Time and Cultures


„I don‘t have time“- one of the most frequent excuses one can hear. Almost everybody in this modern world is plagued by the fixed idea of not having time. From the point of view of physics this is obviously nonsensical: Time is a quantity independent on our own selves and nobody of us can affect it. We, of course, live in the time and we subject to it and the change thereof, it forms a part of our natural environment. We cannot bring about a day without morning, or with two evenings.

What is then behind this need and call for „more time“, which represents a real trouble for many people? We will have to see into this question in detail. As the first foothold can serve us, how would a normal individual react to our objection concerning the physical irrelevance of the question: Of course I have time, some time, but I don’t have time for this and that, for the things I should/would like to do, I don’t have time to devote myself to this and that, to these and those. Can’t you understand it? – Well, the complaint of shortage of time does not aim at such point, as somebody would not be able to experience or feel the passing of time, or would be deprived of rhythms and habits constituting it (which can happen for instance to people in polar regions, or kept somewhere under unnatural conditions – imprisoned in dungeons, on a space station etc.), but it is aimed at a much higher level: towards our ambition to handle time, to dispose of it,

The man of our era has grown a lot and outgrown the natural man of ancient prehistoric and historical periods. He wants to rule a lot of that which the man of previous periods would have humbly accepted as simply given. No wonder then, that he wants also to dispose of time, of his very private time, the time of his life and that he wants to use it just to purposes set by himself. We call that planning, but all planning is a rather precarious activity. Even if we accept the assumption that the time flows in an even, objective and secured manner and that we may be sure eg. about that from 15 to 15.30 there will elapse just half an hour and that its final moment really comes, still is our planning curtailed by two things: First, the past cannot be accessed by any planning. We simply cannot place any of our appointments in the past. May we spent our time in whatever manner, a pleasant or unpleasant one, may we used it well or wasted it and may we wish hundredfold it had pass in another way, we still cannot change anything.

And how is it with the future? This is something we have at our disposal, don’t we? Well, not entirely. We can form ideas of the future, which we fill with various matters, and we may subsequently try to implement them. Doubtless, our own will and striving to carry out, what we have resolved to do, co-determine the face of the future. But not wholly and perfectly.

What would thus mean the statement „I don‘t have time“ if seen in the just outlined perspective? Nothing more or less than my prospects do not grant me enough freedom to make use of time at my own disposal, that I cannot „manage“ or „handle“ my own time as I would like to. Where is the problem then? Just in the modes of „handling“, or even „manipulating“ applied to time. I am cross and discontent, because i am not able to push through my will against the time. Well, why not to try to do it vice versa? What if I tried to tune in and perceive what the time requires of me? I could then perhaps make even a small bargain with it by which it would yield and allow me reciprocally to do what I just needed or wanted, it could let me realise some of my intentions.



All the above meditation was called to life by the experience of a linguist. A question arose once in me how our statement „I don‘t have time“ would be translated into ancient languages, finding that for instance into Latin it would be very difficult. A true Roman would perhaps have never uttered this statement, although it is possible both from the grammatical and the lexical point of view. Perhaps only if pressed by acute need of haste, e.g. in a battle; but even then he would perhaps rather speak about „shortage“ of time. He would have never used it as an excuse from a banquet. In such cases he would have probably said negotium or officium mihi est, – I have a duty or business of mine, by which he would have meant commitments issuing out of his state or rank , or public function. That is to say, he would hardly have had other duties, since still much ahead are the times, where an individual can simultaneously play various roles in the society, being once the lord, once the beggar, once the sage, once the pupil (imagine a teacher receiving a letter of his/her own children’s form master). There is still no notion of that in these times: a man simply is something and he is it wholly and purely – be it morning or evening. And for so transparently clearly defined mind or ego there can be only two options how to treat his time – either to prefer duty to pastime or vice versa; a more complex choice is hardly to be imagined for him.

In the free Greek society, however preceding the Roman one, the picture would have been probably a bit more colourful. A free and wealthy Greek citizen is practically subdued to no must; he can even (bearing some mark of shame) avoid the military commitment. He may devote himself either to public activity, or to one or more arts, which are a broad range of private activity, reaching from navigation to poetry or from music to medicine, so there can hardly be any conflict of roles, for all these „roles“ are purely functions of their bearer and his very self, who is completely free to practice them or not (which applies often even to public functions). A Greek who is either not free or poor is, however, bound by his own state as well as the Roman aristocrat or any other poor man from times out of memory until nowadays.

Concerning the future, neither the Greek nor the Roman would make any big plans; they may have certain purposes or aims, but they know, that they might not by far be able to realise them. If they make notice of them to someone, e.g. in a letter, they never forget to add si deis placuerit – if it pleases the gods. The future is generally insecure – we should perhaps realise that we are in times when even a simple business trip can be marred or at least delayed for weeks or month by adverse winds or a gale. A vigorous, active Roman would then be likely o follow the rule carpe diem; i.e. use what the day offers to you.



This common Greek and Roman view of the world as en enormous unified „today“ has a deep cultural significance, being interconnected with the perception of the divine existence. Both Greeks and Romans share one supreme God : It is Djēus/Zeus, who isn’t anybody else than the God of Day, the God Day, the sky, which extends over the whole world and unifies it, changing it into one meaningful sunlit whole – the day , in Latin diēs. And this God’s claim to be the unifying principle for the whole inhabited world (Greek oikúmené) is clear and simple enough to enable once swift and definite spreading of the Greek culture and Roman rule over the whole sub-tropical part of the northern hemisphere as far as to India.

There were, however, cultures, even in antiquity, that would not so simply comply with this model. It is partially true of the Egyptian culture, which however „protrudes“ to antiquity from the previous cultural era and so it wouldn’t be sane to expect its entire identification with the ideal of the following era, but even more this holds true for a cultural type that was for the future development of Europe as significant as the Antique, the Jewish culture. Time and its flowing plays in both these cultures much more significant role than in Greek and/or Roman culture.[1] Even the simplest Egyptian cares a lot about the fate of his soul after death, but he seldom awaits any change in the structure of society – there everything should go its ways, according to the law of cyclical regeneration. By the Jews it is very different: Anticipation of change, or of at least one, eschatological Big Change, becomes so motivation and stimulus for the life of whole Israel. Of course there is a starting point: the calling of Abraham or the Exodus from Egypt. But even the character of these changes is interesting: They both men leaving something. To leave something, to go away, somewhere to the middle of nowhere is totally different from let’s say establishing a city, which will often be starting point for other cultures. And no matter that the peregrination of the Jewish nation came one day to its end and even they were allowed to enjoy the benefits of a country of their own (but the country was nothing more than a narrow strip of land between the desert and the sea), the development goes on. The promise made to their mythical forefather Abraham („I shall make you a mighty folk“) may have been fulfilled, but even so the Jews knew that that is not the end of their mission. Prophets came and updated God’s message to Israel. One day even this nation would lose their small country, first just for a time, then forever. And the voice of prophets now updates the news again and it concretes itself and thickens to the form of expectation, waiting for somebody, the God’s Anointed one, who will do great things with Israel. And not only with them; all nations will come to Sion and hearken to his words…



Such a comparison of Rome and Israel may be useful for us, because we have two extremes here. Rome is besides China perhaps the largest empire the world has ever seen (the Spanish colonial domain cannot be called an empire, which would mean it was a fully organised state), but it is a realm living merely out of present, just for today, through the favour of it – through the favour of gods. Today, yes, today the emperor can rule distant provinces and induce there Roman law and the Roman solar culture, but Roman sun will sink one day and then, what will come then? Will there be anything at all?

That is not, mind you, just a theoretical question. It was an intensive, even existential sorrow, which plagued many citizens of the empire labouring around 400 A.D. towards its end. Augustine, tormented by the vision of downfall of Rome, wrote his largest work Of the city of God. Antique Rome, living out of the grace of gods, was not able to pass this test. It had to end its cultural mission and pass it to that which was coming, to Christendom.

Israel was for the most part of its existence bereft of any form of state and when it had one, it was the small, merely symbolic strip of Mediterranean coastline. But it scheduled its mission for thousands of years. Its task was not to impress its image to the contemporary world, but perhaps to shape the time itself.

Christians, the heirs of both cultures were scared by it, so they invented the character of the „Undying Jew“, who could not die, because he had blasphemed to the incarnated Messiah, and it had materialised itself within the time. This is probably a misunderstanding. The duty to be a guardian of time is both blessing and curse.

There cannot be however more differing assignments then those by which were Rome and Israel endowed by the geniuses of development of world. Therefore they can be exemplary for two types of cultures: one oriented at present with an effect of constructing of a great empire; solar deities, or generally „heavens“ (scil. in China) are frequently esteemed in cultures of such a type and as examples of these can be named the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great’s realm, the Inca Empire, or – why not – the United States of America. The latter case, much less frequent, forms cultures and nations, who practically do not build a state or even realm (Ancient Egypt is an exceptional case, nonetheless its „realm“ was quite peculiar – a valley of one – however big – river), but they mighty cultural streaming flows through many eras. They are the „esoteric“ nations, who comprise together with the Jews for example the Celts and the Armenians. The Swiss can be also added to them from Europe and perhaps some of the American and Pacific Oceanian cultures.


But how can these -maybe interesting- considerations help us in organising our time relations, which was the initial motive of it. That seems difficult because from most of these ancient cultures we are divided by a chasm of time and the whole cultural period of the Middle Ages. That’s why we must mention also it.

The Christians did not entirely adopt either of the aforesaid great intuitive concepts: They did not cherish the idea of an unlimited space, or at least one unifying the whole earth, illuminated and unified by splendour of a certain God, nor did they imagine an unlimited timeline, which would always give opportunities to a surprising changeover, or a sudden God’s ruling and guarantee thus possibility for an unending and unrestricted progression, although the latter they might have perceived as nearer to their stance. But Christendom was determined and delimited since the very first centuries of its existence by its theology of incarnation, i.e. by its strong belief in a singular, never repeating event of the incarnation of God, which must thus mean an immediate God’s intervention into the history of mankind. This impulse was initially that strong, that it had evoked a feeling in its proponents that the world together with its history had arrived at their end and that only little remained to their inevitable full completion. And although they had later somewhat altered their expectations, still they remembered the words from the Acts of Apostles: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) Before Christendom was thus set a deadline: From one Messiah’s arrival to the other. How long would this deadline exactly be, was not known, but surely it would not be very long: "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)

Given such set of preconditions, it surely lacks of sense to try building any secular empire. All empires of the world exist only due to God’s permission and only for a limited period – as one may see in the Daniel’s Prophecy (Dan 2,29ff.), which was read by the Christians with delight. And the downfall of Rome was to them a sign and tangible evidence of veracity of this prophecy. So what does make sense doing during this short preset time? Just one thing – to mind the improvement and edification, or salvation of one’s own immortal soul. That is also Augustine’s voice, who does not want to know anything but God and his own soul. But in this way even such an internally bound and limited view of reality turns to promoting the responsibility of the individual.

However, once the soul has stood before God in its individuality, an immense claim of surpassing its own self has been laid on it. An absolute God cannot do otherwise than to require absolute perfection. Gods had once governed nations via their rulers, who had been responsible for their people before them. But now a unique God shall rule the human soul and it is in throngs of its smallness and deficiency. How much time do I still have to be able to adorn my soul? So the issue of individually measured time and the shortage thereof comes forth. Tempus fugit and this quickest one of all immobile embassies of eternity first takes shape of Saturn, then of the Death with its scythe. And man experiences for the first time the sense of brevity of time, his or her private, individual time, whose amount may not suffice to fulfil his or her task(s) by which he or she was endowed by God and whose accomplishment is required by Him.


The great merit of the reformation is that it pointed out how fallacious such a notion of an absolute God was. You needn’t tremble from fear that you might not accomplish your duty and God will damn you; it is God himself who cares for your salvation. The great merit of the renaissance is that it had given back to Europe that measureless sun of the ancient days. But it was given back to another man. The man of early modernity began already, also due to the variety of new spiritual and intellectual streamings, open his eyes to the broad choice of opportunities which lay in front of him. He was equally a man much more conscious of his own self, of his responsibility and his personal commitment towards God. Man who had to a certain degree taken over the responsibility for his own progress. God does not any more stand before the man saying: „Do this and leave this.“ He has removed himself, stepped back, and now it is the man, whose responsibility is to carry out the commitments of his own life. But since the man has not ceased to be His image, he has tendency to set himself tasks and goals a little higher than he is able to master. What a tedious task! And how painfully do we experience by it our inability. How awkward is it to be your own arbiter and manager! There is no attorney, no intercessor who would place himself between our bad conscience and us in the role of the justice. This and this you should have managed to do in the time measured up to you and you haven’t. And God stands calmly aloof, not intervening, for the man himself is called up and authorised to governed his own affairs.

Will this never change to better? Are we going to perish under the strict judgment of our consciousness? Will we definitely drop of rush stricken to death? No – just let’s look around. There is another gift that has been the modern man given by its era: far better and meticulous perception of the world around us, for the space, and, of course, for the time, too. For instance we can measure the time now far better than in the middle ages, moreover, we can even rule it a bit: if we want to alter the natural division of the day to morning – noon – evening – night, we can do it / to a certain extent, for example to switch on a light. Humans also have been able to adapt to various life rhythms, often even to very complicated ones, as irregular shifts on the railroad drivers are. But still a devil’s hoof lingers there: we have got used too much to treat time as material. And it was just the time, which was left us by God as a silent watcher of our doings. If we let it speak we may hear from it exactly what we need to hear so urgently: : „Do this and leave this aside, its time may come later.“ Why don’t we have more trust in time? Why not to hearken to its whispers? We will not have „more time“ on that account surely, but mayhap the agony, the cry for „more time“ will lose its sharpness or its complete meaning, because we well learn to give to the time as well as to receive from it.

English version completed on 08/02/19

From the Book of Ecclesiastes

3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil?
10 I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.


[1] In all cultures of the world, an idea of a cyclically repeating time, of time/rhythm, which governs the rhythmical perennial course of natural processes (sowing and harvesting, rainy and dry periods, light and darkness, famine and abundance) – or is governed by them was originally developed in the archaic stages of their development and some of these concepts can be traced even at later stages. Why, even we, now share in our congregations a kind of „liturgical calendar“ and the profane time has also its rituals. The question is, where have these original common ideas shifted in particular cultures