From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").
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The future just isn’t what it used to be. Outside such places as Silicon Valley and the optimistic visions of certain tech magnates, humanity is much less oriented toward times yet to come, and less optimistic about our prospects in distant centuries than vintage science fiction novels such as Dune would suggest. The future seems unfriendly, potentially very dark, and not something meriting our sustained speculation. Much more urgent is our present condition in which humans have a limited opportunity to reverse or stem the damage we’ve done to the planet. The end of history we now see isn’t the cheery one Francis Fukuyama pronounced at the end of the Cold War three decades ago; it now very possibly means the end of us.
This gloomy Zeitgeist has propelled a great deal of recent writing on the subject of time, how we experience it, and how that experience has shifted through human history. Among the leading thinkers on these topics is the French historian François Hartog. In addition to his early works on Greek historiography, most notably Le miroir d’Hérodote (The Mirror of Herodotus), Hartog is well known to a wider historiographical audience for Régimes d’historicité (Regimes of Historicity). The thesis of that book was straightforward: that the history of historical thinking has moved through three phases or “regimes” that both guide and constrain humanity’s attitude to its past. Rejecting a traditional linear, progressive evolution from past to present to future, Hartog argued that following a long era in which the locus of authority lay in the past, a new Enlightenment temporality shifted its gaze to the future. In our own, contemporary era (perhaps originating with the pessimism evoked by two calamitous world wars and further accentuated by the prospect of human extinction in the Anthropocene), however, the present has become the hegemonic regime. As a species, we still glance at the future, but it is now through a foreboding mist of dread more than an aspirational cloud of hope.
As a species, we still glance at the future, but it is now through a foreboding mist of dread more than an aspirational cloud of hope.
Regimes has found an audience beyond a philosophical readership concerned with questions of historicity in the abstract: Hartog’s views are reflected in the recent writings of historians of the Anthropocene such as Dipesh Chakrabarty. The latter’s influence, in return, is evident in Hartog’s new book (in the preface the author cites Chakrabarty as his “guide to the Anthropocene”). Indeed, Chronos might be viewed as an extension of ideas first articulated in Regimes, but its scope is broader and its analysis more complicated. If Regimes was focused on historicity, taken both as the condition of existing within historical time and the shape of our representations of the past, Chronos, as its title suggests, is about time itself. Hartog invokes a strictly Western temporality, and while he is far too sophisticated to presume that what he has to say would apply universally, it’s disappointing that there is little attempt at comparison with, for instance, East Asian or classical Islamic perceptions of time.
For rhetorical effect, Chronos relies heavily on personification, especially that of three temporal characters who interact with each other throughout the book’s chapters: Chronos/Kronos itself, natural time as it proceeds in its experientially linear fashion; Kairos, the time of providence, of salvation and of what Hartog describes as “opportunity”; and Krisis, a medically-derived term that we commonly read as “turning point” or inflection, but which can also be seen as the time of “judgment”. Hartog anthropomorphises these three forms of time into something like a trio of Olympic wrestlers or Roman gladiators (his choice of metaphors includes “nets” and “pinions”); and their relations shift over the 2500-year span separating classical Greece from our contemporary world. This is a rather testosterone-infused metaphorical struggle – in contrast to Clio’s usual construction as a feminine muse. Might we have had a different book had it been built around a trio of feminine personalities such as the Three Graces?
A short introduction deals with Greek temporality, wherein Kronos (originally the Greek Titan who consumed his own children till he was deposed by one of them, Zeus) becomes Chronos, Time, the scythe-wielding consumer of all created matter, thus setting the stage for European meditations on the corrupting power of time for the next three millennia. The main body of Hartog’s book consists of six chapters and a conclusion, each built around a single stage in the Western sense of/attitude towards time, which is never just time but an unstable amalgam of Chronos, Kairos, and Krisis. The Greeks provided us with all three of these players, fashioning what Hartog describes as a net, a weaving of both ordinary measurable human time (Chronos) and its double, Kairos, which does not flow so much as it “opens on the instant, the unexpected, but also the opportunity to be seized, the crucial opening, the decisive moment”. At this point one may wonder what exactly is left for our third character, Krisis, to accomplish since Kairos appears to be doing quite well on its own at creating the ruptures and changes that transform the world. However, in Hartog’s sense, Krisis is less a crisis in our contemporary sense than an adjudication or resolution, the sense which Thucydides gave it in describing four decisive battles of the Persian Wars. Strangely absent, or perhaps hovering silently on the sidelines, is a further Greek character one might have expected here, Tyche – the chaotic force that Rome rendered as Fortuna and which we might simply call “chance” or plain luck, good or bad.
In Hartog’s sense, Krisis is less a crisis in our contemporary sense than an adjudication or resolution.
The first chapter focuses on “the Christian regime of historicity”, borrowing Hartog’s language of “regimes” from his earlier book, but here giving it a more explicit association with religion. That regime was itself enabled by a pre-Christian but undeniably kairotic literary moment, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek in the third century BC. Here Hartog further clarifies Kairos v Krisis: the former “indicates a rupture within continuity”, while the latter, Krisis, more sharply “cleaves”. Christianity embodies the hegemony of Kairos, along with the necessity to reorganize time typologically and prophetically, with earlier significant episodes and figures foreshadowing later ones: Adam and David for Jesus, Old Covenant for New, an ungodly profaner such as Antiochus IV for the coming Antichrist. From this triumph of Kairos emerges the sense of an ending in Apocalypse, its prime spokesmen being St John of Patmos and St Paul, and some of its more enthusiastic millenarian believers (so called because they believed either that Jesus would return for a thousand-year reign or, when that failed to occur, that the Messiah would return at the end of a thousand-year period). So convinced were early Christian writers of both the inevitability and the imminence of the end times once Jesus had concluded his initial stay, that little thought was given to either a secular future or any sense of positive change to be made on earth. And why would they, since the secret to decoding and anticipating that future lay precisely in the past and its analogical signposts? With the major inflection points now Christ’s Incarnation and his anticipated Second Coming, the consequence was to turn the time in between into a kind of permanent present – less a waiting room of history (in Chakrabarty’s very quotable phrase) than a monk’s cell of Eternity, though one quite different from that which now limits our own horizons of expectation.
From this focus on the present and the likelihood of what might be called “Apocalypse, Soon”, cutting off any genuine future, sprang other consequences, such as periodization: the division of the past into chunks: epochs, eras, ages, as a new “net” was woven (this time by Kairos and Krisis agonistically ganging up on Chronos), and a firm division of profane from sacred time. The literary manifestation of this is to be found in late antique and medieval chronology, beginning with Eusebius and Africanus, once again adapting a classical genre to new purpose. Hartog endorses Arnaldo Momigliano’s argument that unlike pagan chronology, Christian chronology constituted a philosophy of history (though Hartog prefers “theology” to “philosophy”, something of a distinction without a difference at that time). These ideas could be taken in different directions, for instance in Orosius’ unwelcome expansion of St Augustine’s sketch (in The City of God) of Earthly and Heavenly Cities into a full-scale universal history. In this sense, Kairos was at some risk of becoming entangled in its own net and perhaps even becoming Chronos as chronologers busily calculated such things as the precise day and year of the Crucifixion; but Kairos remained in control, imposing years anno domini on the calendar, and sacred days, culminating in Easter, to punctuate the cycle of the year. The rest of the Middle Ages, and the centuries right through the Reformation, all the way to Isaac Newton – who had a strong interest in biblical chronology among other matters we would not now regard as “scientific” – is something like an extended mud-wrestle between Chronos, “pinioned” by Kairos and Krisis.
Theologians and others employed various strategies to explain the continuation of earthly time, and the observable fact of changes in government, law, and custom.
During this period, theologians and others employed various strategies to explain the continuation of earthly time, and the observable fact of changes in government, law, and custom. The four strategies principally employed, as Hartog explains in chapter 3, were accomodatio, translatio, renovatio, and reformatio (accommodation, translation, renovation, and reformation) Accomodatio refers to the moments of direct intervention by God in human history in such moments as the giving of Mosaic law and the Incarnation. It’s a sort of theological “tuning”, to use a modern bureaucratic concept, in which God occasionally tweaks human behaviour to render it closer divine intent, for instance by eliminating animal sacrifice or the requirement for strict obedience to Mosaic law. God, the unchangeable, has license periodically to change things for us mortal creatures, His divine dispensations turning history into a kind of “grand melody”. In the twelfth century Joachim of Fiore would take accomodatio a step further by inserting the Trinity directly into Chronos as a three-part temporalized age of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the last of these containing a harbinger of futurity to come, albeit one in which that future remains principally an Apocalyptic one.
Renovatio was fulfilled in various moments of medieval ecclesiastical reform, and it proved too routine and unambitious for Renaissance humanists (who preferred to bracket the previous millennium as a desolate medium aevum and gaze longingly past it toward antiquity), and not nearly reformist enough to satisfy Luther and his adherents, for whom full reformatio was required. Translatio has nothing to do with languages: it refers to a durable if rather blunt historiographical mallet known as the “translation of empires” (that is, their transference) from the monarchies of remoter antiquity (usually Babylonian, Persian, and Greek) to the fourth and final empire, that of Rome and its medieval heirs. A scheme that originated in the Old Testament prophet Daniel, it was popular for centuries as a way of justifying the continuity of the power of Rome, well past the fall of the Western empire in the late fifth century CE, in the form of the Hohenstaufen and later Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, and their spiritual counterparts, the Popes. As a tool in historical propaganda, the “translation” was wielded perhaps most forcefully by the powerful bishop and imperial advisor Otto of Freising in the twelfth century, and it would retain its strength through the European Reformation.
Slippery Chronos, however, was about to wriggle free of its bonds. By the late seventeenth century, when the French bishop Bossuet authored his immensely popular and durable Discourse on Universal History, the Kairos/Krisis-ruled Christian temporality was under assault from early Enlightenment sceptical views such as those of Isaac la Peyrère (who theorized an earthly time, and people, preceding Adam) and the radical rationalist Baruch Spinoza. This recovery of Chronos was fully in play by the mid-eighteenth century – the start, not coincidentally, of what the late German intellectual historian Reinhart Koselleck famously defined as the Sattelzeit (literally, the “saddle period” from 1750 to 1850); Koselleck, a key influence on Hartog, features frequently in the second half of the book.
To thwart Chronos’ comeback, Kairos found new instruments in the occasional modern miracle (for instance Bernadette Soubirous’ 1858 encounters with the Virgin, immortalized in the book and film The Song of Bernadette) but it and Krisis were on the defensive henceforth. The work of the Enlightenment naturalist Georges-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon in the Epochs of Nature initiated a tradition of scientific naturalism that, to use Hartog’s phrase, “kicked in the biblical door” (we seem to have abandoned the wrestling ring here for something like a temporal drug raid). If Buffon wasn’t himself able to escape the magical grip of Augustine’s “perfect” number six, at least the six were now ages of the natural world, induced from empirical evidence, rather than the Creation-days of a divine Great Week. Condorcet would expand the epochs into ten in his mid-Revolutionary Sketches; with him we have officially arrived in the age of both Progress and Hartog’s second regime of historicity, with its optimistic orientation to a future now at least partly predictable, mathematical probability having displaced prophecy. After this, the varying nineteenth-century contributions of Darwin, Cuvier (a catastrophist) and Lyell (a uniformitarian believer in gradual, incremental change) seem almost a denouement – which of course is what one expects after a Krisis.
Krisis is not only secularized; it is also normalized as the liberal optimism of an age of routine disruption, even revolution.
Krisis, that somewhat neglected third child of the temporal trio, makes a reappearance here, as it abandons its link to judgment and reacquires its ancient medical connotation along with – this being the nineteenth century – a new economic sense, that of the commercial crisis. Krisis is thus not only secularized (and subordinated to the restored top dog, Chronos); it is also normalized as the liberal optimism of an age of routine disruption, even revolution. This validated the century’s fixation on political history and heroism, on acts that were rare and unusual (or otherwise not worth mentioning), but normal in the wider span of human history. Kairos, similarly, morphs into contingency and a sense, emergent from first the Franco-Prussian War (at least for the defeated French) and the First World War, of random meaninglessness. As Hartog observes in one of several Hegelian moments, this too encourages its own antithesis, a dialectic revolt against normal abnormality and against the fixation on violent contingency.
The hegemony of Chronos and the diminution of roles for both Kairos and Krisis, was accomplished during the nineteenth century. It set the stage, via two world wars, for our contemporary era of pessimism and widespread lack of confidence in progress. With this has come a preoccupation with the present and immediate rather akin to that of the early Christians – minus, however, the promise of ecstatic promotion to eternal life, and with apocalypse now bearing its current, more sinister sense. This post-1945 state of mind was foreshadowed by pre-war and wartime existentialist prose such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (Nausea) and Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (The Stranger). Despite a transitory return to optimistic Chronos-time in the immediate postwar era of Nuremberg justice and pax Americana, the spectres of Auschwitz and Hiroshima ultimately sealed the doom of progressivism. This occasioned what Hartog sees as “a new split within Chronos” (and in the atomic age, is it not appropriate that time itself is a fissionable substance?). As confidence in the future, the natural domain of post-Enlightenment Chronos, failed, “the present expanded, as though Chronos abhorred a vacuum.” This expansion of the present is overlaid with a sense of acceleration, already observed in the late nineteenth century by Henry Adams, but now a defining feature of late modernity, as noted by social theorists such as Hartmut Rosa. It would be interesting to test the perception of time moving faster against the weird suspension of normal life and activity that the world has just endured through three years of a pandemic. Did time continue to accelerate? Or did it simply stop while medical technology caught up to the virus, the peak death rates of early 2021 marking the return of Krisis?
Chronos is a relatively short but dense book, in the sense that one has to pay close attention or one will miss subtle shifts in the struggles of our wrestling temporal trio. On the whole, I found myself more in agreement than not with Hartog’s judgments and his overall argument. It helps that Hartog is a superbly gifted writer who wears his learning lightly and without recourse to jargon, and that translator S.R. Gilbert has served his author’s conversational style well in rendering it into eloquent English. That said, there is something a little too neat and tidy about this romp through twenty-five hundred years of the human sense of time. In places one has the sense of a magician dazzling us with impressive erudition, breathtaking insights, and delightful prose. There are very few rough edges, or places where Hartog’s thesis and supporting narrative run into exceptions or complications; in fact, “time” and again the author will head off a seeming contradiction and pull yet another rabbit out of his hat as one authority or past intellectual after another is selectively adduced to explain this or that shift or paradox.
There is something a little too neat and tidy about this romp through twenty-five hundred years of the human sense of time.
I don’t think I’m diminishing the significance of this brilliant book if I say that I was rather less convinced by its last third, which seems a bit rushed (postmodern acceleration again?) than by the early sections. And I was surprised to find only a casual mention of Einstein and none of his famous 1922 debate with Henri Bergson concerning the nature of time and human experience of its flow. But on the whole Hartog provides the reader with an enjoyable tour and a welcome synthesis of current thought on the human experience of temporality; it’s a good companion to such recent works as Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. This comes at a propitious moment: humanities scholars are preoccupied with philosophical issues of time and contemporaneity; and, more importantly, humanity is in a state of suspense through fears of extinction via pandemics, climatic meltdown and the returned threat, since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, of nuclear Holocaust. Perhaps in the end this timeliness is no more than Kairos enjoying a last laugh.
Chronos: The West Confronts Time by François Hartog is published by Columbia University Press.
Daniel Woolf is a Professor in the Department of History and Principal Emeritus of Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario. His research is focused on early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and on the global history and theory of historical writing. His latest book is A Concise History of History.
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.