Time well spent and reflections on life and death – A conversation with A.C. Grayling

Moments of Being is the title of a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf published posthumously in 1972. In one of the essays, titled A Sketch of the Past, Woolf describes ‘moments of being’ as those instances in which one experiences a sense of reality. There are also states of ‘non-being’, which tend to exercise control over most of one’s life.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford – Public Domain


Curator Sigrid Bousset has designed the series Spreek/tijd – Moments of being – Penser le présent to reflect on some of the fundamental questions that determine how we choose to live our lives.

Over the past months there have been talks by German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski and Dutch thinker Joke Hermsen, who have delved into our notions of time. French historian Alain Corbin and the French sociologist David Le Breton explored our relationship with silence. Karen Armstrong, one of the leading commentators in the world in the field of religion, offered a plea for compassion. All the events have taken place at Flagey.



On Sunday October 7th 2018, Professor A.C. Grayling will share his thoughts on how to make the best use of our time, how to make the choice to stop and wonder at what the world has to offer. It is in the context of this talk and the Moments of Being cycle that he speaks with Brussels Express this week.


How do we measure time well spent? How do we know when time has been well spent?

We have a number of different measures, the main one being our own subjective feelings. Many people say it’s the idea of happy time but we have to be careful with that. Happiness is not an emotion but a state in life. If you have a fulfilling job, if you have a good relationship with your spouse, you will have moments of great joy, and others when it feels like going up the hill, but that doesn’t mean having an unhappy life. These are all states one goes through on a daily basis. They can change and that’s fine.

We can say that time well spent is the time that goes toward creating those happy states in life.


AC Grayling
By Ian Scott – Own work, CC 

Does an individual perhaps experience cognitive dissonance between the desire to stop and wonder, and Western society’s motto of “time is money”?

This question touches on the central notion of time. There are different points to keep in mind.

There is subjective or existential time (the time we experience). For example, if you and I go to the cinema, and you hate the movie, time will seem to slow down for you. Whereas if I like the film, time to me will seem to fly by.

There is public time, which is common and shared. For instance, I’ll talk to you at 10 am tomorrow morning.

What about objective time? There is no such thing as objective time. It’s a construction we create to be able to make sense in our lives, to create a narrative. We may extend it to the future and speculate on how we will feel, what will happen; and to the past, which are the memories we have.

We have a relativistic time, as you may know from Einstein’s theory.

There’s also quantum time. In quantum theory, an electron can be in two places, or in many places at the same time. There might be two different times, one on top of one another. It gets complicated.

For humans, the most important ones in daily life are subjective and public time. And the dissonance you mentioned happens between these two, subjective and public times. A moment of transcendence, an instant of passion, that’s when time seems to either expand or contract. Public time is in very short supply, it makes us feel as if it were always chasing us.


Life and death. Is it necessary to constantly be conscious of one’s mortality to be able to have a happier, fuller life?

We have to be aware that the amount of time we have is limited, by any measure of time. But we don’t need to be thinking about our own deaths constantly. Spinoza said, “The most important meditation there can be is on life not on death.” To learn to philosophize is to learn to die.

You need to have the courage to peer into the fact that you will die, then accept it and live. Every moment you have on this planet you go and live.