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The Perennial Apocalypse:
How the End of the World Shapes History

by John J. Reilly

PDF format, PalmPilot version available
87,000 words, $7.00 (US)

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"Apocalyptic" is not a word with good connotations. At best, it is often used to refer to hopes for radical historical change that are doomed to disappointment. At the worst, it suggests hysteria and disaster. Still, is it really possible there is nothing good to be said about a way of thinking that has been nearly ubiquitous in world history? "The Perennial Apocalypse" is a comparative study that tries to do two things. First, it outlines the many common features shared by models of history, whether the models are found in myths or the writings of academic historians. Second, it seeks to illustrate some of the ways in which these models have affected actual history, especially those parts of the models that have an eschatological dimension. Such a survey will necessarily have more than its share of tales of pillage and rapine, from John of Leyden's Münster to the Reverend Jones's Jonestown. It will also remind us, however, that concepts like progress, apocalypse and millennium have always been closely linked. Human affairs have often been conducted with an eye to the eschaton, and this has not necessarily been a bad thing.

Here is the Table of Contents for the book, with some highlights from each section:



(What you just read, but much longer.)

Chapter (1)

Story Power
The Gestalt psychology of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is brought to bear on the power of models of history to function as ideologies. We also consider whether linear models of history are the only ones capable of supporting a higher ethics.

Chapter (2)

A Paradigm of Histories

In this section, I try to do for myths and theories of history what Vladimir Propp did for folktales. I conclude that just about all such structures have plots that can be generated from the expression:

CIR + t1h + p/f/t2 + (!1/o/!2/0)

Structuralism is an acquired taste, but my use of it here is not so pervasive as to impede the enjoyment of those who have not acquired it. Be warned, though, that my approach to ideology is resolutely acausal. I look on apocalyptic ideas as "emergent behavior" that can turn up in a variety of social and historical contexts.


An introduction to cyclical models of history.

Chapter (3)

Oswald Spengler Meets the Emperor of the Last Days

"The Decline of the West" is a case of an intriguing thesis backed by tendentious research (hardly the last such example). Though Spengler's model could be called "apocalyptic" only in the very long term, it has a history of exacerbating short-term political millenarianism.

Chapter (4)

Arnold Toynbee Explains It All

Historians tend to make fun of Toynbee today, but I am inclined to think that his "Study of History" helped to prevent World War III. His model had both cyclical and linear elements.

Chapter (5)

The Racial Apocalypse of Count Arthur de Gobineau

Gobineau's "Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races" appeared at roughly the same time as "The Origin of Species" and "Das Kapital," and in mostly subterranean ways its influence has been comparable. Like Toynbee, Gobineau's model is both cyclical and linear, but here all the lines point downwards.

An introduction to linear models of history.

Chapter (6)

The Five Ages of the World

The historical models of the Aztecs, Hesiod, the Book of Daniel and of C.G. Jung all considered under one heading? Structuralism is wonderful. In this section, I discuss the eschatologies that seek pure destruction, and consider the significance of "evil millennia."

Chapter (7)

The Living Bible

This section considers such familiar topics as premillennialism, Augustine and the idea of progress, Joachim of Fiore and the three-stage model of history. I discuss the possibility that a millenarian movement may be what you get when a liturgical system collapses. (The chapter also contains one of the few discussions of the evolution of the Bible in terms of chaos theory that you are ever likely to read.)

Chapter (8)

Nuclear Strategy Considered as a Millenarian Cult

The idea of a secular war that could end the world through scientific means has been around for over a century: nuclear weapons were simply one of the ways people tried to incarnate it. I suggest the possibility that the idea of a man-made apocalypse is so "attractive" that some people actually recoil from the thought of defenses against weapons of mass destruction.

Chapter (9)

The Coming Man

If you scratch some forms of fascism and the occult, and even elements of popular culture, you will find a myth about a new species that will replace the current human race in the next age of the world. People who believe this kind of thing have sometimes been keen to engineer the beginning of this New Age. The ramifications of this notion are surprising, to say the least.

Part Three: Foreseeing the End

Never yet has a prediction of universal destruction come true, but there is a real wisdom in apocalyptic. Civilizations and historical epochs have sometimes come to spectacular ends at the time or in the manner that prophecies had indicated, often under the influence of the prophecies themselves. To what extent can the future really be predicted? To what extent can it be manipulated through prophecy?

Epilogue: In Praise of the Apocalypse

Maybe history will end when we finish it.



"The Perennial Apocalypse" is being published in PDF format. This is a very legible type of file, which you read with a free Adobe Acrobat reader. (PDF files are searchable, so this edition has a bibliography but no index.) Wonderful as this technology may be, however, I would still like the book to appear in a conventional format. Publishers interested in doing a hardcopy version of "The Perennial Apocalypse" are invited to contact me. And, of course, remarks from anyone else are welcome, too. Just click on "Comments" below.

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