From precognitive dreams, where the future is recognizably predicted before it happens, we can infer that time is other than what ordinarily we think it is. From the way philosophers have sometimes talked, mathematicians and physicists too on occasion, and theologians fairly often, we can gather that there is a dimension of reality where the hands of the clock don’t measure anything.
That dimension is called “eternity.”
Bracketing out eternity, the poet says,
… at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.
What is he trying to say to “his coy mistress”? Would it be something along the lines of
Hurry it up, girl;
you’re not getting any younger;
what’re yuh saving it for?
Let’s face it, eternity’s lookin’ better all the time.
Pursuing this for a moment, we think of developments like the synchronization of clocks in time zones, supposedly a side-product of the scheduling needs of cross-continental railroads. Or we may be aware of “Taylorism,” at one time a program that tried to get factory workers to synchronize like the machines with which they worked. It’s since been discredited, but was supposed to maximize efficiency. These features of the modern world have been associated with loss of personal power – here the power to set one’s own tempo.
On counts like these, chronology gets a bad rap.
Nevertheless, this is unfair to chronology. The arts of living are closely bound up with the arts of making time one’s friend. For example:
- Take the case where we suddenly feel disoriented, out of joint and faintly despairing, without knowing why.
The remedy? We retrace in memory what happened before we felt this way and what happened next, when the anomic feeling began. Suddenly we understand and the feeling lifts! We have re-secured our place in time.
- Take another case. One person accuses another of having treated her unjustly. The accused makes the counter-claim that she is the one who was mistreated.
The remedy? We try to find out who started it. The one who first began the abuses is the party at fault. The other one, who reacted in self-defense, is the victim, the injured party. If we claim indifference to these particulars, we are indifferent to justice. Is the chronology difficult to establish incontrovertibly?
Yeah. Welcome to earth.
When I taught Introduction to Philosophy courses, I would begin by setting down, on the longest blackboard, the history of the wider culture in which philosophy took shape. Here is the classical period with its dates and a brief characterization. Here the Hellenistic, with the same. Here is Rome and the dates and a bit more. The medieval period, the Renaissance, what is called the “Modern” period (from Copernicus to Newton), the Enlightenment, the Romantic period, the nineteenth and 20th centuries and what they each were like.
Philosophy is the longest unbroken conversation in the history of the world. You can’t join a conversation without knowing, at least in a general way, what was said before you entered it.
Interestingly, my observation was that students who had attended the opening class immediately acquired a fundament of intelligence. Students who came on board late had to scramble for it. They were the ones who thought that Socrates and George Washington were contemporaries. That’s not just a gap in one’s store of information. It’s more like — not smart.
We live and learn in narrative form. There are some false narratives and also ones closer to the truth. I guess only God knows it all. But unless we try to attach our memories to the standard of chronological accuracy, we lose grip on the storied reality of our lives and thus on our most telling adventures.