The Shape of Time (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, we introduced John Michael Greer’s ‘druidic’ framework for the evaluation of cultural ‘time shapes’ – based on a presumption of dominant cyclicity, according to which any prolonged deviation or unbalanced process is exposed as an unsustainable exception. Within a sufficiently expansive great cycle, any continuous progressive trend is complemented by a proportionate regression (and, of course, inversely). The cyclic assumption marks out each and every image of absolute progress as illusory. In this way, the cycle, when applied to any particular figure of time, describes an enveloping structure that provides pointed critical perspective. (Criticism of the cyclic assumption itself — or ‘in turn’ — is best delayed until Greer’s most significant positive results have been sketched.)

The presently-dominant global civilization – when apprehended at a level of extreme (ecological) abstraction – is the fossil-fuel burning runaway spurt that Greer calls “modern industrial culture.” Central to this culture is an expectation of growth, founded in an unsustainable ecological process, and expressed through distinctive time shapes. The plural here is essential, because Greer’s complete ‘morphological’ description of modern time unfolds within a tripartite system of classification.

The first time shape is mostly occluded. This is the cyclic model that organizes Greer’s thinking, serving both as a pivot and as an enveloping frame. The cyclical time-conception defines a ‘middle way’ that exposes abnormality and excess through contrast, and also completes a holistic comprehension, contextualizing partiality or bias. It functions within Greer’s analysis as an intellectual tool, or workshop, more than a distinct object of investigation. Given its ‘transcendental’ status within the druidic order of apprehension, the cycle is not limited to a moment of historical origination, or associated with the name of a particular cultural authority.

The second time shape is not intrinsically modern, but is rather the living ancestor, or vital inheritance, of the culture that would eventually assert the terms of global modernity. Of the world’s numerous pre-modern time shapes, it is the one that has been universalized by its lineal descendents. Greer identifies it primarily with Augustine of Hippo, and he assigns it a specific birthday: AD 413.

Greer argues (conventionally), that the collapse of the Christian Empire under barbarian onslaught threatened the new faith with a crisis of legitimacy, leading Augustine to the radical conclusion that: “Ordinary history … has no moral order or meaning.”

The place of moral order and meaning in time is found instead in sacred history, which has a distinctive linear shape of its own. That shape begins in perfection, in the Garden of Eden; disaster intervenes, in the form of original sin, and humanity tumbles down into the fallen world. From that point on, there are two histories of the world, one sacred and one secular. The secular history is the long and pointless tale of stupidity, violence and suffering that fills the history books; the sacred history is the story of God’s dealings with a small minority of human beings — the patriarchs, the Jewish people, the apostles, the Christian church — who are assigned certain roles in a preexisting narrative. Eventually the fallen world will be obliterated, most of its inhabitants will be condemned to a divine boot in the face forever, and those few who happen to be on the right side will be restored to Eden’s perfection, at which point the story ends.

In formulating this story, Augustine gave “the Western world what would be, for the next millennium or so, its definitive shape of time.” Furthermore, even after the emergence of an alternative, this foundational cultural narrative would remain in reserve, constantly available as a recourse should its successor falter, betray the interests of disaffected groups, or accumulate signs of crisis. The Western tradition, when conceived through its ancestral time shape, would be perpetuated as an undrained reservoir of apocalyptic temptation. The ecological critique of modernity, Greer observes, is as fully-saturated with this apocalyptic narrative as any other articulation of social dissent.

Within modernity proper, however, the Augustinian time shape has ceased to be mainstream. Once again, Greer is not reluctant to reach for a name and a (rough) date, that of the twelfth century Italian mystic “Joachim of Flores … [who] had an impact on the future as significant as Augustine’s: he’s the person who kicked down the barrier between sacred and secular history that Augustine put so much effort into building, and created the shape of time that the cultural mainstream occupies to this day.”

To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two.  He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.

What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it — and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages — was that it was a story of progress.

Not only does the Joachimite three-stage narrative of progress introduce the idea of uncompensated advance, it also legitimates a trend to secularization, as the institutional structures appropriate to the patriarchal and filial epochs are dissolved in the new age of revolutionary liberty. Unsurprisingly, radical intellectuals and movements seized upon this schema as a blueprint for the dispossession of the Old Order, ensuring its general popularization. As modernity was serially ‘revolutionized’ it became ever more Joachimite in its basic assumptions, until progress had been installed as a dominant ‘civil religion‘. Eventually, the progressive idea had been normalized to the point of near-total invisibility.

With the outlining of the Augustinian and Joachimite ‘visions’, Greer’s classification of modern time shapes approaches completeness. The entire argument, when schematically reviewed, can be decomposed into a number of distinct and informative claims:
(a) The culture of modern global civilization is dominated by exactly two principal time shapes.
(b) These time shapes are in certain respects culturally arbitrary, arising in specific times and places, without any original logical inter-dependency, and inflected by the concerns of a particular religious tradition.
(c) This arbitrariness is further confirmed by the morphological richness each time shape reveals, a feature that supports confident identification and classification of superficially differentiated variants.
(d) Despite the absence of logical necessity, when historically assembled into a mature, dyadic system, the combined Augustinian-Joachimite duality evidences a significant measure of reciprocal order (or effective ‘dialectical unity’) and a near exhaustive purchase upon the modern cultural imagination — conformity and dissent.
(e) The complementarity of the dyad approximately corresponds to symmetrical judgments of (Joachimite) affirmation and (Augustinian) negation of a prevailing historical trend.
(f) Regardless of their manifest power of captivation, the Augustinian-Joachimite dyad has a limit, best described by the cyclic time model from which each side of the duality diverges.

[Next: critical appraisal]

5 thoughts on “The Shape of Time (Part 2)

  1. Augustine gave “the Western world what would be, for the next millennium or so, its definitive shape of time.”

    Should repeat/summarize the shape of time here. Some examples, observed or invented, would be appreciated too. I read Greer’s bits about this, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t really know what the Augustinian shape of time was.

    I await part three.

    • That’s what the long quote beginning: “The place of moral order …” is supposed to do. I’ll try to thicken it up and clarify further.

    • You’re pre-empting some of my own response. (My T-1000-style emulation of Greer’s position is not an indication of enduring intellectual solidarity.)

  2. Pingback: The Shape of Time (Part 2a)

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