In an article in the August 2012 National Geographic (page 38) there is a short illustration of the battle between the secularist and the Christian view of time. Chapter one speaks about the circular view of time (1:4-11) in which there is a continuous repetition of events and outcomes. The article concerns the Oglala Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation which is near the site of Wounded Knee Creek where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer fought the Sioux Nation and was annihilated. The statement simply says: “Partly because time is not linear for the Oglala Lakota but rather is expressed in circular endlessness and beginnings, and partly because many can recite the members of their family trees, branch after branch, twig after twig, vines and incidental outgrowths included . . . ”
I mention this simply to illustrate that the concept of the circular view of history is not dead. There are millions of religious people in the world who believe in reincarnation and the repetition of history. It is a meaningless pursuit “under the sun”. Solomon introduces the Hebrew view in chapter three, which is linear. It is time which has a definite beginning and end with important events along a chronological time line. We will discuss that later. We are still seeing the elaboration of this ancient form of skepticism and pessimism. It is not only in chapter one of Ecclesiastes, but we find it in Egyptian pessimism and ancient versions of Greek skepticism which have been most formative in the development of Western civilization.
The Greeks developed what they called the cyclical view of history. It means, simply, that history has no definite point of beginning and no definite point of ending. It repeatedly goes around and around and around in an endless repetition in a meaningless, vicious circle of insignificance.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), in the 19th century spoke of the myth of the eternal return in which he called attention to this same idea of the circle. In his writings, he spoke of the image of Apollo, the god of classical Greek beauty, form, harmony, rationality, order and teleology (purpose) which was a characteristic of the high age of Greek culture. Not all Greeks accepted that view of history.
Competing all of this time, was the figure of Dionysus who was connected with the god Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery. He was the god of irrationality, chaos, and the father of the bacchanalia which was an ancient Roman festival in honor of Bacchus. They were drunken revelries and orgies and carousing in honor of Bacchus. The people would seek to escape the controls of rationality and just respond with abandon in order to escape the meaninglessness of the world. Nietzsche said “we must side now with Dionysus.” He was using the image of the circle coming around again. That is life “under the sun”, without meaning, purpose or definition. After this kind of teaching, there is a severe time of skepticism and depression in society.
A more modern apostle of despair was Ernest Hemingway who wrote the book “The Sun Also Rises” in which he borrows Ecclesiastes words (1:5). He said that ultimately death wins and the only way we can have victory over death is for us to determine the time and the place of our demise. The only way to cheat death is by suicide. In 1961 he used one of his rifles and killed himself. He was completely consistent with his ‘philosophy’. The sun rises, the sun sets; the sun rises, the sun sets. The image of the circular view is that “everything that goes around, comes around”.