The old year is in its final hours. I’m making myself comfortable in my lounge chair, and the mental gears begin to grind almost automatically. Maybe it’s the force of habit: grandparents and parents also used the waning hours of the year to recline and think. It’s a different kind of thinking than at other times of the year. The times are a-changing. The old year ends, and a new one begins.
What is so special about contemplating and comparing the passing of one thing with the rise of another? To feel the totality of transition and to be able to put it into words, we need an understanding of the concept of time. A concept that transcends the mechanistic counting of passing hours. Measuring the passage of time doesn’t by itself imply much: it does not lead to conclusions about myself or about the person for whom time passes.
Philosophically speaking, time became a topic of interest only fairly recently. Reflective thinkers contemplated the philosophy of history long after they had started to think about ontological questions, about the things that are. Today, we cannot imagine a discussion of what is without a discussion of time. The title of Martin Heidegger’s book “Being and Time” stands as a reminder of a key aspect of contemporary philosophy: ‘being’ and ‘time’ are inextricably linked in our understanding of reality.
One of the first philosophers of history was the Greek thinker Herodotus. I first encountered his travel writings when I studied Ancient Greek. Many years have passed since then (to use another metric of time). Later, when I studied philosophy, we learned that Hebrew culture embraced a cyclical understanding of time. Linear time only rose to prominence with the advent of Christianity: it propagated a salvation history with a clear beginning and end. Today, we colloquially speak of the “history of our life” and mean the sum of all days that we have experienced, the totality of our experiences, and the number of people we have come to cherish.
It’s a peculiarity of our human existence that we try to distill a sense of purpose from the trickle of passing days. Time elapses for other creatures, too, but they lack the consciousness of time that is a uniquely human quality. Our sense of purpose is the mainspring behind our actions. It keeps our lives together. It is the aim and source of our actions.
For the German poet Friedrich Schiller, the purpose of life was joy. In his “Ode to Joy,” he writes: “May he who has had the fortune / To gain a true friend / And he who has won a noble wife / Join in our jubilation!” I once studied the reception of Schiller’s poem during a high school project (long ago as well, around 1995), so allow me to add a little side-note: Schiller intended to speak of “freedom” rather than “joy” (Freiheit instead of Freude in the German original). For the purpose of this discussion, it’s irrelevant which word you prefer: both terms hint at our desire to simplify: we like to believe that a purpose can be reduced to a single origin and to the truth contained in a single word.
In our constant quest for purpose, we are inclined the believe that all things are reducible to one principle. Johann Goethe’s “Doctor Faustus” rings as true today as it will in a hundred years: “That I may understand whatever / Binds the world’s innermost core together, / See all its workings, and its seeds.” But is that really how the search for first principles unfolds? Usually not. But there’s indeed a reason why the last day of the year lends itself to such contemplative thought:
The turn of the year is a kairos, a moment when the passing year (commonly understood as the last 365 days) and the coming year (the next 365 days) are felt and seen as one. It doesn’t matter whether our dominant cultural understanding of time is cyclical or linear. When the year turns, we experience a moment in which waning and waxing years blend together into a single experience. The standard unit of our life – the passing of time – is laid bare before us: what are you doing?
That’s why the turn of the year is the right moment for resolutions. The assertion that similar resolutions could be made at any other point of the year as well misses the uniqueness of the final hours of the year: at a different time, it wouldn’t make as much sense.
Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Hitler’s long shadow