Time was invented by us but never stops playing with our minds
By MICHAEL FARRELL
In the years and then the months leading to Y2K, the new and old millennia and centuries were juggled in our conversations and media until they had taken on lives of their own. It would be easy to forget they were fabrications because in our minds and plans they had become something more solid, like building blocks of our existence.
If there is something important about the end of an old century or millennium or the beginning of new ones, it is imperative we find out in time. If there were some magic or grace or truth or beauty or pot of gold, it would be pathetic to find out too late. Or if, on the other hand, theres disaster around the corner, we should run for shelter or go to confession or give all that we have, as the early Christians did, to the poor.
A new book called Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, by Eugen Weber (Harvard University Press, to order: 1-800-448-2242), reminds us in its very first sentence that time and its divisions are social constructs. But, having invented time, it has taken us practically forever to learn how to manage it. The result all too often has been fear and trembling in the face of catastrophes that usually failed to happen.
For me the big revelation of this book was how carelessly we have handled ordinary time. Weber goes back to Herodotus, who measured time by generations, as the Etruscans did, and by reigns, as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians did. This author has done his homework. Polybius measured by Olympiads, in four-year chunks -- something Weber says anticlericals also did as recently as the mid-19th century, not wanting to give Christ credit for the calendar most of us use.
Gregory of Tours began his History of the Franks with the creation of the world, which he and presumably others reckoned to last 6,000 years in all, and which at the time had 208 years left, or so he said. The Jews, too, counted from the beginning of the world. Our 1999 is their 5759.
But most people who bothered to mention it at all passed up those great gobs of abstract time in favor of more concrete markers provided by specific events and situations. Time was not so much linear as a jumping jack going every which way. This is how Thucydides nails down the beginning of the Peloponnesian War: In the 15th year [of a truce in the war], in the 48th year of the priesthood of Chrysis of Argos, when Enesias was ephor at Sparta and Pythodorus still had two months to serve as archon at Athens, six months after the battle of Potidea, just at the beginning of spring.
Not only did no one use B.C. before Christ came, no one used A.D. (Anno Domini) for a long time after he had come and gone. And all the while others counted in their various ways: the Chinese by dynasties; the Hindus by astronomical cycles and the consecration of kings; the Egyptians by whatever was the biggest event that year, perhaps the Egyptian Super Bowl, though later they, too, measured according to their kings, who probably insisted on being the main event every year. The Romans counted from the foundation of their city, a date Christians subverted by calling it 753 B.C.
The Hebrews, Weber writes, seem to have invented the seven-day week, though they may have borrowed it from the Mesopotamians. He presumes it was only after being comfortable with the seven-day week that the seven days of creation, complete with day of rest, became divine truth. The Romans, meanwhile, used nine-day periods, nundinae, measuring from market to market.
Julius Caesars Julian calendar, drawn up in 46 B.C. our time, moved the beginning of the year from March to January, but the Romans caught up with the seven-day week only in the fourth century of our era.
The New Testament, Weber writes, paid little attention to chronology. As Christianity grew and expanded its influence, time was more and more measured in liturgical terms of Advent or Easter or various rites.
Time was a mess -- to us, not to them, because they didnt particularly care -- for a millennium and a half. Papal briefs of the late 15th century were dated from Christmas, while papal bulls followed the Florentine style and used Easter. And the date of Easter itself was a bone of ecclesiastical contention for many centuries and even today only the mentally adroit can keep up with it -- the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21, is what I learned at school.
Gregory XIII (1572-1585) gets credit for patching up the calendar pretty much as we know it, though Weber reminds us that he probably got the birth of Christ wrong, and thus purists, if they wish, are free to pick their own time or times, which they should not do because its the thought that counts and we already have enough anxiety getting the computers in order for Y2K as we know it.
The 16th century is crucial, writes Weber, because, after 1560, the French year began on Jan. 1, and after 1582 most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar -- but not Protestants, for another 200 years, on account of its association with the pope. Only in the 17th century did B.C. and A.D. become common. And now, notes Weber, these are going out of fashion again because politically correct publishers and media prefer the Common Era (CE and BCE) to Anno Domini even when it is not quite clear who has got what in common.
This carelessness with chronology, one can quickly see, had all kinds of ramifications. Most people did not know their age except for guessing. Furthermore, new centuries were not a big deal. The first fin de siecle anyone ever bothered to mention was the last one, it seems. And the first new millennium to get a decent welcome is the one that is upon us.
Though, of course, its not as simple as that. Another recent book, A.D. 1000: A World on the Brink of Apocalypse, by Richard Erdoes, provided a harrowing description of hundreds of the faithful shivering in their Sunday shoes in St. Peters Basilica and elsewhere as the final minutes of the last millennium ebbed. So some people were counting even then.
Furthermore, Weber notes in his introduction that millenarianism has long lurked in the shadows of history. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, he notes, in its first edition, just before World War II, consigned millenarianism to the dustbin of history. The third edition of the dictionary, however, published in 1997, reveals the luxuriant growth of millenarianism in Asia, Africa and South America.
A history of woe
While we did not always get our dates right, we could always distinguish future from past or present. This gave us an amazingly fertile field for our imaginations to play in. We could add colorations to the past; more to the point, we could devise utopian or totally rotten futures for fun or profit or because some little voice was telling us.
This book is called Apocalypses, meaning disaster, cosmic catastrophe, the end of the world. In other words, its about eschatology, the doctrine of end times, but especially the down side of end times. Apocalypses have been such a constant thread running through our past that their history is in a way the history of the world. As a race we have been much more pessimistic than optimistic. And perhaps with good reason: Most social historians link apocalypticism with political crisis, social change or material distress. And then when we were down we could fantasize a comeback, preferably at the expense of our enemies; or, failing that, we developed hopeful hunches that the whole world would end, most likely in torment, before giving way to a thousand years of blessedness and happiness.
This anticipation is called chiliasm. The Jewish prophets cultivated it. Christ and his apostles were heirs to it, and so in turn was the church they started. From Zoroaster to the Stoics to our very own day, a conflagration or some equivalent is usually in the cards.
Although it has long been tainted by association with alleged crackpots and extremists, apocalypse is fundamentally a discussion about good and evil and the meaning of life on earth. St. Augustine tried to douse apprehensions of the faithful by insisting the apocalypse described by St. John was to be taken metaphorically and spiritually rather than as an upcoming event. The City of God was already begun. Instead of fretting about it coming soon, Christians should live it now. A year after Augustines death, the Council of Ephesus tried to disentangle the theological confusion. Apocalyptic promises were not about fire, brimstone and rapture followed by an Eden-type millennium, but applied to individual destiny and life after death.
But such a personal thing forever refuses to go away. Not yet, yet already here -- in the mind, as author Weber puts it. Christian art and architecture balanced reference to the original fall, in the distant past, with reference to the Last Judgment, in the near future. This was a great way for both ecclesial and secular authorities to control the population, but nerve-wracking for the folks, especially if they had vivid imaginations to foresee doomsday in detail -- something preachers as well as artists helped them do.
Bishop Gregory of Tours, who died in 594, did some calculations and concluded the end would come sometime between 799 and 806. This gave everyone a breather to just get on with life: a great strategy for a bishop in search of peace and quiet. Within a few years, however, Pope Gregory I (590-604), dejected by famine, pestilence and local wars, was heard to say, The world grows old and hoary and hastens to its approaching end. It was Gregory sent St. Augustine (a different one) with a bunch of missionaries to convert England as part of his preparations for doomsday. So the conversion of England, like the later voyages of Columbus, was heavily influenced by anticipation of end times, Weber writes.
Despite its carelessness about dates, Christendom seems to have been quite aware of the year 1000. Already in the eighth century, Britains Venerable Bede grumbled that rustics were already pestering him about the time of the millennium. The fall of the Carolingian Empire and other events we now scarcely remember hinted at the time at the worlds twilight and senescence. It didnt help when, in 989, Halleys comet swept through the skies.
Y1K came and went with only the usual degree of catastrophe. But no lesson was learned from that. New calendars were dusted off and scanned for omens. Hildegaard of Bingen worked up a whole scenario, 26 visions of salvation history leading to the Last Judgment. Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) saw history moving through purifying catastrophes from one stage to a better one -- its easy to forget that all this was usually reaction to a hard life in hopes of a better one.
In 1202, Leonardo Fibonacci, a mathematician from Pisa, introduced Arabic numerals, including zero, making counting the years easier, but also taking the first step toward our Y2K computer glitches.
One couldnt talk long about apocalypse without Antichrist popping up -- the principle of evil, or the devil, if one wished to get personal. The more he popped up, the harder the forces of good (read: the Christian churches) had to fight. From the 13th through the 15th centuries, penitent flagellants waged spiritual war not only on Antichrist but also on the established order and the social, clerical and money powers that were part of the anarchy that masqueraded as order. And next the pope was being called the Antichrist, by John Wycliffe and others.
The Enlightenment arrived and so did secularism, but apocalyptic dreams and nightmares remained stubbornly around each corner. The apocalypse got new garb and new names and it smelled less musty but it would always get us out of this mess into that garden of sunshine. There was talk about utopia. Tom Paine wrote in Common Sense (1776): We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present has not happened since the days of Noah.
People love to hear such good news, secular or sacred. There will always be an easy following for easy solutions offering glowing futures, but never more so than when people are deprived and mad. Writes Weber: It looks as if millenarians are angry about many things: material deprivation, social dislocation, political persecution and often, quite simply, change.
We need not be angry, just eager. We yearn for a quick fix, mock the snake-oil salesman while we listen to him with one ear. Curiosity enters into it -- our amazing ability to play with the future, to give hope a longer rope to hang itself.
And lest we dismiss what Weber calls doomsday chic as fanciful and far away, heres Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, often mentioned as papabile, writing in 1990: We are at the beginning of the Christian era. In our time the West (and probably the whole world) has become such an enigma to itself, is faced by such fearfully unprecedented problems and such terrifying ordeals, that it must at long last consider the possibility that only the coming of Christ will give it the arguments and the strength to assume its destiny.
Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.
National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999