The idea that history is composed of cycles is ancient. Many peoples (including the Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Hindus, Maya, and Greeks) observed recurrences in astronomical phenomena. These early observations were often related to calendar systems and were the foundation for later written schemes of cosmic and historical cycles in various parts of the world.
The Ancient World
One of the oldest written systems of historical cycles originated in India among the Hindus. Hindu cosmology operates within vast cycles of time, or world ages: the universe exists for the life span of the creator god Brahma (quadrillions of solar years), disappears at his death, and is reborn when a new Brahma arises. A brahmic day and night (kalpa ) consists of one thousand maha yugas (great ages). A maha yuga is comprised of four cyclic yugas (ages) of 4,000, 3,000, 2,000, and 1,000 divine years (one divine year being nearly 130,000 solar years) with intervals of latency between the ages. The advancement through the yugas is characterized by spiritual and moral decline. The present time is considered a dark age and falls near the beginning of the fourth yuga, which began at Krishna's death in 3002 b.c.e.
Greek philosophers postulated the existence of cosmic cycles. Some of them (such as Empedocles, c. 495–c. 435 b.c.e.) proposed that the events within a given cosmic cycle were identical (or very similar) to the events in earlier cycles. The Stoics held a clear conception of historical cycles. Largely based on the physics of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–475 b.c.e.), the Stoics theorized that the sun would periodically heat the world and cause a great conflagration (ekpyrosis ). Unlike Heraclitus, the Stoics identified this purgative fire with God, who would subsequently recreate the world from the condensation of the elements (air, water, earth, and fire). The process of creation and destruction would then begin again.
Plato (427?–347 b.c.e.) understood cosmic and human history to be cyclical. He included statements about the cyclic nature of the world and accounts of natural disasters from which human civilization had reemerged in his Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, and Laws. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) also presented history as cyclical. He mentioned the possibility of periodic cataclysms in the Politics and the Meteorologica. He stated in the Politics and De caelo (On the Heavens) that human knowledge had repeatedly been lost and rediscovered. In addition, Aristotle advanced the notion of the degeneration of governmental forms. He proposed that governments devolve in a specific order: monarchies fall into oligarchies, followed by tyrannies, and then democracies. This idea was adopted and further developed by the Greek historian Polybius (c. 203–c. 120 b.c.e.). In the History, he postulated a theory of constitutional cycles (anacyclosis ). According to Polybius, six forms of government devolve in succession: monarchical governments, tyrannies, aristocracies, oligarchies, democracies, and finally rule by the mob. The cycle would then repeat.
The Early Modern Period
Polybius's ideas were revived in the Renaissance and especially influenced Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who argued for the superiority of mixed governments in his Discourses (1512–1517). However, notions of cyclicality were evident before the revival of Polybius. For example, a system of cyclic historical development is apparent in the Chronicle of Florence by Giovanni Villani (c. 1275–1348). A later example is Giorgio Vasari's (1511–1574) theory of cycles in the history of art in his Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568). Vasari viewed the history of art as a long series of advances and declines. However, he believed that art had reached a peak of perfection in his own age in the works of Michelangelo; having been perfected, art could not rise further but would either be maintained or decline.
In the eighteenth century, Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) divided history into three ages in his New Science (1725): the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans. He saw history as the occurrence (corsi ) and recurrence (ricorsi ) of these ages. According to Vico, every nation follows a similar pattern of development. During the first age, nations invoke imagination in order to comprehend the world as the creation of the gods. The age of gods then gives way to the second age, wherein humans use imagination to establish moral values and institutions following heroic models. The age of heroes declines into the third age, a time when social order is created through reason. Vico's vision of history was the infinite repetition of these three ages.
The Twentieth Century
In the twentieth century, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) presented important theories of historical cycles. In The Decline of the West (1918–1922), Spengler proposed that individual societies have a life cycle similar to living organisms: they experience periods of growth, maturity, and decline. According to him, these cycles repeat themselves as new societies develop. Toynbee was influenced by his reading of Spengler's work. In A Study of History (1934–1961), he argued that civilizations emerge when faced with physical or social challenges. He believed that the history of a civilization was largely the record of its response to a unique challenge. On a larger scale, he saw that history moved through periods governed by universal states followed by shorter periods of religious rule. In Toynbee's view, societies decline when they fail to surmount a challenge and thereafter lose social cohesiveness. However, he acknowledged the possibility that a civilization could repeatedly meet its challenges.
Another prominent twentieth-century historian who proposed a theory of historical cycles was Fernand Braudel (1902–1985). Associated with the Annales school of historians, Braudel developed a system that encompassed short-term (individual), medium-term (social), and long-term (geographical) time periods. While acknowledging the significance of short-term events, he emphasized their integration with larger historical cycles. He incorporated an interdisciplinary approach that examined the complex interactions between history, economics, geography, politics, and culture. His major works include The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) and Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th Century (1967–1979).
See also Historiography ; History, Idea of ; Life Cycle ; Periodization .
Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Translated by Siân Reynolds. 3 vols. New York: Harper, 1982–1984.
Polybius. The Histories of Polybius. Translated from the text of Friedrich Hultsch by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan, 1889.
Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. Authorized translation with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson. London: Allen and Unwin, 1980.
Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
"Cycles." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cycles
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Journal of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles, published in nine issues per year, which discusses recurring patterns that occur in the physical world. Issues include the economy, the arts and natural and social sciences. Address: 214 Carnegie Center, Ste. 204, Princeton, NJ 08540. The foundation has a website at http://www.cycles.org/.
Foundation for the Study of Cycles. http://www.cycles.org/. March 8, 2000.
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