Stop all the clocks: Julian Baggini on the tyranny of time

The clock is ticking - 2006 is history and a new year has begun. Today we'll take stock, make resolutions and start planning the next 12 months. But why do we treat 1st January as such a milestone in our lives? After all, it's just another day, isn't it? The philosopher Julian Baggini explains the human obsession with the passage of time
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The Independent Online

Hangovers may be the most obvious and immediate causes of rueful thoughts on New Year's Day, but there is another, deeper one. Even if you have had a happy Christmas and flourished in 2006, the changing of the calendars is a rude reminder that the Grinch of Time has just walked off with another year. And he is an unrelenting thief who's going to carry on taking every hour, minute and second from us until we have none left. Whether it's marching on or ticking by, at moments like these it seems that time is our enemy.

However, when it comes to waging war against it, we are like children hurling stones against tanks. New year's resolutions can be one desperate way of trying to speed ourselves up and do all those things we've been putting off, before time runs out. But no matter how close we manage to stick to time's dragging coat-tails, it always outruns us in the end. When Dickens decided to send Scrooge the ghosts of past, present and future, he chose the three spectres that haunt all of us.

If we cannot defeat time, can we make peace with it? That is one of the most neglected questions in the philosophy of living. Arguably, our nature as temporal beings is one of the most significant facts of our existence. We cannot hope to unpick the meaning of life unless we understand the meaning of time. So if the gallop of time cannot be halted, can it at least be harnessed?

I would tentatively suggest that we can at least learn to ride in step with it. Time is a prime example of how reality is a blend of the objective and the subjective - of those things that are the case whether we like it or not, and of those that alter according to our perceptions. If we are to make our peace with time, we need, to bastardise St Francis of Assisi, the serenity to accept what we can't change about it, the courage to alter what we can, and, above all, the understanding to know which is which.


That time can be experienced and understood in different ways is evident from the variety of ways it has been conceptualised over history and across cultures. The late philosopher Sir Bernard Williams, for example, claimed that, in Western culture at least, historical time was invented by Thucydides (below) in the fifth century BC. Before Thucydides, argued Williams, the past was an amorphous temporal space in which there was no distinction between myth and history, and no sense in which people saw the present as belonging on the same continuum, such that our future will become future generations' past.

This seems unfathomable to us today, because we are so accustomed to seeing the world through the lens of historical time that we can barely imagine any other way. But it is possible to gain some idea of what holding this pre-historical world view would be like. We would see all stories of the past as children do The Odyssey and The Iliad. The question of whether they represented myth or history would not arise, partly because the difference would not yet have been clearly drawn. We would understand them to contain aspects that were factual and others that were embellishments, and we would not be particularly interested in untangling which was which. But, more significantly, we would not ask when exactly they took place. There is no dateline in Homer, or in the Bible. The absurdity of thinking that the world was created 6,010 years ago only arises because the modern mind understands that if Genesis is true, then the first day of creation must be dateable. That such details were not considered important by the Bible's authors does not tell us that they thought they were writing fairy tales. All it reveals is how differently we order the past.

The idea of logging every year on a single scale is in fact a remarkably late one. Calendars of one kind or another have existed for millennia. But keeping track of the years by a single ongoing series is a much more recent development. The Chinese calendar, for instance, originated in the 14th century BC, but it counts years in 60-year cycles, not an infinite sequence, with each year having a name rather than a number.

Even calendars that do run in long series stretching back thousands of years were devised much more recently. According to the Hindu Kaliyuga calendar, we are currently in the year 5108. But, according to Amartya Sen, it is likely that the zero point of the calendar was not set until the late fifth century AD. In the same way, the Gregorian calendar has as its zero point the birth of Christ, but it was not devised until the 16th century.

Even today we can see how different cultures have different perspectives on the passing of time. Mao Tse-tung's deputy Chou En-lai famously said of the French Revolution that it was too soon to judge its significance. This long view stands in stark contrast to the increasing short-termism of the Western perspective in which 24-hour news is judging history as it happens, and in which stories that are talked about as if of supreme importance one day are forgotten and discarded only days later. The Ipswich murders, for example, already seem like ancient history to the media world, to be remembered again only when a trial gives us something new to talk about.

These differences in perception are not merely theoretical: they affect how people act and live. During the recent war with Israel, for example, the Hizbollah supporter and cleric Sayed Ali told the journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: "Patience is our main virtue, we can wait for days, weeks, months before we attack. The Israelis are always impatient in battle and in strategy." In protracted conflict, the Western acceleration of time is a weakness.

These differences go some way to showing how ideas and perceptions of time are not fixed absolutely. However, these deeply embedded cultural differences may not appear to be of much use to those of us who are steeped in our own epoch's conventions. We can never experience time as the Greeks before Thucydides did. But that is not to say that we can't make some changes to how we relate to the passing of the days and years. Time is not infinitely malleable, but it does have some plasticity.


Look into the philosophy of time, however, and more often than not you'll find conundrums that are intellectually stimulating but existentially sterile. The ancient paradoxes of Zeno, for example, are fascinating puzzles with repercussions for mathematical notions such as infinity and limit, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of difficulty we face on New Year's Day when we hear the ticking of life counting down.

Similarly, the most famous modern study of the philosophy of time in the English-speaking world was published nearly a hundred years ago. In The Unreality of Time, John McTaggart considered two competing notions of time. On the "A series" view, only the present exists. The past has ceased to be and the future is yet to be. However, on the "B series" view, all events exist on a scale of earlier and later. "Now" is simply that part of the series which is present to consciousness, but it is no more or less real than two minutes ago or a hundred years to come.

McTaggart argued that neither conception adequately described time and that therefore time was not real. It's philosophically fascinating stuff, but from the point of view of someone trying to live their life in time, being told that it is an illusion is not much help. An illusion you cannot escape is reality, to all intents and purposes.

Fortunately, however, not all philosophy is as irrelevant to those of us concerned by our ongoing temporal impoverishment. Immanuel Kant provides a good start with his declaration that the best way to view time and space is not as features of reality that the mind tries to comprehend, but as features of the mind we use to comprehend reality.

Kant's brilliant insight, like so much philosophy, sounds blindingly obvious only after it has been first articulated. We are only able to experience anything at all because the mind organises experience in both time and space. Time is not something we perceive in experience, it is a precondition of having any experience at all. To think that time belongs to reality first and experience second is as wrong-headed as thinking that bottles are made to fit the shape of the wine.


Kant's was a crucial move, since it placed the experience of time at the core of human nature. In one sense, this made time subjective, because it has more to do with how we experience the world than it does with the world itself. But in another sense it made time objective, because without it, there is no possibility of us experiencing anything. It is a fixed axis upon which all experience must be plotted.

In Continental Europe, Kant's insights would eventually be developed in a branch of philosophy known as phenomenology. Crudely speaking, phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger took the lesson of Kant to be that the only way to study existence and "reality" was by examining our perceptions of it. There could be no study of the world as it is in itself because such a world is inaccessible to us.

Perhaps the most profound thinker on the importance of time to human existence was the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who remarked that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. His thinking went far beyond such pithy, poignant aphorisms, however. It took Kant to point out the centrality of time for human experience, but it took Kierkegaard to point out the contradictions at the heart of temporal existence.

Kierkegaard was a deeply religious thinker whose own fundamental question was how he could be a Christian. Fortunately for the heathens among us, however, his quest led him to some more universal insights. His Christianity was nonetheless the key to this, for it was in the figure of Christ that he saw embodied the contradiction of human existence.

Jesus was a rational nonsense. He was the Son of God, all-man yet all-divine, finite and infinite at the same time. Rationally, such a combination is absurd. Yet Kierkegaard saw traces of this absurdity in us all.

On the one hand, human beings belong in what he called the aesthetic sphere. This has nothing to do with art or taste, but the way in which we are tied to the moment. The time is always now, never a minute ago or an hour in the future. We cannot escape the moment, which is why many have argued that the only way to live is to seize it. Yet Kierkegaard thought that the philosophy of carpe diem was self-defeating. You cannot seize something that is forever on the move. For the person who lives only for the instant, every new day, minute or second is a clean slate, and what has happened in the past counts for nothing. The aesthete is forever trying to drink from the font of life using a sieve.

Living in the moment doesn't work because, Kierkegaard argued, we are not only aesthetic creatures but ethical ones. Again the terminology is misleading, for the fundamental feature of the ethical sphere of existence is not that it introduces morality (though it does) but that it transcends the moment. While it is true in one sense that we are wedded to the present, it is also true that we are creatures with pasts and futures. That we have memories, make plans and promises, take on projects and have commitments is central to our humanity. A person who does none of these things is not a free spirit but barely human at all.

In many ways, modern Western life is encouraging such a dehumanisation, since consumer capitalism by necessity always values the new over the old. "Replace don't repair" increasingly applies not just to consumer goods, but circumstances and relationships. The modern psychobabble of "letting go" and "moving on" is in tune with this disregard for the past, yet the person who can let go and move on too easily is surely a model only of shallowness.

Arguably, the individualism of modern life is also connected with this stress on the aesthetic. When we focus on ourselves to the exclusion of others, we squeeze our attention ever more tightly on the present. To think of oneself over longer periods of time is necessarily to locate oneself in a culture, connected to the lives of others, and as someone whose very identity is shaped and changed by social interaction. The ethical self is a socially and historically embedded one. To acknowledge that undermines our valued sense of individualism, and so it is an aspect of our existence we increasingly neglect.

The challenge of being fully human is thus to live in such a way as to do justice both to our aesthetic and ethical natures, as creatures both trapped in the here and now yet who exist beyond it. For Kierkegaard, this was what made Christianity so attractive, because in Christ it embraced the contradictory combination of both spheres into a third - the religious.

For those of us without a Christian conviction - and that was where Kierkegaard started from, not where his arguments led him - this way out may not appear so attractive. So are there other ways of resolving the paradox Kierkegaard set before us?

The challenge we face as individuals trying to live our finite lives is to locate the present properly in relation to the future and the past, in such a way as to do justice to all three. We need to understand the past in order to move forwards in the future, personally and politically. We also need to have a sense of future to make the present more than just a series of fleeting experiences - though those too have a place in well-rounded human life.

But, in addition to the mere present, we need projects, ambitions, dreams, as well as an awareness of the consequences of our actions. At the same time, we cannot be too fixated on either the future or the past, or else we lose the present. And since all moments past and future are experienced primarily as the present, if we lose that, we lose everything.


How can we achieve this? I'm not convinced that there is one single answer. Many writers on this subject tend to make the mistake of treating everyone as though we were exactly the same. Yet given that perceptions of time clearly do vary, we should expect there to be more than one way to live in harmony with it. As the contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, some people naturally seem to live more in the moment, while others have more of a concern with the past and future. It is as though we have different internal clocks and calendars, and living in step with them requires different lives to move to different rhythms.

It might simply be the case that it doesn't matter which attitude you adopt to the passing of time, as long as you adopt it with integrity and commitment. Motörhead's Lemmy lives by the motto "born to lose, live to win", and he lives for the day with such determined consistency that somehow he makes it work, in defiance of conventional morality and medical science.

In contrast, most people who spout the clichés of carpe diem - "Life is not how many breaths you take, it's how many moments take your breath away" or, "It's not the years in your life, it's the life in your years" - are peddling a romantic fiction. They are like Homer Simpson in the episode when he believes he has only one day to live as the result of eating poisonous sushi. When he eventually realises he has not in fact been poisoned, he shouts out: "I'm alive! From this day forward, I vow to live life to its fullest!" And then over the credits sequence we see him sat on the sofa, passively watching television, as usual. Like Homer, most of us just don't have the commitment to the instant that is required by a life that stakes everything on the moment.

Seizing the day is too often confused with cramming in as many experiences as possible. Books and TV series list things like the movies you must see, golf holes you must play, beers you must try and natural wonders you must see, all before you die. (I'm not making any of those up.) But the ever more frenetic haste to accumulate experiences is in no way to make each moment count. Seizing is perhaps the wrong verb to apply to the moment: savouring might be better. To savour, you need a certain degree of calmness as well as a hunger to enjoy all the good things life has to offer. Unfortunately, we live in an instant-gratification society in which savouring is all too rare. Even what we are encouraged to savour is hardly likely to make life worth living - surely we aspire to more than time to enjoy a bar of mass-produced chocolate in the bath.

The Buddhist concept of mindfulness may provide a better model. Buddhists practise mindfulness in meditation, but also to some degree at all times. Mindfulness is all about being attentive to the experience of the moment, but it has nothing to do with the grasping hunger of the new-experience consumerism. Furthermore, Buddhist practice seems to develop both a sense of the here and now, and a serenity towards the passing of time. Things take as long as they take and there is no futile hurry to get on with it before time runs out. Again, maybe this is just one way to reconcile ourselves to our temporal nature, which if pursued with dedication is no more or less "right" than the hedonism of Lemmy. And there are surely other ways, too.

But, however we try to get in step with time's passing, there are certain mistakes we really should avoid. Neither the Buddhist nor the rock'n'roll suicide are time-wasters, but nor are they the super time-efficient, whose diaries are packed yet who rarely really savour any of the things that they cram into each day. The present is a slippery fish that we cannot have if we make no effort to grasp it, but which jumps out of our hands if we grab at it too violently.

Nor should we delude ourselves that, contrary to experience, time really is in infinite supply after all. Coming to terms with mortality can be difficult, which is why when people do find themselves inadvertently aware of it, the most common reaction is a kind of panic typified by the mid-life crisis. Even if there is some sort of life after death, it is very unlikely to be anything like this one. If we really thought it was, the only widows to remarry would be polygamists.


To make peace with time we need to accept what we cannot change about it. It is finite. We experience it in one direction only, always in the present but never totally disconnected from the past or future for more than fleeting moments. We make the most of it not by railing against these immutable facts but by living appropriately to them, and to our individual natures. Above all, we need to accept that the very thing that enables us to experience anything at all is that time constantly moves on, and so to complain that time is slipping away is to protest against the very thing that makes any kind of worthwhile existence possible in the first place.

We should therefore embrace the new year, accepting that it too will pass and this is the necessary consequence of life moving forwards as it should and must do. To say we must seize the day is only one-third of the truth: we must also seize the past and future, too.