Linear time

Through the millennia we human beings have developed a rich and amazing diversity of “mind things”, things that only seem to exist in our inner mental world. Most of those things seep out into the “real” world more or less. The concept of linear time for example may very well have been developed only about ten thousand years ago (“only”, because as human beings we have a track record on our planet I like to start one million years ago, which is one hundred times longer)1 . This mental concept may have come into existence in a certain period, possibly that of the first dynasties of Egypt, but it is very likely that it did not originate at a certain time or place, but that it came to be more or less synchronous at different locations in the same period. This can be inferred from similar events that cannot really be attributed to a certain “inventor” or originator, but that seem to have been “in the air”.

This concept of linear time was a very powerful concept. It arose in the same period as the first power states, and we wonder: can it not be that those institutions were able to acquire that power because they were employing this new invention, this new mental concept of linear time to base their empires on? With this thing, while being a purely mental concept, one could measure how long it took to perform a specific task, and hand out a reward accordingly. Being able to measure it and make it concrete, made it very difficult to argue against the injustice of giving more to another worker who did the same task faster. Especially not since this fact, this number, could be written down also, fixed into clay tablets or inscriptions on wood or some such medium.

People started to measure things, and this gave some the power over others. Measurement of time in particular. Egyptian priests developed the first clocks, the first mechanical instruments to help in dividing the day into hours and minutes and even seconds. They kept this invention to themselves, indeed, probably even ascribed magical properties to it in their vast magical/theological pantheon, so that one could employ these instruments only after a long and arduous period of initiation which of course had the convenient side effect that the initiate would use this powerful device only in support of the ruling caste of priests, safely embedded in their view of the world and consolidating existing power structures.

The division of time in larger chunks, especially months and years, has most probably been realised much earlier in human history, so the invention of linear time was not entirely without precedence. However, those remnants we have of prehistoric time tracking, suggest that people in those days did record time for quite different purposes. In fact, one could argue that writing and time recording have interesting associations. Both can be said to have existed in the two modes: prehistoric, and historic (that is, after the invention of writing). Prehistoric time recording concerned the lunar calendar. It may very well have been an invention of women, with the female rhythms closely resembling those of the moon. It seems clear that the use of “mechanised” time by Egyptian priests was exclusively male. Some prehistoric lunar calendars we have found suggest an advanced mode of recording, almost writing in fact. Still, as Mircea Eliade argued in The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, it seems that even until the classical period, people did not really think of past, present and future as we do now. These three aspects of time were connected in a very real sense, and the re-enactment of stories of the divine in the yearly rites was not just storytelling.

As the story of the final fight between Marduk and Tiamat (in the Epic of Gilgamesh) was told, people may have experienced this in the very real now. We still do. Stories are so powerful that they sometimes break down the barrier between past, present and future, between the “real” and the “unreal”. When The War of the Worlds was broadcasted on radio in the Unites States, a nationwide panic broke out because people thought the Martians had really landed. When we listen to stories our mind switches to a mode millennia old, and I always envision our ancestors on the African savannahs, listening to these stories, repeatedly told over long long periods of time, stories the remnants of which I am certain still survive in our contemporary legends, myths and fairy tales. In fact the length of period of time I am talking about here is virtually incomprehensible. Hundreds of thousands of years people have roamed the savannahs of Africa, especially from the coastal regions it seems, since humans have some interesting biological traits that can almost exclusively be originated from extended periods in or near water (our relative baldness, subcutaneous fat, eyebrows, our nose, and most interestingly: our diving reflex – I can state from my own experience with freediving that it is relatively easy for human beings to overcome the breathing reflex and spend many minutes underwater, almost rivalling the diving capacities of whales)2 . We speak of periods of time extending the longest stable periods in historical times by factors of magnitude. Modern research indicates that the image of those “primitive” people as people primarily concerned with struggling for survival in a hostile environment is fundamentally flawed. More probably they had vast amounts of spare time in which to exercise their human creativity in many different ways.

  1. Aveni, Anthony. Empires of Time. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.
  2. Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
  3. [amazon_textlink asin=’0062316095′ text=’Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2011.’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’reflektis-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c7f0605f-3eed-11e7-abab-412b9576e465′]

Comments (2)

  • Linear time is not an invention. Indeed you acknowledge this at the beginning of your own article. The world’s languages have widely different ways of expressing relationships of time. Some are so different from those of the world’s major languages, that even apparently scholarly linguists have denied their existence.

    This million or so years over which humanity has developed, who invented that? The implication, unspoken in academic settings but easily confirmed with a simple search, is that a modern Western deity is being referred to. That is unacceptable in worldwide studies.

  • Hi Collin, thank you for your reaction. Your first paragraph reiterates my article, I think. But the second paragraph leaves me confused. What do intend to express? Who invented what? Where do you detect this referral to a deity? (My association is more politically-oriented than religious) Could you give a few examples?

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