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Time of Change, Change of Time? January 3, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

My best New Year’s wishes to everyone on this blog! Sorry I have been incommunicado for a while. So, have you made any New Year’s resolutions? Lose weight? Exercise more? Spend less? Spend more time with those you love? Take sword fighting lessons? Read Remembrance of Things Past? Get a dog? Get back in touch with friends? Ask forgiveness for having behaved like a jerk? Work for a better world order? Whatever your style and your needs, you are plugging in to an ancient world view: the cyclical time perception. What used to be the metaphysical world view of tribal as well as classical societies around the globe now only survives in the Western world in a few religious rituals, and in our New Year’s traditions. Once upon a time the sages saw the world, and time, as a dynamic process that wears down and needs periodic renewal: When the world was new, and newly created, all was well, and made sense. But time “wears on,” things start falling apart, and negative forces begin to undermine the cohesion and meaning of everyday life. So it’s time for a renewal of time itself, and what better way to accomplish that than to reenact the Beginning Time, the Holy Days when everything was created by [your favorite deity]. Some of you may remember the Latin term: in illo tempore, in the Beginning Time. And, magically, this will restore the world to its original splendor; the slate is wiped clean, and we can all, happily, go about our business for a while until time starts showing wear and tear, and must undergo a renewal ritual again—usually after a year or so.

Historians of religion (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell) tell us that this form of life was replaced with the Judeo-Christian linear time perception where History and Time move in one direction, from the Creation to the End of Time. In its secular version which we’re all familiar with, we are comfortable (if not happy) with the idea that time runs in one direction only, from the past into the future, and (unless you believe in time travel) there is no going backwards. (This, by the way, is why Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return of the Same” is such a provocative philosophy, although it has been generally misunderstood as a literal time theory, but we can return to that on some other occasion.) So here we are, post-postmodern people, with a secular view of linear time where time is simply one darn thing after another—and yet we make New Year’s resolutions, knowing full well that New Year is a social construct, and the universe doesn’t recognize any qualitative or existential difference between Dec.31 and Jan.1. We simply act as if the year is New, the slate is wiped clean, and, in some mystical way the world is restored to an original splendor, for a little while. Nothing wrong with that—I find it fascinating. What fascinates me is that we people of the linear secular world view periodically buy into  a very ancient way of life and take part in a ritual going back thousands of years, renewing Time. So Old Father Time of 2008 has left us, and we’ve got the new Baby 2009 who needs our attention. This year, perhaps more than many other years, we’re acutely aware of the concept of change—perhaps another ritual illusion? But as with many other cultural constructs, we can make it happen. If you want things to change in your life (stop smoking/make friends/make amends) then you’ve been given a ritual time window to jumpstart a new approach. If you’re thinking about change on a grander scale, involving the financial, political and environmental health of the planet, then perhaps we also need a ritual time window to evaluate and make such changes happen. Sometimes our resolutions don’t last much beyond January. We’ll see how the Change resolution fares in the course of the year. So I wish us all a Happy New Year, with whatever time renewal that seems timely (!), on the personal as well as the global scale…



1. Tania Azevedo - January 4, 2009

very nice post professor I will have to read it again to give you better response.

2. davidgawthorne - January 4, 2009

I have had occasion to wonder whether there is any substantive distinction between so-called cyclical time and linear time.

It seems conceivable that the same thing could exist discontinuously at different times in the linear model. That being said, what difference is there between cyclical time and linear time in which the same universe stages keep coming into existence?

I am tempted to say that everyone is a linear time theorist, we just differ as to the content of history.

3. Paul Moloney - January 10, 2009

If I were a praying person, I might pray to be a humble person this new year. Even though I do not mind being egotistical to people, I also do not mind people being humble towards me. I realize, though, if I became a humble person, it would ruin my egotistical lifestyle. If I were to be a humble person, I would have to be humble toward someone at some place and at some time. I would lose my god-like omnipotence of being egotistical to everyone everywhere all the time. My universality as an egotistical person would be destroyed. Also, my bizarre philosophical ramblings depend upon my ego, so they would have to go as well.

It seems, though, that the notion of time can include both the cyclical and the linear concepts. Combing the two gives one the idea of time moving forward in a spiraling motion. We come back to a new year while moving forward at the same time.

4. Nina Rosenstand - January 24, 2009

Kudos on coming up with the spiral image. You’re not the first to suggest it, but for some reason it doesn’t show up often in philosophical theories of Time–probably because Western philosophers generally don’t operate with a cyclical time concept. Even Nietzsche’s version seems to be a “what-if” scenario rather than a true cyclical time theory. But the fact that we celebrate the same anniversaries every year while not “repeating” them is a good reason to think “spiral”!

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