To understand the zeitgeist in full we have to understand zeitgeistlichkeit. What I mean is that to understand the ‘spirit of the age’ we have to understand that the most significant thing about our age is our tendency to think of it as an age; to think that the age has a spirit; and to think that it is a spirit that moves. Or, as Bob Dylan put it in recent times so that everyone could understand it, the times they are a-changin’.
Dylan sang this in the 1960s, but the 1960s, though we celebrate it, was just the age in which the recognitions of the 1820s finally broke into the beat combo and vinyl record scene. Byron, Shelley, liberalism all flamed out like shook foil in the 1820s. It was in the 1820s that William Hazlitt wrote The Spirit of the Age. It was in 1829 that Thomas Carlyle wrote ‘Signs of the Times’. And it was in 1831 that John Stuart Mill wrote a commentary on ‘The Spirit of the Age’, in which he said that the spirit of the age was evident in there being such a phrase as ‘the spirit of the age’ – a phrase which had not existed 50 years before. These writers had a great sense that everything was changing. In Berlin, Hegel had suggested that all of philosophy had come to a full stop after 25 centuries of work: but this was then refuted in very simple manner by others such as Marx, not through argument, but simply by saying that time had passed since Hegel, and that the passage of time itself sufficed as a refutation. Yes, indeed, Hegel’s philosophy had ‘timed out’.
Everywhere there had been tumult. After 1789, all the radical and revolutionary theorists had wanted to build the world de novo or ex nihilo, anew or out of nothing. All the reactionary theorists lamented that the old traditional world could not be defended. Malthus – who fretted about over-population – attempted to refute the Enlightenment in a single argument. (See David Stove’s book On Enlightenment for an explanation.) And everyone was influenced by Malthus, whether for or against. Darwin appears to have thought of natural selection by reflecting on Malthus in the 1840s. And Darwin’s entire evolutionary scheme was a scheme about time. It was historical. Engels later in the century commented that formerly philosophers had always tried to make sense of the world in terms of things, but now they understood everything in terms of processes.
More than a century later, in the 1960s, a German historian called Reinhart Koselleck, when trying to make sense of all this, rather whimsically began to refer to a Sattelzeit, by which he alluded to a watershed moment in history. He located this at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century. These dates coincide with John Stuart Mill’s observation that no one before that time had referred to the spirit of the age. This Sattelzeit marked a new consciousness: a sense of rupture, a sense of progress, an overwhelming sense of time, of this time being different from all other time.
In the early 20th Century Wyndham Lewis wrote a book entitled Time and Western Man which argued that our tendency to think in terms of time was damaging our ability to, well, write novels (he derided Joyce, Woolf and the others), but also make sense of anything. He wanted a return to Plato. In a sense modern thought has been a tussle between the survivals of an old Platonic belief in timelessness – or eternal truths – and a Machiavellian, Darwinian, Schopenhauerian, Rawlsian belief in time (time sometimes mere flux and therefore hopeless; or time sometimes twisted a bit, inflected with ‘social justice’ or ‘science’, and rendered hopeful).
Darwin’s Origin of Species was not really a book about origins, but a book about variation, hence change, hence time. It was a historical book. If on one side it depended on Malthus’s vision of animals competing over limited resources, on the other side it depended on Charles Lyell’s speculations in The Principles of Geology, published in 1830, about the fact that the history of the world was empirically observable in rock formations: and that this history was a gradual one which required many, many thousands of years to be completed. This staggering idea had been first proposed by another Scottish geologist, James Hutton, in the late 18th Century in a work entitled Theory of the Earth. Note, again, that this idea – this emphasis on the significance of time – emerged during Koselleck’s Sattelzeit: the strange time at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century: when the French Revolution ruptured political continuity, when church and state were divided, when we discovered electricity, when heavy iron manufacture began.
Koselleck has an arresting phrase in his writings. He speaks of an ‘acceleration of time’. Time itself began to accelerate, he suggests, in the early 19th Century. Instead of living in a time contrasted with eternity – an eternity in which we could find significance for our earthly lives – instead of that, we came to see ourselves as living in a singular time, stripped of all eternity. We now lived in an immanent world, a world without transcendence. This was a kingdom of this world, lacking a kingdom not of this world. Its focus was on time: not past time, but of course the present moment as stretched into the future. The focus was especially on the future. The expectation was that we could hastily – using steam, electricity or petrol, as it were – move towards the future. If the future could be anticipated, could be known, could be cognised, could be modelled, then we could surely move towards it more quickly: accelerate through time. So haste became a thing in the world: a desire for futurity. Hence all the politics of progress. Hence science fiction (which did not exist before the 19th Century). Hence, inevitably, dystopia. Hence viral politics.
Two hundred years ago, then, we arrived at a novel way of thinking. (A way of thinking, incidentally, that went with novels.) This way of thinking involved a stronger sense of time: a sense that time was our world; a sense that time complicated truth; an awe-inspiring sense that natural time was long; but also an impatient sense that human time was very short: short in relation to our awareness of the length time for which the earth had existed, and short in relation to our urgent sense that if our lives were not to be worthless – given the death of God, the refusal of transcendence, and the oblivion of eternity – we had to achieve something, succeed in something, establish something now.