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From The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Volume XII. No. 8, April 15, 1915; pp. 197-206.

The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods

Volume XII. No. 8, April 15, 1915.




THE history of civilization ordinarily omits one half of the narrative. We live in a world of time as well as of space, in which our yesterdays, to-days, and to-morrows are as essential for us as land and sea. The process of social evolution has been one of temporal as well as of spatial mastery, for without a chart of our yesterdays we could never have mapped out the fields and built the cities or planned the empires which mark the stages of our advance. Indeed, not only has the conquest of time been as real as that of the material world, but the two have marched side by side, — from nomads careless of all but the moment’s satisfaction, to the world of business and of politics, calculating in the present for the future on the basis of the past. And yet, while we are glad to hear and proud to tell the story of the triumph of mankind over material conditions, the other half of the story remains untold, except as it lies in the manuals of astronomers and chronologers, where its meaning as history is seldom seen.

To be sure one does not have to go far to find the reason. The world that endures has this great disadvantage over the world that expands; we have no sense by which to apprehend it. Yesterday and to-morrow lie beyond hearing or sight. We talk of a ”sense of Time”; but the phrase is misleading. No subtle distillation of animal instinct can give us a “sense” of that mysterious process in which the flow of a “future” into a “past” acquires a meaning, and whose “present” invites analysis only to elude it by dissolving continually before our eyes. The sense of Time is really a sense of times, and that is not a sense at all, but the slow product of developing intelligence. A sense of time means a knowledge of happenings. It is to be found only where a memory has been keenly disciplined to its task of knowing the world that was by a mind keenly aware of a world that is; where the historical sense has been called into being, with its consciousness of the past clarified by an analysis of 198 the present. It is no neglected inheritance from primitives, but the slow, and still most imperfect, acquisition of culture.

Neither calendar nor chronology was worked out in the first place to discover Time or keep track of it. They have to do with events and the problem of tracing their relationships, not with what lies between them. The one deals with recurring events, the other with those which occur but once. As the number of these increases, however, the individual events tend to lose their individuality and attention is diverted more and more to the general statement of their relationships. So, by way of mathematics we pass to the world of abstractions.

Our knowledge of “the past,” is, therefore, really a knowledge of things in the past. It seems at first glance as though, by giving each day and year a number we bring them all within the field of knowledge. But the numbers mean nothing by themselves. Only those dates upon which memorable things have taken place really stand for anything. Our dates are like the numbers on city houses; they stand for something other than a stretch of street or of time. The numbered periods which intervene serve little but to insure that dates worth remembering, that is, events of men worth knowing, shall be properly placed. The units between might as well be zeroes for all that we care about them. In other words, though we cover all Time with numbers, we do so only in order to find things in it, and to know where we are when we find them, how far we have traveled from to-day or from other points already familiar. In short, we mark Time by events rather than events by Time.

It is claimed now by philosophers that all of this mathematics of dates, whether of calendar or of chronology, only misleads us as to the real nature of Time, which is not a thing to be measured out, but an everlasting flux moving in mysterious, non-spatial currents through the very heart of things; that the events themselves are not so much set in Time, as a part of it, not simply serving to mark it, but making it, in a very real sense. Moreover, since the relationships between events are in ceaseless readjustment, the more important ones are often obscured by forcing all to conform to external standards on static bases, and so the real nature of Time escapes analysis. We shall come to these considerations in due course. But for the historian all such recent speculations do not affect the fundamental point that, however distorted our appreciation of Time has been, mathematics has made the use of Time possible, and so, ultimately, even the metaphysics which criticizes it. For here, as in the world of space, measurement is the sign of occupation and control. The history of Time begins in numbers.


Dates do not matter in primitive stories. Myths need no arithmetic. All the child’s story requires for a proper beginning is “once upon a time.” So with the childhood of the race. Poetry, the universal vehicle for the saga, can not well risk marking its marvelous events with exact days and years. There is a sense of mystery in the

Old, forgotten, far-off things

And battles long ago,

which must not be disturbed by too precise information. In fact the early narrative loses much of its charm if it is set too accurately in this prosy world. Dates would break that spell which imparts to vague, half-real events of legend and tradition the spirit of romance. The poet knows the size of his hero’s shield, the length of his spear, the numbers of his men, — but these are details which he can clothe as well with unreality and manipulate to suit the situation. On the other hand, one date is like another. Contrast this “once upon a time” with a date. “Once upon a time, there was a man named Napoleon.” How romantic that sounds compared with the prose of history: “In 1799 Napoleon obtained control of France!” The dated history is much less interesting. There is no such dangerous venture facing you as in the legend. You know that the historian will not try his imagination, he will not sail off into uncharted seas, but follow his dates in their sad succession to their dreary close. What else can he do? He is trying to be accurate; and accuracy is dull, because it is calculable.

This is one reason for the dislike of history so largely prevalent in our schools, — although the situation is now improving rapidly. It is certainly a healthy discipline for the imagination to be called back from its excursions into the land of romance, where things may happen any way one wills, and forced to follow real roads to Rome. But the discipline becomes affliction when the young traveler is kept so busily reciting the time-table that he never sees the pageant of the past through which he is journeying. When the race as a whole, with all its sophistication, has found it so hard to acquire a passion for dates, how can one expect it of a child? We are apt to forget that the high culture of antiquity did not evolve a satisfactory method for keeping track of time, that even the keen old Greeks never learned — outside of scientific circles — to count the years accurately. Beginners in history might find consolation for their frailties, if they only knew that the greatest historian of antiquity, Thucydides, avoided dates as far as he could, and made his years consist merely of a long summer and a short winter.

And yet the situation is not so bad as it might seem. For, aside 200 from the fact that our text books in history are no longer monkish chronicles, any one who teaches the subject knows from experience that there are few students — even in colleges — whose dates are more accurate than ”once upon a time.” Indeed, that is about all even the best of us commonly can do. What do dates amount to in our own lives? How many of us, for instance, can recall at once, without a moment’s hesitancy, the date of the war with Spain or in South Africa? Tests of dates like these in large classes show ordinarily that not five per cent, have any tendency to associate mathematics with the happenings of their lives, except in the matter of recurring dates, which have to do with the calendar and not with chronology.

We must not be misled, however, by any infirmities on our part. The calendar, and the chronology which the calendar made possible, are not only the basis of scientific history, but of far more than we suspect in the structure of civilization. Try to think what it would be like if we had no dates for our business world, where “time is money” in the most real sense of the word; where every letter bears its date, every paper is issued with it on the title-page; where laws, treaties, the world’s affairs as well as its history, depend so largely upon the relation of one date to another. However much we may still appreciate the vagueness of poetry and romance, we have erected a civilization based on dates, in which the mathematics of Time is as fundamental to human relationships as that of Space is in the conquest of the material world.


Now, imagine that, instead of the great City of the Past, of which we of the twentieth century have been given the freedom and the rights of citizenship, we have only a little village. Instead of vast horizons charted to the day and the vista of centuries stretching toward the dawn-ages of geology, imagine that we know only what we ourselves can find out and can remember of what other people found out or remembered, — and so through the endless, but misleading tale of barbarian tradition. Imagine that we have no books or implements for measurement, that we can hardly count beyond our fingers or a few notches on a stick, — and then let us try to settle down in the world of Time and Space, as our forefathers had to do, and see how much — or rather how little — of either we could appropriate. A little exercise in such imaginative ignorance (not hard exercise for most of us), will enable us to deal sympathetically with our ancestors, to understand both their age-long apathy about things outside their immediate experience, and so to deal historically with the slow beginnings of the historical sense.


A surprise awaits us upon the threshold of our survey. For, viewing the process from the primitive world to our own, it is apparently a sense of the future rather than of the past which has been most important in the evolution of our civilization. That which has never been, which exists, seemingly, only in our imaginations, turns out to be the very basis upon which we have erected the world of intelligence and activity.

Our commerce, manufactures, education, culture, — everything is for the satisfaction of future needs. It is this sense of to-morrow which stings us to work. The haunting specter of possible want, even when we are needing nothing, the hope of future rewards, the confidence of success or fear of failure, — these are the stimuli which carry us along from savagery to civilization. The savage at first has no sense of them, — or at least but very little. He satiates his hunger by gorging to the full, even when he does not know where the next meal will come from. Why worry about to-morrow; it has not yet come to worry him? This is the attitude of all races in savagery; anthropological books are full of instances of it, from Australia and Borneo to Arabian Bedouins and American Indians. Livingstone calls Africa “the blissful region where time is absolutely of no account and where men may sit down and rest themselves when they are tired.”1 The negro “dreams away the day in laziness and idleness, although he knows quite well that for the night he needs his draught of water and his log of wood; nevertheless, until sundown he will certainly not disturb himself, and only then, or perhaps not before dark, will he finally procure himself the necessaries.”2 The nomad hunter lays nothing by for the next meal — unless he has more than he can manage to eat at the time; and having nothing laid by, he must hunt for his next meal as he did for his last. His savagery means improvidence, and his improvidence keeps him a savage.

The first steps of progress come when the hunter lets the small animal grow bigger with an eye to future eating, or when his women-folk scratch the ground with their forked sticks for the rudiments of a garden. Even then the progress is slow. When, for instance, the Hottentots acquired a rude agriculture, the disgusted missionaries found that at harvest time they ate, “almost night and day,” until the little they had was devoured.3 When the hunter emerges into the pastoral nomad, however, and keeps his meat alive 202 along with him in his flocks and herds, his sense of property and of the future develop side by side. Then the more cattle and goods he has, the harder it is to wander far; and the more he tends to settle, the more he must make sure that the local supply of food will not run out. So the scratching of the soil for a few chance roots develops into agriculture, and he ploughs and sows for a year ahead and eats of the fruits of last year’s labor.

The future, then, far from being the unreality it seems to us, upon first glance at the problem, is rather the determining factor in developing an appreciation of the present. The imagination is no idle plaything for the children of the race, but the engine by which the paths of progress were opened up. But, at the same time, we must not forget that the imagination is built up out of experience, that it embodies the memories of the past, and does not exist except by reason of them. As we can not imagine what lies beyond the reach of our experience, the imagination only arranges the data of the past in new combinations. We are aware of the past, therefore, before we can imagine the future at all. There would be no stimulus to prepare for to-morrow’s meal if one could forget the hunger of yesterday, and no knowledge of how to prepare without the experience of other such situations. In short, if imagination carves out for us the possibilities of advance, it does so only because it has been stirred to its task and given the material for its tools by the memory.

Memory and imagination, reaching out into past and future, furnish us with our appreciation of Time. But their interworking in this all-important enterprise depends upon one fundamental fact: the future must repeat some of the data of the past. If it did not, memory would bear no relation to present experiences and imagination could not even attain the vaguest outlines of surmise. Some of the data of experience must repeat themselves in order that mankind may be able to deal with the rest. Repetition, routine, enables us to calculate, and classify in terms of the old and known, the new phenomena which are set alongside them, as the moving present eternally varies our experiences. But since the data of life do not repeat themselves, but only those of its environment, the necessary framework for history must be furnished by the physical sciences, or their pre-scientific forerunners. In other words, the origins of the calendar precede the origins of chronology.

Strangely enough, although it lies in the prehistoric world, we know under what circumstances the calendar was first worked out. It began when men settled on the soil and began to farm it. The wandering savage may have a crude sense of time-periods; but, as we have seen above, his mind does not play on into the future in such a way as to modify his present by the calculation for its needs. Once 203 entered upon the agricultural stage, however, the conditions of life demand more thought and foresight, more planning and work for to-morrow and the day after. Henceforth, it is impossible to live entirely in the momentary present, to eat when hungry, chase where the game may lead, and in general follow the fortunes of nature, as was the case with the ancient hunter. There is surely a significance, hitherto unguessed, in the fact that Time and Space were appropriated jointly, and that the farmer who settled down in them, was the first to demand the measurement of each. His stretch of Time, like his stretch of field, lies out before him, marked by duties and rewards, needs and their satisfaction, from one horizon to the other. The horizons of Time are still confined to a season or two, as those of Space are limited to the village fields, except as the elders tell of adventures beyond the run of daily memory. But just as it is only the cleared fields, cultivated in yearly rotation within the circle of the waste, which are really the village property, whatever rights of chase or pasture there are in the dark woods beyond, so it is that narrow stretch of time which is covered by routine, and not the half-known past where myth and fancy make excursions, which is really taken over and made a working possession. Only recurring dates furnish a basis for measurement; and so the farmer’s calendar is the first survey of Time as his fields are the first survey of Space.

Simple observations of nature supplied the first basis for the calendar.4 Naturally this varies according to land and climate. Where the monsoon blows from the southwest from May to November, and from the northeast from November to May, as in Nicobar, even low-grade savages have a loose sense of the year, or the half-year; which the changing moons can make still more definite. The floods of the Nile stimulated in Egypt its extraordinary progress in time-reckoning, as the cloudless skies of Babylonia called out its progress in astronomy. But where nature is less calculable, where the sky is largely overcast with clouds, storms are sudden, winds variable, harvests precarious — as in most of Europe — the reckoning 204 of calendar in terms of the weather, or of the common phenomena of nature is much more difficult. There are some world-old signs of the seasons, — lore which goes back to the ancient hunters before the days of agriculture, and is still in use. For instance, the flight or flocking of birds presaging winter was already an old sign in ancient Greece. Hesiod warns the Bœotian farmer to “take heed what time thou hearest the cry of the crane from the high clouds uttering her yearly cry, which bringeth the sign for (the late autumn) plowing and showeth forth the season of rainy weather, and biteth the heart of him that hath no oxen.”5

Similarly Jeremiah, in ancient Palestine, remarks6 that: “The stork in heaven knoweth her appointed time; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming.” As far back as the records of mankind can go, the return of the cuckoo and the “twittering swallow”7 have been the harbingers of spring. But however much the farmer might gain from observing the migration of birds, the habits of animals or plants, he could hardly have got beyond a few signs of weather-forecasting if he had not had more stable and more frequently recurring data to fall back upon. These were furnished by sun, moon, and stars.

As for the sun, while it furnished the divisions of day and night, it offered no ready multiple for their grouping. Its yearly circuit served for no more than the framework of the calendar; in a sense, it merely offered the cycle that needed calendaring. And yet, in those parts of the world where the seasons are marked off from each other with any degree of distinctness, a rough solar year could be appreciated without any detailed divisions by stellar or lunar periods. This is especially true outside the tropics, in the northern or southern temperate zones, where the farmer can grow but one crop of grain in the year, so that from a practical standpoint, he divides his time into two main seasons, winter and summer.8 This has always been, and still is, the essential basis of the farmer’s calendar in Europe and America. One may, as in Homer, divide the longer season into summer and harvest-time; but autumn and spring seem even to us now, like transition periods between the two fundamental seasons of heat and cold. Of the two again, the warm season is, of course, the all-important one. Indeed, winter seems rather like an interval between summers than a legitimate time in 205 itself. We should realize this even more if we had to face the weather in the scanty clothes of a primitive farmer. It is not a time for enterprise. One huddles close at home, and the pursuits of war as well as of peace are at a standstill. The literatures of the world, if not the almanacs, present this point of view in never-ending variety. From Hesiod’s haunting picture of the cold north wind that “bloweth with chill breath” through the hide of the ox and “shaggy breasted” beasts, and drives “the horned and hornless creatures of the woods, with piteous chattering teeth to seek shelter in glens and caves,” to the weary misery of a Walter von der Vogelweide, in the musty cold of a medieval castle, with his very wits frozen until the spring comes again, and the politely heroic rhetoric of a James Thomson, braving in hexameters the “ oppressive gloom” of a season which is the very symbol of death, — throughout all the world’s poetry there is but one feeling about winter.

The real beginning of the farmer’s year, then, at least in a temperate climate, is not a winter solstice, in the very heart of this dead season, although that may be noted expectantly, with reference to the slowly lengthening days. The new year of the seasons naturally comes in the spring. The old Romans and the early Germans (at least the Franks) dated it from the month of March.9 Through most of the middle ages, and in England until 1752, the year began on the twenty-fifth of March — Annunciation Day. But whatever the exact date, whether according to the official calendar or not, the starting-point for the new year is when the first wild-flowers come again, and, in the joint phrase of Hesiod and Browning:

“The lark’s on the wing,

  The snail’s on the thorn,”

if not March, then April, the “opening month” as the name itself tells, “when longen folk to go on pilgrimages” and all the world is astir with the new activities.

From March to November is the usable part of the solar year for war as well as for farming. The campaign can begin when winter is over; and the priests of Mars shake his spears to rouse him. In the Autumn they hang them up again in his temple. So the farmer’s year, calendared in large by the seasons, is suited for the politics of the city state. In Greece, a country of commerce as well as farming, a more complicated system took its place; but in Rome the simple farmers of the Latin plain took over the Hesiodic calendar which Greece had grown out of, and kept it as the basis of their 206 year until the great reform of Julius Caesar, — at least so it seems from the fragmentary sources which have come down to us. Even in Greece, however, the vague old calendar of the seasons was not entirely lost. Thucydides chose to keep to it, instead of reckoning by the complicated official calendar, for the campaigns of the Peloponnesian war. Spring, summer, and autumn count together, in his history, as one long half of the year.

The solar year of the seasons was more, however, than a vague and more or less uncertain calendar based upon homely observations of weather forecasting.10 It was universally a stellar year as well. The moon, of course, did not fit it, since its periods shift annually with reference to the sun; but the motions of the stars more nearly coincide, and from earliest times their rising and setting furnished the most definite and surest dates for all the seasonal occupations.11 The opening lines of Hesiod’s “Days” mark out the two chief moments of the farmer’s calendar, ploughing and sowing, by the rising and setting of the Pleiades; and that faintly glittering constellation has been a farmer’s guide through many centuries.12 Arcturus, “rising in his radiance at eventide” just sixty days after the winter solstice, was a more final sign of spring than the “ twittering swallow,” and the dog star was as much a symbol of summer as the sun itself. Vergil’s farmer knows the “twelve constellations of the world” through which the sun passes in order that he “may foretell the storms in the doubtful sky, the day of harvest and the time of sowing,” and when to risk one’s self by sea, for “not in vain,” he says, “do we watch the settings and risings of the constellations”13 All antique literature is full of such references to the connection of the stars with the seasons — a connection which religion was still further to enhance. In fact, so important was the observation of the stars, and so closely did their phases seem to fit the changes of the weather, that they seem to have furnished the basis of the practical farming calendar to both Greece and Rome, in spite of the rivalry which came from the beliefs about the moon.

(To be continued.)




 1  David Livingstone, “Narrative of Expedition to the Zambese,” 1866, page 104.

 2  W. Junker, “Travels in Africa,” Eng. Trans. II., page 168. Cf. Carl Bucher, “Evolution of Industry” (Tr. Wickett), page 19.

 3  Quoted by H. L. Roth, Journal of Anthropological Institute, 16 (1886), page 116. Cf. W. I. Thomas, “Source Book for Social Origins,” pages 98-112.

 4  Cf. F. K. Ginzel, “Handbuch der Mathematischen und Technischen Cbxonologie” (1906), I., pages&nbap;58 ff. The progress of anthropology has opened up many a field of study in this realm. Already at the opening of the nineteenth century, Ludwig Ideler, — whose “Handbuch der Mathematischen und Technischen Chronologie” has been and still is unsurpassed as a manual of historical chronology — stated with wistful sense of the limitations of his texts (Vol. I., p. 64): “It would be interesting to be able to follow the history of any reckoning of Time from the first rude beginning through all its phases to its completion; ordinarily we know the time-reckoning of a people only in the most perfect form which it reached with them.” Comparative study of similar cultures helps us in some degree to make good the lacunae. But, as the following pages show, the full history of the appropriation of Time can never be written except in the broadest outlines.

 5  “Works and Days,” Tr. A. W. Mair, 1908. Page 448.

 6  VIII., 7.

 7  Hesiod, Ibid., page 486.

 8  As in the old Norwegian year for example. One might also recall the poetic terseness of the text given in Genesis viii., 22, of the covenant of God with man after the flood: “While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

 9  Hence September, October, November, and December, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months in the old Roman year.

10  Cf. Vergil’s “Georgics,” Bk. I, for an insistence upon the importance of weather forecasting.

11  Cf. Vergil’s “Georgics,” I., 230 ff. Columella, “De Re Rustica,” Preface: “Let the farmer keep in mind the rising and setting of the stars, lest he begin his work when rains and winds are menacing and so his labor be in vain.”

12  Cf. Mair’s note, pages 136 ff. Vergil, “Georgics,” I., pages 205, 229; Columella, loc. cit., II., page 80.

13  Georgics,” I., pages 250 ff.

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