History is the study of past events. However, the relations between past, present, and future were and are opened for interpretations. Those interpretations are based mainly on what the time is – is it cyclic or linear. Let us look briefly into this fundamental distinction.
Is there Orderliness in Time?
We perceive time through happened or happening events. Our perception is that time is moving from one moment to another. If we abstract such moments from events that occurred at those moments, we could say that time has a direction – from one moment to another. It is moving from moment N+1 to moment N+2 to moment N+3, and so on. In a sense, we could say that this non-eventful time is linear; it moves along the line with posts marked as past, present, and future.
However, non-eventful time is not what most people feel, think, write and talk about. People relate past, present, and future to eventful times. You should be careful as, sometimes, in articles, concepts of non-eventful time and eventful time are mixed up.
If we add events to the time concept, then the number of possible interpretations grows significantly.
The first question is whether there is any order or pattern in those events. We would like to see some orderliness in what happened and happens. It is not easy, and, quite often, we see events as a chaotic mess. Let’s put this chaotic interpretation aside and turn our attention to the eventful time, which has patterns, at least from our viewpoint.
Put Details Aside
People saw many events in nature and generalized what they saw from very ancient times. For example, they saw four seasons of the year. In the summer, they knew that there was spring in the past; there would be autumn, winter, and then, again, spring in the future.
Next winter could be much colder or warmer than some previous ones. However, if you omit those important details, you will have the same events – spring, summer, autumn, and winter – sequentially but with a repeating pattern. You could interpret those events as a linear time moving from past to present and future points on the timeline.
Or you could interpret it as a cyclic time when in the future, you will repeatedly return to what happened in the past.
Many cultures have a mixed view of time, using both concepts, linear time and cyclic time. However, one of those concepts, linear time or cyclic time, dominates.
Why Cyclic Time?
Change of seasons, day and night, birth and death, good and bad times, phases of the moon – those are just a few examples of cycles in nature. Throughout millions of years, humans saw a cyclical order in what happened around them. Visibility to humans, duration of cycles, applicability to individuals, societies, or whole humankind – those parameters were different. Yet, the impact of those cycles in nature on humans is huge.
During almost all of its history, most of the humankind believed that time was cyclic. That belief has enormous implications. On the one hand, whatever you or society or nature do – it is just Sisyphean labor. With details aside, whatever was or will change – will be erased in the next cycle. On the other hand, there is some stability and peace of mind because we know the future – as we saw it in the past.
Many eastern societies still believe that time and history are cyclical. Such a belief ensures that one of the main societal concerns is providing and keeping stability and not advancing changes.
Linear Time – Gift from Jews
Jews granted many gifts to humankind. One of the underappreciated gifts is a linear time viewpoint.
The massive shift towards a linear model began with Judaism. When did Jews transition from paganism to monotheistic Judaism happen? There is no agreed-upon date among researchers. However, “it seems likely that by the time of the Second Temple, 6th century BCE – 1st century CE, much of the Torah existed in very much the form we know today.”
If you look up “The Creation” (Chapter 1 in Genesis) in Torah, you will see that different phases of creation were done sequentially, day by day. There is no cycle here; there is no re-creation. The time is linear here. The linear history is dominant in Torah and Judaism, and, respectfully, in Bible and Christianity.
Initially, the small Jewish population accepted the concept of linear time. With Christianity’s advances to Europe, in the first centuries of a new era, the acceptance of linear time notion started to spread out across Europe. Pretty soon, it became one of the cornerstones of Western culture. For many centuries, until recent times, Western culture was associated with Europe.
If time is mostly linear and not cyclical, then what people and societies do matters. Not all changes done would be erased in the next time cycle. Those changes could be preserved and carried out to next generations directly, or as history lessons. The activity of people and humankind as a whole is not Sisyphean labor anymore.
Make no mistake – many people do not think about “concepts,” “viewpoints,” “meaning of time,” etc. But society as a whole does. And societal viewpoints, traditions, and preferences were embedded into people’s behavior and habits at the time.
The massive shift from cyclical time viewpoint to linear time viewpoint happened first in Europe. It was a gradual process during the first several centuries AD. Yet the cyclical time concept was, and, in many cultures still is, prevailing in the East, even after the linear concept of time conquered the West.
People were not sitting idle and were creative from time immemorial. Even societal belief that time is the endless wheel was not able to wipe out creativity from humans.
Yet the concept that the future could be better than the present and the past, the understanding that changes could be sustainable, the notion that your efforts could be rewarded over time – that notion created a revolutionary stimulus for people’s actions.
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