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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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Cycles - The Ancient World, The Early Modern Period, The Twentieth Century, Bibliography