(1) History of Time


No pretence to greater wisdom is made in these texts; whether time is a fourth dimension of the universe or a reified abstraction, whether it is continuous or atomistic, whether it can exist independently of motion to be measured, whether any meaning attaches to ‘before’ in the phrase ‘before Creation’ or ‘before the Big Bang’, are for others to determine. The same St Augustine, faced with the question what God was doing before he created the world, quoted, though he did not endorse, the jocular answer, ‘Preparing hells for folk who invented clever conundrums like that’; I shall not take the chance that a true word was spoken in jest.

Nor shall I consider whether time proceeds in a straight line or in cycles. Although it is not true that linear time was a Judaeo-Christian speciality, set against the cyclical time symbolised in late Graeco-Roman paganism as a serpent devouring its tail, some philosophers did speak of time in cyclical terms. That poses conceptual problems that I shall not discuss; rather I shall confine myself to time in its ordinary-language or man-in-the-street sense, and shall concentrate on the methods by which its passage is and has been measured.

The English word ‘time’ may refer to a more or less closely defined period, from ‘a short time’, meaning not very long, to ‘the time of the Pharaohs’, some three thousand years; it may also refer to the ‘indefinite continuous duration’, as the Oxford English Dictionary expresses it, in which all events have taken place, are taking place, and will take place. These texts can be complemented by the book  A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking

This notion, the focus of Plotinus’ and St Augustine’s perplexity, presupposes a developed capacity for abstract thought; not only are various primitive peoples reported by anthropologists not to have such a concept of time, but in the epics ascribed to ‘Homer’ and dating from the 8th to 7th centuries bc that the Greeks regarded as the foundation of their culture, chrónos denotes only a lapse of time, not what we are tempted to think of as time itself. Nevertheless, it already has that sense in the great Athenian lawgiver Solon of the early 6th-century bc, who personifies it as a judge: ‘in the court of Time’. Since then, this concept of indefinite continuous duration has been so familiar a concept to Western civilisation that we find its absence unimaginable in any advanced culture; yet the case has recently been argued that neither the Hebrew Bible nor rabbinical literature displays it. However, in any but the simplest society, even if people are unaware of time as a thing in itself, they need to measure it. This book is about the methods by which the passage of time has been measured.

Homer has terms for years, months, and days; his references to disputes and lawsuits remind us of one important context for time measurement, namely that even in his relatively simple society some cases must have turned, not on whether something had happened, but on whether it had happened before something else. If the two events had been witnessed by the same persons, there might be no problem; if not, both might be related to some third event, preferably one known to both parties and the judge, such as the local magnate’s wedding. If there were no such event, difficulties would ensue unless the facts of the case could be plotted against a socially accepted measure of time.

The recording and coordination of human activities make it necessary to devise systems for relating events to a sequence of regular and predictable natural recurrences; since these systems were of artificial contrivance, and evolved in partial or complete independence one from another, they are different in many details. The range of variation, however, is limited by facts of nature, in particular, the earth’s rotation on its axis, the moon’s revolution round the earth, and the earth’s revolution round the sun; it is these that underlie the most widespread units for measuring time, the day, month, and year respectively.

The more complex life becomes, the more sophistication is demanded of the intellect not merely to distinguish one year, month, day, or subdivision of the day from another (the science of time-measurement), but to relate the years and so forth thus distinguished to each other (the science of chronology). This latter includes comparing the systems established for this purpose by different cultures to determine whether two apparently similar designations refer to two different things, or the same thing is lurking under two different names.

In much time-measurement fidelity to nature is in conflict with convenience; sometimes the former is sacrificed, as has repeatedly happened in Western methods of telling the time of day, sometimes the latter, as when Pope Gregory XIII made the Roman calendar more accurate but also more complex. By contrast, the designation of the year is free of natural considerations, being entirely a matter of convention; nevertheless, it is all too easily reified. In the early months of 1961, a manufacturer of electrical goods is said to have advertised its products in the name of a housewife called ‘Mrs 1961’, who because she was Mrs 1961 had to have the latest vacuum cleaner and the latest refrigerator.

Her reward for thus increasing the company’s sales was to disappear without a trace in 1962.

Mrs 1961 was a victim of the delusion that years measured in our particular calendar and numbered in our particular era possess a reality beyond the conventions that created them. Yet in other calendars the year 1961 of the Christian era was not even a self-contained whole: in one Indian era it combined portions of 1882 and 1883, in another of 2017 and 2018, in Ethiopia of 1953 and 1954, in the Jewish calendar of 5721 and 5722, in the Muslim calendar of 1380 and 1381.

Such reification extends to larger units. ‘The Sixties’, meaning the 1960s, marks an entire decade as a time of political rebellion and cultural innovation; the 1890s (during which Oscar Wilde was convicted) are called ‘the Naughty Nineties’ because the elite chafed at the pretence of conforming to middle-class respectability. Centuries too are branded: ‘in the 15th century religious devotion became increasingly personal and emotional’, ‘18th-century English literature was dictated by the head and not the heart’ – as if on the first day of 1401 or 1701 (not necessarily 1 January, as we shall later), old ways of thought and feeling were abandoned like Mrs 1961’s old vacuum cleaner.

When emperor Trajan admonished Pliny, perhaps late in ad 110, that receipt of anonymous accusations was not compatible with ‘our times’, he meant quite specifically ‘my reign’, the principles by which he chose to rule. By contrast, modern journalists and politicians tell us that certain practices of government (though not that one) have no place in the 21st century as if the date were a fact of nature and a legislator, so solidly is it reified. One purpose of this book is to combat such reification by illustrating the contingent and arbitrary nature of the measures to which it is applied.

Although the subject of this book is not politics or religion, I shall as occasion serves consider the political and religious implications in the choice of calendar, and the acceptance or rejection of reforms (e.g. the Gregorian calendar in Christendom, the ‘Shahänshahi’ era in Iran): even when the Government of India, in 1957, introduced a new secular calendar, it did not dare touch the multiplicity of religious calendars beyond substituting the synodic for the sidereal year. I shall also devote some texts to a religious festival, the Christian Easter, not because of its religious significance but because of its calendrical complexity.

Nevertheless, my concern is with calendars as such rather than with their use or meaning; likewise, though much may be written about time as a social construct – and constructor – or about its perception by young and old, by men and women, or by office workers, factory hands, and peasants, there are others more qualified to write it.

Technical terms, when unavoidable, will be explained in a glossary; however, I note here that I have occasionally employed the single words ‘feria’, ‘quantième’, ‘lune’, and ‘millésime’ in place of the lengthier phrases ‘day of the week’, ‘day of the month’, ‘day of the lunar month’, and ‘number of the year’. Numbers have been written in the scientific fashion, without commas: one thousand is 1000, ten thousand 10000, one ten-thousandth 0.0001, one hundred-thousandth 0.000 01.


The traditional terms ad and bc have been retained, in preference to ce and bce, for two reasons: adopting the latter causes the maximally distinguished bc 1 and 1 ad to become the minimally distinguished 1 bce and 1 ce; and although, as a date for the birth of Jesus Christ the epoch is almost certainly wrong, it remains a commemoration of that event, and no other event of the same year can be proposed as an alternative of world significance. Attractive, especially in a globalised age, as a purely secular era may appear, the Christian era cannot be made secular by denying its origin.




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