation in the ritual. Profane time gives way to sacred time, to a recurrence of the archetype and exemplar. As Eliade wrote, “For archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of a celestial archetype.”1
This meandering path now brings me back to the imagery of the phoenix. As an archetype of death and rebirth, the phoenix, despite its expression in earlier pagan mythological systems, found use as a didactic tool in early Christianity. Theologians such as Clement of Rome, Tertullian, and Isidore of Seville appealed to the phoenix as a picture of Christ’s own resurrection from the dead and the further theological truth of man’s own salvation from spiritual death to attain spiritual life as found through Christ’s resurrection. This use was not at all unwarranted since it is likely that the phoenix and other “mythologies of recurrence” (including the various “dying/rising gods” such as Osiris) originated from knowledge imparted to ancient man about the future coming Saviour of man who would die and rise again. Having received this promise from God, man internalised it and it eventually became a partially remembered myth ideated into cyclicity.
Above I criticised the modern view of time as entailing an “eschatological teleology,” a progressive, ever-improving drive towards an endpoint of history. Some, perhaps, might have taken this to run counter to what is perceived as “standard” Christian eschatology. However, I would propose that this is not the actual scriptural view of time and eternity. Indeed, the now typical linear view of salvation history as found in much of modern Christianity is, I would contend, an artefact of the inroads which modernism has made into the faith of Jesus Christ.
Despite the hate that it gets some circles, classical premillennialism, with its dispensational overtones, actually presents a good picture of cycles and cyclical time within Christian theology (once you dispense - pun intended - with the date setting and sensationalistic Left Behind type stuff). Each “era” in salvational history - the edenic, antediluvian, Abrahamic, etc. - begins, flourishes, decays, and ends, only to be “reborn” in the next cycle. Within the history of Israel in the Old Testament, you find cycles within cycle. In Judges, Israel walks with God, falls away, is punished, is delivered and restored - all types and pictures in miniature of the fall of man and his eventual salvation through a Saviour. The history of the Davidic monarchy is one of birth (through calling), decline, and return - ultimately exemplified in the establishment of Christ’s (the Son of David) own Kingdom at His return. Even eternity itself is the final revelation of a cyclical system that has wound its way toward it.
This is markedly different from modern eschatological positions such as post-millennialism which present an unscriptural linear view of ever-upward progress towards perfection, reflecting a modernistic, progressive and anti-traditional way of thinking. The linear view of salvation history represents a modern distortion. In the Bible there is a common theme of origin → decay → renewal, from the fall and eventual restoration of man, the fall and restoration of the David kingship, the fall and restoration of the physical Paradise originally found in Eden, etc. Salvation, in one sense, has already come yet also remains to happen for the people of God. The basis of credible typology is found in the cyclic nature of history in Scripture.
While the Christian worldview may represent the fundamental reality underlying Traditional time and the chronotopes associated with it, all traditional systems at least bear some reflection of this reality, however darkly the mirror may reflect. Certainly, even the most clouded is still superior to the unrealism of modernism, demonstrated in its falsified understanding of time. As I close this essay, there really is no “call to action,” so to speak. Just the encouragement on the part of the reader towards a reacceptance of Traditional time and the rejection of the modern misconceptions that accompany the desacralised modern understanding of time as “linear progress” achievable by technics and materialism.
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, p. 5