From Stonehenge to Monte Alto, some of the most enduring monuments of prehistoric cultures are the solar observatories. Other timekeeping tools used by these megalithic builders, whose very existence depended on accurate predictions of changes of season, included the sundial, clepsydra, and gnomon, as well as two-symbol numerals, the concept of zero, and spherical trigonometry. Whether or not time was conceptualized in any culture that survives only through ruins and artifacts, the peoples themselves were highly skilled in chronometry. In fifth-century Athens on the other hand—that summit of civilization—the measurement of time was haphazard, calendars differing from city to city and even the years beginning on different days, a chaotic state of affairs satirized by Aristophanes in Clouds. Greek tragedy, which was to discover and exploit philosophical concepts of time, itself developed in a society that was far from time-conscious.1

Again today, as in the Mexico of the Mayans, but not as in Aristotle’s Greece, philosophies of time are regarded as less important than the instruments of its measurement. This can be attributed partly to the negative reason that ontological arguments, such as Kant’s idea of time as a mental form, have been around for some time, while the measuring techniques are largely new. Of positive reasons, the most important are the unrelenting challenge to discover the time structure of the universe, and the impact of space exploration. Both have been sensationally publicized, the former because signals from particles of electromagnetic force traveling faster than light in superdense stars have raised doubts even about time-reversal invariancy, subatomically speaking. And as for the walks on the moon, surely part of their fascination has been due to a vicarious global escapism involving the illusion of crossing the boundaries of terrestrial time.

The newer clocks include the hydrogen, the radio-carbon, and the atomic or caesium, this last, coordinated with pulsars, now having replaced sidereal timekeeping as the standard measurement. But in addition to these and other technological devices are the many natural clocks only lately understood, for time is recorded by both organic and inorganic matter. The best-known are tree rings, varve-counts, and the dating of coral from its remains at the bottom of the sea up to the living polyp. More recently, the discovery of a correspondence between ridges on the fossils of tidewater marine animals and the number of days in the lunar month enabled paleontologists to determine the rate of decrease in velocity of the earth’s rotation from the twenty-one-hour Upper Cambrian day to our ever-lengthening one. But glaciers, too, are now used as calendars, the date of freezing being ascertainable from the ratio of oxygen isotopes in water molecules.

Still another gauge is the tooth. In fact this has become increasingly important to anthropology, and in the Siwalik Hills excavations the dental distinction between hominid and anthropoid primates appears to be the crucial one—evenly worn molars being a sign of the rapid maturation of the ape, unevenly worn ones of the longer stages of growth in creatures already on the path to Homo sapiens. (The apprehensive reader should see his odontologist at least twice a year!)

Time is not yet conceptualized in Homer, and sequence, continuity, and perpetuity do not obtain. “In the Iliad there is virtually no interest in chronology, absolute or relative,” Hermann Fraenkel wrote, and Professor de Romilly adds that “time is never the subject of a verb in Homer and the idea of time does not appear to have been an important one before Greek tragedy.” Hence the discovery of the many aspects of time and the development of the tragic form are simultaneous.

To borrow Gordon Kirkwood’s wellknown comparison of the Homeric and Sophoclean treatment of the scene of Ajax’s farewell to his son, that of the dramatist has “immeasurably greater tension…compression and urgency.”2 But this is natural since the epic is without time limit, while the tragedy must run its course during a single revolution of the sun. Furthermore, the tragedy is constructed around a crisis, and, accordingly, urgency is a necessary element. Finally, the involvement of past and future is essential to tragedy. The “weight of the past” must participate in the decision of justice—krinein, to judge or to decide, also being the source for “crisis”—though at the same time the narration of past events is in the historical present, Professor de Romilly’s “tense of everlasting reality.”

The action begins at a particular time, but the origins of the problem that will precipitate the crisis are in the past. Thus tragedy and timephilosophy, the examination of relationships among past, present, and future, are inseparable. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides bring into usage such modern expressions as “the time has come,” “now is the time,” “this is the decisive time,” “will she know in time?” “just in time.” But whereas the elements of suspense, expectation, and chronological chance—the encounter of Oedipus and Laius at the crossroads—are still contemporary, ancient concepts of time remain in the structure of tragedy, such as the Greek idea of a permanent, unchanging cosmos, in contrast to our notions of evolution and perpetual transformation.


Professor de Romilly’s discussion of the personification of time steps outside the province of drama, quoting Thales, for whom time is the “cleverest of all” (sophotaton); Heraclitus, who says that “time is a child playing dice”; and Pindar, who remarks that “the old part of age is moving about me” (as distinguished from “in me”). She goes on to characterize this personifying as “natural” but offers no explanation for the word beyond the general observation that the Greeks did in fact attribute personal qualities to abstractions. Her book, otherwise, contains handy comparisons of time in Aeschylus, for whom it teaches a lesson, time in Sophocles, who emphasizes its power of alteration, and time in Euripides, for whom it is irrational and elusive, evading man’s predictions. She does not say that it is Euripides, stressing time’s destructive aspects and the recognition of oneself as its plaything and dupe, who provides so many parallels with the images, visual and verbal, of Renaissance and Baroque art:

Thy Glass Will Show Thee How Thy Beauties Wear.

Since no translator is credited, the English is presumably that of the Sorbonne scholar herself. But the writing is not good enough. “This is clear and precise,” she exclaims at one point. “Or isn’t it? I must be honest”—we naturally supposed that she was—“and confess that there remains a doubt.” It should also be mentioned that her statistical comparisons among the three playwrights neglect to include a percentage calculation. Thus she reveals that the adjective chronius occurs twenty-nine times in Euripides as against twice and four times respectively in Aeschylus and Sophocles, but she fails to take into consideration the fact that the plays of Euripides greatly outnumber those of the others.

The awareness of time is said to be biological, the result of a metabolizing, oxidative process in the brain cells. But what constitutes this awareness, and the modes in which it functions, does not appear to have an answer. Is it a part of—the end product—or a step beyond that brain-cell biochemistry? If, moreover, the state of being “aware” involves a degree of perception, then time awareness would seem to be not truly biological, since that word implies the universal, while perception is subjective.

In a well-known music-school demonstration, an example of normal perception, two students, standing back to back and beating time at first with a metronome, drift from the fixed tempo and from each other as soon as the mechanism is stopped. An example of abnormal perception is provided by the study of learning disabilities. Some children who evidence no organic defects in opthamological, otiological, neurological, and psychometric tests are nevertheless unable to perceive, or distinguish, words on a page, or to register them in the ear. Yet, and fortunately, these dyslexics can be taught to perceive through a third learning modality, the kinesthetic, and to apprehend a letter by touching it on a typewriter key, or, braille-like, by forming it in three-dimensional materials such as blocks and clay. In this way one mode of perception is substituted for another. And therefore, if perception is a biological gift, its amount, quality, and application are highly variable.

This much is certain: the biological time clock is conditioned by the individual metabolic one, which seems not to remain either wound up or coordinated with others for very long—as experiments with spelunkers show, these subterranean explorers soon losing their sense of the daily cycle when actual contact with it is severed. As far as the temporal dimension is concerned, then, instinct, or inborn propensity, would appear to be mere conditioning. For another instance, some infants raised on demand-feeding methods later reject the ritual of morning, noon, and evening meals, continuing to respond to hunger drives that assert themselves at irregular hours. Yet the daily cycle, once incorporated in the nervous system, is difficult to eradicate, especially in compulsive degrees (as in the case of W. H. Auden, who contended that he ate only because the clock said that it was time to do so). But even here individuals differ, as illustrated by studies in reactions to flight dysrhythmia. History’s many professional torturers long ago discovered that the most effective way of “breaking” a victim was by constantly disrupting his routine. If not already underway, a valuable psychophysiological research project might be the investigation of the duration of the human organism’s ability to survive without some kind of time structure.


Other agents, and states of being, by which and in which the time sense is distorted or suspended, must also be acknowledged. These include alcohol, narcotic drugs, dreams, mystic transcendences, psychic phenomena (especially precognition), all forms of illusion,3 and especially the arts. In music, the perception of time ranges from simple succession—Hume’s “Five notes played on a flute give us the impression and idea of time”—to the many thousands of notes that create the Eroica Symphony, in which the changing psychological reality of each listener reflects his individual experience of different temporal modes.

But arts, philosophies, and religions are escape hatches of another order, leading to their own realities. In a dualistic system (a structure of reality and a structure of mind), man, the alien in a pre-existing temporal-spatial continuum, was forced to invent phenomenological time, and to measure it in the reality of his own nature—until the escape into “change-independent” subjective time becomes the escape from “temporal existence” into “eternity,” and, as the Angel says in the Revelation of Saint John: “There shall be time no longer.”

This Issue

May 15, 1975