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Chapter 11

On Cycles.


The one faith on which all normal living beings consciously or unconsciously act, is that like antecedents will be followed by like consequents. This is the one true and catholic faith, undemonstrable, but except a living being believe which, without doubt it shall perish everlastingly. In the assurance of this all action is taken.

But if this fundamental article is admitted, and it cannot be gainsaid, it follows that if ever a complete cycle were formed, so that the whole universe of one instant were to repeat itself absolutely in a subsequent one, no matter after what interval of time, then the course of the events between these two moments would go on repeating itself for ever and ever afterwards in due order, down to the minutest detail, in an endless series of cycles like a circulating decimal. For the universe comprises everything; there could therefore be no disturbance from without. Once a cycle, always a cycle.

Let us suppose the earth, of given weight, moving with given momentum in a given path, and under given conditions in every respect, to find itself at any one time conditioned in all these respects as it was conditioned at some past moment; then it must move exactly in the same path as the one it took when at the beginning of the cycle it has just completed, and must therefore in the course of time fulfil a second cycle, and therefore a third, and so on for ever and ever, with no more chance of escape than a circulating decimal has, if the circumstances have been reproduced with perfect accuracy.

We see something very like this actually happen in the yearly revolutions of the planets round the sun. But the relations between, we will say, the earth and the sun are not reproduced absolutely. These relations deal only with a small part of the universe, and even in this small part the relation of the parts inter se has never yet been reproduced with the perfection of accuracy necessary for our argument. They are liable, moreover, to disturbance from events which may or may not actually occur (as, for example, our being struck by a comet, or the sun's coming within a certain distance of another sun), but of which, if they do occur, no one can foresee the effects. Nevertheless the conditions have been so nearly repeated that there is no appreciable difference in the relations between the earth and sun on one New Year's Day and on another, nor is there reason for expecting such change within any reasonable time.

If there is to be an eternal series of cycles involving the whole universe, it is plain that not one single atom must be excluded. Exclude a single molecule of hydrogen from the ring, or vary the relative positions of two molecules only, and the charm is broken; an element of disturbance has been introduced, of which the utmost that can be said is that it may not prevent the ensuing of a long series of very nearly perfect cycles before similarity in recurrence is destroyed, but which must inevitably prevent absolute identity of repetition. The movement of the series becomes no longer a cycle, but spiral, and convergent or divergent at a greater or less rate according to circumstances. We cannot conceive of all the atoms in the universe standing twice over in absolutely the same relation each one of them to every other. There are too many of them and they are too much mixed; but, as has been just said, in the planets and their satellites we do see large groups of atoms whose movements recur with some approach to precision. The same holds good also with certain comets and with the sun himself. The result is that our days and nights and seasons follow one another with nearly perfect regularity from year to year, and have done so for as long time as we know anything for certain. A vast preponderance of all the action that takes place around us is cycular action.

Within the great cycle of the planetary revolution of our own earth, and as a consequence thereof, we have the minor cycle of the phenomena of the seasons; these generate atmospheric cycles. Water is evaporated from the ocean and conveyed to mountain ranges, where it is cooled, and whence it returns again to the sea. This cycle of events is being repeated again and again with little appreciable variation. The tides and winds in certain latitudes go round and round the world with what amounts to continuous regularity.--There are storms of wind and rain called cyclones. In the case of these, the cycle is not very complete, the movement, therefore, is spiral, and the tendency to recur is comparatively soon lost. It is a common saying that history repeats itself, so that anarchy will lead to despotism and despotism to anarchy; every nation can point to instances of men's minds having gone round and round so nearly in a perfect cycle that many revolutions have occurred before the cessation of a tendency to recur. Lastly, in the generation of plants and animals we have, perhaps, the most striking and common example of the inevitable tendency of all action to repeat itself when it has once proximately done so. Let only one living being have once succeeded in producing a being like itself, and thus have returned, so to speak, upon itself, and a series of generations must follow of necessity, unless some matter interfere which had no part in the original combination, and, as it may happen, kill the first reproductive creature or all its descendants within a few generations. If no such mishap occurs as this, and if the recurrence of the conditions is sufficiently perfect, a series of generations follows with as much certainty as a series of seasons follows upon the cycle of the relations between the earth and sun. Let the first periodically recurring substance--we will say A--be able to recur or reproduce itself, not once only, but many times over, as A1, A2, &c.; let A also have consciousness and a sense of self-interest, which qualities must, ex hypothesi, be reproduced in each one of its offspring; let these get placed in circumstances which differ sufficiently to destroy the cycle in theory without doing so practically--that is to say, to reduce the rotation to a spiral, but to a spiral with so little deviation from perfect cycularity as for each revolution to appear practically a cycle, though after many revolutions the deviation becomes perceptible; then some such differentiations of animal and vegetable life as we actually see follow as matters of course. A1 and A2 have a sense of self-interest as A had, but they are not precisely in circumstances similar to A's, nor, it may be, to each other's; they will therefore act somewhat differently, and every living being is modified by a change of action. Having become modified, they follow the spirit of A's action more essentially in begetting a creature like themselves than in begetting one like A; for the essence of A's act was not the reproduction of A, but the reproduction of a creature like the one from which it sprung--that is to say, a creature bearing traces in its body of the main influences that have worked upon its parent.

Within the cycle of reproduction there are cycles upon cycles in the life of each individual, whether animal or plant. Observe the action of our lungs and heart, how regular it is, and how a cycle having been once established, it is repeated many millions of times in an individual of average health and longevity. Remember also that it is this periodicity--this inevitable tendency of all atoms in combination to repeat any combination which they have once repeated, unless forcibly prevented from doing so--which alone renders nine- tenths of our mechanical inventions of practical use to us. There is no internal periodicity about a hammer or a saw, but there is in the steam-engine or watermill when once set in motion. The actions of these machines recur in a regular series, at regular intervals, with the unerringness of circulating decimals.

When we bear in mind, then, the omnipresence of this tendency in the world around us, the absolute freedom from exception which attends its action, the manner in which it holds equally good upon the vastest and the smallest scale, and the completeness of its accord with our ideas of what must inevitably happen when a like combination is placed in circumstances like those in which it was placed before-- when we bear in mind all this, is it possible not to connect the facts together, and to refer cycles of living generations to the same unalterableness in the action of like matter under like circumstances which makes Jupiter and Saturn revolve round the sun, or the piston of a steam-engine move up and down as long as the steam acts upon it?

But who will attribute memory to the hands of a clock, to a piston- rod, to air or water in a storm or in course of evaporation, to the earth and planets in their circuits round the sun, or to the atoms of the universe, if they too be moving in a cycle vaster than we can take account of? [160] And if not, why introduce it into the embryonic development of living beings, when there is not a particle of evidence in support of its actual presence, when regularity of action can be ensured just as well without it as with it, and when at the best it is considered as existing under circumstances which it baffles us to conceive, inasmuch as it is supposed to be exercised without any conscious recollection? Surely a memory which is exercised without any consciousness of recollecting is only a periphrasis for the absence of any memory at all.


Footnotes:

[160] It must be remembered that this passage is put as if in the mouth of an objector.


Samuel Butler

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