No conception is more widely acknowledged and more extensively applied in all fields of natural science than that of periodicity.
If we ask the mathematician about the essence of periodicity, he will draw a waving line thus:
"This line," he says, "depicts the nature of each periodic phenomenon. It is the graphical representation of the process under consideration; a certain magnitude regularly grows, reaches a maximum, decreases, passes through a minimum and starts growing again. In many, and actually in the majority of cases, the line representing periodicity looks more complicated than the above one, but however involved it may seem, it can invariably be reduced to this simple line."
More or less pronounced periodicities are met with everywhere. Biology knows them just as well as medical science. They form one of the basic tenets of that field of astronomy which studies the orbital movements of the celestial bodies. Meteorology has placed on its program the investigation of the long-time periodicities of climatic conditions. In its investigation of vulcanism, seismology and the rhythmical movements of the earth's surface, geology also acknowledges the existence of periodic phenomena. The theoretical developments of modern physics and chemistry are inconceivable without the two conceptions: vibrations and waves — and what are they but periodicities?
The Theosophical reader is by no means surprised at this state of affairs — on the contrary; for he knows the doctrine of cycles, which tells him that any phenomena on the material as well as on the non-material plane, both in the manifested and the non-manifested universe, are subject to cyclic, i. e. periodical changes. He even goes a step farther and applies the conception of cycles or periodicity also to cases where science is unable to distinguish any periodicity at all: viz. to the phenomena of birth and death — irrespective of whether we are concerned with the birth and death of a human being, a universe or an atom. He does so because Theosophy shows him that life itself is one infinite, cyclical process. Birth and death are not the absolute beginning and end which they are thought to be by those who allow themselves to be dazzled by material illusions. No, birth and death are only transition-stages marking the beginning and end of a given period — the points where the curve in our figure (see above) intersects the time axis, nothing more. And just as these points — (of which there are a countless number) — are not essentially different from all other points on the curve, we see birth and death exclusively as the ever recurring transitions which characterize the periodicity of the process we call Life, but which may also be termed growth of consciousness.
Moreover, Theosophy couples the doctrine of evolution with that of cycles. Infinite, unvarying, periodic repetition would mean a vacuous terror to every thoughtful man. A doctrine that would lead to such conceptions arouses fierce intellectual opposition.
It is undoubtedly considerations of this kind which made scientists such as de Sitter and Eddington avowed adversaries of the idea of a universe that renews itself cyclically. In New Pathways in Science Eddington formulates his objections to such a conception as follows:
I find no difficulty in accepting the consequences of the present scientific theory as regards the future — the heat death of the universe. It may be billions of years hence, but slowly and inexorably the sands are running out. I feel no instinctive shrinking from this conclusion. From a moral standpoint the conception of a cyclic universe, continually running down and continually rejuvenating itself, seems to me wholly retrograde. Must Sisyphus for ever roll his stone up the hill only for it to roll down again every time it approaches the top? That was a description of Hell.
We quite agree with this view. Indeed, the teaching of a universe that rejuvenates itself cyclically is to be rejected as amoral unless each rejuvenation means at the same time a step forward. If Sisyphus has rolled his stone to the top of the mountain, the stone falls down again — but. . . along a different side of the mountain. He has to roll his stone upwards again, but up the next mountain, which may be steeper, but which will certainly be higher than the previous one; and the view from this top will therefore be vaster, grander, and more imposing — well worth the new journey.
It is just this thought which Theosophy brings us by pointing to the doctrine of evolution in connexion with that of cycles. Universes, men, and atoms proceed along the cyclic road of evolution, urged by the activity of Karman; in doing so they unfold their swabhava and realize their inner being more and more, i. e. consciousness, divine consciousness, kosmic consciousness.
Only thus can the teaching of unlimited periodicity be accepted, and only thus does it make life significant. All other conceptions lead to absolute pessimism — such as may be found in the works of Nietzsche, who defended the view that the worlds eternally repeated themselves in the same way.
What other view is left to us if we do not accept cyclic evolution and reject the endless repetition of the same cycle as meaningless and amoral?
In one of his former works, The Nature of the Physical World, Eddington replies to this question as follows:
I am no Phoenix worshipper. This is a topic on which science is silent, and all that one can say is prejudice. But since prejudice in favour of a never-ending cycle of rebirth of matter and worlds is often vocal, I may perhaps give voice to the opposite prejudice. I would feel more content that the universe should accomplish some great scheme of evolution and, having achieved whatever may be achieved, lapse back into chaotic changelessness, than that its purpose should be banalised by continual repetition. I am an Evolutionist, not a Multiplicationist. It seems rather stupid to keep doing the same thing over and over again.
According to this view birth and death, or beginning and end, are looked upon as absolute. In general, such is still the attitude of natural science. In physics it is found as the abstract formulation of the "second law" of thermodynamics, also called the law of increasing entropy. We shall not attempt to explain this law in physical terms. Popularly speaking, it is the so-called "heat-death" of the universe. It may be advisable to elucidate this latter expression. The term "heat-death" was first used by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius. He pointed out that with each conversion taking place in the universe part of the available energy is converted into heat, which as such is lost for further conversions. In the long run, it is reasoned, all the available energy will have been converted into heat, evenly distributed over the universe. Then, the natural process will stop. The unceasing activity which now characterizes the universe will have come to a standstill. Changes will no longer take place. The universe has died its "heat-death," from which resurrection is impossible.
As said above, science bases this gloomy prospect on the second law of thermodynamics. According to this law the heat-death of the universe is unavoidable. "It may be billions of years hence, but slowly and inexorably the sands are running out" — were Eddington's words quoted above.
Various investigators have repeatedly tried to oppose this deduction and to contest the second law of thermodynamics. However, it proved to be an unequal fight, for this law is considered the most fundamental of all natural laws. The attempts to disprove this law of entropy and the search for a perpetuum mobile, are considered as so many intellectual dissipations, and everyone knows that to find a perpetuum mobile is regarded as such an utter impossibility that the Academie Franchise have for many years refused to entertain any relevant inventions!
However, a remarkable point in this connexion is that thermodynamics, even in its classical form, frankly admits that neither the perpetuum mobile, nor a process that would disobey the law of entropy, is an impossibility. It is only — improbable, very improbable. In fact it is so improbable that nobody dwells on the possibility of it, so rich in zeros is the number that indicates the degree of improbability!
Moreover, the calculation of the degree of improbability is largely dependent on various factors which may change — and which de facto are changing — if different views on the fundamental conceptions in the natural world-philosophy will gain ground. We are living in a transition-period as far as physics goes. And we already saw ideas, which up to recently seemed unassailable, undergo many modifications. One example from many: When H. P. B. taught that matter is but crystallized light — this statement may be found, for instance, in The Secret Doctrine — scornful laughter was heard in the ranks of the physicists of that time. What? Matter is said to be light? Indeed, more absolute contrasts than those between unwieldy, heavy, tangible, and inert matter, and non-material, unseizable, and even invisible light were inconceivable! Now what considerable changes has this scientific view undergone.
In a book that was by no means intended to be popular, (1) the well-known French physicist Jean Perrin, who is responsible for several outstanding discoveries relating to the structure of the atom, writes, inter alia: "Des lors qu'on sait que des photons, c'est-a-dire de la Lumiere, peuvent se materialiser . . ." (From the moment that we know that photons, i. e. light, may materialize . . .). A few pages farther on there is a section bearing the heading: "Transformation de matiere en energie," (Conversion of matter into energy). There he discusses the experiments made by Joliot and Thibaut, both of whom succeeded in demonstrating irrefutably the dematerialization of matter into light of short wave-length.
Are not these results the most convincing corroboration of the truths of the Ancient Wisdom, decried as foolish, and on account of which H. P. B. was persecuted and derided?
This single example may suffice to illustrate the enormous change which has taken place in the world of physical thinking, which is largely due to Einstein's relativity-theory. The limits of an article such as ours, however, do not permit of a detailed discussion of this matter. Moreover, we should have to give highly technical explanations. But we must direct attention to one fact in connexion with the subject under consideration: thermodynamics, too, has undergone a thorough change. We would quote the following passage from one of the modern handbooks, viz. Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology (1934), by Richard C. Tolman, a recognised authority in this very difficult field:
At the very least it would seem wisest if we no longer dogmatically assert that the principles of thermodynamics necessarily require a universe which was created at a finite time in the past and which is fated for stagnation and death in the future.
Here, the inevitability of the heat-death is emphatically rejected by Tolman's investigations. What might be possible according to classical ideas, but what had at any rate to be considered highly improbable, is placed in a quite different light by the results of modern scientific investigations.
In the foregoing we do by no means want to assert that modern thermodynamics has settled the matter, for this is certainly not the case. But we did want to explain how modern physics begins to approach to the ancient teachings also in this respect — i.e. the possibility of the cyclical rejuvenation of a universe. It is realized more and more clearly that absolute starting- and end-points are non-existent. Each end is a new beginning; each beginning issues from a — provisional-end.
Very interesting in this connexion is an article by Dr. Jac. van Essen, published in the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. It was entitled: "The new science of Old Age." Dr. van Essen does not go so far as to show birth and death as relative beginnings and ends in a physiological process of unlimited cyclical continuity. He only discusses the first curve, lying above the time-axis, of the line drawn in our figure. The starting-point he calls birth, then follows the rise, adolescence; next a very flat maximum, adulthood; thereupon a decrease, old age, and finally the end, death. If we regard the curves above the time-axis as belonging to the material plane, and if those lying below this axis may be regarded as belonging to non-material planes, it will be clear that Dr. van Essen does not see the possibility of the line discussed by him continuing below the time-axis to rise above it again in course of time. His view is in perfect agreement with the present medical and biological ideas which are still largely tied to materialistic notions. Nevertheless, this article is interesting because on some points it is suggestive of a distinct struggle with a new conception regarding the problem of old age. According to Dr. van Essen a man grows old because his life-processes gradually retard. This retardation is not considered an effect, but the cause of the diseases and infirmities of old age. After he has come to this conclusion Dr. van Essen clearly realizes that this cannot be an isolated phenomenon, but that he has touched upon a kosmic reality. He draws the following final conclusion, which we quote verbatim below:
Finally, we might apply the above principle much more extensively, for also kosmic phenomena are no doubt subject to the law controlling birth, adolescence, adulthood, and death. By condensation, nebulae give birth to solar systems, which shoot through space at a tremendous speed, emitting an excess of energy. After a certain lapse of time the motion of the system slackens, and the amount of emitted energy decreases. The unit cools down into planets and moons, which finally decompose owing to the continued decline of its strength.
It is no use saying that we have been talking metaphorical language. It is the living reality of creation, reflected in the most different natural phenomena. Whereas formerly poets and thinkers could only make suppositions, we base ourselves on tenets that are quite reliable from a scientific point of view. Thus the new science of seneology (the science of old age) comprises much more than could be expected at first. In a limited sense, old age is only a problem of life, but in a wider sense it is a world-problem comprising the secret of the Being of all things, and modern science will disclose it with the utmost exertion.
Indeed, so it is! Old age is actually a world-problem. It can be solved only if science stops concentrating on the curve of the phenomena occurring on the visible, material plane that lies above the time-axis. This secret cannot be understood unless also the curve on the non-material plane is considered, unless the universal periodicity of all life processes is recognised and accepted.
Modern science is on the point of discovering the universal scope of periodicities, which it may notice everywhere on the manifested plane. As soon as it begins to direct its attention to events taking place on the non-material plane, the full significance of periodicities will be revealed to it.
The time is coming, and is perhaps nearer than science may presume, when the message of H. P. Blavatsky, that of the Ancient Wisdom, will find a response in the modern scientific world. In regard to the universally occurring periodicities this message says the following:
Worlds, men, and atoms accomplish infinite cycles; they reside in turn on the manifested and on the non-manifested plane. Evolution alternating with involution. But these continuous changes involve a steady progress to ever higher perfection. No beginning, no end; ever wider, ever grander, ever more stupendous perspectives — thus the Ancient Wisdom shows us the future of atoms, men, solar systems, and universes.
1. Grains de Matiere et de Lumiere. (return to text)