Eternity is a concept by which man measures his mortal finitude. Throughout history it has meant different things to different cultures. In Hinduism, eternity is the never-ending repeated cycles of birth, death through which the Self finds Truth and merges into the Brahman. In Taoism, the concept of eternity is, as such, obsolete and can only be grasped within the ever-flowing and changing rhythms of Nature. In this respect, the Brahman as Ultimate Reality is just as inscrutable just as the Tao is ‘eternally nameless’. The aim of Eastern philosophies is not to reach a material transcendent world but to find access to our deeper, truer self as the only way to find liberation from the suffering of human existence and discover the Ultimate Reality beyond our everyday experience.
The first Western conception of eternity is to be found in the ancient Egyptian civilisation. This transcendent or religious phase is a forerunner of the Christian and Muslim interpretations of a supernatural world inasmuch as, for the Egyptians, the afterlife is simply a continuation of earthly life on a better shore. Throughout the Middle Ages, eternity is associated with the rewards of the Blessed, reunited with God as the Ultimate source of Life and Love. Despite the variety of religious paradigms, human consciousness always craves for some kind of communion or fusion with a higher level of Reality, be it a specific god or a glimpse of Ultimate Reality. However, Eternity, like Reality, is beyond the reach of thought and paradoxically if it exists, it can only be perceived when past, present and future, collide into a timeless instant. Then and only then can the soul/mind detach itself from its physical shell and in a short-lived ‘ecstatic’ moment, lose all sense of personal identity and ‘awake from the dream of life.’
The second stage in the human understanding of eternity is the transient or Romantic one. The 19th century opened with a rejection of religion and reason and a return to the truth of the senses and feelings. The incandescence of Love and the majesty of Nature were believed to be best captured through poetry and painting. ‘Eternity is here and now’ proclaimed the Romantics and when Arthur Rimbaud claimed to have rediscovered eternity, he did not find it in a theological sky but in ‘the whirling light of sun become sea’. In the same way, the new art of photography froze moments of eternity so far unknown to the human eye. Gustave Le Gray’s photographs of seascapes and studies of clouds have scientific undertones beyond their conveying a poetic emotion in the viewer. Cézanne paints la Montaigne Sainte-Victoire again and again, knowing full well that the only way to capture its essence, i.e: its eternity, is by catching its endless changes in different lights and different seasons. Nietszche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ is also a manifestation of the Romantic spirit. Beyond his will to break the linear, transcendent model of Christian redemptive eternity, Nietzsche shares his contemporaries’ preoccupations with the ‘now’ when he hankers for the perpetual return of the same as another form of ‘eternity of the instant’: ’I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life, in the greatest things and in the smallest.’
Darwin is responsible for breaking the spell of a transcendent eternity. He demonstrated that Man is the product of evolution and that his environment has its own creation story. Darwin’s theory of evolution deprived mankind of its supernatural narrative as the origins of life were proved to be biological and not divine, after all. On the Origins of Species paved the way to the dark or scientific conception of eternity. Thanks to Einstein’s discoveries of the laws of the universe, we have gained a better understanding of what ‘physical’ eternity may be in the light of his theories of relativity. More recent speculations concerning the presence of dark matter and dark energy have highlighted the role played by dark energy in the accelerating expansion of the galaxies. The present generations of human beings are the first to know about the inevitable extinction of the sun and the contraction of all the planets of the solar system in about 4 to 7.5 billion years from now.
So what of eternity? If it is nothing but a dispensable concept entertained by biologically-programmed, conscious beings, it will die out with the last human on this planet – unless mankind finds refuge in another galaxy. On the other hand, if eternity is another name for personal ‘enlightenment’, it is still ‘out there’ and may still be pursued and found through spiritual exercises heightening our level of consciousness and finally revealing Ultimate Reality Itself.