What time is it? Ask that question and usually someone will look at a watch and tell you what it reads. Actually, there are a number of valid answers to the question. How about daytime? Wintertime? Christmastime? Wartime? Downtime? Dinnertime? Tool-Time? (Okay. Maybe not the last one.)
What all these have in common is that they mark some point in a cycle; an oscillation of repeating events: Night and Day. Seasons. Holidays. War and peace. Action and rest. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our lives our filled with rhythms of time measured in a myriad of ways. How often are we consciously aware of these rhythms?
Westerners are not as attuned to rhythms as many other cultures are. Rhythms of time are actually somewhat of an obstacle to our idea of progress. We build climate controlled environments in which to live and work so we may escape the rhythms of the seasons. We talk about being “24/7/365” as the gold standard for customer service as we attempt to escape daily rhythms. We adjust interest rates, alter the money supply, or make federal budget adjustments in an effort to escape the boom and bust oscillation of the business cycle. “Progress” is often defined by our vary ability to subdue the rhythms around us and make them yield to our vision for life.
It is hard for us to appreciate just how unique this idea of “progress” and taming “time” is. Only very recently in human history have we come to think this way. Some of the earliest human records known have no chronological structure to them. They are organized by typologies of events not sequentially.
For some cultures, the timing of your birth in relation to a time cycle had influence on your character. You were of a certain character based on when you were born. Many are familiar with the Chinese practice of a cycle of twelve years, each year signified by an animal. We are in the year of the Rooster and the year of the Dog is coming. Many people still follow astrology which identifies your character by a symbol of the zodiac. The Mayan people of Central America were some the most advanced timekeepers in the world. Instead of laying their calendar out in neat rows and columns, their calendar was circular. When you were born was of significance to them as well.
Meaning in life for the ancients was grounded in conforming to the appropriate rituals and behaviors that marked each time or season. There was a sense in which you lost yourself to the reaffirmation of the eternal cyclical order. This is not to say that some ancients and some cultures were without a sense of linear time (i.e., time progressing from a beginning to and end) but cyclical time defined life in most ancient cultures across the planet
Something unique happened about 4,000 years ago. Thomas Cahill in The Gift of the Jews shows that the Jews were the culture that introduced us to the idea of history as a linear progression toward some end. This view of time was carried forward by Christianity into Western Civilization. However, for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, linear time was only appreciated by a small minority of educated elite. About 500 years ago the world was changed forever when to powerful ideas converged.
A desire to classify and quantify just about everything emerged in Europe, probably starting with Aquinas’ Aristotelian theology in the 13th Century. Over the next few centuries this desire grew into an obsession as documented in Alfred Crosby’s Measurement of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600. In the 15th Century, the printing press was invented (1452) and Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks (1453). Constantinople was the center of Greek scholarship. Greek scholars fled to Europe ahead of the invasion, bringing their knowledge and libraries with them. The printing press empowered the ready distribution of the new knowledge and the Renaissance was born.
Study and quantification of the natural world was not unprecedented in other cultures at other times. The distinctive difference for Europe was a marriage of this quantifying impulse to the idea of linear time and the idea that history is moving toward some end. The invention of the printing press made knowledge of classical thought, quantification, and Christian theology's linear view of time, available to exponentially more people. The marriage of these streams of thought resulted in an idea of “progress” as a progression from existence A to a more desirable existence B through rational observation and measurement (science.)
It is hard to overstate the impact of this revolution on our contemporary existence. Without the new European perspective, the idea of the economy as an every expanding pie of wealth (instead of a zero-sum game) would not likely have emerged. The concept of an ancient universe evolving over time would have been nonsense. The social movements that have led to so much advancement in the quality of human life would have been impossible. Of course, we also would not have had Marxist-Leninism with its belief that humanity is evolving toward a utopian socialist state.
I have to wonder if our relentless quest to ignore or conquer the cycles of our existence blinds us to forces that may be shaping our lives. The Bible, from which we derived our linear driven view, says:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV)
Several modern scholars discerned a cyclical nature to human events. Historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889-1975) believed he saw a cycles in history. Historians Arthur M. Schlesinger (1888-1965) and son Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917- ) specialized in the analysis of historical cycles. Then there were sociologists like Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) who developed social theories around the idea of oscillating forces. I have always been fascinated with Sorokin’s theories and for his ability to essentially forecast culture fifty years down the road. These scholars have met with limited acclaim and I think it is partly because of the modernist impulse to believe that we are masters of our own destiny. It is not popular to believe that we be subject to social/cultural dynamics that extend both before and after out lives.
The most recent and extensive conceptualization of historical cycles is the work of historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. They believe there is a repeating cycle of inter-generational dynamics that runs its course about every eighty years. That means that no human being ever lives through more than about one full cycle. Thus, the unfolding dynamics always seem to be new and peculiar to every age. Strauss and Howe believe that if we take a longer view we find detectable recurring patterns. They would argue that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. I will write a little about their perspective in the next few posts.