The Cycle and the Cross
Most of you are probably familiar with the popular, upbeat Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?“.
It’s actually a frightful hymn in its particular meanings, because the circle has no place in Christianity, where the circle was understood to symbolise the pagan mind of cyclicity and of the eternal recurrence of same. Many people have fallen into this trap.
We will use this word “pagan” simply because I can’t think of a better one off hand, even though the word’s actual meaning has been perverted over time. It shares with the word “heathen” something of the flavour of the word “natural”. The “pagus” and “the heath” signify something like “country-side.” But this is merely symbolic in meaning, for the great cities and civilisations of the ancient world don’t correspond with this literal meaning of “country-side” or “rural”. The word “pagan” (or “heathen”) are themselves symbols of a spiritual state, and from a Christian perspective, “pagan” meant those who live apart or outside “the City of God”, which is the supernatural or transcendental city and therefore also a symbol.
The dominant symbol of paganism, which is the shape of its consciousness, is the ouroboros and it is the quintessential symbol of the natural man,
The self-devouring and self-regenerating world dragon is an image ubiquitous throughout the ancient world, and it is a valid symbolisation of what we today call “Nature” even though many ancient and even contemporary languages actually have no word for “Nature” at all. Consequently, neither do they have a word for its ostensible opposite, “culture”. The human is somewhat seamlessly immersed in nature with no real self-consciousness as a being apart from the energetic flow. There is no separation of soul and world, or subject and object. There is no real separation of inner and outer, thus of dream and reality, and this lack of separation is the significance of myth and of the mythological consciousness. It is also the symbol of the tribal and clan identity and loyalty that David Loy called “the Wego”, rather than “Ego”.
Turning from the ancient world to the North American context, we find pretty much the same symbol represented as “the sacred hoop”, and it again represents cyclicity as well as unity
These symbols of ouroboros and sacred hoop are very profound, meaningful, and true of the human experience as “natural man” who is the embodied or bodily being. This is what was originally meant by “life in the flesh”, but which was perverted (moralised) in meaning (as was an associated meaning “sinful” the meaning of which is today perverted and distorted beyond intelligibility). This is what these symbols represent — the experience of bodily consciousness in organic form, just as depicted also by Leonardo in his “Vitruvian Man” which has become the iconic thematic image of the Renaissance as a whole,
With the advent of the Christian Era, though (earlier with Buddhism in India) something happens to the dominant symbol representative of man’s consciousness of himself and his relationship to the cosmos. The circle becomes, in a sense, broken. There is a rupture in its circumference. And this “catastrophic” rupture itself represents the “apocalyptic” opening up of a new possibility as a revealed truth — future as a destiny chosen rather than a fate to be endured and repeated in an endless cyclic rotation of things and events.
In the above illustration, Jacob Boehme (1575 – 1624)has captured the essence of this new “mutation” — the rupture in the closed circumference of the ancient ouroboros is the opening to the “transcendent” or “the beyond” as it has been called. What lies outside the circumference of the cycle or circle is the eternal and the infinite, which is the timeless. Boehme’s illustration combines both the meanings of the ouroboros and the sacred hoop in one coherent, synthetic image, while showing the doorway or gateway that connects the eternal with the temporal. This gateway is called the “portal”, and it is both exit from and entrance to. Here, this is illustrated by the dove, which is the spirit, ascending upwards through the portal or rupture into the infinite, while the cross descends into the finite or bounded transfiguring the world – a “new heaven and earth”.
Without knowledge of the pagan world and what is even meant by the term “pagan”, it is virtually impossible to understand the significance of the “New” Testament, or what Jesus meant in his teaching of “freedom” — that “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” or “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” which sounds like bombast because these meanings have become opaque. Without appreciating the pagan world’s sense of fatalism, futility, slavishness, pointlessness, and malaise (pretty much like our own, now) this whole period called “the Axial Period” from Buddha to Mohammed — the period of the “new revelation” — will remain a mysterious and puzzling, maybe even absurd, episode of history. But the whole theme of this period is really “emancipation”. And that appeal makes no sense without knowing the actual spiritual context in which the promise of emancipation or liberation was found appealing.
With the onset of the Christian Era, the circle was either replaced by the cross or subsumed by it. For example,
The cross, as symbol, is not “an instrument of torture” but the new shape of consciousness transcending the pagan cycle. That is it’s meaning, and not torture. In the new symbol the arms of the cross have broken through the enchanted circle of pagan consciousness which was largely represented, in its later, tragic stages, in the myth of Narcissus and Echo. This change of consciousness is what is truly meant by “conversion”, and nothing else is. It is this that is the meaning of “breakthrough.” It means having one’s face turned in a new direction, and that direction was towards the future, which is the realm of freedom when the promise of emancipation or liberation would be fulfilled and realised. This destiny or ideal of freedom still drives much of the ideal of “progress” in secular society, but now in very decayed and virtually unrecognisable form — as conveniences or “labour-saving devices” or as political or consumer choice or market freedom, etc. This is life today amidst the ruins.
The cruciform symbol as the new map of reality and consciousness has even changed representations of the sacred hoop, which now looks more like the original Christian symbol above. Here’s a depiction of it on the coat-of-arms of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations,
The arms of the cross now arrow outwards, across the frontiers of the circle’s circumference. It is the gesture of “reaching out” beyond the tribal identity, or beyond the frontiers of “Turtle Island” whereas the earlier symbol was predominantly inward-looking, in which the circle or cycle placed a constraint on the expansion of the cross.
In Rosenstock-Huessy’s sociological model, the cruciform image or “cross of reality” is stripped to its bare essentials, as per Occam’s Razor
Here, the circle has disappeared completely, and I’ve always been tempted to put it back in its proper place. But it is perhaps understandable because Rosenstock-Huessy was fighting against the Nazi swastika in his time, in which he saw a return to the pagan mentality of cyclic rotation, the confusion of eternity with foreverness — the “thousand year Reich — rather than timelessness, and in der Hakenkreuz he saw, correctly, the final perversion of Christianity.
Although originally a Hindu/Buddhist symbol also representing the rupture of the outer circumference of the enchanted circle — the opening into the infinite — here the cross is turned back into a pagan symbol of rotation, and is enclosed again befitting the closed mentality of the Volksstaat and völkisch mentality — the self-glorification and self-adulation of das Herrenvolk or “master race”, a reversion to Germany’s pagan roots, the mysticism of “blood purity”, race consciousness, “the noble savage”, and so on.
Now, all this becomes important in assessing some of the controversies today following Nietzsche’s announcement of “the death of God” — the attack on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, or Jean Gebser’s critique of Rene Guenon’s “traditionalist” views in The Reign of Quantity. Whatever merits their works might otherwise have as a critique of modernity, both Spengler and Guenon rely on a cyclic or rotational interpretation of history. As a consequence, their views often come very close to Hitler’s own despite whatever feelings they might otherwise have about that comparison.
Guenon’s views are an excellent example. He envisions history in cyclic terms, as a descent from a zenith of “quality” (a Golden Age of wisdom) along the circumference of a circle to the nadir at the bottom of the cycle — the reign of quantity and the near loss of everything of value. It is, in fact, one way of envisioning Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. At the nadir or lowest point of the cycle, however — which represents a near absolute debasement, degradation, decadence, and vulgarisation of all “quality” or value, the ascent along the circumference of the circle begins anew, once again rising upwards towards the zenith.
In Spengler, this same cyclic pattern occurs in his comparison of the life and death of civilisations with the annual seasons — spring, summer, fall, winter. Both are almost convincing and persuasive in their easy simplicity. But neither are true because, as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, our reality is not a circle but a cross — the “cross of reality”. The circle or cycle may be partially true of natural processes, but it provides no real access to understanding the phenomena of social or cultural history.
The image of the circle or cycle does not account for the fact that our experience of time and space is that they are divided into a fourfold arrangement of two times (backwards and forwards) and two spaces (inwards and outwards). We do not live our lives on the circumference of a circle, but at the centre of a cross that points backwards, forwards, inwards, and outwards. Thus, the “reign of quantity” must be interpreted differently, not as the nadir of an historical cycle, but as the domination of the objective or “outward” front of life at the expense of the other fronts which must be manned and maintained in a balance or equilibrium. Our social problem is a problem of disequilibrium, therefore. It is not the case that consciousness is fatalistically and deterministically trapped in a cycle of routine successions. It is the human being who must balance all the four fronts of life simultaneously — past and future, inner and outer. Fanaticism or bias is to accentuate one front at the expense of the others. It is the problem of “too much” or exaggeration that leads to the lop-sided condition of social imbalance.
The image of the cycle is Blake’s “dark Satanic mill” and the image of the cosmos as a complicated mechanism of gears, cogs and wheels.
If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again….
The bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round even of a universe would soon become a mill with complicated wheels. William Blake, “There is NO Natural Religion“
The “cross of reality” was designed to overcome this fatalism. That is why I always find Blake’s painting of Albion reborn through the fourfold vision, the image of a joyous freedom, so reminiscent and even a possible critique of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man illustrated above (although I don’t know if Blake was engaged in a conscious critique of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). Albion broken through the confining geometries of da Vinci’s drawing is likewise reminiscent of Jacob Boehme’s illustration of the transcendence of the ouroboros.