Turning and tasting the centuries

What century?

    The German researcher Herman Diels seems to have published his Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (= The fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers) at the "turn of the century". I'm reading this information in a book that I picked up at a bookshop sale, a History of Philosophy by an English professor. I bought it at a sale, so the book is not new. Hence the ”turn of the century” must refer to 1900, not to 2000.

You were almost there, as it were

    Actually, to me (and maybe to most of you) "the turn of the century" will in an emotional sense always mean around 1900 -- a hefty while back in time, but in a comprehensible way, no more distant than by an arm’s length or two away. Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-rays in 1895, Albert Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, the Great War started in 1914.

    These times were experienced first hand by people whom I’ve met intimately. Sure, I was far from present myself, but the effects of the events at ”my turn of the century” have affected me personally. The effects have been diluted by time, but by mere decades, not by whole centuries.

Lively, but too ancient

    It's quite different with the turn of the century before that, at around 1800. It is -- again in an emotional sense -- far too distant to be comprehensible. It certainly was a lively period in history and I've read many absorbing accounts about it: American Independence, the French Revolution, Napoleon. But in many ways these events don’t seem to belong to my epoch any more that the equally lively Punic Wars of the Romans and Carthagians, two millennia earlier.

    My grandfather, whom I've met, hugged and spoken to as a child, was born in 1868. So for him the "turn of the century" must always have meant the times of Napoleon Bonaparte, mentally speaking.

Holding hands

    It is now that this line of reasoning starts to become fascinating. Because my grandfather must in turn have met, held hands with and spoken to, people for whom the "turn of the century" meant around 1700, the epoch of Newton, Louis XIV and the Baroque.

    As a child I've held my grandfather's hand in mine, of course. But with his other hand he could conceivably have held the hands of his contemporaries Wilhelm Roentgen or Kaiser Wilhelm II. Which leads to the fact that my grandfather in his turn must, as a child, have held hands with someone who was a contemporary of George Washington and Robespierre.

What is in a century?

    This may seem as just a silly exercise, which it probably is. But it made me aware of how surprisingly close we are to seemingly ancient events. My daughter, born in 1986, is about one century younger than my grandmother (b. 1890). Such an age difference sounds like an eternity, and not only to my daughter. But to me, having hugged, kissed and hotly argued with both of them, it is only a matter of mentally reaching out my two hands in two different temporal directions, making all three of us physically connected in time.

Hi, George, how's Independence?

    The chain of hands reaches far back into history in a surprisingly small number of palpable links. I only need two people to shake hands with George Washington -- my grandfather and his grandfather. It would take a larger, but not unmanageably large number of two-handed individuals to shake hands with Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher with a deplorably fragmentary written legacy.