Darwin-L Message Log 5:182 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<5:182>From Robert.Richardson@UC.Edu  Thu Jan 27 13:27:09 1994

Date: Thu, 27 Jan 1994 14:33:16 -0500 (EST)
From: "Bob Richardson, University of Cincinnati" <Robert.Richardson@UC.Edu>
Subject: Aristotle on Cyclic History
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Bob O'Hara asks about a passage from Toulmin and Goodfield concerning Aristotle
on cyclical time.  The passage is this one:

  Even the rise and fall of civilizations might perhaps conform to the
  same overall rhythm.  In this connection, both Aristotle and Plato toyed
  with an attractive and sweeping hypothesis.  Once every few thousand
  years, the Sun, Moon and planets returned to the same relative positions,
  and began to follow out again the same sequence of configurations; so
  perhaps the rhythm of political fortunes also had its own definite period,
  keeping the recurring cycles of social change in step with the motion of
  the Heavens. If that were so (Aristotle remarked) then he himself was
  living _before_ the Fall of Troy quite as much as _after_ it; since, when
  the wheel of fortune had turned through another cycle, the Trojan War
  would be re-enacted and Troy would fall again.  (_The Discovery of Time_,
  pp. 45-46)

Toulmin and Goodfield evidently have this passage in mind from the *Problems*:

	"As those who lived in the time of Troy are prior to us, so are those
who lived before them prior to them and so on ad infinitum?  Or since there is
a beginning and a middle and an end of the universe, and when a man, as he
becomes old, reaches the limit and turns again towards the beginning, that
which is nearer to the beginning is earlier, what prevents our being nearer to
the beginning than to the end, in which case we should be prior?  Just as the
course of the firmament and of each of the stars is a circle, why should not
also the coming into being and the decay of perishable things be of such a kind
that these things again come into being and decay?  This agrees with the saying
that 'human life is a circle'.  To demand that those who are coming into being
should always be numerically identical is foolish, but one would more readily
accept that they were identical in kind.  And so we should ourselves be prior,
and one might suppose the arrangement of the series to be such that it returns
back in a circle to the point from which it began and thus secures continuity
and identity of composition.  For Alcmaeon declares that men perish because
they cannot link together the beginning to the end--a clever saying, if one
supposes that he uses it metaphorically and the literal meaning is not insisted
upon.  If then human life is a circle, and a circle has neither beginning nor
end, we should not be prior to those who lived in the time of Troy nor they
prior to us by being nearer to the beginning" (Book XVII, chapter 2).

There are several problems with the attribution.  First, the work
is not Aristotle, though it was once attributed to him.  Second, it does not
seem to be true that even this says what Toulmin and Goodfield say of it.  It
seems, instead that what is contemplated is that something the same in kind
could come into being more than once.  It's a long way to cyclical views of
time, or cyclical views of history, from that.

Aristotle does occasionally discuss the fact that we measure time by cyclical
motion, though that is again hardly a commitment to cyclical views of time.  He
also discusses Troy in several other places, including the Physics 222a25 and
222b 13.  None of these have anything that is plausibly read as dealing with a
cyclical view of time as I read them.  In fact, Aristotle's own view seems
pretty clearly linear as in this passage again from the Physics:

"Just as motion is a perpetual succession, so is time" (219b10).

There is nonetheless a clear discussion of time as cyclical and as created in
Plato's Timaeus in some passages which look to me to be inspired by Pythagoras
and Parmenides around 34-38.  These also carry a unique discussion of time as
created with motion.

Bob Richardson & Larry Jost
Richards@UCBEH.San.UC.edu and Richards@UCBEH.Bitnet

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