Taking Stock of Time

New Year’s is a time when many people, enchanted by the vision of a fresh start, think about time. For those of us habituated to the academic calendar, it can feel more like the hump of the year.

I was reminded of its charm, though, in a call last week with a client. He was planning his year and stressed that he had to block at least eight uninterrupted days every month (first he said every week!) to devote himself to his writing.

Of course, to be able to preserve eight continuous days from interruption is a great luxury. As a colleague once said to me, “The benefit of money is that it buys you time.” Like any purchase, this one depends on the consumer’s wisdom. Some of the wealthiest people I know have lives as harried as gig workers in an Amazon warehouse during the holidays. Others feel oppressed by the seemingly endless choices their time and money afford.

The relation between time and money runs deep, deeper even than the exchange of one for the other. Our language reflects it: We save and spend time. We track it, invest it, allocate it. Much of the time we waste it.

In contrast, to my saying I didn’t “have” the time for something, a friend once replied, “You don’t have time; you make it.” Was she advocating temporal inflation, “unsound” time? I think she meant that our time is not absolute, but relative to our priorities, which in turn point to activities. Time is a sort of fiat currency—nothing in itself, but deriving meaning from our choices.

No doubt such a view of time makes perfect sense to people in their mid-20s, when time seems an inexhaustible resource. Still, there is something to the claim that time is nothing in itself. Aristotle, for example, argues cogently that time is “the measure of motion.” It is not a substance, nor even a way of being of substances, but a measure of their activity. Our motion, our “being-at-work” determines our time. This is why time flies when we’re having fun.

The same principle—that the activity determines the time—applies beyond the moment. As mentioned, my sense of time is shaped by my academic experience. Though I haven’t taught full-time in nearly 20 years, every year for me still falls into three main parts: Fall Semester, followed by a brief and harried break; Spring Semester; and The Summer, whose advent glows with the cheering light of hope and whose close is marked both by shine (looking ahead to the new “year”) and gloom overcast (disappointment at not having read all the books I meant to).

Indeed, the whole of life can seem a procession from grammar school, to high school, college, graduate school, teaching, advanced research, and eventually footnote status.1 Such are my seven ages of man, not as colorful or as varied as Jaques’, though what can one expect when all the world’s a classroom?

To return to my clients and the task of living well with financial wealth, many of them gravitate to a more contemporary version of life’s trajectory, in Erik and Joan Erikson’s eight (or nine) stages of development, each marked by its characteristic crisis (or “hang-up”) and that crisis’ resolution, ranging from Trust vs. Mistrust to Integrity vs. Despair. It is striking that this psychosocial account of development continues to … develop over time. Does it reflect the truth of our human nature or the conventions of our place and time?

Human life is a motion, rarely a straight line, perhaps more truthfully a spiral. It has its measure, time. One of the most curious features of Aristotle’s account of time is that measurement, naturally, implies a measurer. No measuring mind, no time. Could dinosaurs count? It seems unlikely. They ran out of time without ever having any. This is an insight worked into many fine science-fiction stories, from H.G. Wells’ vision of the far future in The Time Machine—with its dying sun and earth covered by lumbering crustaceans—to Arthur C. Clarke’s quirky tale “Time’s Arrow”—in which a physicist and paleontologist displace themselves 60 million years into the past, only to become the prey of a T. Rex. Knowledge, science, including time’s measurement, is our pride and our poison. Such is the crisis of our time.

In response, I find solace in the elegy of the 7th century (BC) Greek poet Semonides (in my own inelegant translation):

The single most beautiful thing the man from Chios sings:

“As are the generations of leaves, so also of men.”

Yet few mortals, taking it into their ears

Set it down in their breasts. For each man has hope,

Which takes root even in children’s breasts.

So long as any mortal possesses the beloved bloom of youth,

With a light heart his mind turns to many—infinite things!

For he expects neither to grow old nor to die,

Nor even, when he’s healthy, does he think of sickness.

Fools, whose mind lies in this way, and who do not know

How brief is the time of mortals’ youth and life.

But you, having learned this, accept life’s limit,

Enjoying, in your soul, the good things.


1 I owe the insight into the final stage of scholarly life to National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood.


Image: Jon Tyson, Public Domain

Keith Whitaker

Keith Whitaker, Ph.D., is a Founding Associate at Wise Counsel Research Associates. He also serves as Chair of the Board of the National Association of Scholars.

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