The hours of folly

The word, “untenable,” is not frequently used. Perhaps it is too philosophical for an age that is as unphilosophical as it is irreligious. Which is to say, our age of “science,” undermined by scientism, and mediated by a “logic” that is demonstrably insane. We lack the ability to abandon ideas that are untenable — that do not lead anywhere, because founded on premisses that are liquid, and drift. One may float or sink upon them, but they can lead us neither to wisdom, nor to Heaven. “Reason,” for the moderns, is only a “how-to” for trivialities — a “progress” of disconnected inventions and minor, cumulative, technical improvements that provide only more to consume, and bloat us. They have nothing to say on such primary questions as, how to live, and what to do; on, “the meaning of life,” if I may be so pretentious.

Consider: the Chinese, much our intellectual superiors, invented clocks and many other things long before us. And then left them on the junk pile of their material history, proving themselves more astute, too. We moderns assume they were foolish to do so — to take such inventions and treat them as toys, for a brief period while they remained in fashion. Then to forget them when some other vogue came along.

The Jamaicans used to have a saying about punctuality: “Is the clock for the man or the man for the clock?”

In Bangkok, when I was confronted by a new time machine, and told that the staff of a magazine I was editing must use it to check in and out every day, I created a decorative placard that briefly hung above it:

“The Hours of Folly are measur’d by the Clock; but of Wisdom no Clock can measure.”

The aphorism is of course from William Blake; I used it as a motto for my magazine, The Idler, later on. But in the meantime I encouraged a technically adept member of the staff at Business in Thailand to find a way to trick the new time machine, so that it would record our checkings out before our checkings in, thus puzzling the timekeepers who had, originally, intended the machine pour encourager des esclaves in other departments.

We were accused of arrogance, of setting a bad example; I was suitably chastised. But I wanted to make clear that my writers and editors were not chain-gang, nine-to-five people; that “one size does not fit all.” If one of my scriveners could do in one hour better than another in eight, I had no objection if he worked only four. I only fired people for being useless.

Count me as Chinese, in this respect. Keep your eye on the task, not on the clock. We can rely on the time to keep moving forward.

Though really I am a man of the thirteenth century. This was about when Western man began taking clocks seriously, yet before he began dispensing with his marbles. The monks invented both foliot and escapement about 1275. But it was to a purpose: the more careful regulation of the Hours of Prayer in monasteries and abbeys.

Too, like the Chinese, they were amused by the idea of an armillary sphere, that might mechanically parody the movement of the heavens.

Alas, the monks’ timepieces escaped into the “secular” or profane world, and began appearing on the towers not only of churches but of town halls and the like (at first with only an hour hand). These had (at first) their innocent uses — for instance to signal the public recitation of the Angelus, by automatic chiming of the bells. One hardly needs a mechanical device, however, to determine when it is dawn, noon, or sunset. By posting the unnecessary intervening times, in plain public view, the secular authorities were providing an early example of “too much information.”

For remember: Christ will come to judgement in a day when we look not for Him, and at an hour when we are unaware. The idea of a countdown, or worse, an alarm clock, is rather silly. And rather than contributing to, the ticking thing actually distracts us from, any contemplation of Time in its deepest mysteries. I would have been dead set against it.

If we need a device to limit the lucubrations of lawyers, rhetors, homilists, and prattlers, a sand-bulb or clepsydra (water clock) will do. And it will measure the time without this confounded ticking. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, indeed everyone had this problem — of vain speakers who go on and on — and all soon discovered the remedy. Mechanical devices should be kept simple; the more elaborate, restricted to use as toys.

I might embark on a wider critique of the nonsensical notions that began to clutter our world about the fourteenth century, and became more and more intrusive as the centuries proceeded. By increments, sound philosophy and diligent religion were replaced by tedious circus games. But I haven’t the patience or the time, today. I will content myself with this aspersion upon our modern chronographic fetishes, and again recommend — as I may have done before — that we ignore the “progress” of the last few centuries, and instead fixate on recovering our mind.