ASPECTS OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF TIME
- by Carl Pfluger (25 October, 2001)
I. The Evil of Time
It is said that Time heals all wounds; which is true enough, after a fashion, but nothing to feel especially grateful for, since it is also Time that inflicts most of our wounds in the first place. There is a poignant Latin expression that used to be inscribed around the dials of old clocks: "Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat," it proclaimed, referring to the hours marked off by the clock: "All of them wound: the last one kills." Time figures here as both the sign, and the enforcer, of our mortality. And that certainly gives us at least one common human experience of time, one which has found ample expression in philosophy, in art, and in mythology.
I have borrowed the phrase "the evil of time" from Nikolai Berdyayev (who must be my favorite 20th-century philosopher, since I find myself quoting him so often!) As he puts it (in his book Solitude and Society, p. 30) "The degraded time of our world is the outcome of the Fall that occurred in the depths of existence." Much later in the same book (p. 138) he elaborates; "In reality, the Fall did not take place on time, but rather time was the outcome of the Fall." (It seems clear enough that Berdyayev, one of the most intensely Christian writers of the 20th century, inclined more toward Gnosticism than toward Fundamentalism in his reading of Genesis.)
In thus seeing Time itself as somehow a degradation, Berdyayev is following an ancient tradition in philosophy, one which goes back at least to Plato, of not to the Pythagoreans. The Classical expression of this view is, at any rate, Plato's Timaeus (a work to which I suspect we will return more than once in the course of our discussions)wherein Time is represented as a lower-order imitation, a "moving image" of Eternity. And the highest representation of this motion -- in some sense, even the generator of Time itself -- is found in the rotating spheres of the stars and planets, which for Plato define the Kosmos in every sense. From Plato at least through Plotinus, mainstream Platonism (followed by orthodox Christianity) insisted that Time, matter, and the created Kosmos, although inferior copies, were at least the copies of something good, and were therefore, however weakly and derivatively, good in themselves as far as they could go. It was left to the Gnostic sensibility to perceive matter, time, and the Kosmos itself as radically evil; and the expression of that view tends to be at least as much artistic and mythological as it is philosophical in any strict sense.
In this regard it seems especially significant that most of our personifications of Time tend to be so unpleasant, so apt to inspire fear and loathing. That Grim Reaper Father Time, the decrepit old man with the hourglass and scythe, is iconographically descended from the Greek: god Kronos, who maimed his father Ouranos (whose name means "Sky," or "Heaven") and later devoured his own children. The equation of Kronos (whose own name, according to Robert Graves, probably meant "crow") with chronos (the common Greek word for time) is, according to all philology, a confusion or (possibly) a deliberate misrepre-sentation. But that equation was already made in ancient times, and it is easy enough to see why: it so well expresses our negative feelings about time as the creator, but also the destroyer, of every thing we hold dear. Life as we know it occurs only in time; and so does death. For this we find it very hard to forgive Time, which is so unforgiving toward.us.
II. The Control of Time
Yes, Time does seem to be always running our lives, and always running out on us. And most likely it is our own all-too-human dread and hatred of time which drives so many of our efforts to bring it under some sort of control. We are all only too familiar with the technological side of that effort: time-sharing computers, programmable VCRs which (allegedly) allow us to engage in "time shifting" for our convenience (though I for one have never met anyone who actually does very much of that!), and those industry-friendly disciplines of "time management," "time and motion studies," and all the other regimes of economic "efficiency" which operate under the Puritanical slogan that "Time is Money," and derive their spurious authority from the invention of the mechanical clock a few short centuries ago. I suppose the most blatant example of this de-naturalized techno-hubris is the almost universal triumph of "Daylight Savings Time" -- which in fact saves nothing at all, and causes needless physiological stress to millions of people twice a year, but has prevailed because it serves the convenience of industrial managers. Clearly, the more strenuously we try to control time, with our increasingly elaborate and artificial constraints, the more inexorably does time wind up controlling us. Perhaps the best question to ask of this whole complex is the one posed by Fatima Mernissi a few years ago: Why do people who have watches never have time?
It is tempting to believe that it is only our modern, technological and industrial culture that has such an obsession with the control of time; but the impulse shows clearly enough in Antiquity as well. Plato (referring back again to the Timaeus) looked to the stars to find his best model of the Eternally True that could be realized in the motions of Time; and to describe those motions, he made use of geometry. Well, astronomy was the only really exact science available in Plato's day, and geometry was the most rigorously developed form of mathematical analysis; so his choices seem natural enough, perhaps almost inevitable. But it is worth noting something about the historical origins of those two disciplines. Geometry (literally, "earth-measuring") was originally developed by the priests of Egypt (to whom Plato always referred with the highest respect) primarily as an administrative tool: a means of assessing the value of land for the purpose of allotting property, and taxes, after each annual flooding of the Nile. And astronomy -- which even now offers us the most grandiose scale on which to think about time and space -- seems to have been first developed in Mesopotamia, where again it served largely as the tool of a priestly caste to reinforce its own power. So even here, as far back as we can go, historically, we find issues of power and control, complexly implicated with aspirations to that pure and disinterested love of wisdom and truth which philosophy is supposed to be.
For a more mythologically oriented perspective on the control of time, we might glance briefly at Mithraism: a religious movement of Late Antiquity which has been subjected to various interpretations in modern times. (Of course, all the modern interpretations are controversial, and more or less speculative, because we have virtually no explicit literary evidence about the Mithraic doctrines, and are almost wholly dependent on iconographic evidence. But then, the iconography is often pretty impressive!)
Except for the figure of
Mithra himself, the most prominent image in Mithraic art is another version
of our old friend Kronos/Chronos: a lion-headed Titan wrapped in a snake, and
with the constellations of the Zodiac inscribed, either on his own body, or
somewhere in his immediate surroundings Probably most people at the Symposium
will have seen it, in one form or another, and under one or another of its names:
Aion, Chronos, Kronos, Saeculum, Saturnus, Zervan, Zurvan. .
The name varies with the language, and the meaning varies with the interpreter -- but really the interpretations do not vary by
all that much. From Franz Cumont (The Mysteries of Mithra, 1902), to David Ulansey (The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, 1989), everyone seems to agree that this figure represents Time in its aspect as the all-encompassing ruler of the visible, astrologically governed, Kosmos: creating and destroying everything known to man through the celestial "clockwork" of the Zodiac, enclosing our world of finite time in its eternal embrace. According to Ulansey, however, the unique feature of Mithraism as an organized religion from the late second century BC on, is that it was a mythicizing expression of one of the greatest purely scientific achievements of ancient astronomy: the discovery (by Hipparchus, around 128 BC) of the precession of the equinoxes. With this discovery came the idea that even the seemingly inexorable processes of Cosmic Time were subject to some higher power; a power, personified by the god Mithras, with which the Mithraic adept could mystically identify himself. Mithra is thus seen as the ultimate Saviour because he has subjugated that ultimate of devouring monsters. Time itself. In some versions, the name of that lion-headed Devourer is given in its Iranian form as Zervan Akarana, i.e., "Unlimited" or "Infinite" Time. And that, too, makes a certain sense, at least on a psychological level. The seeming infinitude of Time's power is perhaps our strongest motive for wanting to bring it under control. Pascal famously said that he was terrified of infinite space; but infinite time is even more unnerving.
III. The Experience of Time & the Representation of Time
Coming down from Heaven to Earth -- not the earth of the geometers, but the world of historians! -- I'll now try to conclude by saying a few words about time as a human and historical experience -- and about the problems of' representing it.
If Time lives at all, it lives in our memory,' and memory itself is an active, living thing. I would go so far as to suggest that memory is the only 'real control we humans have over time. If Plato's Timaeus is the locus classicus for the definition of cosmological time, Herodotus gives us the corresponding classical presentation of historical time; and he begins with an appeal to memory -- or rather, with an assertive exercise of memory -- in the very first sentence of his Histories.
Herodotus has a good claim to being the most underrated, the most unjustly disparaged, of great writers. Thucydides began the process of disparagement by sneering at his credulity (especially with regard to omens, oracles, and the like) and more recent critics have often expressed irritation at his alleged diffuseness: meaning mostly his love of digressions, and a narrative style characterized by a richness of detail: often details whose relevance to the point at hand is not always immediately obvious. Actually, Herodotus often shows more of a critical sense -- even in religious matters -- than he has often been given credit for; but that would take us too far afield. I will, however, say something here in defense of his "digressions," because I think they are relevant to the ways in which Herodotus approached the human experience of historical time.
For Herodotus, the most significant measure of time is the human life-time. This shows (in a relatively abstract way) when he employs king-lists as a means of counting the "generations" (numerically, not a very exact formulation) to lay out the chronologies of Lydia, Media, and other nations. But, more concretely, it is also a major source of those "digressions" which have so vexed some readers.
Herodotus will often introduce a "minor" character -- i.e., one who plays a minor role in the main events -- and then he will not let go of him until he has followed his life's course to its own conclusion. My favorite illustration of this procedure comes in Book 3, where Herodotus introduces Democedes of Crotona, a Greek physician who is enslaved and taken to Persia. There he wins the favor of King Darius, and eventually plays a role in starting the war between Greece and Persia. The whole story is too complex to summarize here; but I do want to quote what Herodotus says to locate Democedes and his activities in time:
"From this man the Crotonian physicians obtained a great reputation;
for at this period the physicians of Crotona were said to be the first
throughout Greece, and the Cyrenaeans the second. At the same time
the Argives were accounted the most skilful of the Greeks in the art
of music." (Ill, 131. Translation'<by Henry Cary.)
Now, this is just the sort of digression that drives some critics up the wall. What are those Argive musicians suddenly doing here, anyway ... ?! I would suggest, briefly: they are providing a synchronism. Remember that one of Herodotus's burdens as "the Father of History" was that he could not assume any commonly recognized chronology among his readers: no common calendars, no almanacs or encyclopedias to look up dates! Some of his readers might have been familiar with developments in Greek medicine over the two or three generations before their own time; others might have known more about musical developments. For them, Herodotus has provided what clues he can; but each reader is left to construct his own time line, and relate it to his own more immediate experience. . . . All this may make the narrative a bit unwieldy, maybe even a little messy; but it is a salutary reminder that all the "grand narratives" of history are the sum of individual human lives, and of human deaths: each of which is the legitimate center of its own time line. It is the shared experience of a cluster of such lives that constitutes what the Greeks called an aion, and the Romans called a saeculum: a word which came to mean both "an age" and "a world."