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The tyranny of time (The Independent)

Stop all the clocks: Julian Baggini on the tyranny of time

The clock is ticking – 2006 is history and a new year has begun. Today we’ll take stock, make resolutions and start planning the next 12 months. But why do we treat 1st January as such a milestone in our lives? After all, it’s just another day, isn’t it? The philosopher Julian Baggini explains the human obsession with the passage of time.

Published: 01 January 2007 in The Independent

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Perhaps the most profound thinker on the importance of time to human existence was the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who remarked that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. His thinking went far beyond such pithy, poignant aphorisms, however. It took Kant to point out the centrality of time for human experience, but it took Kierkegaard to point out the contradictions at the heart of temporal existence.


On the one hand, human beings belong in what he [Kierkegaard] called the aesthetic sphere. This has nothing to do with art or taste, but the way in which we are tied to the moment. The time is always now, never a minute ago or an hour in the future. We cannot escape the moment, which is why many have argued that the only way to live is to seize it. Yet Kierkegaard thought that the philosophy of carpe diem was self-defeating. You cannot seize something that is forever on the move. For the person who lives only for the instant, every new day, minute or second is a clean slate, and what has happened in the past counts for nothing. The aesthete is forever trying to drink from the font of life using a sieve.

Living in the moment doesn’t work because, Kierkegaard argued, we are not only aesthetic creatures but ethical ones. Again the terminology is misleading, for the fundamental feature of the ethical sphere of existence is not that it introduces morality (though it does) but that it transcends the moment. While it is true in one sense that we are wedded to the present, it is also true that we are creatures with pasts and futures. That we have memories, make plans and promises, take on projects and have commitments is central to our humanity. A person who does none of these things is not a free spirit but barely human at all.


The challenge we face as individuals trying to live our finite lives is to locate the present properly in relation to the future and the past, in such a way as to do justice to all three. We need to understand the past in order to move forwards in the future, personally and politically. We also need to have a sense of future to make the present more than just a series of fleeting experiences – though those too have a place in well-rounded human life.

But, in addition to the mere present, we need projects, ambitions, dreams, as well as an awareness of the consequences of our actions. At the same time, we cannot be too fixated on either the future or the past, or else we lose the present. And since all moments past and future are experienced primarily as the present, if we lose that, we lose everything.


To make peace with time we need to accept what we cannot change about it. It is finite. We experience it in one direction only, always in the present but never totally disconnected from the past or future for more than fleeting moments. We make the most of it not by railing against these immutable facts but by living appropriately to them, and to our individual natures. Above all, we need to accept that the very thing that enables us to experience anything at all is that time constantly moves on, and so to complain that time is slipping away is to protest against the very thing that makes any kind of worthwhile existence possible in the first place.

We should therefore embrace the new year, accepting that it too will pass and this is the necessary consequence of life moving forwards as it should and must do. To say we must seize the day is only one-third of the truth: we must also seize the past and future, too.

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Happy New Year!

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