This mythical drama reminded men that suffering is never final; that death is always followed by resurrection; that every defeat is annulled and transcended by the final victory. –Mircea Eliade
Although his legacy has been controversial, Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was probably the most important historian of religion in the twentieth century. He studied in Bucharest and Calcutta, and wrote his doctoral thesis on the origins of Yoga. He tried to stay aloof from politics during the 1930s, but as Europe became increasingly polarized he eventually sided with the Fascists against the Communists, and spent the war in Britain on diplomatic assignment. When it was over, a Communist regime was in power in Romania and he was unable to return. In 1945 he moved to Paris, where he wrote The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954). This was the book, the subject of our article, that made him famous, and earned him an appointment to the University of Chicago in 1958. He directed the department of religion there for thirty years, edited an encyclopedia, established two journals, and wrote many, many other articles and books besides.
The subtitle of The Myth of the Eternal Return, “Cosmos and History,” is a better description of its contents. According to Eliade, archaic societies define their place in the cosmos, where modern societies define their place in history; the immense chasm between these two conceptions of time and being provide the object of study.
Cosmos, or “being,” is the eternal, the omnipresent, and the truly real. Greek and Hindu philosophy, along with archaic folk religions, provided Eliade with most of his examples, but he insisted throughout that he was describing an extremely widespread and ancient phenomena. In the cosmos-centered conception of the universe, the real is the eternal, the unchanging, which at once saturates and lies beyond the merely apparent. To have knowledge is to have knowledge of that which does not change—that which changes is of no consequence, and, in a profound sense, is unreal. Thus the apparent becomes real, and hence meaningful, only to the extent that it participates in, or imitates, the changelessness of being, and the purpose of all meaningful activity, and the standard by which it is evaluated, is its participation in being.
In practically all premodern societies, the models or archetypes of which being consists is that which was done in illo tempore—in the great times, by the gods or god-like humans. In Sumerian legend, for instance, Marduk fought against the dragon Tiamat, and divided its body to create the world, in illo tempore. This provided the model—to be repeated over and over and over again forever—for all warfare between the Sumerians and their enemies. In their rituals the Sumerians emphasized that to go to war was to become Marduk, to slay the dragon Tiamat once more, and thus recreate (i.e., save) the world. Similarly, in Christianity the summit of meaningful behavior is very simply the imitation of Christ, the apostles, or one of the prophets; whatever we are called on to do, they once did, whatever we are experiencing, they once experienced. They therefore provide models for everything that comes afterward, and from the time of the earliest Christians right up to the present, their memory has been invoked as the sanction and standard of ethical behavior. Many ancient cities, similarly, are patterned on the plan of the universe represented by that society’s cosmology, in the belief that through such imitation the city will become more permanent. Similar examples could be multiplied—the point is that to participate in reality and in meaning is, for premodern peoples, to repeat that which was done before, in the great times.
In order to appreciate the power of this view it is perhaps worth recalling how precarious life could be in premodern societies. Most people lived by agriculture, and were kept at or near the subsistence level by warrior and priestly elites. In this situation, one does not want to be surprised by unique events—one wants regular weather, a regular harvest, regular taxation, etc. Anything that intrudes on this cycle is likely a calamity—war, plague, famine, death, etc., are all unexpected and often unique events, and are not compensated for by any hope of a “lucky break.” From this point of view, the only good change is predictable, regular, cyclic change—the seasons, the harvest, day and night, etc. This quite naturally leads to a cyclical view of time in many premodern societies. In much Hindu philosophy, for instance, the universe is held to pass through ages of thousands of years, one after another, until it is eventually destroyed and reconstituted. Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, appreciating the wisdom of this view, tried to reintroduce it in their philosophies.
But this view of time creates a certain friction with our lived experience since, though cyclical and regular change is natural and pervasive, our lives evidently do not hold to this pattern. We are born, we grow, and we die, in an apparently linear sequence, and we are of course aware of experiencing many apparently unique events. Thus, according to Eliade, premodern societies experience “the terror of history”—they know that they are out of step with the cosmos in some fundamental way, and they seek, therefore to abolish whatever is unique and linear. This happens in several ways. The first is that they simply abolish history. That is, they deny the particularity of what is happening to them, in as much as possible, by subsuming it beneath models of what was done in illo tempore. Another is that they simply do not keep records of particular events in the way that we do. They do not, in other words, value history, but believe it is a sufficient—indeed the highest—compliment to say of a particularly commendable act, that it was a repetition of that which went before. They also participate in rituals intended to abolish time: the ritual of the scapegoat, for instance, where the sins (that is, the memories of non-archetypal events) of the community are put on an animal that is then driven into the wilderness; or of the new year’s ritual, where traditional social relations are inverted and the universe symbolically returns to primordial chaos, only to be reborn according to the normal ordering of relations at the beginning of the new year, symbolically erase time, and thereby purge the anxiety created by its memory.
All of this is, of course, in stark contrast to the modern conception of time, which Eliade calls “history,” or sometimes “historicism.” In this view time is linear, and is not usually held to be going anywhere in particular—or not, at any rate, anywhere meaningful. When modern peoples inquire about time, what they want to know is what has gone before, and what will come next; not what has always been, and always must be forever, for it is assumed that the past and the future alike will be quite different from the present. Of course many people do not believe this. They assume that the past and future must also be quite similar in other ways: that a fixed, static, unitary “human nature” permeates and structures history, much as the Platonic forms were supposed to permeate and structure reality. On this view the discovery and elucidation of “human nature,” “the laws of history,” or some other unchanging essence or being that underlies the flux and chaos of surface descriptions, must be what gives historical research its purpose. It's important to realize, however, that practicing historians today typically reject this thesis, and the conception of their work that it implies, for they affirm that people in the past, and (it necessarily follows) in the future, were (and will be) quite unlike us. Instead they try to describe the changes undergone by particular objects over the course of non-repeatable events. Combined with the empiricist thesis that nothing exists that does not exist in time and space—that is, as a particular object—this view yields a philosophical position called historicism (the subject of an earlier article), the position that “there is nothing outside of history.” Or, as Heraclitus put it, that “all is flux.”
Whatever its merits as an empirical description, Eliade was adamant that the historicism was bad psychology, for particular objects and events that bear no relation to meaningful wholes are themselves meaningless, and if they are all that exists, then existence itself is meaningless. Although we do not have to bear quite the same grueling conditions as were common in premodern societies, life is hard enough for most people even today. They lose their jobs, their spouses, their children, are diagnosed with cancer or other wasting diseases, etc. Or perhaps they are rounded up and murdered by a monstrous regime simply for being born to the wrong parents. The depths of pain and misery that our own lives confront us with, let alone the lives of all the people who have ever lived—which is to say, history—would be hard enough to bear with the support of the cosmos-centered view, but cannot be born at all without it. Thus for Eliade cosmos and history are in irreconcilable opposition. He resolved this opposition by appealing to Christianity, which insists on the linearity of time (i.e., from Adam to the Apocalypse) and the uniqueness of each individual in their relationship to God, but also situates them within a meaningful vision of the cosmos, saturated and in a sense structured by the archetypes.
If I can offer my own opinion, there is another possibility, which Eliade does not discuss but which seems to me borne out by observation—that history can be abolished by hope for the future. Our suffering, defeats, and frustrations can be shown to be meaningful, or, more precisely, to have been meaningful, if our story ends in success, however we conceive of it. Then, in retrospect, they will be seen as stepping stones to something more meaningful. Of course, there is no guarantee that we will actually achieve that success; indeed, we generally recognize that the odds are against us, which means that our lives probably are meaningless. But they might not be, indeed they will not be, if we can beat the odds and achieve that success. This only reinforces, I suppose, the need to struggle and strive, and in that struggle, the contemplation of the past for its own sake offers us exactly nothing. In temporal terms, this amounts to the abolition of the past for the sake of the present, which is itself meaningful only in relation to the future. Thus the past exists just insofar as it may be made use of—the Second World War, for instance, is recalled as a warning against the evils of dictatorship and racism, and the Civil Rights movement in order to press for a more egalitarian and just society. Or, again, it has often been hoped that the study of history would yield predictive laws, which would clearly help us avoid many catastrophes in the future. What is common in all these conceptions is their temporal structure: forward, to the future, through the present, not backward, toward what actually happened, and certainly not to any mythic “great time.” The terror of history is still there, and it can still terrify those who care to look it in the face. But as long as we’re looking to the future, where we have at least some hope that things will work out, we aren’t looking to the past, where we have none, and are therefore immune to its terror. If that is true, our constant business may be less a consequence of market pressures than of existential anxiety—of a terror of the future, if one will, that we can no longer abolish through myth and ritual.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.