By Georges Florovsky
This philosophical and theological reflection by Fr George Florovsky is part of a larger essay called “Redemption.” It was published in Volume Three of his Collected Works: Creation and Redemption. The version presented here breaks up some of the long paragraphs for the sake of readability.
Greek philosophy did not know and was in no way prepared to admit any passage from time into eternity, the temporal seemed to be eo ipso transitory. That which is happening can never become everlasting. What is born must inevitably die. Only what is unborn or unoriginated can persist. Everything that had a beginning will have an end. Only that which had no beginning can be permanent, or “eternal.” Therefore, for a Greek philosopher to admit future immortality meant at once to presuppose an eternal pre-existence. Thus the whole meaning of the historical process is a kind of descent from eternity into time. The destiny of man depends upon his innate germs rather than upon his creative achievements.
For a Greek, time was simply a lower or reduced mode of existence. Strictly speaking, in time nothing is produced or achieved nor is there anything to be produced or achieved. The “eternal” and invariable realities are merely, as it were, “projected” into a lower sphere. In this sense Plato called time a “mobile image of eternity” ( Timaeus 37d: είκών κινητόν τινά αιώνος ποιησαι). Plato had in view astronomical time, i.e. the rotation of the heavens. No real progress is visualized. On the contrary, time “imitates” eternity and “rolls on according to the laws of number” (38a,b), just in order to become like the eternal as much as possible. Time is just this permanent reiteration of itself. The basic idea is reflection, not accomplishment.1 For everything which is worth existing really does exist in the most perfect manner before all time, in a static invariability of the timeless, and there is nothing to add to this perfected fullness.2
Consequently, all that is happening is to be utterly transient. All is perfect and complete, and nothing to be perfected or completed. And therefore the burden of time, this rotation of beginnings and ends, is meaningless and tiresome.
There is no sense of creative duty in the [ancient] Greek mind. The impassibility or even indifference of the sage seem to be the climax of perfection. The sage is not concerned with or disturbed by all these vicissitudes of the temporal order. He knows that everything is happening according to eternal and inviolable laws or measures. He learns amid the tumult of events to contemplate the invariable and eternal harmony of the Cosmos. The ancient philosopher out of time dreams of eternity. He dreams of the escape from this world to another, immovable, impassive, and permanent. Hence the sense of fate which was so typical before Christ. It was a climax and a limit of ancient philosophy.
The temporal perspective of ancient philosophy is forever closed and limited. Yet the Cosmos is eternal, there will be no end of cosmic “revolutions.” The Cosmos is a periodical being, like a clock. The highest symbol of life is a recurrent circle. As Aristotle put it, “the circle is a perfect thing,” and the circle only, not any straight line.3 “This also explains the common saying that human affairs form a circle, and that there is a circle in all other things that have a natural movement, both coming into being and passing away. This is because all other things are discriminated by time, and end and begin as though conforming to a cycle; for even time itself is thought to be a circle.”4
The whole conception is obviously based on astronomical experience. Indeed, celestial movements are periodical and recurrent. The whole course of rotation is accomplished in a certain period [the “Great Year,” μέγας ένιαυτός]. And then comes a repetition, a new circle or cycle. There is no continuous progress in time, but rather “eternal returns,” a cyclophoria.5 The Pythagoreans seem to have been the first to profess clearly an exact repetition. Eudemus refers to this Pythagorean conception. “If we are to believe the Pythagoreans, then in a certain time I shall again be reading to you, with the same rod in my hands, and all of you, even as at this moment, will be sitting in front of me, and in the same way everything else will come again.”6 With Aristotle this periodical conception of the Universe took a strict scientific shape and was elaborated into a coherent system of Physics. Later this idea of periodical returns was again taken up by the Stoics.7
The early Stoics professed a periodical dissolution (έκ – πύρωσις) and palingenesis of all things, and then every minute detail will be exactly reproduced. There will be again a Socrates, the son of Sophroniscos and Phenareti, and he will be married to a Xanthippe, and will be again betrayed by an Anytus and a Meletes.8 The same idea we find in Cleanthes and Chrysippus, in Poseidonius and Marcus Aurelius and all the others. This return was what the Stoics called the “universal restoration,” an άπτοκατάστασις των πάντων. And it was obviously an astronomical term.9 There will be certainly some difference, but obviously no progress whatever. And on a circle all positions are indeed relative. It is a kind of a cosmic perpetuum mobile. All individual existences are hopelessly involved in this perpetual cosmic rotation, in these cosmic rhythms and “astral courses” [this was precisely what the Greeks used to call “destiny” and “fate,” ή ειμαρμένη vis positionis astroruni].
It is to be kept in mind that this exact repetition of worlds does not imply necessarily any continuity of individual existences, any survival or perseverance of the individuals, any individual immortality. The Universe itself is always numerically the same, and its laws are immutable and invariable, and each next world will exactly resemble the previous one in all particulars. But, strictly speaking, no individual survival is required for that. The same causes will inevitably produce the same effects. Nothing really new can ever happen. There is a continuity in the Cosmos, but hardly any true continuity of individuals.
Such was at least the view of Aristotle and the Aristotelians, and of some Stoics.10 This periodical idea was kept by the Neoplatonists as well.11 It was a miserable caricature of the resurrection. The permanence of these rotations, this nightmare of invariable cosmic predestination, a real imprisonment of every being, make this theory dull and frightening. There is no real history. “Cyclic motion and the transmigration of souls is not history,” remarks Lossev wittily. “It was a history built up on the pattern of astronomy, it was indeed itself a kind of astronomy.”12 The very feeling or apprehension of time is radically changed in Christianity. Time begins and ends, but in time human destiny is accomplished. Time itself is essentially unique, and never comes back. And the General Resurrection is the final limit of this unique time, of this unique destiny of the whole creation.
In Greek philosophy a cycle was the symbol of time, or rotation. In Christian philosophy time is symbolized rather by a line, a beam, or an arrow. But the difference is deeper still. From a Christian point of view, time is neither an infinite rotation, nor an infinite progression, which never reaches its goal [“die schlechte Unendlichkeit” (“bad infinity”) in Hegelian terminology, or άπειρον of the Greek philosophers]. Time is not merely a sequence of moments, nor is it an abstract form of multiplicity. Time is vectorial and finite. The temporal order is organized from within. The concreteness of purpose binds, from within, the stream of events into an organic whole. Events are precisely events, and not merely passing happenings. The temporal order is not the realm of privation, as it was for the Greek mind. It is more than just a stream.
It is a creative process, in which what was brought to existence from nothingness, by the Divine will, is ascending towards its ultimate consummation, when the Divine purpose will be fulfilled, on the last day.14 And the center of history is the Incarnation and the victory of the Incarnate Lord over death and sin. St. Augustine pointed out this change, which has been brought about by Christianity, in this admirable phrase: “viam rectam sequentes, quae nobis est Christus, eo duce it Salvatore, a vano etinepto imporium circuitu iter fidem mentemque avertamus” [Let us follow Christ, “the right way,” and turn our mind away from the vain circular maze of the impious].14 St. Gregory of Nyssa describes the vectoriality of history in this way: “When mankind attains to its fullness, then, without fail, this flowing motion of nature will cease, having reached its necessary end; and this life will be replaced by another mode of existence, distinct from the present, which consists in birth and destruction. When our nature, in due order, fulfills the course of time, then, without fail, this flowing motion, created by the succession of generations, will come to an end. The filling of the Universe will make any further advance or increase impossible, and then the whole plenitude of souls will return from the dispersed and formless state to an assembled one, and the very elements will be reunited in the self-same combination.”15 This end and this goal is the General Resurrection. St. Gregory speaks of inner fulfillment of history. Time will come to an end. For sooner or later things will be accomplished. Seeds will mature and shoot forth. The resurrection of the dead is the one and unique destiny of the whole world, of the whole Cosmos, One for all and each, a universal and catholic balance.
There is nothing naturalistic about this conception. The power of God will raise the dead. It will be the new and final revelation of God, of the Divine might and glory. The General Resurrection is the consummation of the Resurrection of Our Lord, the consummation of His victory over death and corruption. And beyond historical time there will be the future Kingdom, “the life of the age to come.” We are still Christ, “the right way” [and turn our mind away from the vain circular maze of the impious].16 St. Gregory of Nyssa describes the vectoriality of history in this way. “When in via, in the age of hope and expectation. Even the Saints in heaven still “await the resurrection of the dead.” The ultimate consummation will come for the whole human race at once.17 Then, at the close, for the whole creation the “Blessed Sabbath,” that very “day of rest,” the mysterious “Seventh day of creation,” will be inaugurated forever. The expected is as yet inconceivable. It is not yet made manifest what we shall be (1 John 3:2). But the pledge is given. Christ is risen.
1 Cf. A. E. Taylor’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1928), ad locum, p. 184 ff., and the Excursus IV, “The concept of Time in the Timaeus,” p. 678-691; see also A. E. Taylor, Plato, p. 446 ff. and A. Rivaud, Introduction to his Edition of the Timaeus (Paris, 1925); cf. also an interesting comparison of the two mentalities by L. Labertonniere, Le realisme Chretien et Videalisme grec (Paris, 1904), and the book by J. Guitton, Le temps et I’eternite chez Plotin et St. Augustin (Paris, 1933).
2 See Aristotle, De gen. et corr. 11.11, 337b 35: “for what is of necessity coincides with what it always, since that which ‘must be’ cannot possibly ‘not-be’; hence a thing is eternal, if its ‘being’ is necessary; and if it is eternal, its ‘being’ is necessary; and if the ‘coming-to-be’ of a thing is therefore necessary, its ‘coming-to-be’ is eternal; and if eternal, necessary”; τό γαρ εξ ανάγκης και αεί άμα . . . και ει ή γένεσις τοίνυν έξ ανάγκης, άΐδιος ή γένεσις τούτου, και ει άΐδιος, έξ ανάγκης. The argument is quite clear. If there is really a reason for a thing, cur potius sit quam non sit, there can be no reason whatever, why this thing should have not been from eternity, since otherwise the reason for its existence would not have been sufficient, i.e., necessary or eternal. Cf. De part. anim. I.I, 639b 23; De gen. anim. II.l, 73lb 24; Physic. III.4, 203b 30; see A. Mansion, Introduction a la Physique Aristotelienne (Louvain, 1913), p. 169 ss.
3 Aristotle, De Caelo 1.2, 269a 29: “the circle is a perfect thing (κύκλος των τελείων), which cannot be said of any straight line; not of any infinite line: for if it were perfect, it would have a limit and an end; nor of any finite line: for in every case there is something beyond it, since any finite line can be extended.”
4 Aristotle, Physica IV.14, 223b 29; cf. De gen. et corr. 11.11, 338a 3: “it follows that the coming-to-be of anything, if it is absolutely necessary, must be cyclical, i.e., must return upon itself.” διό ανάγκη κύκλω εΐναι; 1.14: απλώς έν τω κύκλω άρα κινήσει καΐ γενέσει εστί τό έξ ανάγκης; Probl. XVII.3, 986a 25: “Just as the course of the firmament and of each of the stars is a circle, why should not also the coming-to-be and the decay of perishable things be of such a kind that the same things again come into being and decay? This agrees with the saying that ‘human life is a circle’.” 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. 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.” On the circular movement in Aristotle see O. Hamelin, Le Systeme d’Aristote, 2 ed. (Paris, 1931), p. 366 ss.; J. Chevalier, La Notion du Necessaire chez Aristote et chez ses predecesseurs, particulihement chez Platon (Paris, 1915), p. 160 s., 180 s.; R. Mugnier, La Theorie du Premier Noteur et Vevolution de la Pensee Aristotelienee (Paris, 1930), p. 24 ss.
5 See P. Duhem, Le Systeme du Monde, Histoire des Doctrines Cosmo-logiques de Platon a Copernic, tl (Paris, 1914), p. 65 ss., La Grande Annee, La periodicite du monde selon les philosophes antiques’, p. 275-296, La Grande Annee chez les Grecs et les Latins, apres Aristote; t. II (1914), p. 447 ss., Les peres de Ifiglise et la Annee. Cf. Hans Meyer, Zur Lehre von der ewigen Wiederkunft oiler Dinge, in Vest gab e A. Ehrhard (Bonn, 1911), s. 359 ff.
6 Eudem. Physic. Ill, frg. 51, ap. Simplic, In Physic. IV. 12, 732.27 Diels: ει δέ τις πιστεύσεις τοΐς Πυθαγορείοις, ώστε πάλιν τά αυτά αριθμώ, καγο μυθολογήσω το ράβδουν εχω ύμΐν καθημέ-νοις, ούτω και τά άλλα πάντα ,μοίως εξει κτλ. Cf. Origen, Contra Celsum, V.21, Koetschau 22: τών yap αστέρων κατά τινας περιόδους τεταγμένς τους αυτούς σχηματισμούς και σχέσεις προς αλλήλους λαμβανόντων, πάντα τά έπί γης ομοίως εχειν φασί: τοΐς δτε το αυτό σχήμα τς σχέσεως τών αστέρων περιεΐχεν ό κόσμος* ανάγκη τοίνυν κατά τούτον τον λόγον τών αστέρων έκ μακράς περιόδου έλθόντων επί την αυτήν σχέσιν προς αλλήλους, οποίαν εΐχον έπί Σωκράτους, πάλιν Σωκράτη γενέσθαι έκ τών αυτών και τά αυτά λαβείν κτλ. This idea of the periodical succession of worlds seems to have been traditional in Greek philosophy. See Eusebius of Caesa-rea, Praep. Evang. 1.8, M.G. XXI, 56, and Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 1.16, on Anaximandros: εξ απείρου αιώνος ένακυκλουμένων πάντων αυτών [Eusebius’ authority in this chapter is Pseudo-Plutarch’s Stromata}. Simplicius, In Physic. VIII.I, 1121.13 sq. Diels, mentions also Anaximenes, Heraclitus and Diogenes, as well as the Stoics; all of them believed that the Cosmos was eternal (άε^ μεν φασιν εΐναι κόσμον), but periodically changed and renewed άλλοτε άλλον γινόμενον κατά τινάς χρόνων περιόδους; cf. Simplic, In De Caelo, 1.10, 294.4-6 Heiberg.
7 P. Duhem, I, p. 275: “alors survient Aristote, qui rattache logiquement ce croyance a son systeme rationnel de Physique. . ., la vie du Monde sublunaire est, toute entire, une vie periodique“; cf. p. 164 s.: “Les mouvements locaux des corps celestes sont periodiques; au bout d’un certain temps, ces corps reviendront aus positions qu’ils occupent aujourd-hui; or periodicita des mouvements locaux des etres incorruptibles entraine necessaire-ment la periodicite des effets dont ces mouvements sont causes, c’est-a-dire des transformations produites en la matiere corruptible; les generations, done, et les corruptions qui se produisent aujourd’hut se sont deja produites une infinite de fois dans le passe; elles se reproduiront, dans Vavenir, une infinite de fois, .. . la vie dit I’Univers entiere sera une vie periodique.”
8 Tatianus, Adv. Graecos, c. 5, Arnim 1.32, 109: τον Ζήνωνα διά της έκπυρώσεως άποψαινόμενον άνίστασθαι πάλιν τους αυτούς έπί τοΐς αύτοΐς, λέγω δέ “Ανητον και μελέτη ν έπί τώ κατηγορεΐν; Stob. Ed. I, 171.2 W., Arnim II. 596, 183, on Zeno, Cleantes and Chry-sippos: τήν ούσίαν μεταβάλλειν οΐον εις σπέρμα τό πυρ, και πάλιν έκ τούτου τοιαύτην άποτελεΐσθαι τήν διακόσμησιν, οία πρότερον ήν; cf. Origen, Contra Celsum, V.20, p. 21 Koetschau: ουτοι δι’ οι άνδρες φασί τη έξης περιόδω τοιαύτα εσεσθαι, και Σωκράτη ν μέν πάλιν Σωφρονίσκου υίόν και ‘Αθήναιον εσεσθαι, και τήν Φαιναρέτην γημαμένην Σωφρονίσκω πάλιν αυτόν γεννήσειν. Καν μή όνομάζωσιν οδν τό της αναστάσεως όνομα τό πράγμα γε δηλουσιν δτι Σωκράτης από σπερμάτων άρξάμενος άναστήσεται τών Σωφρονίσκου και εν τη υστέρα Φαιναρέτης διαπλασθήσεται και αναστραφείς Άθήνησι φιλοσοφήσει, κτλ.
9 Cf. Oapke, s.v. άποκατάστασις in Kittel’s Wörterbuch, I, s. 389: “Vor allem wird άποκατάστασις terminus technicus fur die Wie-derherstellung des kosmischen Zyklus.” See Lact. Div. Instit. VII.23, Arnim 11.623, 189: Chrysippus . . . in libris yuos de providentis scripsit haec intulit: καΐ ή μας μετά το τελευτήσοα πάλιν περιόδων τινών είλημμένων χρόνου εις δ νυν εσμεν κατά στη σε σθ α ι σχήμα; Nemesius, De natura homin., cap. 38, Arnim 11.625, 190: τών αστέρων ομοίως πάλιν φερομένων, εκαστον εν τή πρότερα περιόδω γινόμενον άπαραλλάκτως άποτελεΐσθαι: εσεσθαι γαρ πάλιν Σωκράτη και Πλάτωνα κατ’ εκαστον τών ανθρώπων συν τοις αύτοΐς και ψίλοις καΐ πολίταις . . . και πασαν πόλιν και κώμην και άγρον ομοίως άποκαθίστα-σθαι κτλ.
10 Heraclitus and Empedocles did not believe in any numerical persistence of individuals. Things do perish altogether, and in the next world will be merely reproduced, but not the same, rather as similars. See Simpl. In Dt Caelo, 1.10, 307.14 Heiberg: φθειρούμενον δέ και πάλιν γινόμενον; 295, 4: Εμπεδοκλής το γινόμενον ού’τ αυτόν τω φθαρέντι φησίν, ει μή, άρα κατ’ εΐδος. For Aristotle no individual identity existed in the sublunar world, changeable and corruptible. In the successive periods there will be no numerical identity, as in the celestial sphere, but only a similarity, a continuity of species; from Aristotelian Physics this idea was inherited by the later schools. See Aristotle, De gen. et corr. II.II, 338b 16: ανάγκη τω εΐδει, αριθμώ δέ μή άνα-κάμπτειν; Probl. XVII.3, 796a 27: “to demand that those who are coming into being should be numerically identical is foolish, but one would rather accept the theory of the identity of the species,” τω εΐδει; cf. also Eudemus ap. Simpl., In Physic. V.4, 886 Diels: διό τω εΐδει εν τούτο ρητέον, και ου τω αριθμώ. See Ο. Hamelin, op. cit., p. 402; Mugnier, op. cit., p. 26 ss. It is not quite clear to what extent the Stoics did admit an individual immortality. Alexander of Aphrodisias suggests a positive answer, In Analyt. prior., 180.39 Wallies, Arnim 11.624, 189: πάλιν πόντα ταύτα έν τω κόσμω γίνεσθαι κατ* αριθμόν. Cicero, Tuse. 1.32, gives another information: ”Stoici diu mansuros aiunt animos, semper negant” in any case they do not survive the έκπύρωσις; see L. Stein, Die Psychologie der Stoa, I (Berlin, 1886), s. 144 f., and Zeller, III.I, 582 f. Scmeckel, Die Philosophie des mittleren Stoa (Berlin, 1902), s. 250 and Anm. 3 contests this view. In any case, Origen had to deal with a Stoic teaching that rejected a numerical identity of the recurrent individuals. “Not the same Socrates, but somebody fully alike,” ίνα μή Σω κράτη ς πάλιν γένηται, άλλ’ απαράλλακτος τις τω Σωκράτη, γάμησων άπαράλλακτόν τίνα Ξανθίππη, και κατηγορηθησάμενος ύπό απαράλλακτων Άνήτω και Μελήτω; Contra Celsum, IV.68, Koetschau 338, and Arnim 11.626, 190. Origen objected that in this case the world itself would not have to be the same always, but also only απαράλλακτος Μτερος έτέρω. But obviously he misses the point: for the Stoics, just because the Cosmos is always the same (ή αυτή τάξις άπ’ αρχής μέχρι τέλος), every particular has to be repeated in the same shape, but nothing more is required for the uniformity of the whole.
11 Plotinus, IV.6.12; V.7.1-3. Cf. Guitton, op. cit., 55: “Plotin applique a toute existence ce schema circulaire. . .le cycle mythique est pour lui le type d’existence.” See also Proclus, Institutio theologica”, prop. 54, 55, 199, ed. Dodds, p. 52, 54, 174 and notes ad loca.
12 Lossev, Symbolism, p. 643. Cf. Guitton, op. cit., p. 359-360: “Les Grecs se representaient la presence de Veternal dans le temps sous la forme de retour cyclique. Inversement, Us imaginaient volontiers que le temps se poursuivait dans V eternel et que la vie presente n’etait qu’un episode du drame de I’ame: ainsi voulaient les mythes. . . ici la pensee chretienne est decisive. . . Les dmes n’ont pas d’histoire avant leur venue. Leur origine, c’est leur naissance; apres la mort la liberte est abolie avec le temps et Vhistoire cesse. Le temps mythique est condemne. Les destinies se jouent une fois peur toutes. . . . Le temps cyclique est condamne. . . .”
13 Cf. my article, “L’idee de la Creation dans la Philosophic Chretienne,” Logos, Revue Internationale de la pensee orthodoxe, I (Bucharest, 1926). See the article on creation contained in this volume.
14 St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, XII.20; cf. Nemesius, De hominis natura, c. 38, M.G. XL, c. 761: εις οπταξ γαρ τά της αναστάσεως, και ου κατά περίοδον εσεσθαι, τά του Χρίστου δοξάζει λογία.
15 St. Gregory of Nyssa, De anima et resurrectione, M.G. XLVI.
16 St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, XII.20; cf. Nemesius, De hominis natura, c. 38, M.G. XL, c. 761: εις οπταξ γαρ τά της αναστάσεως, και ου κατά περίοδον εσεσθαι, τά του Χρίστου δοξάζει λογία.
About the Author
- Protopresbyter George Florovsky was one of the most important and influential Orthodox scholars and theologians of the twentieth century. Born in Odessa in 1893, the fourth child of an Orthodox priest, his family was forced to flee the Russian Empire in 1920, and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1932. He went on to teach at St Sergius in Paris, and at Harvard, Princeton, and St Vladimir’s Seminary in the United States.