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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Better a Philosopher than an Orator

The outer container of an ancient Egyptian clepsydra

Alice C. Linsley

Philosophy is not to be rushed. The love of wisdom requires time to ponder, discuss, reconsider, etc. It is not for those who want to go home to their supper. It is constrained by clock watchers in every age.

In one of Plato's Dialogues he notes that it is better to be a philosopher than an orator since the latter are "slaves of a miserable water-clock, whereas the others are at liberty to make their discourse as long as they please."

The water-clock or clepsydra  had been used for thousands of years by the Nilotic priest astronomers to measure the passage of time. The word clepsydra is a compound of the Greek words kleptein, "to steal" and hydor, "water."

An ancient Egyptian water-clock dates to the reign of Amenhotep III (BC 1417-1379). It was used in the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water-clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and in Egypt as early as 1600 BC.

The clepsydra was used by the Chinese, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Early clepsydras were brass bowls with a small hole at the bottom. The bowl was placed inside a larger bowl of water which flowed through the opening at a rate dependent upon the size of the hole. When the bowl sank, that marked the end of the time to be measured.

Water-clocks often had marks of the sun's motion on the first container. As water dripped from it into another basin, the drop in water level showed the passage of up to eight hours. The second container was not always used. Some water-clocks allowed the water to drip on the ground.

In ancient Greece, the clepsydra was used to limit the time a lawyer or judge could speak in court. In Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana we read: "And how long will your pleading last by the water-clock's reckoning?" (Part IV)

According to Aeschines, the political opponent of Demosthenes, "The first [clepsydra] water was given to the accuser, the second to the accused, and the third to the judges." The guardian of the clepsydra stopped the flow of water during the reading of documents in evidence so that the reading time was not charged to the speaker.

The ancient clepsydra remained the most accurate clock ever constructed until the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens built a working prototype of a pendulum clock in 1656.

Picasso once quipped that Man is tyrannized by time and the proof is that Man invented the clock. Historically, this is not accurate. The earliest time devices were used to mark times of prayer. This was true for the ancient Egyptian priests with their clepsydra, and for the Medieval monks who invented the mechanical clock which tolled a bell to call the monks to prayers.

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