Society

A.C Grayling: The Philosophy of Time

A Journey in Morality & Mortality

Photograph by Henry Bourne

As the twenty-first century unfolds, so does the realisation that we have less time than ever to stand and stare. How can, and should, our society and economy best use its time? It’s to this question that Vanity Fair and UNLIMITED have turned their attention, presenting five individuals each thinking blue-sky about time, and what it means for them. In the first of the series, the philosopher A.C. Grayling tackles time on a conceptual level and considers what some of the world’s greatest thinkers have had to say about the most precious commodity of all.


We do not know what time is, but we know a great deal about it. We know that it flies, that once lost it cannot be recovered, that we waste it prodigally, that it is more mighty than anything else in existence. We know how little of it we have, unlike the stars; they exist for billions of years, whereas we humans exist on average for less than a thousand months. And we sleep for three hundred of those months, and spend another three hundred—perhaps another six hundred—not fully awake to life. That, as Shakespeare said, is a “fearful meditation”.

But then again: for all that we think of time as mighty and inexorable, it might not even exist. That is the view of quite a few philosophers and scientists. If that is true, what is it we are experiencing as we suffer and rejoice, grow up then grow old, open our eyes fleetingly on the tumultuous panorama of the universe only to close them—forever? But then, what is that “ever”?

When our earliest ancestors began to take note of the world around them for speculative rather than merely practical reasons, one thing they are sure to have pondered is the phenomenon of time. It would have appeared to them in contradictory guises. On one hand, they would have seen it as cyclical, the rotation of the heavens and the rotation of the seasons repeating themselves regularly, suggesting that time circles back on itself, returning all nature to its starting points in a permanent, endless round.

for all that we think of time as mighty and inexorable, it might not even exist

But on the other hand, they would have noted that time is change: not everything returns to its beginnings, but continues to unfold in a single direction from past to future, as when trees grow taller, running streams wear away their banks, and people grow older and die, never to reappear. From this view time runs forward in a straight line with no reverse gear, and the cyclical appearance of nature has to be understand not as return to the same point, but as replacement of the old by the similar-seeming new.

St Augustine famously said, “If you ask me to meet you at a certain time, I have no problem; but if you ask me what time is, I do not know the answer.” His puzzlement rests on a thousand years of philosophical speculation before his own time. The giant figure of Parmenides looms behind Plato, arguing that there is no such thing as time, that time and change are illusions. Plato was both impressed and influenced by Parmenides, but did not agree with him on this point; he—and Isaac Newton long after him—thought of time as eternity, an infinite container inside which things happen, and which would exist even if nothing were happening.

Plato’s pupil Aristotle disagreed with him in his own turn. Anticipating Leibniz and Einstein, Aristotle held that time is relative—that is, is defined by conjunctions and separations between events. If there were no events, there would be no time; time is just the way we arrange and order events with respect to each other.

This last point illustrates a different aspect of the problem of time. John Locke was an empiricist who argued that all our concepts, including that of time, originate in experience. He noted that we all have our own subjective senses of time, and that they can be out of step with each other. You might be enjoying the movie whereas I am not, so time flies for you but drags for me. But in order to meet at the cinema in the first place we had to have an objective way of correlating our subjective times together, and this we achieved by using a clock to serve as an external or independent co-ordinating marker.

the more time one spends thinking about time, the more bewildering it becomes

Objective time thus defined is not, however, infinite time. To get this idea, said Locke, we have to extrapolate indefinitely forwards and backwards from our objectively-agreed clock time. Bishop Berkeley was quick to note that an indefinite extrapolation is not the same as infinite time—it is just an indefinite extrapolation—and anyway it is itself empirically unjustified since we cannot experience indefinite extrapolation, still less infinity. He concluded that the concept of infinite time is a trick we play on ourselves for convenience’s sake; there is only subjective time, he said, and the fact that subjective times differ from each other shows that actually there can be no such thing as time at all. Like Parmenides therefore, he held that time is an illusion.

Photograph by Henry Bourne

Look at the weirdness of our idea of time from another angle. According to Einstein’s theories, the faster you travel, the more slowly time passes. If you remain on earth and your friend flies off in a spacecraft at a significant percentage of the speed of light, your friend will be far younger than you upon returning to earth: the hands on the spacecraft clocks will have gone round much more slowly than the hands of your clock on earth. The difference could be decades. Imagine seeing off your friend when you are both aged twenty, then on the day of return you are forty and your friend just twenty-two! But that is what the empirically-tested Einstein theory tells us.

the time that most matters to us, however, is lived time

It gets even more complicated. Einstein’s mathematics teacher Hermann Minkowski showed that in order to make sense of the theory of relativity, we need to treat space and time as a single four-dimensional continuum, and an object as a thread stretching through the continuum. Imagine a square block of cheese with a worm eating its way through it. When you encounter an object you are seeing a head-on section of that thread. Hard as that might seem to grasp, it simplifies many theories in physics.

Watch AC Grayling’s interview filmed and directed by Kinvara Balfour, shot on iPhone 7 Plus

As all this shows, the more time one spends thinking about time, the more bewildering it becomes. The time that most matters to us, however, is lived time: the time of our lives, our actual experience, the time we have with those we care about, the time we have to realise our dreams. We experience the illusion of time very differently in these respects. When our children are very young we seem locked in an eternity of babies, toddlers, diapers—and suddenly one morning we wake to find they have grown and gone. We start out in young adulthood full of hope and ambition, and wake another morning to find that we have already missed opportunities and made compromises. There are times when we do not notice time’s hasty passing; often these are times of pleasure and achievement. And there are times when time hangs desperately heavy, even terribly, on our sad hearts—the times of loss and grief.

A beautiful Chinese poem from the ancient Book of Songs, which Confucius is alleged to have edited, says, “I wake, expecting to see the blossoms of spring; and find that the rains of autumn have begun.” With infinite poignancy this captures how it is to find oneself growing old, with so much of what one valued and desired already past and lost.

What is the answer to the inexorable march of days that swallows everything in its path, stealing away so much as it goes?

Well: the pessimistic option is to bewail the fact that we lose youth, opportunities and the fresh and lovely hopes that youthful ignorance showers so liberally upon us, these losses seemingly counterbalanced only by regrets. The optimistic option is to celebrate the larger vision, the patience, the acceptance and the leisure that age can confer. To do this one has to age wisely, along with Seneca, who wrote in Letter 12 to Lucilius, “Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper…Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights it contains.” Seneca was a Stoic, and Stoicism is one of the few philosophies of life that makes time’s inevitabilities bearable. It says that as regards what we cannot control, things such as earthquakes and ageing, we must encounter them with courage, but as regards things we can control, such as our desires and fears, we must cultivate self-mastery; for to live with courage and self-mastery is to live nobly.

There are other views, less patient than the Stoic, about how to cope with time’s unstoppability. One is to live fast, galloping ahead of time before it catches up. When Andrew Marvell heard time’s winged chariot drawing near, he urged his coy mistress “Rather at once our time devour/Than languish in his slow-chapped power” so that “though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” In the circumstances of love and passion, good advice; Seneca’s old age would be the happier for memories of making the sun run.

the aim is to use one’s time to live a life worth living

And that, perhaps, is the moral of how to manage time. What would make old age more wearisome than it need be, more regretful and colder, is to have wasted too much of one’s time in things not worth that time. That requires answering the question, What is worth my time? There are the generic answers: love, friendship, making a positive difference in a sphere of activity one cares about. But the individual content of these answers, and any others that are specific to one’s personal talents and interests, have to be very much one’s own. Obviously, the aim is to use one’s time to live a life worth living, and Socrates long ago said that whatever such a life is, it will be a considered life, a chosen life, for otherwise it will be a life lived according to other people’s choices and on other people’s time.

It was Solon, one of the sages of Greece, who in conversation with King Croesus of Lydia remarked that a human life is, on average, less than a thousand months long. His point was not just that there is too little time in life to waste time, but that it is never to late to stop wasting time. It can never be untimely to repeat this truth.

A. C. Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are The Good Book, Ideas That Matter, Liberty in the Age of Terror and To Set Prometheus Free.