“It’s about time” (Part 2)

More thoughts about calendars at the “end of the world”

“It’s About Time” is a three-part series exploring the role calendars play in organizing our lives. It offers a perspective on the confusion surrounding the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 2012 by going into detail on the concept of a calendar. We will ask “What DOES a Calendar do?” (Dec. 5), “How has OUR calendar evolved?” (Dec. 12) and “What CAN a calendar do?” (Dec. 19).

Last week we established that a calendar is a kind of vehicle for maintaining a society over time. We did this by tracing the calendar back to its origins, which coincide with the origins of collective social memory. The calendar is among the first of the innovations that generate culture and civilization, acting as a foundation and a constant. We saw that as society progressed, the role of the calendar changed. It moved from primarily observing the cycles in nature towards regulating an internal narrative. Bearing this in mind, we asked if a calendar was a “neutral force” with regards to the passage of time or whether it might be actively shaping the course that we take into the future? This week, we ask how OUR calendar, the Gregorian, has become what it is now.

The Gregorian Calendar, as the most recent development in an evolving system of timekeeping, is actually less than 500 years old. It was developed out of the Julian Calendar, which is still used in some parts of the world. The  Julian Calendar was instituted by Julius Caesar, 708 years after the founding of Rome,in what we would now call “45 BC”. The Old Roman Calendar that Caesar reformed was the 12-month Numan Calendar. More than five centuries earlier, this calendar had replaced the original Roman Calendar, known as the Romulan Calendar (after Romulus, the founder of Rome). The Romulan was a lunar calendar of 10 months.  It was observation-based, and omitted the winter, applying only to the part of the year when work was being done. It was thus a partial, rather than a total, accounting of time. With the Numan reform two more months, January and February, were inserted into the year. This led to the displacement of September, October,  November, and December into the 9th 10th, 11th and 12th positions. It was the responsibility of the “Pontifex Maximus” to insert “intercalendary months” so that when the count started it was in correct timing with the seasons. As a result of corruption, however, people holding this office began to insert intercalendary months illegitimately so as to enable “favoured politicians” to manipulate the political landscape. As a consequence, the accounting of time became wildly out of synch with the real cycles of time.

Personalized months

Caesar, who had been to Alexandria and consulted their astronomers, was aware not only of the 365 day year, but also of the need to insert a leap year every four years. This amplified our culture’s sense of stability over time and acted as a new foundation for societal expansion.

Roman Emperor Julius Caesar advocated for a 365-day-a-year calendar.

With the capacity to accurately keep time over several hundred years, this system was more socially unifying than it’s predecessors. Of course Caesar did not live to see the fruits of this reform. His son, Augustus, finalized the reform, developed the leap year, and instituted the Julian Calendar.

In doing so, the fifth and sixth months were renamed to “July” for Julius and “August” for Augustus. Lengths of individual months were shifted around in order to ensure that both Julius and Augustus got 31 days. Any pattern there may have been in the length of the months was broken, and they were made 28/29,  30, or 31 days  in no particular order. The month system that we have now is the legacy of these two Roman Emperors. In its early stages there were still no “days of the week” as we know them.  The seven-day week came to replace the older eight-day Roman market week in the first few centuries of what would later be identified as the new Christian epoch.

The year of whose lord?

As it continued to evolve, the calendar was adapted to Christian theology when that religion emerged as a political power in the 4th Century. Besides simply refurbishing the annual festivals to serve a Christian message, this entailed a major surgical operation on our long-term understanding of time. Originally, there was no idea of A.D. or B.C. Nowadays, time is seen as  a “number line”  with the negative numbers on the left (B.C.), and the positive numbers on the right (A.D.), but this system was invented in the 6th Century by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus, and was applied retroactively. By doing this, the overall story of time was brought into the service of Christendom.

In the 7th Century, the Venerable Bede noticed that the count of the year was slipping away from the equinoxes and the first voices began to call for a reform to the Julian Calendar. It took several hundred years for this to occur, even though a number of famous thinkers (notably Roger Bacon in the 13th Century) strongly advocated for it. Despite these luminaries, the political process of reform was extremely slow.

To be able to regulate time to the second enables us to coordinate our projects precisely and by quantifiable design – a hallmark of industrialization.

By the time of the actual Gregorian reform in 1582, the slippage of three days every four hundred years had caused the calendar to go off by about 10 days. The solution that Pope Gregory XIV eventually chose was to eliminate 10 days out of the calendar and to introduce the method of “skipping” leap years that fall on centuries which are not divisible by four. This reform was not adopted universally all at once; many countries, particularly the Protestant or Orthodox nations who were suspicious of the Pope, kept using the Julian Calendar. By the 20th Century, however, the Gregorian Calendar dominated.

Although the mechanical clock first appeared in the 13th Century, minutes and seconds did not appear until the 15th and 16th Centuries respectively. The watch appeared in the 17th Century. The widespread use of these precise scales of time appear at the dawn of the modern period alongside the new Heliocentric model of the cosmos, the printing press, and the advances in technology which would give us the Industrial Revolution.

The shift from the sundial to the clock is one from a qualitative to a quantitative manner of measuring time. This move is actually similar to going from an observational calendar to an algorithmic one, but on a much tighter scale. An industrialized society requires an industrialized workforce; the clock and the watch were key instruments achieving this. To be able to regulate time to the second enables us to coordinate our projects precisely and by quantifiable design – a hallmark of industrialization. The concept of a wage (a monetary value added to a time value) would come out of this method of “quantifying time”. The idea that Time = Money comes from this development.

As it stands now, while the Gregorian Calendar has some advantages, such as its accuracy over time, it still has many features that reflect ideological and propagandistic features going back several thousand years. In my opinion, the two biggest issues with using the Gregorian Calendar as a universal standard are the “Broken Cog Effect”, and the “time-is-a-number-line” problem. The “Broken Cog” effect is an obstacle to our ability to think long-term. Think of a working calendar as a series of connected cogs: there are the seconds which mesh with the minutes, minutes which mesh with the hours, hours which mesh with the days, and days which mesh with weeks. On the level of the month, however, the old Roman Calendar presents us with a problem: the arbitrary measure of month sizes makes it difficult to naturally shift gears between a week and a year. The month operates like a broken cog, with the weeks not meshing into the year as they ought to, but rather slipping through the months on a much larger, more confusing 28-year cycle. Since the calendar, which is supposed to support our plans and memories, has such an awkward system of counting months, this “broken cog” actually limits our natural ability to project our plans into the future. The broken cog locks us into to the monthly cycle and makes it hard to imagine time over larger cycles. It becomes necessary to do a fairly taxing mental calculation in order to make long-term plans, and this inhibits the calendar’s natural function as a memory frame.

The “time-is-a-number-line” problem concerns how we view large-scale time. It imposes a division upon our history that anchors our sense of meaning in a particular place, at a particular time. The hypothetical date for the birth of Christ, determined retroactively in the 6th Century, anchors our overall context for time, and so we repeat the story, year after year, from Christmas to Christmas. This marks it as a very culture-specific vision of time. When we live in this way, regardless of our beliefs, we are living inside a Roman/Christian myth.

If we are verging on a global society, it makes sense to remove overt religious biases from the “universal standard”.

While this is fine, I think, for a more private religious calendar, it is unsuitable to play the role of a trans-cultural mediation of time. Even if we were to change the labels from BC/AD to BCE/CE, the message is the same: our “age”, whatever that means, is necessarily bound to the Christian cultural moment, or epoch. This is an issue that cannot be ignored if this calendar is to set the international standard, since a calendar’s cultural features are not neutral and set both the rhythm and the overall tone of what it means to think and work in that society. If we are verging on a global society, it makes sense to remove overt religious biases from the “universal standard”.

Anticipating evolution

All this is to show that our calendar is actually undergoing a very gradual evolution as our society changes. At times it has been found that changing the structure of the calendar was necessary to move forward, for purposes of increased accuracy or of consolidating our social vision. Each shift in the calendar initiates an epoch, a period of time anchored to a fixed foundation point.The epoch is governed by the rhythms and emergent structures of its calendar.

The Julian Calendar marked a “classical” epoch which began to recede when the Gregorian Calendar initiated the  epoch we associate with modernity. Every epoch is an act of “world building” that responds to a cultural crisis of some kind. By reformulating time in a new mode, calendricists are able to regenerate our sense of who we are, what time means, and what we are alive for – to re-calibrate our collective sense of meaning. In our current situation, we have a rapidly globalizing world in which many diverse “times” are coming into closer contact with one another than ever before.

This exposes an important truth. A speaker of a single language can easily fall into the opinion that everything in the world can be described by language, and yet a speaker of several languages knows that there is something beyond language, a common reality, that nevertheless adds to the value of having a language.

A person operating in a single calendar tends to assume that it passively measures time rather than shapes it actively. But now, because so many different calendars are becoming exposed to one another, we can see that they are actually shaping how we behave.

A person operating in a single calendar tends to assume that it passively measures time rather than shapes it actively. But now, because so many different calendars are becoming exposed to one another, we can see that they are actually shaping how we behave. It also demonstrates that there are many other innovative ways of counting time. A pool of good ideas, a challenging situation, and a new understanding of how we discipline ourselves into different ways of living in time – a moment like this could be very fertile for developing new ways of seeing, thinking, acting, and planning over the long-term.

Can we continue on the path that we are on? Are we spiralling towards an epoch-collapse? Are we on the verge of an epochal shift? In the next and final installment we will return to the present day situation, looking toward the “Mayan Apocalypse”, Dec 21, 2012, where we ask: “What CAN a calendar do?”

Peter Duchemin is a sleight of hand magician, a scholar, and a student of the variety of approaches that humans have made towards finding (and creating) order in the world. He advocates looking beyond our assumptions for creative solutions to the obstacles that confront us. He believes that a good, clear metaphor can move mountains. He travels, writes, performs and thinks from his base in St John’s.

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