Who Are Our Time Lords?

In Sid Meier’s classic game Civilization III, one of the first “technologies” that your chosen civilization must learn is the calendar (which, amusingly, unlocks the ability to build the Stonehenge, even if you happen to be the Chinese or Incas). As a teenager, this struck me as odd, since it had never occurred to me to think of “calendar” as a form of technology. Even as an adult, development of calendars in the ancient world hasn’t struck me as a particularly grandiose moment in the human development. Egyptian agricultural techniques, the system of Roman law, ancient Greek democracy, Persian administration of empire—these all have an immediate practicality about them, whereas calendar is just divying up the year into days and months, which seems prosaic in comparison.

My mind has been changed by Sacha Stern’s 2012 Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies. (Nice to see that Oxford University Press still uses the Oxford comma.) Let’s add this book to the growing, now-unsustainable list of books which I am working my way through and telling you all about. In it, Stern attempts to make a case for the social and political significance of ancient calendars, beyond their religious significance and their usefulness for dating. “The calendar,” he says, “should not be confined, as it sometimes is, to the history of science or to a marginal aspect of the history of religions. It firmly belongs to the core of social history,” (2).

Part of what this assumes, and the book (and, really, any book on ancient calendars) will make it clear, that calendars are not obvious. This becomes immediately apparent when we begin to realize how illiterate we are with respect to the night sky. We tend to think that, because we can diagrammatically represent the solar system, we thus understand it. But ask yourself: “Could I look up at the night sky and identify a vernal equinox?” Or “Could I predict when the next new moon will be?” Or “Could I tell what month of the Zodiac it is right now just by observing the stars?” (If the relevance of that question eludes you because you think of Zodiac as the horoscope, this illustrates the problem.) Or, most importantly for my readers perhaps, “How do I calculate the date of Easter just from the night sky?”

Then add to that the component of the administration of empire, which is the central problem which drives the adoption of calendars in antiquity. When the Nile overflows is pivotal to the agriculture of your empire; being able to predict the lunar cycle might be important in the administration of law which is tied to a specific month (as in Esther 9-10); some sense of how many days a year is (a tricky thing to figure out) is crucial to the republic if your politicians have term limits, as in Rome. “[C]alendars,” says Stern, “gave [political rulers] the means of regulating economic activity, state administration, religious cult, and in some political systems, their own tenures in office—often to their personal advantage.”

There are many points that could be made here, including about the various “disenchantment” narratives which, especially among Catholics, blame things like the Protestant reformation, the Protestant-capitalist work ethic of the industrial revolutions, etc. for our feeling of divorce from nature, the experience of political and ecclesial authority not as divinely ordained but Machiavellian or mandated only democractically, etc. Actually I think Stern’s book makes a pretty good case that the adoption of fixed calendars, including the church’s eventual reliance on fixed calendars for the computus of Easter, constitutes a major “disenchantment,” whose fruition will be fully realized in the Gregorian (read: Catholic) calendar reforms of the 16th century. The automation of time means that we need to rely less on the night sky and do not credit our political and religious leaders with the prerogative of determining and announcing time. Calendar has been localized, democratized, and largely forgotten.

That is one possible direction one could go, and there is some truth to it (although it is mostly just trolling the integralists)—but there is another direction one could go. Do we have political leaders who determine our times now? Do we have time lords, not the sort with two hearts who jump across time, but the much more powerful sort which can define what time is? Stern says that “[c]alendars depend…on communal agreement, because unless they are reckoned by all in the same way, they cannot effectively coordinate events and activities within the social group; and political rulers were those who had the power, in Antiquity as in other periods, to enforce a common calendar upon society,” (emphasis mine).

This in turn reminds me of a very different moment of history, but one which bears a striking resemblance to the contexts Stern is talking about: the history of railroads between Chicago and New York. From Willian Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis:

Before the invention of standard time, clocks were set according to the rules of astronomy: noon was the moment when the sun stood highest in the midday sky. By this strict astronomical definition every locale had a different noon, depending on the line of longitude it occupied. When clocks read noon in Chicago, it was 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis, 11:38 A.M. in St. Paul, 11:27 A.M. in Omaha, and 12:18 P.M. in Detroit, with every possible variation in between. For companies trying to operate trains between these various points, the different local times were a scheduling nightmare. Railroads around the country set their clocks by no fewer than fifty-three different standards—and thereby created a deadly risk for everyone who rode them. Two trains running on the same tracks at the same moment but with clocks showing different times could well find themselves unexpectedly occupying the same space, with disastrous consequences.

And so, on November 18, 1883, the railroad companies carved up the continent into four time zones, in each of which all clocks would be set to exactly the same time. At noon, Chicago jewelers moved their clocks back by nine minutes and thirty-three seconds in order to match local time of the ninetieth meridian. The Chicago Tribune likened the event to Joshua’s having made the sun stand still, and announced, ‘The railroads of this country demonstrated yesterday that the hand of time can be moved backward about as easily as Columbus demonstrated that an egg can be made to stand on end.’ Although the U.S. government would not officially acknowledge the change until 1918, everyone else quickly abandoned local sun time and set clocks by railroad time instead. Railroad schedules thus redefined the hours of the day: sunrise over Chicago would henceforth come ten minutes sooner, and the noonday sun would hang a little lower in the sky.

Nature’s Metropolis, 79. Emphasis mine.

Stern and Cronon overlap here: who are our political rulers? Those who are our lords of time. Those who can look at the sky and overrule local time and impose imperial time. This is, for Stern, part of what defined political authority “in Antiquity as in other times.” So, who are our time lords? The railroad schedules, apparently. The Chicago Tribune got it exactly right: the railroads are like Joshua or, really, God. What is most striking to me about Cronon’s text is that “the U.S. government would not officially acknowledge the change until 1918,” yet people did not wait for the government’s say-so to erase their local times, their connections to the basic rhythms of the sun that had reigned in their lives time out of mind. They did so in obedience to the logic of—well, what shall we call it? Capital? Mammon? Avarice? In any case, if we take Stern at face value, it would appear that our political rulers are not merely our government but the more subtle, diffuse kind of empire imposed by the market.


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