We all fall into the trap of what Giambattisa Vico called ‘the conceit of scholars,’ which is the false belief that our understanding of the world is as old as the world itself.
Very few of us Moderns recognize that those foundational concepts that drive us in our day to day lives — concepts like ‘time’ and ‘progress’ — are inventions of the Eighteenth century that, according to Reinhardt Koselleck, only become possible as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
And very few Moderns recognized how prototypically ‘male’ our concept of time is, as something that we work to master, through prediction and control, in order for us to achieve greatness. Thinking of time in this way is only possible if we can ignore the cyclical, and non-progressive (even Sisyphean) nature of actual day to day life — like cleaning the house and caring for others. The kind of ‘household management’ that Aristotle thought best for women, children, and slaves.
Our Modern experience of time is as something that is divisible into tidy increments, and as something that demands progress. Our experience of time is neither natural nor necessary, and yet it confronts us as if it were. As WI Thomas famously observed, “that which is perceived as real will be real in its consequences.”
Living in a city reinforces the Modern conception of time. Living on a farm frustrates it.
On a farm, you are never ‘done.’ You never get to check anything off your list. The next task is rarely predictable. The pasture I cut yesterday seems like it already needs to get cut today. The ATV that I rely on every day is unusable until I change out the water pump. Horses seem to take great pleasure in breaking fence boards. One of these days I need to figure out how to safely remove poison ivy.
Every day ends. But you are never ‘done.’
I’m grateful that my wife manages the dinosaurs (aka ‘horses’) because they are even more needy and unpredictable in their care from day to day as the property.
Taking a mind formed by a modern sense of time and progress and putting it on a farm is frustrating. Seen through a Modern lens, the farm can seem like it is always getting in the way.
But from another perspective, part of the frustration comes from the fact that the farm serves as a constant reminder of the artificiality of the conceptions of time and progress that otherwise rule modern life.
A recognition that how we think about time is neither natural nor necessary helps us to rethink the day to day. Instead of thinking about the dishes, the dog, the farm as inconvenient disruptions to what would otherwise be predictable and productive, we can now view the Modern demands of work as exceptions to what is otherwise the rule.
We can’t ignore the demands of time, oh course, since our relationships with others depend on it. And we can’t ignore the need to ‘get things done’ and to constantly ‘improve‘ because our employment probably requires this of us. But we don’t need to be ruled by these demands. We shouldn’t feel like failure to show up for a meeting on time or to meet a deadline represents a kind of existential threat…as if we are failing as human beings.
The proper place of time management is as something that supports human relationships. We agree that it’s important in certain contexts. Time and progress have their time and place. And it is important to honor our obligations as members of a shared and social world. But there is also freedom in recognizing that our obligations are to others and not to time itself.
We must resign ourselves to living in life as it is, with all its repetitive cycles and unpredictability. Only then can we truly flourish in more structured work environments. Because only then can we be liberated from the sense of anxiety that results when the messiness of real life threatens the artifice of Modern existence.