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Time and the Ordering of Self-Motion

What is time? Many a philosopher has wrestled with this question, resulting in rather diverse results. Famous is Aristotle’s definition, which can be stated most simply as, “the measure of motion” (though, in truth, his claims are more complex than this). Famous also are the struggles to understand time in Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions and the posit of time as the unlimited and infinite a priori pure intuition grounding the possibility of all appearances by Immanuel Kant.

Most people, however, simply take “time” for granted. Primarily, this taking-for-granted comes from a default subjectivism. We speak often of “my time”. In speaking this way, we imply time is a possession or a resource. Indeed, many people worry about “wasting” and “spending” time. Thus, we schedule our days, our motions, by the clock and the calendar. We take an abstract representation of days, hours, and minutes and adjust ourselves to fit our living into that abstraction. Clock and calendar thereby become imperial forces that rule our lives.

But must we live this way: under the tyrannical reign of the calendar? Has our taking-for-granted of time allowed us to fall under the sway of bad ideas, bad theories, and to instill in ourselves therefore bad practice?

What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If then, in order to be time at all, the present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also ‘is’? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.

Augustine c.395, Confessions XI, xiv (17).

We talk about time all the time. But we do not think about it. Thus, we talk about it—but never about what it is, or what it means. And not thinking about time, we allow false beliefs about it to creep in sideways, to steal time away from us. Ordering ourselves by the clock and calendar, we turn the measured into the measure. Instead of moving ourselves, we time ourselves. We impose time. Does it change the way we move ourselves?

Perhaps, therefore, we should think about time more—and talk about what it is. Is it something subjective, personal—rendered by our own minds, our own passing through experience? A dimension that extends throughout all corporeality? Is it “a number of motion fitting along the before-and-after?”

Come join us this Wednesday at our Philosophical Happy Hour to talk about what time is—and how we can have a better practical relationship with it through such theoretical clarifications!

Hidden Hours

This post presents a quick reflection on rediscovering the hidden hours—the hours that we lose in each day. Who among us has not found him- or herself wishing for an extra hour or two in the day? For many, there seems so much to get done, and so little time in which to do it. Indeed, for many this will always be the case. I know myself that I will die long before I can read all the books. But the more-to-do than can-be-done should not dissuade us from doing. If anything, it should give us motivation to do more yet.

As Catholic readers will know, we are now in the liturgical season of Lent. In observation of this season, one takes on small mortifications, penances, and attempts to increase one’s charitable relation to others: in time, goods, services, etc. It is not uncommon to focus on the small mortifications, usually some pleasure which one gives up for these 40 days. It has been, in my own life, a usual consequence of such sacrifices that I discover new goods. This year I am fasting both from social media and from word games on my phone (the NYT Crossword and another game I regularly play on the app). Suddenly, I find myself not only with a greater amount of clock time each day—taking out all those little moments of distraction—but with a greater sense of command over how I move myself throughout the day. Other things move me less, and thus I am more in possession of myself.

(Quite coincidentally I started playing chess on my phone—the Lyceum has started a chess club. This quickly started eating back into the time. Subsequently I have limited the app to work between only the hours of 6:00—11:00pm.)

True Convenience

The conveniences of our modern technology often result in an inconvenient way of life. I suspect this appears true without explanation. But to elaborate, briefly: the word “convenient” comes from the Latin verb convenire, meaning, “to come together”. Often, Latin scholastics use the participial form, conveniens, to mean “fitting”, and even to describe a kind of argument—the argument from “fittingness”. It is good that my phone allows me to play chess with a real human being despite not having a known nearby willing opponent. But it is not fitting that I be able to play with multiple opponents all at the same time, all day long.

Two or three minutes spent on one’s phone here and there throughout the day does more than add up to hours. Rather, it knocks one out of the natural rhythm of the day. In other words, our days have fitting and unfitting rhythms. Phones are not the only devices, of course, which do this. The computer has many ways to distract us also. Truly, it is death by a thousand cuts.

This point deserves more than I can give it now. Doubtless it will play a prominent role in our planned 2024 seminar on Technology (a frequent topic for the Lyceum). But suffice it here to say that—if our technology is not to distort our lives, if our conveniences for this or that particular activity are not to destroy the convenientia of our whole lives—we must reflect more thoughtfully on what our lives are ordered towards and how those technologies distort that ordering.

Using our Time Wisely

I rather dislike the notion of “using” or “spending” time. The phrase is useful; but it, too, is unfitting. For time is not a resource. If one cannot store it, one cannot spend it. We misconstrue what time is by thinking of it this way. If we make “good use” of time, it is by the motions which we direct ourselves to perform. But, in truth, we can only “spend” our time wisely if we orient ourselves to goods that are timeless. Truth and love do not wane with the passage of minutes or hours, years, decades, or even centuries. Steadfastly holding ourselves to them, we, too, will find that our days contain hidden hours, retrieved not by better “time management” but by a fittingness of our thought.