Politics & Policy

The Annual Fresh Start

Happy New Year!

Ahoy, mates. Fifty-two new Monday mornings straight ahead.

That sums up my predictions for this New Year. While there are those who insist they can read the future like a book — one new study, for example, promises us the White House will be destroyed by terrorists — others of us have learned the pitfalls of prognostication the hard way. Yours truly, for example, once predicted that Dubya’s Dad would definitely be reelected president unless he were discovered in bed with a goat, and a male goat at that. That prediction turned out to be incorrect, though it did certify me as a true pundit, a profession in which vast error is commonplace and considered the product of daring minds.

Making predictions, reading fortunes, etc. are often attempts to reduce fear about the future. The belief that we know what’s going to happen is preferable to sailing blindly into the Vast Unknown, even when the predictions are dire and even though we know down deep we’re only guessing.

From my perspective, however, sailing into the vast unknown is a vast improvement over the earlier view, which was that humans are locked in an endless cycle of history that basically takes them nowhere. According to that perspective, time chased its tail like a mad cat. Eventually, according to the great minds of those days, the cat would catch its tail and eat itself alive.

Seneca, who could teach Pat Buchanan a thing or two about gloom and doom, predicted that “a single day will see the burial of all mankind. . . all that is famous and all that is beautiful, great thrones, great nations — all will descend into the one abyss, will be overthrown in one hour.” Then the process would begin anew.

The deeply thoughtful Marcus Aurelius, the Jonah Goldberg of his day, explained that “all things from time everlasting have been cast in the same mold and repeated cycle after cycle, and so it makes no difference whether a man sees the same things recur through a hundred years or two hundred, or through eternity…the longest liver and he whose time to die comes soonest part with no more the one than the other.”

Man lived in this cul de sac for many eons. Time ran in circles. Individual fate, slender as it was, was told by the stars. Ammianus Marcellinus, the Victor Davis Hanson of antiquity, noted that “There are many who do not presume either to bathe, or to dine, or to appear in public, till they have diligently consulted, according to the rules of astrology, the situation of Mercury and the aspect of the moon.”

Slowly, the idea that time might be linear started catching on, as did a belief in free will. An emerging religion associated with the recent Christmas holiday gave these notions a major boost. Time did not have man in a hammerlock. Nor, for that matter, did death.

“With very few exceptions,” historian Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “the apologists for the gospel against Greek and Roman thought made responsibility rather than inevitability the burden of their message.” Early Christian thinker Origen explained that “the universe is cared for by God in accordance with the conditions of the free will of each man, and that as far as possible it is always being led on to be better….” Robert Nisbet adds that Eusebius, Tertullian, and eventually Augustine, “endowed the idea of progress with new attributes which were bound to give it a spiritual force unknown to their pagan predecessors.”

Some ideas have consequences, and these nurtured a deeper optimism, curiosity, confidence, initiative, and resilience in the face of setback and disaster. They played a central role in creating the circumstances under which modern science was born. They also made a dent in the astrology industry, though not a fatal one. Last but not least, they helped create a market for a new industry: clock making. Clocks were of particular interest to monks, who needed clocks, with alarms, to signal them when it was time to pray. So they built clocks and they lived by them.

They weren’t the only ones. Clocks, in Lewis Mumford’s famous phrase, “dissociated time from human events.” Clocks allowed humans to stand somewhat apart from time and learn to use it to their advantage. Thus were born exacting standards of punctuality and productivity. Those were good things, mostly speaking.

Yet there’s a downside. Humanity developed an acute awareness of the passage of time. We became obsessed. We eventually took to wearing timepieces on our wrists. We cannot pass a bank facade without being reminded that the meter is running.

This is where we find ourselves today. We are no longer slaves to seasons and cycles of seasons. Instead, we are slaves to the second. We might become especially aware of this predicament when the alarm sounds these upcoming Monday mornings. There’s not much to be done about it, except to perhaps mutter “Damn those monks.”

Dave Shiflett is coauthor of Christianity on Trial.

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