Circular Time – A Misadventure in Ethics

Climbers (2020) by Jordan Wood

It would be futile in this brief commentary to try and do justice to the theme of circular time, which in myth and science takes on myriad forms. Here I wish to provisionally contemplate whether this motif can serve as the basis for an ethics. The cruel lessons of eternal recurrence permeate various doctrines on how to live. It is telling that the myth of Sisyphus, who toils daily with rocks and the mountain, is used as an ethical treatise by ancient stoics, medieval monks, and modern existentialists like Albert Camus. Throughout history, those who grapple with the good life are encompassed and entranced by the cosmic cycle.

How can we interpret this? First, consider the vitalism that punctuates these notions of circularity. Cycles are immediately given in the ordinary phenomena of life, be it our waking days and sleeping nights, our winters and summers, or the wax and wane of our passions and melancholies. Here infinitude and finitude coexist: The infinite cycle is predicated on the passing of finite moments. Nietzsche’s beloved rendition of amor fati – the love of fate – is based on this finitude. We struggle with the choleric night knowing it will end and give way to a sanguine morning. But if one holds to this then the opposite is also true: all good things must die. Hence vitalism’s celebration of life is haunted by a debt to death. This essentially romantic discourse has been both secularised and popularised by modern science and the beatitude it gives to vital cycles at both the microscopic and cosmic scales. Consider the fascinated botanist who observes petals unfold to give pollen before contracting again, or the awestruck cosmologist who contemplates the life and death of a star. Here the romantic subject, once free and transcendent, is now wedded to the brute facts of nature. One cannot avoid the lack of agency here, the resignation to what is and what will be, the exhausted and impotent stenography of causes and effects.

Second, it is important to note that these ideas evoke what Alain Badiou calls the ‘figure of the One’. In ancient myth, circular time is often deified as a god such as Kala or Kronos. Here the divine One seems to literally encompass and totalises time. Yet things are more subtle than this. In many of these myths circular time is nevertheless not all there is. Indian traditions view time as an illusion tied to the material and sensory world and posit a state of harmony beyond time. In some ancient Greek accounts, the monotony of Kronos is punctured by the arrow of Kairos, of revolution and discovery. Does this suggest that the figure of the One has been disrupted, giving way to the Two?

Indian mysticism holds that we can transcend beyond the material world and merge with God, whose mind does not experience the divisions of time, but rather One eternal, present moment. In this case, however, we have evaded the One of circularity only to be captured by the One of atemporal presence. Similarly, in certain Greek accounts the rupture caused by Kairos is domesticated into the broader cycles of the Kosmos. Here we return to something like the secular vitalism mentioned above. In both cases the possibility of radical change is subsumed within a broader totalising order. The multitude of beings is immobilised by the despotism of Being. Twoness returns to Oneness. Can an ethics that values freedom and change be moulded in this image?

Like Alain Badiou, I believe that ethics – if there is any hope left in this term – requires thought. Specifically, it requires thinking into being a more ethical world. But if one embraces vitalism, is free thought not denuded to its fleshy animal substrate? If one embraces finitude, is there any point in establishing a new, more ethical situation, given that it is bound to wither and die? If everything that appears as new is in fact the recurrence of something that has happened before, why would we commit to the patient labour of thinking the new? And if we can transcend into a state of pure divine presence, is thought even possible, given that thought develops through chains of reason given at distinct moments in time? It seems to me that circular time, with all its complexities, cannot and should not serve as the basis for an ethics.

Today, more than ever, we need to think of something new. We are captured by a tortuous cycle named Capital. We are familiar with its phases: boom then bust, expansion then contraction, welfare then austerity, employment then the dole, rights then disenfranchisement, election then corruption, diplomacy then sanctions, sanctions then war, poverty and famine. We now live in the most unequal time in history, when a few hundred people own most of the world’s wealth and most people have nothing. Covid-19 has only exacerbated this problem. I question the significance of the term ‘ethics’ because what we really need is not an ethics, but a politics, one aimed at the common good. We need an emancipatory rupture aimed at a more egalitarian society. Since Plato, thought has been the human faculty that constructs what does not yet exist. We must think the new.

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