7. Conclusion

Spengler, Toynbee, and Cyclical Theories


Section 7.5.1

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism, And Theories of Evolution
4th Edition
The Book
By  John Landon





7. Conclusion  
     7.1 History and Evolution: A Paradox Resolved 
        7.1.1 Transition and Divide: A New Perspective on Modernity 
    7.2 The Eonic Effect As a Resolution of Kant's Challenge      
      7.2.1 Freedom’s Causality, Teleology and Politics  
        7.2.2 Free Will, Moral Action, and Self-consciousness       
     7.3 Will Democracy Survive? Toward A Postdarwinian Liberalism    
      7.3.1 Modernism, Eurocentrism, Imperialism, and 'Western' Civilization
        7.3.2 Ecological Endgames: A Tyranny Of Markets
     7.4 Ends and Beginnings       
     7.5 Critique of Historical Reason  
        7.5.1 Spengler, Toynbee, and Cyclical Theories 
        7.5.2 Is There a Postmodern Age?  
        7.5.3 Evolution and The Idea of Progress
        7.5.4 The Case of the Missing Centuries 
     7.6  Beyond Darwinism: A Theoretical Self-Defense
         7.6.1 The Meaning Of Evolution
         7.6.2 The Great Transition



    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

     7.5.1 Spengler, Toynbee, and Cyclical Theories


As we look at our three turning points, we begin to realize, or suspect, that we are observing a cyclical phenomenon whose structure sticks out like a dinosaur bone from the backdrop of history. Although our core pattern is secure as an empirical map, it remains mysterious, but makes instant sense if we posit a cyclical phenomenon.  

Ideas of cyclical theories, often blended with eschatological thinking, have, historically, been notorious and created near bedlam, the most notorious example being the lore of cycles of the Great Year, but our data and analysis shows the beautiful and elegant solution to the riddle. Spengler and Toynbee with their ideas of ‘cycles of civilization’ have further muddled the question. Our eonic data shows us that the right approach is to see that the cyclical phenomenon proceeds independently of the civilizations it touches. Instead of Toynbean civilizations we will think in terms of ‘streams’ of culture, as these intersect and the ‘eonic sequence’.

Ideas of cyclicity in relation to the historical process have a long history, as the infamous confusions of the Great Year make clear. The cyclical views of the ancients are ritually denounced, although the nature of these views, and their exact history, is not understood, because of the ‘linear view of history’ in the early forms of monotheism, or more accurately in the codification of Augustine, in reality the coin of Zarathustra, changing hands in many transactions.

It is not quite true that the Hebraic gave birth to the ‘linear concept of time’, although it could well be claimed that the idea was first honed to some implicit sharpness in the first period of Judaism. The linear view of history was probably already present or emerging very early in Mesopotamia , if not earlier, but certainly appears decisively in a remarkably sophisticated form in the teachings of Zarathustra, that on inspection is a blended cycle-linear conception, as is that of Vico. But their real appearance on the world stage began with their diffusion into the world of emerging Judaism and the Persian  Empire after -600. This is a very confusing subject indeed, for the impression of telescoped history is that a cycle of religion gives birth to an anti-cyclical view of time.[i]

Cyclical theories are also the Eldorado of those who search for the motor of history. It is not as foolish an idea, at root, as one might think. Indeed we have a found the key, empirically. We should start over with fresh terms. We are confronted with the recent, and actually less sophisticated idea of the ‘cycle of civilization’. Even the Augustinian idea is better, for it is in principle eonic. The idea of the ‘cycle of civilization’ was given new life in this century by the works of Spengler and Toynbee. In fact, cycles of time, as in the myths of the Great Year, are different from the ‘dynastic cycles’ of the many Ecclesiastes, and are inherently better than the ‘cycle of civilization’, which makes no sense, upon close examination.[ii]

Spengler and Toynbee are really ideologists of conservative postmodern ism. In the closing period before the onset of the Great War, whose disillusioning scale of destruction had left an entire century of thought in a state of philosophic shell-shock, Spengler prophesied the ‘decline of the West’ and produced a theory of civilizations at the close of this war  whose foundations were never successfully laid but whose cogent evocation of cycles drew attention to the large-scale structures of history. What then is World History? he asks at the beginning of his effort to understand the nature of civilization. The Nietzschean elements seem almost like a wished for cultural sabotage, and the idea of a Faustian civilization starting in the Year 1000 and entering decline in the Enlightenment must be a garbled version of this idea of Nietzschean decadence.

The point for our analysis is that we have a cyclical system that transcends the phenomenon of civilizations. Our eonic sequence proceeds independently of the individual civilizations that it touches. Our fundamental unit of analysis is not therefore the civilization. It is very doubtful if civilizations have the dynamic unity claimed by Spengler and Toynbee, as our eonic analysis makes clear.

Myths of the Great Year One value of our frequency hypothesis is to be done with the lore of speculations over the Great Year, based on a cyclical notion 2150 years in length. This phantom has haunted civilization long enough. We can see that intuitions of cyclical mythologists were onto something they could not have understood. Our frequency hypothesis, based on 2400 year intervals, explodes the hallucinations of the Great Year that have resurfaced in modern times in the various notions of the New Age.

Our cycles are more like simple tempo, a clocklike rhythm, and show us three periods of rapid advance, followed by medieval periods in the first two cases. Why do they stand out? They are not inherently different, their immense creativity apart, from any other periods, myths of revelation notwithstanding. Why does advance slow, create what we will call sequential dependency, even go in reverse, from Athens to Rome ? They show a kind of sudden acceleration. It is a strange situation. A fragment of rich structure in a void, its suspected antecedents disappearing into preliterate fog.

As we pull away from the early modern, and archaeology discovers the sources of earliest civilization, we discover a pattern, and linear assumptions collapse. We feel a kind of ‘Hey wait a minute’ about random advance. As the dataset pulls across 5000 years, a different picture emerges. We have essentially all we need for a practical use of the eonic data, but it suggests something more that we can formulate as a frequency hypothesis, and a commentary on cyclical theories. An hypothesis is just that, and is open to falsification.

But the question then is, cycles of what? What is this frequency, barely above a whisper? How can whole cultures remorph themselves via relative transforms on a rough schedule? We don’t know, but it makes sense, as we have seen in our reverse-engineered approach, to think that a system ‘evolving freedom’ in any sense would go into alternation. Alternation reconciles the information paradox of a deterministic system, and as the data shows, the net information or novelty of the system, rapidly increases at selected intervals. This system is so complex we will probably never know, and we can default to the idea of tempo. Observing tempo is the one thing we can analyze in a hyper-complex system. For what it is worth, the data corresponds perfectly to the idea of self-organization, transparently, but we cannot connect this with current theories along these lines. This isn’t thermodynamics.

The basic series that we suspect, then, is a simple extension in 2400 year intervals backward to the onset of the Neolithic. This assumes a kind of monotone sequence. Since we have a two beat sequence that is nearly a three beat sequence, it must be admitted that all sorts of other frequency possibilities exist.

Another frequent division of human cultural evolution attempts to grapple with the immensity of man’s past, and the acceleration  of his more recent entry into civilization with a series of stages that map the entirety in a series of periods of unequal length. Thus, one frequent categorization is the division into ‘stages’ of cultural evolution, based on the idea of ‘transformation’, giving us

1. A Paleolithic transformation,

2. The Agricultural Revolution,

3. The Urban Revolution,

4. The Industrial Revolution .

These schemes are useful enough, but throw thinking off-track, and confuse ‘pure stages’ of unequal length with their labels, and quite understandably attempt to ‘glove’ a long rising curve punctuated by interrupts in its last three stages. The exponential and cyclical are blended, as is the technological, economic and cultural. They are mixing economics, technology, and cultural evolution in a spurious unity that wishes a bridge to the Paleolithic. Let us simply void the general rubric search and use our monotone sequence fragment empirically, as far as it goes. Then a great insight arises. Everything falls into place. But we must sacrifice absolute beginnings, and are left with an hypothesis of a monotone sequence.


1. the ‘birth of civilization ’,

2. the (relative) rise of the classical civilizations,

3. and the onset of the modern world,


This, at first, less desirable scheme is far more revealing, but comes with the price tag of renouncing beginning and ending. It is difficult to restrain the temptation to complete this sequence, backwards or (armed with basic Zarathustra) forwards, although we can suggest a Neolithic, and New World extension. But the relation of the New World civilizations to TP1, 2, if any, needs to be sequestered due to the lack of evidence, although its place in relation to overall civilization is unlikely in the extreme to be an exception to the pattern, with apologies to the general case made for independent cultural evolution in the New World. This is quite heretical. It is tantamount to saying ‘our current system’ can’t be derived from antecedent histories. It is really evolving!

Thus theorists fail to consider a periodic rhythm of unnamed stages visible in historic times, reluctant to sacrifice absolute origins. Marx was hot on the trail of a discrete-continuous model, but he still wished to find named stages. Generally the influence of ‘historical economic materialism’ is pervasive and all parties agree not to see the Axial Age. Here the technological and economic theoretical constructs are forced to confront controversial ‘out of nowhere’ global synchronous evolution, as in the emergence of many religions. We are left with a fragment sequence, about which we can however reconstruct a great deal, and see the vague outlines of its source in the Neolithic.

Let us restate again the basic question, reverse engineered on the basis of the data. Does world history show signs of general sequence? The question is ambiguous. The pure flow of time is a sequence, and world history shows a host of sequences, but the results tend to disorganization, as cultures proliferate. What we really seem to mean is, does world history show signs of a sequence within a sequence, as intermittency, that can advance the whole through the part? The answer is immediate, yes indeed, however strange that may be. But we never see anything but the outcomes, the surface. Let us mention once more what we have been cautious in mentioning, a strange resemblance to noumenal/phenomenal distinction. We should be wary of such a claim, but the symptoms are there, to suggest why we never see the core mechanism. There is an unseen component in what the data is showing us. It even drops a provocative hint of its relation to a basic antinomy. Let us insert again our basic clue. This is not a ‘theory of freedom’, but a basic clue.

Notes: Economic cycles: Economics is one of the few subjects that studies cycles in the large in our sense. Our situation resembles that of the economist, who discovers ‘cycles’ through periodization, and whose models, discovered looking backwards, must end in the present. Predictions may be possible up to a point, but free action can always in principle falsify them. Note thus that a cyclical economic dynamic changes its character in the present. This is the exact situation we find ourselves in with our eonic model. However, it is not an economic question.

Looking backwards… Economies are observed by a free agent looking backwards toward the past. The agent is embedded in and subject to the cycles, and able to use his observations to change them. Thus the mechanics of this dynamic becomes unstable in the present. Momentum may overwhelm free choice, but in principle choice is there. The past is a ‘might have been’, but now fact. This is the right exemplar of our distinction of eonic determination and free action, here, economic cyclical action and free agency.



   Web:  chap7_5_1.htm


[i] G. J. Whitrow in Time in History (New York: Oxford, 1981) notes, p. 51, “It has for long been held that our modern idea of time derives from that of early Christianity, which in turn can be traced back to that of ancient Israel and Judaism. Instead of adopting the cyclical idea of time, the Jews are said to have believed in a linear concept, based in their case on a teleological idea of history as the gradual revelation of God’s purpose. Although there is much to support this view of the origin of our modern idea of time, it is now realized that it can only be adhered to with some reservations.” Nicholas Campion, in The Great Year (New York: Arkana, 1995), p. 16, is especially critical of the work of Mircea Eliade, in The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Pantheon, 1954), for spreading the idea that the Hebrews were the sole inventors of the ‘linear idea of time’, in contradistinction to all others who adopted cyclical ideas.

[ii] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: Knopf, 1926), Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (New York: Oxford, 1957), abridgement by D.C. Somervell. For a series of critiques of Toynbee’s theory, cf. Toynbee and History (Boston: Porter Sargeant, 1956), Ashley Montagu (ed.), Pieter Geyl, Debates With Historians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), Marvin Perry, Arnold Toynbee and the Western Tradition (New York: Peter Lang, 1996). Stuart Hughes, Oswald Spengler (New York: Scribner, 1952). Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western Culture (New York: The Free Press, 1996) traces the idea of cultural pessimism, and its relation to theories of decline. 





Last modified: 10/04/2010