On calendars and historical time

Calendars keep track of important events in our lives. In a sense historians do the same, but over a longer perspective, and only backwards into the past, rather than also looking forwards into the future as we do when we check our personal calendars. In Time and Narrative (vol.3, chapter 4, 104-109), Ricoeur reflects on the significance of the historians’ use of calendars. Time, in this context, which he terms historical time, is in his view, a bridge between our ordinary lived time and cosmic time.

The antecedents of calendars lie far back in the mists of time, in a primordial or a mythic time comprising the entirety of human existence and the world. In mythic time, through periodically occurring rituals, human beings gave meaning and order to their lives in relation to the rhythms of life they observed within and around them in the cosmos and the biological cycles.

In Ricoeur’s words, ordinary time, “the lived experience of active, suffering individuals was integrated into the time of the world outlined by the visible heavens” (p. 106). Thus calendar time with its universal structure makes it, according to Ricoeur, a socialized form of time bridging lived time and cosmic time. Here, he quotes Emile Benveniste who calls this “chronicle time” (fn. Le Langage et l’expérience humaine (1965).*

All calendars start from a founding event in human history, such as the birth of a religious leader or the beginning of a king’s reign. And, from this, all other events are dated, directed forwards or backwards in the calendar. Finally, calendars also take into account measurable cosmic features, such as the movements of the sun, moon and the seasons.

Yet, a calendar is far more than mere physics and astronomy. According to Ricoeur, the smallest common denominator: the instant, or the “present moment” (p. 107) is something we recognize and experience as human beings, i.e. it is phenomenological. Hence, the concepts of yesterday, today and tomorrow which hold meaning for us. Our ability to situate events in time requires us to actively pinpoint the present, the now (pp. 108 -109). Similarly with our measuring of time as near or far away.

We have the capacity to situate events that lie greatly distant from us in terms of time and space. An incident like the storming of the Bastille in 1789, symbolizing the French Revolution, a huge event in terms of history, enables us to define other lesser events in relation to it. Similarly, we define our lives from moments of history, such as where we were when we heard about the assassination of John Kennedy or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thus, the calendar by chronicling time, which belongs to both lived time and physical cosmic time, stands outside the latter two, and, at the same time, mediates between them, and thereby, according to Ricoeur, brings narrative time into the world (p.109).

*See his footnotes in pages 299-300 for the other sources he uses in this connection.

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