St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, lived 800 years after the classical Greek philosophers and another 800 years before St. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, educated as a pagan Greek and master of rhetoric, is our bridge between the ancients and the medieval Christian world. Augustine's Confessions is today his most widely read work, and Book XI of that work, on Time and Eternity, is a key text in the history of philosophy.

The life of St. Augustine (354-430) coincided with a period of doctrinal definition in the early Christian Church. Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity in 312 C.E., and in 325, the ecumenical council which generated the Nicene Creed met in Nicaea. The council at Chalcedon, which defined the two natures of God (divine and human) against the Monophysite heresy, did not occur until 451, after Augustine. Thus, Augustine wrote (or dictated) at a time when everyone, from the Pope in Rome to the common people on the streets of Constantinople, was keenly interested in fine details of theology, and the outcome of theological debates could have far-reaching political consequences. In 396, Augustine become Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa) and the Confessions must have been written around 397.

Consider, then, that Augustine is writing about time before the invention of clocks. Books as we understand them today, in codex form, as opposed to scrolls, were a relatively new invention in Augustine's day. In fact, contemporaries commented that Augustine had picked up the habit from his mentor, Saint Ambrose, of reading books silently to himself. In those days, "reading" generally meant reading aloud to an audience.

Today, ask a physicist or engineer to define time, and they will give you a quantity, obtained by dividing distance by velocity (t=d/v) or some such thing, or refer to a standard unit of time. A great deal of effort goes into measurement of regularly periodic events: a pendulum, a quartz oscillator, an atom of cesium 133. Thus one can say that a second is defined in a precise international standard (the "SI") as "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom." Clocks, however, can only approximate the ideal of time, which "flows equably without relation to anything external". Newton called this "Absolute Time". The practical pursuit of Absolute Time has, however, run into some insuperable barriers. On the really, really small end of the observable universe there is the Planck limit, and on the really, really big end of the universe, time is distorted for objects travelling at great speeds over immense distances. So, some scoff at Newton's Absolute Time as useless speculation.

For thinkers like Augustine, however, all of the times measured by modern physics are measurements of things which no longer exist. The present exists in some sense that the past and future do not. The past is gone and the future "exists" only in potential. For philosophy, which concerns itself with being and truth, our experience of the present and presence is a vitally important clue to the nature of existence.

To modern sensibilities, St. Augustine's Confessions is a mishmash of form and style. The first ten books are autobiography, the last three are theology. Prayers and god-talk begin and end every book. It is tempting to skip the god-talk to get to the "good stuff", but Augustine's objectives and conclusions are all set forth in the god-talk. Some religious context is essential, moreover, to understanding Augustine's terminology.

On the one hand, "eternity" in this book isn't a religious concept. Some statements about the world are temporal. If I say "the temperature outside is 35 degrees" I mean now, implying that earlier it might have been a different temperature, and later it might be another temperature altogether. Other statements have a "timeless" quality: universals like "Two plus Two equals Four" are true for all time: past, present and future. Eternal does not, however, mean "true". We attribute truth or certainty to past, historical events, like "Napoleon was ruler of France" even though there was a time when that statement was not yet true.

Also, when Augustine talks about "the Word" and "the Truth", he is talking about Jesus Christ. The Christ he is talking about, however, is not Jesus the man, but Christ the Son of God: the second person of the three-part Godhead, the Trinity, affirmed by Christians in the Nicene Creed. Referring to Jesus as "the Word" and talking about him existing from "the Beginning" should be familiar from John 1. The significance of referring to Christ as "the Truth" is probably less obvious, although also familiar from the Gospel of John: "I am the Truth, the Light and the Way". Augustine, however, has in mind not merely praising Jesus but describing a fundamental epistemological faculty: how we know what we know. In his dialogue, De Magistro (On the Teacher), Augustine reveals "Christ, the Truth which teaches within" to be like the "Myth of Recollection" told by Socrates in Plato's Meno. That is, we would not recognize the Truth, even if we stumbled right over it, unless we had Christ within ourselves to tell us, "Yes, that's it."

Perhaps the most significant Christian concept necessary to understand Augustine's project is the posture of submission to God's will. In Chapter One, Augustine alludes to God's foreknowledge, as stated in Matthew 5:8.

7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven ...

Augustine seeks to understand, in addressing questions of time and eternity, how God's will can be done "on earth, as it is in heaven". This is a difficult nut to crack. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, "Thy will" (what God wants) is often incomprehensible or beyond human endurance or at the very least, contrary to what we want.

The scriptural framework for the last three books of Confessions is the Book of Genesis, but Augustine does not examine the actual text of Genesis until Book XIII. In Book XI, the question posed (and answered somewhat facetiously) was: "what God was doing before Genesis?" Talking about "before" creation doesn't make sense, since time was created along with everything else. Time is measured by motion and change: the sun rises and sets and we call that period a "day". We excite an isotope of cesium with microwaves, and call the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the resulting radiation a "second". If there is no motion or change, if there is no dark and light, day or night, no swing of the pendulum or different measurable states of the atom, then there is no measurable time. Thus, an Aristotelian answer to the question, "what God was doing before Genesis?", has to be answered in terms of logical priority, not temporal priority.

Christians of the Creationist ilk, nonethless, frequently talk about creation as if it were a historical event. Bishop James Ussher even posited a date: October 23, 4004 B.C. Nothing in Genesis really compels the Creationist interpretation, and it immediately creates problems, not the least of which is the spiritual problem: wondering "What has God done for me lately?". Logically, this sort of talk just cries out for questions like "What happened on October 22 that made God want to create the world?" Or, "Why did God suddenly decide to create the world, after aeons of standing idle and not making the world?"

Augustine replies:

But if the roving thought of someone should wander over the images of past time, and wonder that thou, the Almighty God, the All-creating and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, didst for ages unnumbered abstain from so great a work before thou didst actually do it, let him awake and consider that he wonders at illusions.

Freed of such illusions, the thinking Christian realizes that every time something comes into being, or becomes something else, there is Creation. God creates and sustains the world. Creation was not a historical event but is an ongoing process.

The question lingers, however, in reformulations which avoid the paradoxical "time before time was" expression: Why did God create the world? What was the motive, impetus, purpose or cause? The question then becomes whether these other notions of order, sequence or causality are also only to be understood as forms of temporal experience, or belong to the realm of eternity. Augustine seeks to answer those questions (at Book XI, Chapter 15 et seq.) by a more thorough examination of time phenomena.

Augustine presents a dialectic, but omits the annoying replies of interlocutor in the Platonic style. Augustine poses his questions to the "human soul":

Let us therefore see, O human soul, whether present time can be long; for to thee is it given to perceive and to measure periods of time. What wilt thou reply to me? Is a hundred years when present a long time? See, first, whether a hundred years can be present. For if the first year of these is current, that is present, but the other ninety and nine are future, and therefore they are not as yet ...

If this were Plato, the dialogue would proceed something like this:

SOCRATES: And what say you of the current month, Aristoblabbos? Would you argue that any other day than today is present and exists?
ARIST.: No, indeed.
SOCRATES: And similarly with today and the present hour?
ARIST.: The same.
SOCRATES: What say you then my charming man? Can the present have any extension whatsoever? For if it does, then we can divide it into past, present and future, and parts of it are revealed to be not present?
ARIST.: It is as you say, Socrates.

But this was old news. Aristotle had long ago asserted that periods of time do not consist of "nows", just as a line in geometry is not a collection of points or places.< i>See Physics, Bk IV, ch. 10. If one conceives of the present (the "now") like a point on a line, then the present has no extension whatsoever and you can pile up infinitely many "nows" and not create even a nanosecond of time. Aristotle's position was that there are no "nows" in our experience of time. Our experience of time is an experience of motion or change. If there is no motion or change, it seems as if no time has passed.

Augustine concludes, somewhat differently, that past and future are "present" to the soul or mind in memory or anticipation:

but it might be fitly said, "There are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future." For these three do somehow exist in the soul, and otherwise I see them not: present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation.
The lesson of the dialectic, then, is not that the present is infinitely small, or some sort of Pythagorean opposite (Pythagoreans contrasted the "indivisible" (atomos) place or position on a line with the "divisble" (tomos) extension of the line). To the contrary, once the dialectic has done its dirty work and you find yourself forced to concede that the present has no duration, you should feel immediately repelled by the idea. Our experience of the present is not an experience of an infinitely brief instant. There are many things we see, hear, taste and feel that take at least a short while to experience. The dialectic is intended to reveal that time is not a feature of motion–the the period of a pendulum, or the frequency of a vibrating atom, or any condition of any external–but rather a psychological activity: a "distention of the mind", as Augustine says. Augustine later (Chapters 26 and 27) uses the example of a song. Music, by definition, has to be spread out over time. Each note is related to remembered or anticipated notes in melody and rhythm. Melody and rhythm simply cannot exist entirely in the present, in a single moment of time.

To venture into modern terms, then, Augustine demonstrates that time is grounded in subjectivity. While there is an objective quality of motion, that is, "duration", which can be measured and compared and asserted as a universal among us and guide our actions ("Let's begin on the count of three") without the capacity of the mind to remember or anticipate, there is no room for duration. Things which exist in time, like a melody, or any apprehension of change, exist in the mind.


  • What time is it? (USA) http://nist.time.gov/
  • Text of Book XI (Latin): www.thelatinlibrary.com/augustine/conf11.html
  • Text of Book XI (English): http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110111.htm

Quotations are from Albert C. Outler's 1955 translation, which is in the public domain.

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