Time in Literature

Time has been a popular theme in literature for almost as long as literature has existed
Time has been a popular theme in literature for almost as long as literature has existed

Just as time is a fundamental element of our existence, it has also been a fundamental element in literature for almost as long as literature has existed.

Clearly, all stories take place in time to some extent. Regardless of the way a story may deal with time (e.g. chronological development, real-time narration, flashbacks, flashforwards, random temporal progressions, etc), it is still the passage of time that allows plots to unfold, characters to be drawn, etc. But what we are talking about here is literature where time, and the passage of time, is a major theme, and sometimes almost a character in its own right.

Time as a theme in literature, though, is a potentially immense subject, and well beyond the scope of this website sub-section. However, at least a few aspects of it may be outlined here. The lists of books and works mentioned below are necessarily circumscribed and incomplete, and the examples used necessarily a limited and subjective choice.

Time in Novels

A work of literature can be thought of as involving four different and potentially quite separate time frames: author time (when the work was originally written or published); narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story); plot time (when the action depicted actually takes place); and reader or audience time (when a reader reads the work or sees it performed). These may all be relatively close together, but they may not be – consider Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, for example: although we may read it in the early 21st Century, it was written and published in 1817, it deals with plot events around a century earlier (1715), and it is narrated by an old man looking back some 50 years or so at his youth – four different time frames over a three hundred year period.

The time frame of a particular scene is usually established, or at least hinted at, early on, as part of the setting details. This is usually an important factor both in the plot development and as an additional indication of the characters’ backgrounds and attitudes. The time setting may involve specific references to dates or events, or it may be more subtly indicated by references to clothing, furniture, etc. For a story arc covering shorter periods, indications of the season, the time of day, or even the hour, may be more relevant. Typically, the passage of time from one scene to another is also expressly indicated, either at a chapter break or within a chapter, although there may also be specific literary reasons to make such time advances less obvious.

The standard story-telling technique involves a straightforward chronological plot. Often the period covered is a person’s lifetime, or some segment thereof, but historical novels like Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum (1987) and London (1997) may cover many centuries or even millennia. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), on the other hand, describes the protagonist’s inner thoughts in such minute detail that the plot actually unfolds over a period shorter than the average reader takes to read it.

In the early 20th Century, Marcel Proust was one of several modernist authors to begin experimenting with chronology in their fiction
In the early 20th Century, Marcel Proust was one of several modernist authors to begin experimenting with chronology in their fiction

Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913-27), though, ignores the constraints of linear time completely, constantly intermingling past and present. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), is a good example of the use of flashbacks and flashforwards in time, although flashbacks and back-stories are time-honoured techniques going back at least to Homers Odyssey (c. 8th Century BCE). In the fantasy world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll plays fast and loose with the passage of time (as exemplified by the Mad Hatter’s watch which shows months not hours), to the extent that chronology becomes all but irrelevant.

In both the modernist era of the early 20th Century and the postmodern era after the Second World War, the use of temporal distortion, fragmentation and non-linear timelines in novels became popular tools. Modernist authors include Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, etc; postmodernists include Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, etc.

The passage of time is a particularly important theme in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). In a tuberculosis sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps, time initially passes with excruciating slowness for the protagonist, although as daily routine merges into monthly, and monthly into yearly, time begins to accelerate. In the lush tropical setting of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), on the other hand, there is almost no real sense of time passing, even as generation after generation of the Buendia family lives and dies throughout the story’s course, and time often appears circular and fluid.

The mystery and detective novel genre – widely regarded as having begun with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and others, and developed through Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868), to the bestsellers of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and others – often turns the passage of time on its head. Contrary to the plot-lines of classical tragedy, where a character’s fatal flaws and hubris typically lead gradually and inevitably to an unpleasant end, detective stories usually start with the unpleasant event and work backwards in time in order to uncover the reasons why the present turns out as it is.

There are other examples of novels that progress both forwards (in some respects) and backwards in time. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the life of a character who is born as a 70-year-old man who then ages backwards, growing from an adult into a moody teenager and then a young child, a baby and, ultimately, oblivion. Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow (1991) recounts the life of a German doctor in a disorienting reverse chronology, beginning with his life in retirement in America, then his practice as a doctor, and then “back” to his participation in the Nazi Holocaust. But here the reverse chronology also results in reverse morality, so that blows heal injuries, theft becomes donation, etc, and the doctor’s torture and murder of Jews at Auschwitz is transformed into the creation of life and healing of the sick.

Reverse chronology is also employed in movies such as 2000’s Memento (in which a series of chronological sequences of scenes in black-and-white are interspersed with color sequences in reverse chronology, which “meet” at the end of the film, producing one common story), and 2002’s Irréversible (which contains 13 harrowing scenes presented in reverse chronological order, concluding with the recurring motif that “time destroys everything”).

Time in Poetry

There are literally thousands of poems about time, and only a few can be mentioned here.

The well-known Latin phrase tempus fugit – literally meaning “time flees”, but more commonly translated as “time flies” – is usually considered to have come from Virgil’s long didactic poem, Georgica or The Georgics (29BCE): “Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore“ (“But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail”). But similar sentiments appear in the Carmina (Odes) by fellow Roman poet Horace at around the same time: “Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Ætas: carpe diem” (While we are speaking, envious time will have fled: seize the present day”).

The Bible, of course, contains many references to time and its effects, perhaps the best known of which comes in Ecclesiastes 3 and is spoken by King Solomon: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven – A time to give birth, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to tear down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing. A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep, and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; A time to be silent, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war, and a time for peace.”

William Shakespeare made many references to time both in his poetry and in his plays
William Shakespeare made many references to time both in his poetry and in his plays

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XIX (1609) calls on a personified Time not to wreak its usual havoc on his sweetheart’s face, but vows that, whatever Time’s effects, his love will endure though poetry (“Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, My love shall in my verse ever live young”). Shakespeare’s plays are also scattered with many poetical references to the effects of time, one of the best known occurring in Macbeth (1606): “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death”. The commonly quoted lines “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity”, often mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare, are actually by the American minister Henry Van Dyke and date from as recently as 1905.

John Milton wrote many a line decrying the way in which time steals away our youth, including the poem On Time (c. 1630), which begins “Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race, Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours, Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace…” and Sonnet XII (1631) which begins “How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth, Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth yeer!”. Alexander Pope wrote some similar lines about how time steals our youth and our very lives in his Imitations of Horace (1733-8): “Years following years steal something ev’ry day. At last they steal us from ourselves away”. Pope’s near contemporary Edward Young added in his poem Night Thoughts (1742-5): “The bell strikes one. We take no note of time But from its loss: to give it then a tongue Is wise in man”. Also around the same time, Jonathan Swift’s short poem On Time characterizes time as relentless and ravenous: “Ever eating, never cloying, All-devouring, all-destroying, Never finding full repast, Till I eat the world at last”.

The passage of time was a major preoccupation of the 19th Century Romantic poets. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a long poem by Lord Byron written in 1816-8, contains many references to time and the impossibility of defying it, including lines like: “Yet Time, who changes all, had altered him In soul and aspect as in age; years steal Fire from the mind as vigour from the limb And life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim”, and “O Time! the beautifier of the dead, Adorner of the ruin, comforter And only healer when the heart hath bled – Time! the corrector where our judgments err”. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The ‘How’ and the ‘Why’ contains the lines: “Some say this life is pleasant, Some think it speedeth fast: In time there is no present, In eternity no future, In eternity no past.” Tennyson’s poem Tithonus (1859) relates the Greek myth of a lover granted everlasting life but without the additional boon of everlasting youth, so that he aged and withered horribly until he begged for the mercy of death.

Fellow Romantic poet Charles Cowden Clarke wrote in his 1875 sonnet The Course of Time: “No! no arresting the vast wheel of time, That round and round still turns with onward might, Stern, dragging thousands to the dreaded night Of an unknown hereafter”. In his 1862 poem on old age and mortality The Dead Pope, Owen Meredith (Lord Lytton) muses: “However we pass Time, he passes still, Passing away whatever the pastime, And, whether we use him well or ill, Some day he gives us the slip for the last time”. Thomas Love Peacock also wrote a poem called Time (date uncertain, but of the same period) which includes lines like: “Man yields to death; and man’s sublimest works Must yield at length to Time”, and “Time is lord of thee: Thy wealth, thy glory, and thy name are his”. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem Our Banker (1874) sees time as a miserly banker who never forgets a debt: “Old Time, in whose banks we deposit our notes Is a miser who always wants guineas for groats … We see that Time robs us, we know that he cheats But we still find a charm in his pleasant deceits”.

Time is a major theme in Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem Leaves of Grass, particularly the idea that time is a continuous flow and that past, present and future cannot be considered as separate and distinct, and also that time is a kind of perfect entity: “A word of the faith that never balks, Here or henceforward it is all the same to me, I accept Time absolutely. It alone is without flaw, it alone rounds and completes all, That mystic baffling wonder alone completes all”.

The Loom of Time, which begins “Man’s life is laid in the loom of time To a pattern he does not see, While the weavers work and the shuttles fly Till the dawn of eternity”, is an often quoted poem, frequently used at funerals, although its author and provenance is unknown. Henry Austin Dobson’s 1886 poem The Paradox of Time also rests on the idea that time goes on forever, while we humans come and go in the blink of an eye: “Time goes, you say? Ah no! Alas, Time stays, we go”.

Individual lines from the poems of Rabindranath Tagore are often mentioned in the context of poems about time, e.g. “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough” from Fireflies (1928); “Time is a wealth of change, but the clock in its parody makes it mere change and no wealth” from Stray Birds (1916); and “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf” from The Gardener (1913); etc. But in fact these are poems about love, nature, simplicity, etc.

Robert Service’s poem It Is Later Than You Think (1921) ends each stanza with the title lines as the poet laments how time passes irrevocably and how he never seems to find time to write his poetry. The poem ends with “Ah! the clock is always slow; It is later than you think; Sadly later than you think; Far, far later than you think.”

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1935) includes an extended rumination on the nature of time, including the well-known lines: “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable”. Eliot’s contemporary W.H. Auden also wrote several poems on the subject of the passing of time, among them As I Walked Out One Evening (1937), which includes the memorable lines: “But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time”.

This riddle about time appears in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit (1937): “This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel, Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down”.

Immortality in Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature, is essentially a tale of one man's quest for immortality
The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature, is essentially a tale of one man’s quest for immortality

Immortality, or everlasting life, is another popular subject in fiction, and immortal beings and species abound in literature throughout the ages and across cultures. The very earliest example of literature we have, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to around the 18th Century BCE, is largely the story of a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. Dealing with immortality in a fictional setting allows an author to explore and confront humanity’s deep-seated fears concerning its own mortality, but also to explore the extent to which mortality is what defines us as humans.

Often, immortality is viewed in literature as something of a curse. The “struldbrugs” in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels are a race of immortals, but they do not have the additional advantage of eternal youth, so that they spent most of their interminable lives suffering from the ailments of old age and the associated depression. Mary Shelley’s 1833 short story The Mortal Immortal describes a man who becomes immortal after drinking an elixir, but, contrary to his hopes and expectations, finds himself cursed to live forever in a torturous existence, helplessly watching his family and friends age and die over and over again. In a variant of the story of the Wandering Jew (a medieval legend in which a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to his crucifixion was cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming), the ship’s captain in Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) is cursed with immortality and doomed to sail around the Cape of Good Hope forever. In his 1949 short story The Immortal, Jorge Luis Borges describes the feeling of ennui and weariness that results from centuries and centuries of repetition, and the immortal spends his time wandering the world in search of a way to become mortal again. The immortal Elves in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings viewed the mortality of Men as a gift (albeit one that Men did not understand or appreciate), while they were fated to accumulate millennia of sad experiences. The Time Lords, in the long-running Doctor Who television series, spin out their protracted lifespans by a process of “regeneration” in which their entire physical appearance changes when fatally wounded or terminally sick, thus achieving a kind of virtual immortality, which the Doctor refers to as “the curse of the Time Lords”. The decadent immortals of Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time series (1970s) go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay, and the character Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged in Douglas Adams’ novel Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) finds immortality so infinitely boring that he resorts to a scheme of personally insulting every living being in the universe in alphabetical order in order to pass the time.

Vampires, and other similar manifestations of the undead (like ghosts, ghouls, zombies, werewolves, mummies, etc), are often considered to be immortal beings. Depending on the variant, they may be technically dead but still maintaining some aspects of life, or they may be killable by certain obscure means like a wooden stake through the heart, decapitation, sunlight, etc. Originating in European folklore, the vampire in literature dates back to the 18th and 19th Century Romantic writings of Bürger, Goethe, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, et al. In particular, the familiar image of vampires is largely attributable to John Polidori’s short story The Vampyre (1819), James Malcolm Rymers’ Varney The Vampire (1847), and, the quintessential vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Early vampire movies, such as Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), as well as a host of later re-makes and off-shoots, further cemented these stereotypes. Vampires are now a fixture in popular fiction and teen fiction, from Anne Rice’s highly popular and influential Vampire Chronicles to Stephenie Meyer’s trendsetting Twilight series.

Other classes of immortal beings in literature and film include: elves (such as those in Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings); fairies and sprites in folklore and legend; angels, demons and deities of all kinds; the immortal warriors of the Highlander series; robots, organic androids and other artificial human-like beings (from the living creations of Hephaestus in ancient Greek myth to the Golem of the Jewish Talmud to the dancing automatons of the Romantic period and the monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the first robots in Karel Capek’s 1921 novel R.U.R. and Isaac Asimov’s influential robot books to any number of more modern robot and android characters); etc, etc.

Science fiction – and the comic book and manga genres it has given rise to – has generated a plethora of immortal beings, whether extra-terrestrial aliens that are subject to different physical processes, or humans of the future who have developed scientific techniques of prolonging biological life indefinitely or perpetuating it through the use of machines and technology. Among the many books that could be listed here are: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley (1939); Invariant by John R. Pierce (1944); Life Everlasting by David H. Keller (1947); The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker (1947); World Without Children by Damon Knight (1951); To Live Forever by Jack Vance (1956); Dio by Damon Knight (1957); Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham (1960); The Immortals by James E. Gunn (1962); Way Station by Clifford D. Simak (1963); Anton York, Immortal by Eando Binder (1965); The Worm That Flies by Brian W. Aldiss (1968); The Immortalist by Alan Harrington (1969); One Million Tomorrows by Bob Shaw (1970); The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg (1972); Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein (1973); The Eden Cycle by Raymond Z. Gallun (1974); Islands by Marta Randall (1976); The Dancers at the End of Time series by Michael Moorcock (1970s); The Golden Space by Pamela Sargent (1982); Welcome Chaos by Kate Wilhelm (1983); Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg (1985); The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson (1989); Outnumbering the Dead by Frederik Pohl (1990); etc, etc.

Time Travel in Literature
Although H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is the best known early book on time travel, it was not the first
Although H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is the best known early book on time travel, it was not the first

Travel through time (see the section on Time Travel) has been a popular plot device in fiction since at least the 19th Century, and one of the best known of all books about time travel is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, published in 1895. But the idea, albeit couched in less scientific terms, goes much further back.

Moralistic tales of characters miraculously transported to strange countries only to return to their own land many centuries later, or characters who wake up from a long sleep decades into the future, can be found in the Indian Mahabharata (c. 700BCE), the Jewish Talmud (c. 300CE) and the Japanese Nihongi (c.720CE). Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) rests on the conceit of a “guardian angel” who brings back documents from hundreds of years in the future. In Anno 7603 (1761), the Norwegian poet Johan Herman Wessel, describes  a journey in the far future courtesy of a “good fairy”, and Pierre Boitard’s Paris avant les hommes (1861) involves travel back to prehistoric times under the spell of a “lame demon”. In an anonymous short story from 1838 called Missing One’s Coach: An Anachronism, the narrator finds himself transported back in time over a thousand years through a “fault in the strata of time”. Charles Dickens’ 1843 much loved novella A Christmas Story depicts Ebeneezer Scrooge travelling back and forth in time accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

Edward Page Mitchell was an early innovator in the science fiction genre, and his short story The Clock That Went Backward (1881) preceded Wells’ The Time Machine by some 14 years. Also appearing several years before The Time Machine, El anacronópete (literally “the man who flew against time”, usually translated as The Time Ship) by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau (1887) featured a technological time machine not dissimilar to that of H.G. Wells’, complete with illustrations, and Wells himself wrote a short story called The Chronic Argonauts in 1888 which involves a basic time machine. The potential paradoxes of time travel were also explored in Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s Tourmalin’s Time Cheques (1891).

Well-known Victorian socialist utopias like Looking Backward (1888, by Edward Bellamy) and News from Nowhere (1890, by William Morris) may be considered “pseudo” time travel stories, and both revolve around protagonists who fall asleep and “wake” many decades in the future – essentially the same plot device used much earlier by Washington Irving in his 1819 story Rip Van Winkle – as does that of J. McCullough’s prescient Golf in the Year 2000 (1892). Similarly, the protagonist of Mark Twain’s satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) wakes in 6th Century England after a blow to the head.

But the classic time travel story remains that of H.G Wells, and he is usually credited with the popular conception of time travel using a physical machine or vehicle, with levers and dials, that allows an operator to travel purposefully and selectively in time. The Time Machine also gave rise to a whole sub-genre of science fiction time travel stories, among which may be mentioned Robert A. Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps (1941) and The Door Into Summer (1957) and All You Zombies (1959), Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky (1950) and The End of Eternity (1956), Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time (1961) and the rest of his Time Patrol series, Robert Silverberg’s Up The Line (1969), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Timequake (1996), Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man (1969) and The Dancers at the End of Time series (1970s), Wilson Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970), David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), John Varley’s Millennium (1983), Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward (1999), Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time (2001), and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), as well as the whole Doctor Who television oeuvre (1964-present). There is even a sub-sub-genre of sequels to Well’s original novel, including K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Knight (1979), David J. Lake’s The Man Who Loved Morlocks (1980), Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995), etc, and another sub-sub-genre of time travel romance novels, such as Diana Gabaldon’s extensive Outlander series.

In some time travel stories, the past – and even the future – is considered fixed and immutable, and either a time traveller appears as a kind of non-corporeal phantom, or some unspecified natural law prevents any change to the original timeline (such as the putative “Morphail Effect” in Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time series of the 1970s, or Connie Willis’ 1988 novel Doomsday Book in which history resists any time travel that would cause the past to be altered). In others, though, history is flexible and subject to change (e.g. James P. Hogan’s 1980s novels Thrice Upon A Time and The Proteus Operation), and even small changes may snowball into catastrophic changes in the future (such as in Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story, A Sound of Thunder). A third possibility is where there are multiple coexisting alternative histories, so that, when a traveller goes back in time, it is to a new timeline in an alternative reality where historical events can differ from the original one (such as in Larry Niven’s 1971 short story All The Myriad Ways, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast, or Alan Averill’s 2012 novel The Beautiful Land).


Eternity and Immortality

Symbols of Eternity
Symbols of eternity include ouroboros, the endless knot, the annulus (ring) and the lemniscate (infinity)

Eternity means endless or infinite time, a duration without beginning or end. It has much in common with the idea of infinity (an abstract concept describing something without any limit), and with immortality (eternal or unending life or youth).


In philosophy, there are two main views of eternity:

  • Eternity as a timeless realm, without succession, duration or sequence. In this view, there is no “before” or “after”, and the past, present and future as we think of them all exist together in an eternal “Now”. This was the view of the early Christian theologian St. Augustine and, before him, of Plato and the Neo-Platonists.
  • Eternity as never-ending time, without beginning or end, but nevertheless time as we normally think of it, with duration and succession from the past towards the future. Such a view was held by Aristotle, as well as many early Christians (before St. Augustine), and even the Early Modern philosopher John Locke.

Eternity is a prominent feature of some early views of the universe. Many ancient civilizations, from Hindus and Buddhists to the ancient Greek Orphics and Pythagoreans, believed in a cyclic view of time, the “wheel of time” or Kalachakra, in which there are repeating ages over the infinite life of the universe. Such a belief seem to presuppose an overall linear ordering, in some sort of “hyper-time”, of all the cycles. Eternity is an important concept in many different religions, and indeed it is quite difficult to find opinions on eternity that do NOT spring from, or are at least influenced by, religion in some way.

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle saw the cosmos as finite in spatial extent but eternal in time, stretching back to the infinite past and forward into the infinite future. Aristotle argued that, if time had a beginning, then one could refer to a time before that beginning (because something must precede a beginning), which is contradictory to the premise. Also, to Aristotle, time was a series of beginnings and ends, or moments, with each moment ending the one before it. Therefore, any “first moment” or beginning to time must have ended a moment before it, which is also contradictory. From these contradictions, Aristotle concluded that time must be eternal.

In support of this view, the Neo-Platonist philosopher Proclus in the 5th Century CE presented no less than eighteen proofs for the eternity of the world, largely resting on the divinity of its Creator. Less than a century later, the early Christian theologist John Philoponus systematically argued against every one of Proclus’ propositions.

In the Middle Ages, scholastic Christian, Muslim and Jewish philosophers started to argue against the widely-held early view that time and the universe as a whole is eternal, having realized that it militates against the idea of God as the all-powerful Creator of the universe, an important plank of thought in the Abrahamic religions. This became a particular focus of dispute in the 13th Century, when many of the works of Aristotle were rediscovered in Europe. Since that time, then, the general view of the Abrahamic religions is that the universe we live in is NOT eternal, but was created by God and will one day come to an end with the Apocalypse and the “end times” (or some version thereof), a doctrine known as temporal finitism.

Even in the Middle Ages, though, there were some dissenters. The Islamic philosopher and Aristotelian commentator Averroës supported and defended Aristotle’s view, arguing strongly against other Islamic philosophers of the time such as al-Ghazali, and Averroës had his supporters even among the Latin scholar of Europe. The influential Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued against both the conservative theologians and the Averroists, claiming that neither the eternity nor the finite nature of the world could be proved by logical argument alone, and that the creation of the world must necessarily be an article of faith.

But, if the universe itself is not eternal, from the Christian/Muslim/Jewish viewpoint, the God that created it IS eternal. In these and many other religions, the presiding God or gods are assumed to live forever, and much ink has been spilled in clarifying exactly how this occurs. Depending on the religion or the particular religious commentator, God may be considered to exist:

  • in eternity (i.e. an essentially timeless existence, where the categories of past, present and future just do not apply – such a God does not exist at any particular point in time and does not experience temporal succession), or
  • for eternity (i.e. at all times, having already existed for an infinite amount of time, and continuing to exist for an infinite amount of future time – such a God therefore exists at each moment in time).

Various in-between or combined views and various alternative views have also been suggested, such as: a divine existence both inside and outside the human concept of time at the same time; the position that God exists not within our time, but in a temporal and sequential way within his own time; the idea that a once timeless God became temporal at the moment of creation (i.e. once temporal reality as we know it came into existence); etc.

The concept of eternity has been symbolized in many ways over the millennia, from the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail used in ancient Egypt and Greece as well as in many other cultures, to the endless knot of Tibetan Buddhism, to the annulus or ring of Celtic lore, to the modern mathematical symbol for infinity (technically called a lemniscate, shaped like a figure 8 on its side).

Elixir of Life
People have been searching for the secret to immortal life for centuries

Immortality, or eternal life or eternal youth, is a distinct but related concept. Almost all forms of life, however old they may grow, eventually die, whether from ageing, disease or physical trauma, and even inanimate objects ultimately decay and break down into their constituent elements. But the idea of living forever has fascinated us since the beginning of time.

Many of the world’s major religions (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, etc) promise an afterlife of various kinds, and their holy books write at length about the idea. However, whether this is equivalent to the immortality of an individual is open to dispute, and begs many thorny questions about the exact nature of a soul, spirit, heaven, resurrection, reincarnation, etc.

Although humans are clearly mortal, there are rare examples in the animal kingdom of creatures that may be immortal, at least in some important respects. The so-called immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrniia, is a species of jellyfish found in the Mediterranean and in the waters off Japan. Having once reached sexual maturity as a solitary, free-floating, adult jellyfish, this particular species is able to revert completely back to its sexually-immature polyp stage (anchored to the seafloor) if exposed to environmental stress or physical assault, or even of it just becomes sick or old. It appears to be able to perform this switch repeatedly, and in principle the process can go on indefinitely, effectively making the jellyfish biologically immortal, although in practice most of them actually succumb to predation or disease at some point. Arguably, some forms of bacteria, tardigrades, planaria, hydra, etc, also exhibit some aspects of immortality.

Achieving Immortality

Although there is still great variability between countries, socioeconomic demographics, etc, we have seen the human average life expectancy effectively double over the last century or so, largely through medical advances and improved public health measures (see the section on Ageing). Some scientists believe that human immortality is indeed an achievable goal. The search is nothing new: the elixir of life (or elixir of immortality), much sought after by alchemists over the centuries, is a mythical potion that, when drunk from a certain cup at a certain time, supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth.

More recently, and in a more scientific vein, controversial gerontology researcher Aubrey de Grey has developed a series of biomedical rejuvenation strategies to reverse human ageing, which he claims may completely end ageing in humans within two or three decades. Ideas like “mind uploading” (the transference of consciousness from a human brain to an alternative artificial medium, such as a computer or robot) may also one day be possible, and this may provide a form of immortality for the human consciousness. Cryogenics or cryonics (the preservation of humans and animals with the intention of future revival, by means of cooling to sub-zero temperatures) is another avenue being explored both experimentally and commercially as a way of escaping, at least temporarily, the ravages of time. See the section on Ageing for more about life expectancy and life extending ideas and treatments.

However, the possibility of clinical/technological/digital immortality also raises a whole host of philosophical and ethical questions, such as decisions about persistent vegetative states, the nature of personality over time, the possibility of technologically copying or mimicking a mind or its processes, potential social and economic disparities in access to longevity treatments, etc.

Immortality in Literature

The quest for immortality has been a subject of literary interest for as long as we have been telling stories (also see the section on Time in Literature). One of the first known literary works ever, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back around the 22nd Century BCE, is primarily a quest of a great hero seeking to become immortal. Immortal beings are common in mythology, and modern science fiction positively abounds with immortal species and beings.

Another question about immortality often touched on in fiction is whether immortality is even desirable. Mary Shelley’s 1833 story, The Mortal Immortal, explores the trauma and sadness of witnessing one’s family and friends dying over and over again ad infinitum. Another story, The Immortal, by Jorge Luis Borges (1947) investigates the idea that, when time becomes infinite for an individual, there is no real motivation for any action. Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time science fiction series from the 1970s describes the ennui and the inevitable fall into decadence resulting from unlimited life and unlimited power. What these and other stories bring home is that, to some extent, it is our very awareness of our impermanence that gives our lives meaning. A life without milestones and a foreseeable end loses much of its significance and poignancy. Death, and the looming prospect and inescapability of death, is arguably an integral part of the human condition, what makes us what we are.

>> Time in Literature


Old Man
Ageing and old age are aspects of time we are all familiar with

Ageing (spelled aging in American English) is a constant reminder of the passage of time. The process, and even the purpose, of ageing is a question that has intrigued and puzzled scientists for centuries, although modern science is finally beginning to throw some light on the subject.

Technically, ageing just refers to the gradual changes a person goes through over their life, a process that starts at birth and continues until death. What is often meant by the phrase, though, is the gradual deterioration a person experiences in their latter years, a process perhaps better described as senescence or, more colloquially, “old age”. Senescence might be defined as the process of accumulative changes to molecular and cellular structure that occur with the passage of time, resulting in disrupted metabolism, gradual deterioration and, eventually, death. More simply, it is the process of growing old, or developing the appearance and characteristics of old age.

There is no one universal and unambiguous definition of what constitutes old age. Most developed Western countries set the age of 60 or 65 for retirement and eligibility for old-age social programs, but other countries and societies may reckon the onset of old age as anywhere from the mid-40s to the 70s. Increasing life expectancy has also shifted definitions of old age, and what constitutes “old” also depends on one’s point of reference: for example, ask a person under 30 and they will probably reply that old age begins at 60, but ask someone over 65 and they are more likely to say 75.

Different Measurements of Age

As we know from our daily lives, different people age at different rates, and some individuals, and even some cultures, tend to age more gracefully than others. A person’s biological age can differ significantly from their actual chronological age, and a battery of tests can be carried out to assess a person’s biological or physical age. It is even possible to show that different parts of an individual’s body can age relatively more quickly or more slowly than other parts.

Additionally, it should also be borne in mind that a person’s chronological age, and even their biological age, may differ considerably from their functional age, their apparent age based on their functional capabilities in day-to-day activities. Functional age is sometimes considered to comprises four different dimensions: chronological, biological, psychological and social.

Marks of Old Age

The most common physical marks of old age include:

  • thinning and greying hair;
  • wrinkled, dry and inelastic skin;
  • weakened breathy voice as vocal chords vibrate more slowly;
  • thin, shrunken and brittle bones, along with an increased risk of injury from falls;
  • dental problems, tooth decay and gum infection;
  • the onset of chronic geriatric diseases, such as arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, cataracts, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, etc;
  • reduced ability to respond to stress;
  • increased homeostatic imbalance in the body and its processes;
  • digestive disorders, such as difficulty in swallowing, inability to eat enough and to absorb nutrition, constipation, etc;
  • impaired eyesight;
  • impaired hearing;
  • diminished sense of taste;
  • less efficient heart, lung and immune system function;
  • decreased sex drive;
  • chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders;
  • urinary incontinence; etc.

The mental marks of old age include:

  • a preference for routine, and being “set in one’s ways”;
  • increased cautiousness and avoidance of risk-taking;
  • increased fear of crime;
  • increased risk of depression, including “deprejudice” (when earlier anti-elderly prejudice turns inward);
  • reduced mental and cognitive ability, including memory loss (although semantic memory of general knowledge, vocabulary, etc, often remains stable, or even improves, until other conditions cause deterioration);
  • increased onset of various mental disorders, including dementia (particularly Alzheimer’s disease), which may also lead to wandering, physical aggression, verbal outbursts, depression and psychosis;
  • in general, a more adaptable, agreeable and accepting attitude, although a minority may exhibit feelings of frustration, incompetence and worthlessness.
Biological Processes
The process of ageing is associated with gradual and accumulated damage to cell
The process of ageing is associated with gradual and accumulated damage to cells

Most of the characteristics of ageing are associated with gradual and accumulated cell damage. For example, after a certain age, the collagen framework of skin starts to deform, and the skin cells begin to produce the wrong proteins, so that the skin gradually collapses into wrinkles; the cells that produce black pigment for our hair stop producing it, so that our hair turns grey or white; etc.

Most of the cells in our bodies, with the notable exceptions of the cells in the heart and the brain, replicate and replace themselves regularly throughout the natural course of life, which would seem to suggest that cells should be effectively immortal. However, it has also become apparent in recent decades that cells themselves have a finite lifetime and can become “exhausted”. In fact, some scientists believe that cells may be genetically programmed in this way to last just long enough for us to rear children, and no longer.

It seems that there is a natural predetermined limit (known as the Hayflick Limit after its discoverer, Leonard Hayflick) to the number of times a cell can perform this replication process, usually between 40 and 60 times. Even stem cells, the great hope of many a novel medical procedure (particularly anti-ageing treatments) are subject to this same degradation, albeit at a slightly lower rate. Within the cells, each chromosome has specialized fragments of DNA called telomeres at its ends, which essentially protect the DNA. However, with each replication, little bits of DNA become lost from these telomeres, which gradually becomes shorter and shorter as we age. When the telomeres shorten to a critical length, cell division stops and the cell enters a phase called cell senescence, or the cell may even self-destruct. The length of telomeres can therefore be looked on as a kind of “molecular clock”.

Senescent cells remain metabolically active, but appear flattened, and their gene expression and secretion profile is altered. Shortened telomeres also leave the main strings of DNA increasingly at risk from replication errors and mutations, and from naturally occurring DNA damage uncorrected by the usual DNA repair mechanisms. These errors and damage also lead to the release of damaging free radicals, the weakening of immune systems, etc – in short, the general decrease in strength and vitality and the gradual running down of body functions and processes that we refer to as ageing.

It is a particular irony that many cancer and germ cells appear to be exempt from this self-limiting behaviour, and, even more ironic, cellular senescence itself may have evolved specifically to prevent the onset of cancer (on the grounds that cells that have divided many times will have accumulated DNA mutations and would therefore be in danger of becoming cancerous if cell division continued).

These ageing processes occur in a similar way in almost all animals, but interestingly there are some tiny freshwater animals called hydra that have been shown to exhibit a very specific regenerative ability, so that they appear not to age or to die of old age, giving them a potentially unlimited lifespan. Whether the abilities of these kinds of animals have any implications for human ageing is still a controversial matter, and certainly there is still a long way to go before we might understand how they may help to reduce or even eliminate human senescence.

Genetic  Aspects of Ageing

In addition to this process of cellular senescence, and the chemical damage to cellular structure from ongoing cell processes (e.g. oxidative stress, glycation, glycoxidation, etc), there are also ongoing changes in gene expression during old age that affect the body systems responsible for maintenance, repair, and defense responses, as well as gradual changes in hormonal signalling over the body’s lifespan.

Yeast cells are another example of non-human cells that appear to be effectively immortal, and research by scientists like Paul Nurse has shown that human genes transplanted into yeast cells can live indefinitely, suggesting that perhaps we are not genetically programmed for death after all. Gordon Lithgow, a researcher at the Buck Institute for Age Research, has been investigating gene changes in nematodes (roundworms), and simply by activating already existing genes he has succeeded in extending their normal lifespans by more than six times, but again how this might benefit humans is far from clear.

Progeria is a (thankfully) rare genetic disease in which symptoms resembling aspects of ageing are manifested at a very early age. Children with this disorder usually have small, fragile bodies, like those of elderly people, and symptoms include limited growth, baldness and a distinctive appearance (typically a small face with a shallow recessed jaw, prominent eyes, and a pinched nose). Mental development is not adversely affected; in fact, intelligence tends to be normal to above average. Sufferers of this condition typically only live to their mid-teens, and usually die from “old age diseases” like heart attack or stroke.

Perception of Time in the Aged
Old Age
Older people tend to perceive time as passing faster than younger people

As noted in the section on Temporal Illusions, the subjective with increasing age in humans. Older people often complain that the years (and even the days) pass much more quickly than they used to, and they are prone to underestimate given intervals of time. Various explanations for this common experience have been put forward, including: the fact that younger people are still living through new and interesting (rather than repeated and routine) experiences, requiring more neural resources and brain power, and are less subject to the neural adaptation experienced by older people; the fact that a single day (or an hour) represents a much larger proportion of the lives of young people as compared to older people; the general slowing down of most organic processes in the bodies of older people; the lower dopamine levels in the ageing brain; etc.

But it may even be that our internal biological clocks literally slow down in some way as we age (see the section on Biopsychology). In experiments, younger people estimate durations of time as longer than reality, while older people estimate the same durations as short than reality. Older people therefore seem to mark time more slowly, and perceive the world around them as having speeded up, suggesting that their internal clocks are working more slowly.

Life Expectancy, Longevity and Maximum Life Span

Life expectancy is technically the expected number of years of life remaining to a person at a given age, but it is usually used to mean the average life expectancy at birth for a particular population. Longevity, i.e. the length or duration of a life, is a very similar concept, but in practice it is usually used to refer to especially long-lived members of a population. Maximum life span is a measure of the maximum amount of time one or more members of a population has been observed to survive.

Worldwide, the average life expectancy at birth is currently around 71 years. Women typically live 3 – 5 years longer than men, and can expect on average a life of 73 years compared to 68 for men. However, the average varies greatly between countries, from around 45 – 49 years in some African countries like Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Swaziland, to as much as 83 years in Japan and Switzerland (different studies yield slightly different figures).

Life expectancy has also varied greatly over time: in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, life expectancy was typically not much more than 20 – 25 years; in relatively civilized Classical Rome it was still less than 30; even in the early 20th Century, it was not much more than 30. Just a century later, though, thanks to public health measures, improved sanitation and medical advances, it has risen to 71. However, these figures are somewhat skewed by early childhood deaths: if a person survived to age 20, then, even in ancient times, their life expectancy may suddenly jump to 50 or 60.

The longest confirmed human lifespan in history was that of a French woman, Jeanne Louise Calment who lived from 1875 to 1997 (122 years, 164 days). Another 8 people have lived to a verified age of at least 116, and another 90 or so more to at least 114. It is now not that uncommon to encounter centenarians and even supercentenarians in daily life (a centenarian is a person who lives to or beyond the age of 100 years; a supercentenarian is a person who lives to or beyond the age of 110 years). Many cultures have myths of ancient people living to extremely old ages (e.g. in the Hebrew Bible, Adam was supposed to have lived to 930, Noah to 950 and Methuselah to 969), but these remain unconfirmed myths and various possible explanations have been put forward for how and why such unlikely ages were recorded.

Although the average life expectancy of humans has (as we have seen) increased dramatically, particularly in the last century, it is interesting to note that the upper limit of human longevity has remained more or less constant for centuries (at around 120 years of age), and this may well represent the natural limit of human existence.

Indeed, all species of animals appear to have a predetermined maximum lifespan (from the mayfly that lives for mere minutes, to the bowhead whale that is known to survive for over 200 years), although the precise mechanism for this predetermination remains a scientific mystery. It used to be thought that slow metabolic rates corresponded with longer lifespans, but even that possible correlation has been brought into doubt by more recent research. Typically, larger animals have slower metabolisms and longer lifespans, and smaller animals faster metabolism and shorter lifespans (e.g. rats and mice rarely live past 2 or 3 years, horses and bears to around 30, elephants to more than 60, and many whales even longer), but there are still exceptions and anomalies.

Birds in particular seem to live longer than their size and metabolism would indicate. Research has shown that birds have extremely efficient mitochondria (the energy production centres of cells), which leak about 10 times fewer free radicals than most animals, allowing them to live lives almost ten times longer than would have been expected. Research is also being carried out into sea urchins, which routinely live up to 150 years of age with few or no signs of normal ageing.

Population Ageing
An ageing population puts more pressure on health services

Population ageing is the increase in the number and proportion of older people in a society or population, or, looked at another way, the increase in the median age of a society. It is largely due to two main factors, longer life expectancy (decreased death rate) and decreased birth rate, although migration (and migration policies) is increasingly also a factor in population age profiles.

Population ageing is a process currently taking place in nearly every country in the world, but Europe and Asia are the most profoundly affected regions. Within twenty years, many countries will face a situation where the largest population cohort will be those over 65, and the average age approaches 50 years old. Western Europe in particular is suffering from this problem – the so-called “greying of Europe”. Germany and Italy are the most acutely affected, closely followed by Spain, Denmark and Sweden. The situation in Japan, where already more than 20% of the population is over 65 years old, is even starker.

In some traditional cultures, the elderly are revered and respected for their accumulated wisdom. But in many others, they are marginalized, ostracized or relegated to subservience. Whatever local attitudes to seniority, though, there are undoubtedly many social and economic costs associated with increasingly elderly societies and ageing populations, as many developed industrialized countries are already discovering to their dismay. In particular, our quest for longevity puts increasing strain on health services, social benefits, pension funds, and workforce dynamics. Indeed, it affects the society as a whole.

Life Extension

Many people believe that the ageing process can be slowed or even arrested, and some believe it may even be reversed. The study of how to slow down or reverse the processes of ageing in order to extend maximum and average lifespans is known as life extension or experimental gerontology. Over the centuries, many potential solutions to the problem of life extension have been put forward, from rumours of the elixir of life to transcendental meditation techniques. But modern science is tackling the problem head on.

Diet has been shown to substantially affect lifespan in many animals, and it is well established that people who follow Mediterranean and vegetarian diets tend to have longer life expectancies. In particular, though, caloric restriction (restricting calories to 30-50% less than a free-feeding animal would consume, while still maintaining proper nutrient intake) has been shown to increase lifespan in mice by up to 50%, and tests are now progressing with humans. Several drugs and food supplements (including MK-677, rapamycin, resveratrol, alpha-lipoic acid, mitogen-activated protein kinases, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, etc) have been shown to retard the biological effects of ageing in various animals; however, none has yet been definitively proven to do so in humans. Regardless, the sale of supposed anti-aging products such as nutrition, physical fitness, skin care, hormone replacements, vitamins, supplements and herbs is a lucrative global industry, generating about $50 billion of revenue each year in the US alone.

Among the current technological solutions that show some promise in the area are:

  • stem cell injections (either legal or illegal) have been shown to offer some dramatic reparative and regenerative effects, although the practice is highly controversial, particularly with regards to embryonic stem cells;
  • cloning of genetically identical material could one day provide a way to generate cells, body parts or even entire bodies, but it also brings with it some almost insuperable ethical problems;
  • nanotechnology as a potential method of repair of many damaging natural processes thought to be responsible for aging has been posited, but its development is still in its infancy;
  • purging of senescent cells has been achieved in mice, resulting in significant improvements in general health and decreases in age-related disorders, but experiments in humans are still a long way off;
  • gene therapy, in which artificial genes are integrated into an organism to replace mutated or otherwise deficient genes, has been proposed as a future strategy to prevent ageing, and has seen some promising results in mice;
  • cryonics, storing the body at low temperatures after death, thus minimizing changes in biological tissue for many years, may provide an “ambulance” into a future in which advanced medical technologies may allow resuscitation and repair, curing of diseases, rejuvenation of the aged (as well as repair any damage caused by the cryopreservation process), but it is not generally seen as a reliable life extension option (no mammal has been successfully cryopreserved and brought back to life, and resuscitation from cryonics is not possible with current science).

There are still no international or even national programs focused on stopping ageing or on radical life extension, although there are now Longevity political parties in Russia, the USA, Israel and the Netherlands. There are also many life extension associations and movements, of varying degrees of legitimacy, devoted to extending the human lifespan.

Human Skull
Death is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism

At the end of the ageing process comes inevitable death (technically, the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism), the only sure way to truly arrest the process of ageing.

About two-thirds of the many deaths that occur each day (roughly 150,000 people worldwide) are directly or indirectly age-related, and the proportion in industrialized countries is much higher, perhaps as high as 90%. “Old age” itself is not a scientifically recognized cause of death, because there is almost always a more specific proximal cause, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. The Gompertz–Makeham law of mortality explains how the mortality rate accelerates rapidly with age, because the death rate is composed of an age-independent component and an age-dependent component, the latter of which increases exponentially with age.

A death is almost always looked on as a sad and unfortunate event. However, when looked at objectively, death does have an evolutionary purpose: it makes room for the succession of generations and the evolutionary selection and development that the species as a whole needs to survive and flourish. It can be argued that the species looks after itself, not the individuals that comprise it, and, once the evolutionary requirement of reproduction is fulfilled (with some additional time appended for necessary nurturing and instruction), nature has little use for individuals. As mentioned above, our very cells may be genetically programmed to last just long enough for us to rear children, and no longer.

Indeed, it is perhaps a wonder that humans are able to live so long after our reproductive years have passed, especially when one considers some insects that devour their mates after reproduction, or certain marine worms whose very act of giving birth is designed to burst the parental body. One suggested explanation why humans are able to enjoy such a long old age (other than our advances in medical care, shelter, cultural and societal support, etc) is that there is relatively little evolutionary pressure or need for natural selection against late-acting mutations and diseases (perhaps because, in human prehistory, few members of the species survived past the age of 30 or 40), whereas if a mutation affected younger individuals (of reproductive age and with potentially much to offer to the species as a whole), natural selection against it would tend to be much stronger.

>> Eternity and Immortality

Time in Different Cultures

Attitudes to time in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is very different from that in time-conscious cultures like North America and Northern Europe
Attitudes to time in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is very different from that in time-conscious cultures like North America and Northern Europe

Attitudes to time may differ between different cultures in often quite significant ways. For example, being late for an appointment, or taking a long time to get down to business, is the accepted norm in most Mediterranean and Arab countries, as well as in much of less-developed Asia. Such habits, though, would be anathema in punctuality-conscious USA, Japan, England, Switzerland, etc. In the Japanese train system, for example, “on time” refers to expected delays of less than one minute, while in many other countries, up to fifteen minutes leeway is still considered “on-time”.

Cultural attitudes to time also differ throughout history. The pace of modern Western life, with its fast food, express delivery, instant coffee, sell-by dates, speed-dating, speed-dialling, etc, as well as our reliance on clocks and the constant time pressure we seem to find ourselves under, would probably be absolutely incomprehensible to someone just a hundred years ago. Before transcontinental railways and the telegraph and the introduction of Standard Time in the 1880s (see the section on Time Standards), different countries, states, and even neighbouring towns, kept their own time with no attempt at consistency. Even though clocks, and later watches, were widely available, much of the world still estimated their time by the natural rhythms of the Sun and Moon until late into the 19th Century.

Time Orientation

One way of looking at cultural attitudes to time is in terms of time orientation, a cultural or national preference toward past, present, or future thinking. The time orientation of a culture affects how it values time, and the extent to which it believes it can control time. For example, America is often considered to be future-orientated, as compared to the more present-orientated France and the past-orientated Britain. Often (but not always), a past orientation arises in cultures with a long history, like India or China, and a future orientation in younger countries, like the USA.

Future-orientated cultures tend to run their lives by the clock. The United States is one of the fastest paced countries in the world, perhaps partly due to the fact that many Americans are always looking to the future, striving for the “American Dream”. It is a culture that values busy-ness, which equates a hectic and frenzied life-style with success, status and importance. Japan is also an extremely time-conscious culture, although the Japanese probably lay more emphasis on time management and efficient lifestyles than Americans, and consequently may feel less constantly rushed and frustrated.

Past-orientated cultures, like that of India, for example, are much more laid back in the way they look at time. Unlike in Japan, it is not unusual for trains in India to be several hours, or even a full day, late, without creating undue stress and turmoil. It is possible that such cultures, with thousands of years of history behind them, have such a long point of view that time at the scale of minutes, or even hours, becomes insignificant and inconsequential.

Pre-Industrial Cultures

Some cultures, though, appear to have little or no time orientation, and tend to exhibit not so much a relaxed attitude to time as no attitude at all. The Pirahã tribe of the Amazon rainforest is often mentioned in this context. The Pirahã have an extremely limited language based on humming and whistling. They have no numbers, letters or art, no words for colours, no specific religious beliefs and no creation myth. They also appear to have no real concept of time. Their language has no past tense, and everything exists for them only in the present: when they can no longer perceive something, it effectively ceases to exist for them.

The peaceful Hopi tribe of Arizona, USA, as well as some other Native American tribes, also have a language that lacks verb tenses, and their language avoids all linear constructions in time. The closest the Hopi language comes to a sense of time are one word meaning “sooner” and another meaning “later”. The Hopi appear to have little or no sense of linear time as most of the Western world knows it, and it comes as no surprise to learn that their religious beliefs include a cyclic view of time, similar to ancient Hindu and Buddhist belief in the “wheel of time” (see the section on Ancient Philosophy).

Many primitive agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies have very different attitudes to time and work than the industrialized West. The Kapauku of Papua New Guinea, for example, do not like to work on two consecutive days. The !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa work two-and-a-half days per week, typically six hours per day. In certain South Pacific islands, men typically work only four hours per day.


Chronemics is the study of the use of time, and the way that time is perceived and valued by individuals and cultures, particularly as regards non-verbal communication. These time perceptions include things like punctuality, willingness to wait, approaches to face-to-face interactions, and reactions to time pressure.

Different cultures may be considered to be:

  • Monochronic – where things are typically done one at a time, where time is segmented into precise, small units, and where time is scheduled, arranged and managed. In such a culture, time is viewed as a tangible commodity than can be spent, saved or wasted, and a paramount value is placed on regimented schedules, tasks and “getting the job done”. This perception of time is probably rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Century, and the archetypal examples are the United States, Germany and Switzerland, to which could be added Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the Scandinavian countries.
  • Polychronic – where several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Such cultures tend to be less focused on the precise accounting of each and every moment, and much more steeped in tradition and relationships rather than in tasks. Polychronic cultures have a much less formal perception of time, and are not ruled by precise calendars and schedules. The arbitrary divisions of clock time and calendars have less importance to them than the cycle of the seasons, the invariant pattern of rural and community life, and the calendar of religious festivities. Many Latin American, African, Asian and Arab cultures fall into this category, especially countries like Mexico, Pakistan, India, rural China, the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
  • Variably Monochronic – a group of “in between” countries, including Russia, Southern Europe and much of East-Central Europe are sometimes referred to as variably monochronic cultures.

Even within a country, different sub-cultures may regard time quite differently. In the United States for example, Mexican-Americans differentiate between “hora inglesa” (the actual time on the clock) and “hora Mexicana” (which treats time considerably more casually); Hawaiians regularly juggle two time systems, the rigorous Haole (American) time and the much more lax Hawaiian time; and native Americans often distinguish between “Indian time” and regular time.

In today’s globalized world, understanding the time orientation of a culture is critical to the successful handling of diplomatic and business situations. Misunderstandings of chronemics can lead to a failure to understand intentions, especially in business communication. For example, monochronists may view polychronists as undisciplined, lazy, irresponsible and untrustworthy, while polychronists may consider monochronists to be obsessed with rules and formalities, and emotionally cold.

Pace of Life and Tempo
Japan is one of the fastest paced countries in the modern world

Around the world, different people live their daily lives at different tempos, and observe a different pace of life. This may be reflected in something as simple as the speed at which they walk, their attitudes to working, or just how accurately they keep their clocks.

Social psychologist Robert Levine has devoted much time to analyzing how different countries and different cultures deal with time. Some of his findings are perhaps unsurprising. For example, the fastest people were found in the wealthier North American, Northern European and industrialized Asian nations like Japan; the slowest were in non-industrialized and third-world countries, particularly those in South and Central America and the Middle East. The United States often vies with Japan for the fastest pace, although Switzerland is also a top contender, mainly because of the accuracy of its clocks.

However, the rationales behind some of these findings are often illuminating. Levine found that most of the differences are, to a large degree, predictable according to demographic, economic and environmental characteristics. For example, people tend to move faster in places with vital economies, a high degree of industrialization, larger populations, cooler climates and a cultural orientation toward individualism.

According to Levine, the number one determinant of a country’s tempo is economics: the economic health of the country as a whole, the average income earned by the average citizen, and how well-fed they are. Places with active economies put greater value on time, and places that value time are more likely to have active economies, in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Consequently, in almost all cases, the wealthier the society, the faster it tends to move.

Closely linked to economic health as a factor in the pace of life is industrialization. Anthropologist Allen Johnson has described an evolutionary progression produced by industrialization from a “time surplus” society to a “time affluence” society to a “time famine” society, the latter being how he characterizes most developed industrialized countries.

After economic well-being and industrialization, the single strongest predictor of differences in tempo is population size. The strict clock time of the modern world is imposed most strongly in large, vibrant cities. People in bigger cities move faster than their counterparts in smaller towns and rural areas. In one study of the behaviour of children in supermarkets and stores, the average city child was shown to walk nearly twice as fast as their small-town equivalents, and spent a third of the time interacting with clerks and other shoppers, and significantly less time physically touching objects in the store. Other studies have found an almost perfect correlation between population size and walking speed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, life tends to be slower in hotter places, and there is a strong correlation between the climate (as measured by average maximum temperatures) and how slow the tempo of life is. This could result from a general lack of energy in the debilitating heat, or just the fact that people in warmer climates simply take the time to enjoy life.

It is also apparent that a culture’s basic value system is also reflected in its norms about tempo. For example, individualistic cultures tend to move faster than those that emphasize collectivism. In the United States, a classic individualistic culture, people tend to move fast and time is at a premium. On the other hand, in traditional Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Tibet and Nepal, where typically many people share large homes with their extended families, the pace is slow. Individualistic cultures tend to focus on achievement, which usually leads to a “time-is-money” mindset in which there is an urgency to make every moment count. In cultures where social relationships take precedence, however, there is a much more relaxed attitude toward time.

Time Discipline

Time discipline is a field in sociology and anthropology which looks at the economic rules, conventions, customs, and expectations governing the measurement of time in different societies and throughout history. The field was pioneered in 1967 by E.P. Thompson, who argued that the observance of clock-time is a consequence of the European industrial revolution, and that the imposition of synchronic forms of time and work discipline by governments and capitalist interests was an essential factor in the development of industrial capitalism and the creation of the modern state. Earlier, pre-industrial societies had different views of time, often imposed by religious and other social authorities, and flowing from the collective wisdom of human societies.

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Time Management

Time management has become an important aspect of business, and is increasingly used in education and personal activities
Time management has become an important aspect of business, and is increasingly used in education and personal activities

Time management is the process of planning and organizing tasks or events. It is the exercise of conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially with a view to increasing effectiveness, efficiency or productivity. It has been an important aspect of business and project management for some time, but it is increasingly being applied to education and personal activities in our busy, time-conscious modern world. No less a figure than the influential management consultant and writer Peter F. Drucker once opined, “Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed”.

Time management as a business practice originated with time and motion studies, which in turn were an integration of the time studies of Frederick Taylor (the “father of scientific management”) and the motion studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth in the early 20th Century. This kind of business efficiency technique led to the imposition of standard times for tasks and, with the introduction of the assembly line technique of mass production, it became an essential business tool.

To some extent, attitudes towards time management and punctuality are culturally determined (see the section on Time in Different Cultures). For example, trains in some European and Asian cities are timed almost to the second, while trains in India may be a full day late with no serious repercussions. Compare the mañana attitude of Latin America with the uptight, finicky punctuality of English business practices. Rural attitudes towards time also tend to differ significantly from big city habits and expectations.

Time Management Techniques and Tools

Time can be managed by first estimating how much time a task should require, and when it must be completed, and then adjusting events that might otherwise interfere with its completion so that it can be completed in the appropriate amount of time. Because the time available for any activity is usually limited and of course cannot be stored, and because goals may be multiple and conflicting, it often involves the setting of priorities and the triage of tasks. For example, activities may be subjected to ABC analysis, where they are ranked and assigned to categories A (urgent and important), B (important but not urgent) and C (neither urgent nor important). It may also involve the creation and fostering of an environment conducive to time effectiveness, and the elimination of bad time habits such as procrastination.

The simplest time management aid is a task list or to-do list, a list of tasks to be completed, such as chores or steps toward completing a project. It is a kind of inventory tool, which serves as an alternative or supplement to memory. When one of the items on a task list is accomplished, the task is checked or crossed off. Task lists may be tiered (e.g. daily to-do lists abstracted from a more general or long-term one), or prioritized (e.g. tasks may be listed in order of importance, or the most unpleasant tasks may be listed first, etc), or they may be listed in hierarchies (e.g. tasks are split into sub-tasks, and even sub-subtasks).

Various time management tools are available to help with the process, common examples being computers, calendars and day planners. Time management software is available for more complex applications, which may include task hierarchies, filtering and ordering options, multiple user support, remote or online access, etc. Written timesheets and mechanical or electronic time clocks (or “punch clocks”) are also employed to record time worked in business contexts, as are time tracking software applications.

A sequence of events can be presented in text, tables, charts or timelines. The description of the items or events may include a timestamp (characters or encoded information identifying when a certain event occurred, usually giving date and time of day, and often accurate to within seconds). A sequence of events that includes the time along with place or location information is sometimes referred to as a world line, a concept borrowed from physics.

Other Time Management Concepts
Time Is Money
The idea that “time is money” is very important in time management, as well as in related concepts like time banking and the time value of money

Time use research is a developing field of study, and concerns how time is allocated across a number of activities, such as time spent at home, at work, shopping, travelling, etc. Some aspects of time use tend to be relatively stable over long periods of time, such as the amount of time spent traveling to work. Other aspects, though, have changed quite dramatically in recent years as new technologies, such as television, cellphones and the Internet, have created new opportunities to use time in different ways.

Time banking is a complementary money system developed in the 1980s that effectively uses time (i.e. an hour’s worth of any person’s labour) as a unit of currency, thus giving a more literal interpretation to the commonly-used phrase “time is money”, first coined by Benjamin Franklin as early as 1748. The idea is that time spent doing work that does not normally provide monetary benefits (e.g. mentoring children, caring for the elderly, being neighbourly, etc) earns “time” or “time dollars” that can then be spent to receive other services of different types. Time banks have been established in various countries around the world, but it has not become a mainstream phenomenon.

The time value of money is the idea in finance theory that money available at the present time is worth more than the same amount in the future due to its potential earning capacity. Additionally, because inflation will typically drive prices up, the “value” of the money will also reduce over time. So, provided there is an opportunity to earn interest on the funds, any amount of money is worth more the sooner it is received.

Polychronicity is a term that describes people who prefer to work on multiple activities at the same time, whether it be cooking while watching TV, texting while driving, etc. A polychronic person perceives time, at least to some extent, as a circle, a spiral line or a number of intersecting curves, rather than as linear, and they respond to this by multi-tasking or arranging tasks in a non-standard order. Monochronicity, on the other hand, describes people with a much more linear, clock- and schedule-driven approach to time. See the section on Time in Different Cultures for more discussion of polychronicity and monochronicity, and the whole study of chronemics (the study of the way that time is perceived and valued in individuals and cultures, particularly as regards non-verbal communication). Synchronicity is a related concept, first described by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920s, where a person experiences two or more events as meaningfully related in some way, even though they are unlikely to be causally related.

>> Time in Different Cultures