The Clock

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


I wasted lime and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock;
My thoughts are minutes.

William Shakespeare

 If I lie upon my back and watch the revolving wheel of stars twinkling from the midnight sky, would I be like a clock? If I stretch out an arm and a leg, would I point to a quarter to four? If I lie here night after night, would the heavenly face of time circle slowly by my pointing limbs?" Thus pondered the shepherd whose questing mind outstripped the pastoral simplicity of his duties to dwell upon the threshold of ratiocinative thought. But surely there is something amiss with this rustic picture. Would a shepherd from the hills conjure up arms or legs to a quarter to four? Would he mark the hour at all, and if he did, would he mark it to the quarter-hour? As the shadows lengthened across the stony hills on which his bleating band could be found almost any afternoon, did he mark their course in a regular way? Had he ever seen the face of a clock? Was there a sundial he consulted when he descended to the village below?

 Why would it occur to him to imagine that time might move in circles? Was he aware that the earth circles around the sun and the moon around the earth? Moving along with his milling and straying flock, did he mark time? Could he tell the morn from evening by watching those around? Did he simply begin at daybreak and eat when hungry and sleep at nightfall, changing his patterns only as the sun lowered in the winter sky and the grass became harder to find? Is this how he marked time? The sundial may be thousands of years old and the clock many hundreds, but neither is of much use to a peasant who works with the seasons and counts his days in harvested rows of wheat.

 The perception of time is said to have been the first occupation among men. Though he may not have distinguished the hours as we know them, the shepherd has always been well aware of the temporal passage of celestial bodies in relation to the earth. The phases of the moon were marked in his mind and he knew that the cycles of mating and lambing and shearing were linked to lunar changes. Shepherds merely imitate Nature. Even the ancient Monsterian caves, inhabited a hundred thousand years before certain animals like the sheep became dependent upon man, have yielded bones bearing scratches delineating the cycles of the moon as well as lunar and solar eclipses.

 Plato depicted time as "a moving image of eternity". The rough clans that gathered in caves long ago may not have thought much about the relation between time and eternity, but they did prepare their dead for the hereafter and they somehow felt the need to mark certain natural cycles. Ideas based upon universal facts impress themselves mentally, psychically and physically, partaking of substance as well as consciousness and suggesting something fundamental about the nature of Being. Even the crudest human mind ideates at some level, consciously perceiving sequences of events, units, series and some sort of categories. Self-conscious participation in duality, at whatever level, implies an objective awareness of motion, change, growth and maturation. Some idea akin to the notion of a moment 'ripening' must have been expressed in some form amongst human beings since the mind of man was lit up over eighteen million years ago.

 Inherent within human consciousness is the notion of number. If number underlies the entire cosmos, marking ideal as well as particular forms, it also inheres in the intellectual capacity to measure all sorts of phenomena in our mental and physical environment. Thus, whilst each number, as we know it, can be associated with definite stages in cosmogenesis in such a way as to lend them an individual symbolic meaning that transcends a mere series, the conscious mind operates in terms of the intrinsic property of number itself. Thus motion of any sort is inherently conceived in relation to number, whether in a series or in a cycle. People with radically differing concepts of time and space do not recognize categories or increments in the same ways. Their languages may not even accommodate sequential patterns, and the passage of time may be marked in the recurring cycles of birth, growth, decay and death. Such cycles are serial, though a cultural emphasis upon their repetition and the simultaneity of seemingly opposite effects could obscure the flow for those conditioned by a linear conception of time.

 As the essential nature of human self-consciousness is the offspring of cosmic intelligence, it participates in and is capable of contemplating archetypal patterns. These have often been mirrored in temple architecture and city planning, whilst in the heavens they announce themselves in the juxtaposition of planets and stars in the sidereal zodiac. The caveman or the simple peasant may not have used complex numbers to measure their cycles, but they were intuitively aware of their significance and even noted their slow celestial progressions. According to Simplicius, the Egyptians kept records of the zodiac for six hundred and thirty thousand years, Iamblicus reported that the Assyrian science of astrology had flourished for at least two hundred and seventy thousand years. Ancient mythology was replete with references of astronomical and astrological significance. As H. P. Blavatsky stated, "The planets were the hands pointing out, on the dial of our solar system, the hours of certain periodical events. Thus, Mercury was the messenger appointed to keep time during the daily solar and lunar phenomena, and was otherwise connected with the God and Goddess of Light." Pictured here is a great celestial clock with twelve points marking off its face. It is the fons et origo of the idea of the clock, and in contemplating it man came to realize his potential as a thinking being.

 The ancient Egyptians divided the heavenly world and the netherworld into twelve sections each. After death, the soul travelled through twelve gates before it re-emerged, like the rising sun, to make its passage across the sky. Thus, the circle of Being was divided into twenty-four parts, a full cycle of life and death or day and night. By 1500 B.C. the Egyptians were using a shadow clock, precursor of the sundial but a more faithful recorder of the season. The early sundials divided day and night equally, which meant that (except at the time of the equinox) the hours of the day differed in length from those of the night. Sundials went through their own evolution and refinement, some taking the form even of delicate pocket watches capable of being popped out of their case in their owner's palm and examined. Few were as accurate and offered as complete information as the gigantic instruments built in Jaipur and Delhi by the Maharaja Jai Singh just after the turn of the eighteenth century, but many were ingenious.

 In order to overcome the limitations that darkness placed upon the usefulness of the sundial, anything that flowed, consumed or was consumed came to be used as a measure of time. Water clocks were devised which permitted a vessel to empty drop by drop, filling another vessel hour by hour. The common phrase 'time is running out' refers to the Athenian practice of limiting a legal speech to six minutes by a special water clock. Being often bored by a droning spokesman, the citizens would begin to call out that his time had run out. 'To grant water' meant a lawyer might speak further and 'to lose water' meant to waste time. If someone spoke out of turn, there could arise a clamour to 'cut off his water' or 'take his water away'. The mechanism of some of these early clocks was simple but sometimes very beautiful to behold in operation. At the east gate of the Great Mosque at Damascus a giant water clock kept time both day and night. At each hour "two weights of brightly shining brass fell from the mouths of two brazen falcons into brazen cups, perforated to allow the balls to return into position. Above the falcons was a row of open doors, one for each 'hour' of the day, and above each door was an unlighted lamp. At each hour of the day, when the balls fell, a bell was struck and the doorway of the completed hour was closed. Then at nightfall, the doors all automatically opened. As the balls fell, announcing each 'hour' of the night, the lamp of the hour was lit, giving off a red glow, so that finally by dawn all the lamps were illuminated." It required the full-time attendance of eleven men to keep the wonderful clock in order and travellers from as far off as China wrote of it as a marvel.

 With such devices men attempted to grasp time more firmly and cause it to serve their own purposes. Time, as a measure of life itself, was being more and more measured by man. Sand flowing through glasses, coiled incense burning in Chinese fire clocks, and all such innovations gave birth to notions of 'wasting time' and "time is money'. With mechanical ingenuity, clocks were devised that sounded the time. In fact, early mechanical clocks did not show time but struck a bell at certain intervals. Thus, further independence from the cycles of the sun was gained and individuals could be wakened for various purposes at all hours of the night. The use of sound during the night encouraged the concept of a twenty-four-hour day amongst Europeans, but the number 12 remained the basic division into which the clock's dial was apportioned. For twelve is the link between celestial and terrestrial time, and even when hours were unequal in duration to accommodate the shifting seasons, they numbered twelve by day and twelve by night.

 If the term 'dial' comes from the Latin word for Deity, so also does the word 'day' come from Zeus, deus, dieu. Both terms relate to time 'showing' itself, as it were, revealing itself in the light as some sort of attribute of the Divine. The word 'clock', however, comes from the Germanic clok or glocke and refers to a bell, In fact, early clocks did not have hands and were only called clocks if they sounded the 'hour', which latter term comes from the Greek word referring to the season as well as the general time of day. It is apparent that the strands of several different sorts of concepts about time came together in the terminology describing the clock. Even as its mechanical manifestation became increasingly refined, large portions of the world continued to mark time by the rising and setting of the sun, the tides (such as the Saxon 'noontide' or 'eventide') or the direction and length of shadows.

 A primitive mechanical clock has a winding device, a motor, wheels and gears, an escapement and oscillator and a system for telling time. Oscillation is achieved by a foliot bearing calibrated weights on its arms, which oscillates back and forth as its attached pallets engage with a toothed wheel, which pushes the verge supporting the arms first one way and then the other. This oscillator constitutes the original realization of a mechanical unit of time. The weights on the arms of the foliot determine the length of a unit of time, and the other mechanisms initiate and maintain movement and count the periods of oscillation. If one attempted to pursue analogies between terrestrial and celestial time, one might be tempted to ponder the nature of celestial oscillation and the initiation of the movement that maintains it. One may perceive the progression of heavenly bodies in relation to the earth as a means of counting the periods of oscillation, and, indeed, it is difficult not to be reminded of the systolic and diastolic action of the solar heart. It has been said that the clock with all its complex mechanisms is the mother of machines. It might be more truly said that, by borrowing from its natural prototype, the clock has been their midwife. Man invents machines which, by the necessity inherent in their desired function, imitate the workings of greater Nature.

 With the increasing importance of the mechanical clock, people tended no longer to think of time as flowing but as an accumulation or dispensation of discrete increments. The 'tick-tock' of the machine became the voice of time. The influence that such a voice might have upon the human psyche is suggested by the effect of the weight-driven machines invented by medieval monks for the purpose of sounding the canonical hours which dictated every important aspect of their monastic lives. The clock became an analogue used frequently in poetry and literature, and the effects of the horological revolution could be traced in the ideas of philosophers and physicians alike. In the fourteenth century Nicole Oresme likened the heavens to a clock which has been fabricated and let slowly to continue its own motion until it runs down.

 The analogue of clockwork was essential to Cartesian philosophy. Descartes incorporated it methodically into a philosophical system which, though pointing to God as holder of the ultimate fate, was heavily mechanistic in its orientation. The Baconian movement of the seventeenth century consciously encouraged the rise of mechanical arts and God was seen in the role of watchmaker. The symbol of order was inherent in the clock analogue, and systems such as that of human physiology and society were described in terms of clockworks. In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes outlined an ordered model of society based upon the clock, and Lord Herbert of Cherbury waxed poetic about "the vast machine of this world". In a celebrated controversy with Samuel Clarke the Newtonian, Leibnitz outlined a clock universe possessed of a beautiful pre-established order, which, he demonstrated, was a better regulated system than that of the opposition because, "according to their doctrine, God almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time".

 Leibnitz suggested that body and soul were like two clocks whose harmony is itself pre-established. Less philosophical minds claimed that man and universe were part of a design which must have a designer. In 1785 William Paley asserted that this designer must be a person and that the person must be God. The teleology inherent in the clock analogue was seriously criticized by Hume in the latter half of the eighteenth century, heralding the negative connotations later associated with clockwork and automatons by the romantics. The tyranny of the clock was suggested by Shakespeare, who wrote of "wishing clocks more swift" and that "the clock upbraids me with the waste of time". But Alexander Pope willingly embraced the analogy when he penned the lines: "Tis with our judgements as our watches, none go Just alike, yet each believes his own." And the likening of absolute truth and order to a universal clockwork was implied by Sir John Suckling when he wrote:

But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own.

 By the eighteenth century the mechanical metaphor had become a widespread way of thought despite the perceptive wit of some, like Samuel Butler, who in 1678 had associated Descartes (Des Cartes) with criminals who hang like watch pendulums:

Without capacity of Bail
But of a carts or Horse's Tail:
And did not doubt to bring the Wretches,
To serve for Pendulums to Watches:
Which modern Virtuosos say,
Incline to Hanging every way.


 Even before the pendulum had swung to the anti-mechanistic reaction expressed in much poetry and literature of the nineteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau, son of a Swiss French watchmaker, symbolically discarded his watch when abandoning Geneva to make his turbulent way through a world which would eventually come to be strongly influenced by his eloquent critique of the existing social order. When the pendulum completed its swing, it pierced the euphoric and over-simplified mechanical view of the universe which had filled so many with confidence in preceding centuries. God as clockmaker implies a universe that is rational, orderly and comprehensible, but this 'best of all possible worlds' came to be examined critically by many who, like Voltaire, came to see that the problems of free will, evil and the possibility of universal brotherhood could not be addressed in such simplistic terms. Further, they came to suspect that the clock analogy was a demeaning reminder of man's increased enslavement to the machine.

 As William Blake wrote: "The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure." In so much of the moralizing that had prevailed, there seemed to have been a notable lack of wisdom, of even common sense. Crippled by the stultifying intellectual boundaries of orthodox religious belief, even the best minds failed to address themselves to the most obvious philosophical inconsistencies. It required the clarity and boldness of someone like Thomas Huxley to place the problem starkly and simply. In his critique On Descartes' Discourse on Method he wrote:

If some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer.

 In the fourteenth century the seasonal or temporal hour had become the equal modern hour. Man began to take control of time and his possession of a clock came to represent his emancipation. Socially, this took the form of treating clocks as a status symbol. Even the Romans had gushingly enquired of one another, "Has he got a clock in the dining room?" It is easy to trace the evolution of this idea through countless generations of grandfather clocks and graduation watches, but there are very poignant and less familiar examples, such as the battered and handless clock one might see in the humble bed-sitting-cooking-living room of a poor peasant's hut. There, in a prominent place, beneath the tawdry printed images of saints or gods, and perhaps an aging photograph of a formidably scowling ancestor, one might find the useless instrument displayed. Nor would it have functioned in the recent past, for it is likely to have been acquired already broken and merely a shell-like token of its original capabilities. Its dysfunction does not affect the peasant at all. He speaks of the near future as "tomorrow", and "day-after-tomorrow" may indicate any time in the near, middle or distant future. He does not keep appointments, but shows up for important events because he has the same sixth sense which anticipates their arrival as his predecessors have had for thousands of years. He has salvaged the broken clock and keeps it quietly but proudly because he vaguely senses its association with the dignity of human emancipation, and he fondly imagines that something of that dignity's more pathetically worldly expression may come to be identified with him by his fellow villagers.

 Chinese calendar-making was a science kept secret and protected by the ruling dynasties for thousands of years. To control time was considered the prerogative of the Heavenly Emperor only and any unauthorized individuals who attempted to probe the secrets were condemned to death. Revolutionaries have frequently tried to take control of time by changing the calendar. The National Convention of the French Revolution set up a special committee on calendar reform which included such gifted minds as Laplace. It produced a charmingly rational work in 1792: a decimal calendar possessing ten-day weeks with each day divided into ten hours and given a Latin numerical name. Each hour consisted of one hundred minutes which themselves were divided into one hundred seconds. They retained the twelve months of the year and assigned three weeks to each of them, treating the left-over five days as ideological holidays. This calendar lasted a mere thirteen years before Napoleon was forced to restore time to the old Gregorian slots. In 1926 Kemal Atatiirk succeeded in shaking his countrymen out of an ancient way of life wedded to the old Islamic lunar calendar by abandoning it permanently in favour of the solar calendar of the West. Three years later the newly formed Soviet Union set up a Revolutionary calendar with six five-day weeks to a month, but by 1940 they were back to using the Gregorian calendar.

 Political manipulation of time notwithstanding, by the end of the seventeenth century good timepieces worked with an average daily error of only ten seconds. The possibilities of various sorts of commercial, social and military synchronization enabled time, in a sense, to transcend space. A sort of absolute time was on its way to becoming a universal yardstick. Men began to count the finer units of time, until they felt they were approaching the speed of life itself. Like later scientists who would chip away at the smallest unit of matter in an effort to discover a unified field, so micro-seconds, split and split again, would be cherished as possible keys to timelessness itself. The significance of temporal accuracy reveals itself dramatically when one considers the most advanced forms of clocks, whose mechanisms are operated by atomic vibrations more regular than the earth's revolutions. The vibration of nitrogen atoms in ammonia acts as the 'escapement' and a good clock will ensure that the time varies less than one second in one thousand years. One using cesium atoms will maintain less than a one-second error in four times that length of time. Weighing over five hundred pounds, such a clock can be used to regulate military rockets, space probes, radio navigation and satellite tracking. A fractional second error in the timing of a rocket could cause it to soar thousands of solar miles off course. If we achieved interstellar travel, an incorrect miss like that could result in being light-years away from a desired destination. In this, as in every other human endeavour, it would seem that timing is truly all.

 Albert Einstein predicted that spacecraft clocks would run at different rates relative to celestial conditions. In this way, timekeepers would be travelling in space and time. The arbitrariness of set time would seem to present the possibility here of a jumble of wheels within wheels, each set relative to the others and the whole operating in some vast and necessarily partial imitation of God the Watchmaker. The knowledge that such time is relative does not necessarily enable one to understand the nature of time or what it means to measure or control it. One of the Masters of Wisdom referred to the terms 'past', 'present' and 'future' as "miserable concepts of the objective phases of the subjective whole". In occult metaphysics time is said to begin with the commencement of a manvantara. From the unmanifest depths of Parabrahm, the Logoic spark of the Unconscious Universal Mind (the subjective aspect of manifest being and source of all individual consciousness) acts upon the objective aspect of primordial matter. Thus the First engenders the Second Logos, which ushers "a coming out of the eternal into the Kosmos and time".

 Resting at the threshold of Kosmos in Boundless Duration is Mahakala, a continuance which is divided into "unconditional eternal and universal time" and conditioned time. The first is the "noumenon of infinite time (Kala), the latter is the periodically appearing phenomenon which is the effect of Mahat" - limited, as it is, during each manvantara. Mahat is called the First-born of the Logos and a 'phantasm' reflected from Parabrahm, the idea of objectivity made manifest. With Mahat, divine consciousness surveys, as it were, the Akashic field of Duration and experiences the first dawning separation between subject and object. Motion emerges as a link between the two and the changelessness of Duration retires into the background of existence. In reality, Eternal Perpetual Motion is ever becoming. It is the Akashic expression of infinite potential which, relative to the world of change, seems changeless, but it expresses itself periodically in virtue of the eternal changeless Law governing the Days and Nights of Brahma. The perpetual Great Breath awakens Kosmos at the dawn of every new period, setting the world into motion by means of the two contrary forces of centrifugal and centripetal motion. This dual motion, which is echoed in the oscillating movement of a primitive mechanical clock's foliot, is male and female, positive and negative, and is responsible for transferring the noumenal to the phenomenal plane. Expanding and contracting, it does not refer to expansion from a small centre to a big one, but "the development of limitless subjectivity into as limitless objectivity".

 Something of the mystery of this process is hinted at in The Secret Doctrine, where it is said that Fohat produces seven laya centres. This means that the Great Law stops or "modifies" its perpetual motion "on seven invisible points within the area of the manifest Universe". Thus 'eternal' time becomes conditioned and we see that all motion is, in essence, perpetual; its apparent stopping and starting and variation is merely an effect of illusory limitations in what we call manifested existence. Hence, electricity, magnetism, light, heat and life itself are merely differentiated aspects of perpetual motion. Sound, as we experience it, is a "repercussion on our plane of that which is perpetual motion of that Substance on higher planes". As we measure time on the physical plane, we are clocking 'repercussions' of effects (visual, audible, etc.) which could be traced back on ever more ethereal planes until one broke the 'barriers' of all conditioned motion and glided into the timeless centre of Chidakasham.

 The zodiac is a symbol of an eternal law decreed for one manvantara. The process of manifestation from the Logos to the universe is said to take place through the twelve signs. Through them radiate the "Twelve Fonts" of the Law. They are the apertures through which the power of the invisible world expresses itself, concentrating in the form of the sun, from whence it radiates to the seven planets "which refract its re-synthesized unity" in the sounds, vibrations and colours of the spheres. The human soul can be seen as a sun journeying through the zodiac along a particular ray connected with one of the twelve signs whose dharma, under Law, will be worked out during the 'turnings' of Ezekiel's Wheel or manvantara. Though ultimately relative units of measure, their movement is regular in relation to this earth, and it can be postulated that the division of any circle into equal degrees constitutes an 'absolute' standard of measure. In regard to the zodiac and the question of whether the face of space is circular, one can only fall back upon the fact that when one attempts to measure the heavens, one finds that light and sound and time itself move in curves which are themselves prone to change, brought about by countless subtle and interdependent shifts of motion in the matter which we call space.

 So what does it mean to divide the heavens and a clock face into twelve units? The twelve gates to the Holy City, the twelve Titans, twelve Knights of the Round Table, twelve disciples of Christ, twelve members of the Dalai Lama's council and myriad other such sets can all be related back to the idea that the signs of the zodiac are the Fonts of the Law. The Hindus call them the Twelve Great Transformers of spirit into matter, each pointing off Eternity into grand cycles. The first six can be identified with steady materialization, the second with gradual refinement. Thus, the first 'hour' of Aries can be associated with newborn subjective seeing, what the Buddhist would associate with avidya. Taurus has to do with growing awareness related to the nidana samskara, whilst Gemini involves an objective awareness related to the growing self-consciousness of vijnana. Cancer marks the adolescence of attachment to namarupa and Leo a slight over-confidence which is balanced off in Virgo, After these initial 'six hours', Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces all preside over growing achievement and understanding.

 Commonly, these are associated with individual human development, but if one sees them as a clock marking the phases of a Day of Brahma, they can be traced from the One to the manifestation of the Word at the dawn of duality and, thence, to the First Androgyne, which is the three. From this one may move to the fourth hour associated with the sacred Tetraktys and the five elemental essences which form the pentagonal faces of the universal dodecahedron. The sixth hour is marked by the balanced double triad of Shiva and Vishnu, fire and water: the fall to the lowest point on the clock's face has taken place. Seven stands as the turning-point where the hands of evolution begin their journey upward to the sacred seat of the One in Twelve. After spirit has permeated every atom of the seven principles of Kosmos (seven being the addition of the numbers 3 and 4 instead of their multiplication), the secondary creation begins. These creations are spoken of as "hours in the day" during which the great work is accomplished; the twelve hours are like twelve thousand divine years of the gods or dodecatheoi. It is said that the fundamental unit of greater time periods is one week of seven days, each having twelve hours. A fortnight in a manvantara involves seven Manus and Seven Races expressed repeatedly through the twelve 'hours' of each succeeding 'day' within these weeks. Thus the multiples of units of twelve 'hours' (however vast) determine the lesser periods, whilst those of seven determine the greater. This would suggest that the hierarchy of creative powers is divided into seven esoteric aspects within the twelve Great Orders or Millenniums, as they are called.

 Man is a sevenfold potential god who must progress around the twelve signs of the celestial clock until he has mastered the forces of each one of them in his own nature. Influenced variously by different signs in different lives, his perception of time alters and his knowledge of how cycles interconnect increases or diminishes according to his progress. An individual locked into a linear concept of time, living his life along a superficial and profoundly predetermined avenue of cause and effect, will, glancing frequently at his digital watch, come to the end of his life never knowing where he has been. He may have tried to mark the moments of beginnings and the hours of great joy and sorrow but he finds himself, like Alice's Mad Hatter, always having tea because his clock is stuck at six o'clock, or running around in circles like the time-tyrannized White Rabbit. Golden moments are thus obscured in the gasping race of linear time.

 It need not have been thus, for in the still centre of one's being the Akashic field of timeless truth may be released as a mainspring which perfectly weighs and balances our oscillating involvement in and withdrawal from the world of appearances. Breathing out and breathing in, in perfect momentary units, we can establish our own unique and harmonious standard of measure while tuning ourselves to the syncopated cycles of the great celestial clockwork known only to the soul. There is a rhythm, a tick-tock of truth, which reverberates throughout the whole, and it expresses itself in twelve parts, the three of spirit and the four of matter producing a three-dimensional world. It is possible to unlock the secret of each of those parts, pass through each of those gates patiently and calmly and unhesitatingly in time. Thus will the sowanee complete the circuit and enter into the ranks of those Great Ones who have mastered Eternity in time and thereby guide others out from its lower tyrannies to the peaks of wisdom and benevolence.

Time clicked off by little wheels
Cannot speak for joys supreme,
Not while the shepherd on the hills
Finds in the stars his dream.
But let us not dismiss the clock
That faithfully intones the hour,
For in its face one can unlock
God's own timeless Font of Power.