Fly on the Wall—It’s Your Year (If You’re a Pig)

An Existential Cycle

As the year of the pig commences, the Fly on the Wall separates the slop from the mire in competing cosmologies.  Is time a cycle or a line?

Chinese astrology experts caution that anyone whose birth date is in the year of the Pig ought to be wary:

“They should avoid conflicts and be prepared for some emotional roller-coastering.  It’s also not the best year for them to hit the casinos or switch careers” (Birkenbuel, online).

Before we put ourselves in a life choices straitjacket, or brush these pronouncements off as silly superstitions, we might recall our experience of the humble fortune cookie.  The commentaries contained within those crunchy shells are designed to make us better people if we heed them.  Likewise, we might recall how common sense and social belief varies in every culture; there are things we all just do (and things we all just believe) because they seem natural and inevitable while, in fact, they are social creations.  Switching careers and hitting the casino might not be the same thing (although the financial risks entailed certainly aren’t from different galaxies) we’d be wise to reflect before engaging in either.

We each receive culturally-specific answers to the mysteries of life.

In our age of science, an argument based on recurring astronomic realities, such as the lunar cycles that make up Chinese astrology, may not seem persuasive, but let’s not forget that the horoscope industry is alive and well here in Canada.  I’ve even known people who planned their children to be born in the same month but nevertheless referred to the astrological sign of their offspring!

The efficacy of a belief system is in whether it helps accomplish a task; the proof is in the pudding.  Before people knew that yeast is what allowed a bread pudding to rise after a period of proofing, they knew that something in the ingredients allowed for the desired result.   The phrase worked because people believed it would and followed its instruction.  Likewise, carpenters or engineers utilize the appropriate math equations because they believe in them enough to make them work.  To bother to apply one method is to believe in its efficacy and these allow us to achieve and affirm the good things in life.

Being sceptical that predictions are true because they’re based on maps of the past is another matter entirely, however.  It’s time to tackle the greased pig of cosmic epistemologies themselves: how do we know what we think we know about the nature of recurring events in the universe?

Some things in nature certainly repeat: the rhythms of the seasons, the flow of the tides and the passing of lunar phases.  Even our own heartbeats happen over and over again in about the same way each time, and when these are disrupted there can be serious health consequences.  Discovery of patterns of repetition leads to a fundamental tenet of science in our epoch: the capacity for predication.

Milic Capek states that there are here two possible approaches to patterns.  The first is “that every event in the universe, in all its details and in its whole cosmic context, will recur an infinite number of times in exactly the same way that it has already occurred” (Capek, 61).   This is distinguished from the scientific perspective that although patterns may appear they are mere waves of chance congealing when the causative winds are right.  To the modern mind patterns are not the exact return of events in their exact same form, no matter how identical they may appear at the level of their being (their ontology).  For instance, no two weddings are alike although the trappings may be eerily familiar.  Likewise, weather data here in the South Okanagan is reliable for no more than a hundred years depending on the settlement of each town or hamlet.  Nevertheless, this allows for meteorological prognostication: the same day never quite repeats twice, though.  The weather is either warmer or colder than the seasonal average on a given day.  Yet, at the broader level of deep time inhabited by stars in outer space and their zodiac correlates here on human earth, prediction becomes more dicey.

Capek notes that “periodicity” implied in basic life events like the alternation of day and night is of a different kind than, for instance, that inhabited by Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.  If the same events literally repeated every day we’d probably go nuts or, as in the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show, suspect a conspiracy.   By modern thinking, the fact that a calendar day comes up once a year (or every four years if it’s February 29th) is simply a functional exigency rather than a literal fact.  But this assumption has by no means dominated human history.

It remains philosophically prescient to consider the place of cycles as we reflect on the political ebbs and flows over the decades our lifetime, the metres of snow we’ve shovelled each winter as precipitation varies, or the amount of procrastination it takes to finally write that term paper.   A key question from these very human considerations isn’t just how can we predict the future from the past but does the future repeat itself out of what’s passed

George Santayana famously claimed that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” so with that thematic in mind we can assess this debate between time as an arrow and time as a circle (Santayana, online).  On the other hand, there’s a certain romantic wistfulness in imagining that, somehow, somewhere, someday “I shall converse with you staff in hand, and you will sit as you are sitting now, and so it will be in everything else, and it is reasonable to assume that time too will be the same” (Eudemus of Rhodes by Diels and Kranz, in Capek, 61).

As moderns inhabiting a Newtonian worldview where we believe that an apple falls because gravity sucks (as compared to an Aristotelian worldview where an apple falls because its destiny is to be on terra firma to spread its seed) it’s easy to ignore the fact that for much of human history cycles were seen as all there was.  Newton, however, saw “time as absolute, as intrinsically irreversible, irrespective of its content” (Capek, 62).  We return to the past only in poems and dreams, Newton would have claimed.  Interestingly, he’d have said this regardless of the legend that he was taking a daydreaming repose under a tree when he realized his seminal Law of Gravity.

Meanwhile, the Pythagoreans, creators of maths both useful and stupefying, held that there was a precise “length of this cosmic cycle, called the Great Year or Perfect Number” (Capek, 60).  By the year 1277 profession of belief in this Neo-Platonic idea of a “Great Year” could lead to excommunication from the Roman Catholic church (Capek, 61).  Studious study led to the discovery of certain geometric rhythms that appeared in sequence as though they’d been stencilled into place.  Orderly appearances, such as the Fibonacci shape of sunflower seeds in their sunny beds, led the Pythagoreans to join a noble battalion of philosophers throughout history who saw repeated patterns of recurrence and recollection as essential to the nature of the universe.

Plotinus had believed that the “intelligible world contains the ideal patterns not only of genera but also of individuals, each of which successively finds its embodiment in the realm of change.  But since the supply of these patterns is finite, a time will come when the same pattern-for example, of Socrates-will have to be incarnated again” (Capek, 61). 

In this sense, if this is your year, then you contain The Pig within you.  Likewise, if you’re a psychology major then you have more in common with your fellow psych students across the planet than merely sharing access to the same digital readings database; possibly, you are literally cut from the same cosmic cloth as psychologists both future and past.

At the broader level, if the universe is finite then the well of moments and possibilities, not to mention individuals—including yourself—must run dry and be replenished with all that is possible; namely, more of the same.  On the other hand, if the universe is infinite or infinitely repeatable then the same outcome is true: an infinite number of possibilities could not preclude the possibility of repetition.  If nothing repeated then infinity itself would have limits; as anyone feeling like they’re just a number (the ultimate repeatable unit) in a brick and mortar institution can attest, there’s nothing more possible than sameness happening over and over.  Maybe when we feel alienated and reduced to a common denominator that’s because part of our essence really is duplicated in others!

Infinity being like a hall of mirrors reflecting off into forever suggests that an infinite  universe would, by necessity, contain  repetition of events and people An infinite universe, characterized by an ongoing filling of interminable endlessness, would fill spaces of possibility in every direction including at first a little, and then with endless vigour, of doubling back on its tracks.  Deja vu suddenly seems very real, but also very useful; this is why we owe it to our profs to fill out the course evaluations so they can learn and grow too as their course repeats.

Rational reasons having weighed in favour of repetition in the minds of many philosophers in the Western tradition, some came to question the origins of the universe as a whole.  When was the proverbial first Year of the Pig and how did it get that way?  Capek summarizes several approaches to the question of timeless recurrence.  Pierre-Simone Laplace raised the possibility of a “primordial nebula” from which would spin an “unending cycle of successive worlds” followed by a necessary “rewinding of the cosmic clock” (Capek, 62).  A little over a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche concluded that, because cause and effects were locked in, determined by the nature of each interaction , everything in the universe was ordained beforehand.  This clockwork of inevitable outcomes would “generate the series of the same event in the same order as in the previous cosmic cycles” (Capek, 62).  From here Nietzsche arrived at his infamous law of eternal recurrence where, in order to retain sanity and attain serenity, we must believe that each event in our life was as inevitable as the stars we were born under.  From here we can accept our fate knowing that everything happens for a reason, the reason of inevitability.

In a sober judgement of this seemingly-cleareyed approach, Capek reminds us that “Nietzsche’s mystical ecstasy over ‘the ring of eternity’ was tinged by a note of anxiety and even despair” (Capek, 62).  Likewise, in ancient Greece Origen professed that “successive cosmic cycles” were “incompatible with human freedom” (Capek, 61).  In our liberal-pluralist times it does seem stiflingly uncomfortable to think of our personal lives as mere repetitions of past existences.  We want to do and be something new and do it for ourselves.  No matter how much we revere our elders to merely walk in their shoes would feel a bit self-defeating.

Whether we see our life as cycling seasons with many of the same elements occurring over and over, or as an arousal of progress with only an occasional glance backward to recall aspects of our history arising in our present, our AU experience certainly can feel like a bit of both.

We’ve come a long way, every one of us, and our success as adult students is nothing to scoff at because our circumstances and challenges are each unique.  Our life-long learning has caught us in an almost inexorable grip to which we have, hopefully with joy, acquiesced.  Sure there are economic benefits to our distance education journey in purely practical terms, but the fact that  we’ve arrived at our destiny by hard work rather than happenstance is a reminder to take stock and, whether the year of The Pig is ours or not (or whether we believe in such conceptions), we can be aware that if we have a level head we will continue to have success and even good fortune.

References  (2018).  Pig.  Retrieved from
Birkenbuel, R.  (2018).  When is the 2019 Chinese New Year? How to Celebrate the Year of The Pig.  Newseek Magazine.  Retrieved from
Capek, M.  (1967).  Eternal Recurrence.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Paul Edwards, Edito in Chief).  New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., The Free Press.
I Understand it Brings You Luck, Whether You Believe in it or Not.  (2013).  Quotes Invetigator.  Retrieved from
London Drugs Postal Flyer January 18-February 13, 2019.  (2019).  London Drugs. 
Santayana, G.  (2019).  Santayana Quotations.  Indiana University.  Retrieved from
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