History Today column: In search of lost time

If we think of time at all, it is as a dimension: something we travel through, an abstract and universal measure against which we mark our progress, and against which we are judged – from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day to day, from birth to death. It dominates our lives; and like life under all tyrannies, we are so immersed in the ubiquity of its oppression we don’t notice the constraints. Where I sit now, I can see the time in three places. If I cared to, I could find it in four more without moving from my chair. The computer I am writing this on can, with a little effort, be made to measure time in micro-seconds.

I can think of no practical use for that level of knowledge; but it’s difficult not to feel the anxiety of its influence. Quick is good. Fast is better. Speed is everything. And most of us, I suspect, mark out our working days – and too much of our private lives – in the fine-sliced minutes of deadlines, alarms, appointments and schedules.

But the ability to dissect time in such detail is a relatively recent phenomenon; clocks didn’t have minute- or second-hands until the late 1600s. Hence there are no seconds in Shakespeare; and minutes are mostly metaphor. The shortest practical unit of time in his plays is the quarter hour, as in the length of time Lady Macbeth has been seen trying to scrub the imagined blood from her hands, or that Prince Hal boasts it would take him to learn how to speak like a tinker.

But what would it have been like to live in a world so heedless of the passage of time? One answer is that one’s relationship with it becomes far more subjective and personal. The Greeks recognized two kinds of time: chronos – the scientific measurement of its passage – which is the sense we have retained; and kairos. Kairos is more epiphanic, opportunistic and experiential; it was, and is, also the Greek word for weather.

Even Renaissance science had to resort to more ad hoc, human measures – a quality of experience we can savour in this weather-related story. Among the papers of Thomas Harriot, the English mathematician and sometime scientific advisor to Walter Ralegh, is the record of a rainy afternoon in his room up beneath the leads in Durham House, Ralegh’s magnificent London home on The Strand, overlooking the Thames. Presumably at a loose end, Harriot decided to calculate how much rain would have fallen in his room over a 24-hour period, were it not protected by the roof.

But he had no means of measuring the passage of minutes or seconds. So he used his pulse, assuming that each beat of his heart equated to a second.

This was poor science, of course. But I think it points to an understanding of the world which we can no longer share: time wasn’t only, or even principally, an external measure but also something to which our bodies, and our experience of our bodies, our sense of ourselves, could be wholly aligned.

There is a similar story about the counter-Reformation Cardinal and Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine was one of the judges who sentenced Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake, and was the man who told Galileo to abjure Copernicanism. But he was not in any sense anti-intellectual and had always had a deep personal interest in astronomy and science. He simply refused to accept that it couldn’t be reconciled with doctrine.

On one occasion, he set out to measure the speed of the sun’s rotation about the earth by sitting on a beach in western Italy – most likely in Calabria – and timing the sun set. With no means of measuring time, however, he fell back on an intensely familiar, regular, unvaried unit of time: the recitation of Psalm 51, the misere, ‘Have mercy upon me, Oh God…’ It is, I think, an acutely poignant image, the very measure of time he used embodying both the futility of his actions and the devotional passion of his certainties.

On some level, then, the emerging tension between chronos and kairos was also the struggle between empiricism and, for want of a better word, spirituality. It is not the right word: the shadow of these tensions fall across Henry IV. Prince Hal’s destiny, his royal inheritance, is the arrow of time pulling him forward towards history. Falstaff is all kairos, life in the moment, to whom the measure of minutes and hours is superfluous. “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” Hal asks him in their first scene. Falstaff – surely no-one’s idea of spiritual – has no answer.

But then, what is the answer to the demands of chronos?

5 thoughts on “History Today column: In search of lost time

  1. Very interesting indeed! I agree, the Renaissance revival of classical ideas of time is an essential part of understanding their thought and world-view. I would add that the Greeks also thought of time as aeon (eternity), although I recognise it doesn’t come up as much. Love that everyone is coming to this topic of late (coincides nicely with my article on kairos that just came out – sorry… shameless self-promotion moment).

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