Chronos & Kairos: Or What Time Is It?

Back when I was a kid living in Ohio, we used to get a lot a chuckles over of the folks next door in Indiana, not just over their funny haircuts, but even more over what seemed to be their benighted resistance to daylight savings time. Hoosier cows, we were told, just couldn't get used to being milked at seven in the morning when proper milking time was at six. The same sort of bovine reasoning applied to the evening as well. Years later, much older and somewhat wiser, I moved to Michigan's northwoods and discovered that what the folks (and the cows) in Indiana knew was quite true. Time is something more than what you can read on the dial of a watch.

The ancient Greeks knew this as well, and for that reason they even had two entirely different words for what we call "time". There was chronos, which a meant a measured period of duration, like a year, a month, a day, or an hour. And then there was kairos, the right or proper or advantageous moment or occasion when something of significance took place -- whether it be something as momentous as birth or death, or as routine as getting up in the morning or going to bed at night.

Obviously, the two should be connected and for a long time, in a world that respected natural harmonies, they were. The year, the month, the day, were all natural occurrences which served to measure time. So were the sunrise and sunset, and even the midday when the sun was at its blistering zenith in the sky. The interactions of all these natural time-markers caused the evolution of certain bio-rhythms in nature to which all organisms respond in turn. In other words, the melodies and harmonies of kairos as found in nature followed the beat of chronos, and for creatures like ourselves, the measurement of chronos could be used, as did our ancestors at places like Stonehedge, to discern the proper kairos -- whether it be for planting crops, worshipping the creator, or celebrating the new year.

Somehow, in our modern world, all this has gotten out of sync. Some say it started with the ancient Babylonians, who for reasons now lost in the mists of time, decided that the daylight should be divided into twelve parts instead of ten (which would be much easier to count) or perhaps four, or even eight parts by halving the mornings and afternoons and then halving them again. In any case, after doing the same with the night, the whole world now seems stuck with a 24 hour day. Eventually almost all nations learned to live with what we've inherited and simply applied to it their locality as the occasion, that is, as the earth's rotation, measured at midday with a properly set sundial, dictated.

Then it was discovered, after clocks replaced sun-dials, that by comparing by comparing a portable clock's reading to the position of the mid-day sun, as well as calculating it's elevation or the angle between the horizon and the north star, one could figure out more or less exactly where one was on the face of the earth. Accordingly, the planet's circumference could be measured not just in miles, kilometers, or whatever, but also divided on an angular degree basis of 24 "hours", each hour corresponding to 15 degrees of longitude, subdivided into "minutes" and "seconds" all measured at that time -- since the Brits ruled the waves -- from the royal observatory at Greenwich.*

While this latter development was very handy, especially for explorers and geographers, for ordinary people it didn't affect one's life very much. When one arrived in a town on a journey, one simply got off the stage coach, and took one's pocket watch out and reset it to the clock on the town hall. There was no such thing as jet-lag back then and one's sleep or digestive patterns were more apt to be challenged by the seasonal changes or the local cuisine than the many variations in local town clocks.

Then the railroads came along and really began to muck things up. They began to demand that towns set their clocks to the railroad schedules rather than the sun. So except for the really long journeys, the rail tycoons started pressuring the governments to force the cities on either end of the tracks follow the same time, even if that no longer made sense as far as the position of the sun was concerned. This is why Detroit, which sits on the far western border of the eastern time zone, has the same time as New York City, or Philadelphia, which is that zone's longitudinal center. This was fine for the railroads but the problem for Michiganians is that we are nearly five-hundred miles west of these other cities and that unless you live in Port Huron or East Detroit, we really don't belong in the Eastern Time zone at all. Not that this usually makes a big difference in our lives, and it probably won't unless you try to live in touch with nature and begin to realize that for about two-thirds of the year (the long period from the time we are told we must all "spring forward" until when we are commanded to "fall back") Michiganians live anywhere from one to two hours (especially if you live in the western UP) out of sync with the real world.

For me, living as I do among the deer and the chipmunks, and usually waking up to the sounds of the birds, the simple thing to do was to ignore these government dictates and set up a sun-dial in the yard and reset my indoor clocks to that, something I like to think of as "sun time".** Then, as a concession for those days I have to go into town, I keep a wrist-watch set to what in Michigan might be best described as "inner-city time" so that should I get mugged while using the ATM near the bank some evening, it will be at a more seemly hour than when it is still only late in the afternoon.

Such considerations aside, however, I must admit that this system of mine makes it a bit more difficult to guess when the evening news is to come on. Being more or less one hour and thirty-eight minutes*** behind America's media metropolis does complicate things a bit -- but when you really get down to it, not a whole lot more than the whole time zone system with which we are still saddled long after the airlines have largely replaced the railroads for long-distance travel. The more common sense scientific world, especially in sciences like astronomy and seismology, has long ago abandoned time zones and switched to "universal time" calculated on a 24-hour clock where an earthquake or meteor impact at 5:00 means 5:00 or 17:00 means 17:00 -- the exact time of such events being very much relevant, no matter where you are located on the on the face of the earth.****

Sure, I suppose one could object to such universal time as representing the ultimate in the separation of chronos from kairos, but if one is trying figure out whether, in these days of near instantaneous worldwide communication, just when a message was sent or received, or when one's plane is due to land in Hong Kong, it becomes a whole lot easier when we all follow the same clock time. And as for the kairos, if we are all going perish in some Armageddon of an earthquake or meteor impact, having the correct local chronos might not make all that much difference in the long run. In the meantime, in case the sun doesn't rise or there are no cows around, just remember to carry two or three wrist watches.


* All the world's time zones are presently calculated in terms of so many hours either added to (for everything east of the UK) or subtracted (for everything west of the British Isles) from GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Newfoundland, which is halfway to Europe anyway, subtracts three and a half hours. The Eastern Time Zone in the USA is GMT-5, the Central US Time Zone is GMT-6. To calculate the corresponding Daylight Savings Time, add one hour (i.e. subtract one less hour) to the above figures.

** Actual Sun Time, as calculated on a sun dial, would of course show longer hours in the summer and shorter hours in the winter except at the equator. Nor, due other variations in the earth's tilt and obit, would the morning and afternoon hours come out exactly even, even at the time of the spring and fall equinoxes. For reasons of regularity, time calculated on a clock or watch when set in conjunction with a sun-dial is more correctly termed LMT or Local Mean Time.

*** Michigan's Meridian Line, which bisects the lower peninsula from north to south, runs along longitude 84'30" W. To calculate time lag, add 4 minutes for every degree west of the time zone meridian (longitude 75 W for the Eastern Time zone) or subtract 4 minutes for every degree east of the meridian (longitude 90' W. for the Central Time zone). Either way, the middle of the lower peninsula comes out as either 38 minutes behind the center of the Eastern Time zone (Philadelphia), or 22 minutes ahead of the center of the Central Time zone (Minneapolis).

**** Universal Time (UT) being presently identical with GMT is not quite as universal as one might wish, with the UK assuming the position of being the reference point for the hour. Would it not make more sense to designate events as taking place with whatever time it is where the international date line runs through the mid-Pacific? But the problem is, if this were so and something happened at some place around 1 PM GMT on June 30, it would really be calculated as taking place at 1 AM July 1, UT, a date that most people in the world would think of as being a whole day later unless they stayed up all night and by then were in no condition to remember what day it was.

R.W.Kropf 9/9/98


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