wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John Barrow

The Artful Universe

The new 'Revolutionary Calendar' was introduced by official decree on 24 November 1793. Further decimalization was suggested in order to divide each day into ten decimal hours of 100 decimal minutes, each of 100 decimal seconds' duration. This reform was enunciated with the intention of superseding the astrological logic at the heart of the seven-day week. Moreover, it was stated that the new calendar should not resemble that used by the Roman Catholic or other apostolic churches. One of its aims seems to have been the abolition of the religious observance of Sunday. The ensuing conflict between the Catholic order of the Dominicans (named from the Latin dies dominica, or, 'the Lord's day'), and the 'Decadists,' was a result of this aim. Opposition to the observance of Sunday became draconian during the Reign of Terror, when the closing of businesses, the donning of special Sunday dress, and the opening of churches on the old seven-day Sunday cycle were all forbidden. In 1794, Robespierre attempted to institute a new state religion dedicated to the worship of the Supreme Being each decadi. His aim was to alter the centre of gravity of French life, and replace the influence of the Church by that of the State. However, after reaching its zenith in 1798, the whole enterprise gradually disintegrated, and it was virtually non-existent by the end of the eighteenth century. Its failure was officially recognized by Napoleon's official reinstatement of the seven-day week, together with Sunday as the day of rest, in September 1805. The Gregorian calendar, already in use in Britain and America, and still used universally today, was readopted.

The other notable attempt to reform the week was Stalin's institution of the 'uninterrupted production week' in the Soviet Union in 1929. Here, there was a twofold purpose. One was to avoid a fallow day once a week, when all machinery would lie idle and all production cease; the other was to disrupt the pattern of family and community life to an extent that traditional religious observance would be unsustainable. Stalin set about achieving these ends by introducing a five-day cycle with four days of work followed by one day of rest. The cycle was not the same for everybody. The rest days were staggered throughout the population, so that factories and farms were constantly in production, with 80 per cent of the population working, and 20 per cent resting, on any given day. At first, each of the days of the new production week was labelled by a number, but the numbers were soon replaced by colours. Individuals began labelling their friends, family members, and acquaintances by their 'colours.' Society fragmented into five chromatic subsocieties. The 'yellows,' who had their day off on the first day of the week could socialize only with other yellows. Families were fragmented because different rest-days were allocated to different members of the same family. Attempts at religious observance were thwarted by the lack of opportunity for whole families or communities to meet together on the same day.

Despite close attention by the authorities, the 'uninterrupted production week' eventually degenerated into uninterrupted weak production. Workers whose duties, friends, and responsibilities were compartmentalized into a single day began to value their work very little. The absence of key workers who were needed to maintain equipment played havoc with the goal of continuous production. By 1931, the internal tensions were becoming acute and Stalin suspended the reform, blaming the irresponsibility of the workers and promising the reintroduction of the production week after a process of re-examination and re-education. But it was never reintroduced, and the whole idea was killed by his decree two years later. However, as if to emphasize the conflict with religious tradition, it was not replaced by the traditional seven-day week. Instead, it gave way to a six-day week—albeit with a single universal day of rest. This scheme continued to meet with resistance that grew in strength the farther one strayed from the centre of government. Peasant communities followed their hallowed seven-day cycle wherever possible, regardless, and eventually the State gave up, reinstating the seven-day cycle with the traditional 'day of resurrection' as the day of rest on 26 June 1940.

These battles for the seven-day week and its day of religious observance are instructive. They reveal the power of cultural tradition to order our lives. History shows that the structuring of days in a weekly cycle enables religious faiths to establish their identity by the device of hallowing particular days, or introducing a particular practice on particular days (for example, the former Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays). One should remember that there is nothing astronomically necessary about the cycle of days being sevenfold. If one steps into cultures in Africa, Asia, and the Americas that were outside the sphere of influence of the early Jewish tradition and of Mesopotamian astrology, then one finds 'weeks' of other lengths. In Africa and Central America, the weekly cycle is often framed around agricultural communities and trade. The market day is the most important day, and the weekly cycle of life revolves around it. In some parts of Africa, the word for 'week' is that for a 'market.' Another interesting feature of the length of weekly cycles in some non-Western civilizations is their link to the base of the counting system used. Distinctive examples are to be found in Central and South America, where counting systems based upon 20 (the number of fingers on two hands plus the toes on two feet) rather than our own 'decimal' system based upon 10 (the number of fingers on two hands) were widespread. Both the Mayans and the Aztecs employed base-20 counting systems and 20-day time cycles to define their weeks; the Mayans chose to divide their year into eighteen 20-day weeks and five additional, special days.