John Crowley in Lapham's Quarterly:
“Then what is time?” St. Augustine asked himself in his Confessions. “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.”
Augustine saw the present as a vanishing knife edge between the past, which exists no longer, and the future, which doesn’t yet. All that exists is the present; but if the present is always present and never becomes the past, it’s not time, but eternity. Augustine’s view is what the metaphysicians call “presentism,” which holds that a comprehensive description of what exists (an ontology) can and should include only what exists right now. But among the things that do exist now are surely such things as the memory of former present moments and what existed in them, and the archives and old calendars that denote or describe them. Like the dropped mitten in the Ukrainian tale that is able to accommodate animals of all sizes seeking refuge in it from the cold, the ever-vanishing present is weirdly capacious—“There’s always room for one more!”
Time is continuous, but calendars are repetitive. They end by beginning again, adding units to ongoing time just by turning in place, like a stationary bicycle. Most calendars these days are largely empty, a frame for our personal events and commitments to be entered in; but historically calendars have existed in order to control time’s passage with recurring feasts, memorials, sacred duties, public duties, and sacred duties done publicly—what the church I grew up in calls holy days of obligation. Such a calendar can model in miniature the whole of time, its first day commemorating the first day of Creation, its red-letter days the great moments of world time coming up in the same order they occurred in history, the last date the last day, when all of time begins again. The recent fascination with the Mayan “long count” calendar reflects this: the world cycle was to end when the calendar did.
It’s possible to live in more than one time, more than one history of the world, without feeling a pressing need to reconcile them. Many people live in a sacred time—what the religious historian Mircea Eliade called “a primordial mythical time made present”—and a secular time, “secular” from the Latin saeculum, an age or a generation. Sacred time, “indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable,” according to Eliade, “neither changes nor is exhausted.” In secular time, on the other hand, each year, month, second, is a unique and unrepeatable unit that disappears even as it appears in the infinitesimal present.