Time is winding down on our course, and it keeps popping up in our reading selections. Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment invites personal reflection on one’s own meaningful relation to past, present, and future, raises the subject this time, and Sartre (remember Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion and their excellent adventure?) chimes in with his claim that since “existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.” Time is nothing, we are nothing, until we act and choose. But when we do, we create something we can’t run away from. Scary, and– as previously noted (“renunciation“)– not so happy. Recall, too, his distinctively French- intellectual disdain for the distinctively American “myth of happiness” and Americanism generally. Robert Solomon says Sartre said he never had a real moment of despair in his life. Huh. It was all affected, then. Sounds like “bad faith,” doesn’t it? But “Jean-Paul Sartre is currently dead,” authentically an object without possibilities. So let him be.
We’ve noted the views of at least two Taylors, Richard and James, and of Philip Zimbardo. Is time even real? Well, aging feels real enough. When time passes slowly it feels oppressively real, and when it “flows” it feels unbearably light. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” said Thoreau. Meaning?
Meaning, I suppose, that we experience time as a condition of meaningful, happy-making activity. So it’s as real as happiness, happiness is as real as time, and both are real-as-experienced. We need time to unfold our projects, construct our relationships, and enjoy our lives. When we succeed, we experience them and it together as a subjective unity that closes the loop on each episode of expectation. A closed loop is a moment in time– which may or may not correspond to a conventional moment as measured by our clocks and calendars– that represents fulfillment or (in Dewey‘s language of everyday aesthetic experience, and in Nietzsche’s of self-overcoming, in the clip below) consummation. Enough moments like that will make some of us describe ourselves as happy, whether or not Aristotle would approve.
For Dewey, btw, the thing about time is not that it’s not really real, but that it’s not just yours and mine: it’s ours. It’s the stream humanity goes a-fishing in. We still have our consummations as individuals, but our largest meanings embrace the “continuous human community.” When we affirm our place in that pan-temporal community, our inescapably-subjective relation to time trades the worst vestiges of misanthropic narcissism for the more sympathetic angels of our nature: social solidarity and species identity. My time then is your time, and our kids’ time, and theirs, and… and aren’t we glad we had this time together?
Does it help, though, to live now and into the always-cresting now of what was the future just a moment ago, to excise big chunks of the past? Nietzsche (among many others) said happiness requires living in the now. How forgetful must we be, to accomplish that? Must we aspire to the “blissful blindness” of childhood, the animal (“dog-like”) spontaneity of the Cynic, (IEP) or the aphasia of the amnesiac?
“Forgetting is essential to action” and for “the life of everything organic.” That seems right, we accumulate too much informational dross every hour of every day for our finite minds to absorb. We can be “healthful, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.”
But then he gives us “eternal recurrence,” the “greatest weight.” The horizon, fixed decisively to the shores of this world, seems suddenly, paradoxically infinite and dizzying. And liberating? “Be calm.”