Have We Never Been Modern?

It is common to think of time passing predictably from past to present to future, with our current society standing at the forefront of ‘modernity’. However, are we right to think like this? And have societies always thought this way? As Dr Emma Greensmith explores, in Ancient Greece and Rome people often thought about ‘time’ a little differently.

Time passes. That seems like an uncontroversial statement, doesn’t it?  Past turns into present, and present into future, and this process inevitably involves change: a break with the past, forms of progress or decline, predictions about the future fulfilled or quashed.

Some theorists have started to put pressure on this very assumption. In a book published in 1991, French philosopher Bruno Latour declares that in fact (and this is the book’s radical title) We Have Never Been Modern. Writing at the cusp of a new millennium, where people were contemplating all the changes, challenges and anxieties that moving into the 2000s would bring (the hysteria over Y2K threatened to bring down the technological world!), Latour pushes back against the obsessive modernist thinking of the soon-to-be millennials. We are not moving into a radically new age, he says, because the very idea that time passes is a ‘deluded’ construct of modern thought. If we take a wider view of world history, we can see that the passage of time can actually be interpreted in many different ways – as a cycle, an instability, a return or a continuous presence – but we find this incomprehensible, because for us, ‘time’s forward arrow is unambiguous’. We’ve become too entrenched in our way of thinking about time, and need to start over.

As a Classicist – someone who researches the ancient world, particularly the Greeks and Romans – I too am very interested in thinking about time. I have recently been putting Latour’s theory to the test, by applying it to ancient authors and texts. Did the Greeks and Romans think of themselves as ‘modern’? That is to say, do these writers and thinkers, who were also facing rapidly changing worlds, accept the idea that time passes, that there’s a fundamental rupture between present and past, or do they prove Latour right, and reveal alternative concepts of time?

Here are a few examples of what I’ve found so far:

In around 700 B.C.E., an epic poet called Hesiod describes in a poem called the Works and Days the idea of The Myth of the Ages. Here Hesiod outlines five ages of mankind: the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and his own present age, Iron. This is clearly a linear system of time. And what’s more, things get worse as time goes on: the men in the race of Gold lived in abundance and peace, whereas now the Iron age is filled with toil and hardship. Seems like Hesiod proves Latour wrong, then…

However, Hesiod also predicts that Zeus will destroy his current race, too, when all moral and religious standards are ignored. This leaves things rather open ended as to what will happen next. Will the races start again? Will things go back to the beginning, to another Golden age? There is the possibility of a cycle lurking beneath this straight-line chronology…

Almost 700 years later, a Roman poet called Vergil returned to the topic of time.  Vergil was writing in an intensely turbulent period of politics: he had lived through the assassination of Caesar, civil wars, and now the beginnings of the Roman empire under Augustus. In one set of poems, the Georgics, Vergil famously remarks: ‘time flies, never to go backwards’ (3.284). This sentiment sounds remarkably modern (we still use the phrase ‘time flies’), and asserts beyond doubt a break with what has come before. And yet in another collection of poems, the Eclogues, Vergil puts forward a very different vision: he predicts the return of a golden age (that bygone era of prosperity back in Hesiod): ‘now the great line of the centuries begins anew…the iron blood at last shall cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world!’ (4.5-9). Here we have the total opposite to a forward arrow of time: this is newness that will be achieved by repetition – a future which goes back to the past.

So we have the same ancient authors – one Greek, one Roman – showing many contrasting approaches to time. They differ not only from one another, but sometimes even within themselves. What does this mean? That they don’t know the answers? They couldn’t make up their minds? Maybe. But I have a sense that these writers (and there are many more examples too) were deliberately ambiguous and varied in their views of how time operated in their world. Hesiod and Vergil show that Bruno Latour’s challenges to one strict way of imagining time are not new either: long, long before 1991, they were asking the same questions, and refusing to reach easy conclusions. If we’ve never been modern, then really, we’ve always been ancient too…

Dr Emma Greensmith is Tutorial Fellow in Classics at St John’s College, Oxford

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