Reflections 2009

Augustine on Time: Human Time, Divine Eternity, and Why the Former is Really the Latter

Mark Albert Selzer

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Generally speaking, time is either conceived of cosmologically or phenomenologically. A cosmological conception of time views time as physical measurements based upon physical motions. Time, in this sense, is measured by a relation of successive events, that is, in a continuum in which events are organized in a before/after dichotomy. On the other hand, a phenomenological conception of time views time as a human experience, and is therefore concerned with how we experience time as humans. At any rate, our focus will be twofold. We will look at both Saint Augustine’s phenomenological conception of time and his rejection of any cosmological conception of time whatsoever.

In Book XI, of his Confessions, Augustine inquires into the nature of the human experience of time, or phenomenological time. Augustine arrives at revolutionary conclusions on the nature of phenomenological time in the course of his inquiry. In this essay, I will set forth the findings of Augustine’s inquiry. In this setting forth, I will show that phenomenological time differs from the divine eternity since phenomenological time was created, while the divine eternity has always existed. I will present two arguments on the nature of time followed by Augustine’s reasoned rejections of those arguments. These arguments are: the argument for time as the movement of heavenly bodies and the argument for time as long periods that are reducible to shorter ones. Furthermore, I will explain Augustine’s argument which states that neither the past nor future exists, but that only the present exists in three forms: the present of past things, the present of future things, and the present of present things.

Some may ask, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” (Augustine 261). They say that if God was at rest, doing nothing, before he made heaven and earth, then his will to create something which he had not previously created is a new will, and therefore, he is not truly eternal because that which is eternal is neither new nor old but everlasting (Augustine 261). To Augustine, such people’s conceptions of time are mistaken because they confuse how we experience time with the divine eternity (262). To understand how this confusion occurs, we must make clear how phenomenological time differs from the divine eternity.

Beginning with the premises (P1) ‘God created time’ and (P2) ‘time cannot exist, and thereby elapse, until it has been created’, Augustine concludes that (C) ‘time did not exist until God created it’. Since there was no time before the creation of time, it is nonsensical to ask what God was doing ‘then’ because there was no then! Furthermore, although God precedes time, he does not precede time in time. Rather, it is in the divine eternity, “which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present,” that God exists (Augustine 263). Since the divine eternity is “a never-ending present,” it exists wholly separate from time. Augustine makes this clear, “You [God] made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time’, if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (Augustine 263).

However, we must now sufficiently explain how we experience time, so that we may understand how it differs from the divine eternity. Stated as simply as possible, we understand phenomenological time as such through change. This is clearly evident in all sorts of empirical examples. One such example is that we determine the length of a day by observing the changing position of the sun. Thus, time differs from the divinity eternity because time is based upon change while the divine eternity is unchanging. Augustine states this nicely, “And no time is co-eternal with you, because you never change; whereas, if time never changed, it would not be time” (Augustine 263).

After making this distinction between the divine eternity and time, Augustine inquires into the nature of time, “What, then, is time?” (Augustine 264). This inquiry is complex and leads Augustine to consider, and ultimately reject, three arguments on the nature of time.

The first argument is that time is the movement of heavenly bodies. This is similar to Aristotle’s understanding of time as “the number or measure of motion.” Augustine does a good job of expounding this argument, “There are stars and other lights in the sky, set there to be portents, and be the measures of time, to mark out the day and the year” (Augustine 271). It is no difficult task for Augustine to undermine this argument. Augustine simply asks, “If all the lights of the sky ceased to move but the potter’s wheel continued to turn, would there not still be time by which we could measure its rotations?” (Augustine 271). Obviously, Augustine suggests here that time can be measured through the motion of bodies other than those of the heavens. However, Augustine questions, more fundamentally, whether time can be measured through the motion of any bodies whatsoever, “Since, then, a day is completed by the movement of the sun through its total orbit, from the time when it rises in the east until it again reaches the east, my question is whether a day is that movement itself, the time needed for its completion, or a combination of both” (Augustine 271). Augustine concludes that neither of these are the case. If a day is the movement of the sun within a complete circuit, then the time it took to make that circuit would be irrelevant, since the measure of the day is based solely upon movement. Furthermore, if a day is the time needed for the sun to complete its circuit, then a circuit completed in one hour would not be a day. Rather, a day would be twenty-four circuits of the sun. In addition, if both the movement of the sun and the time needed to complete its circuit make up a day, then a day would be impossible if the sun completed its circuit in an hour or if the sun stood still while a time passed equal to its regular twenty-four circuit (Augustine 271-272). Moreover, Augustine argues that time is always understood relative to a standard. He illustrates this with a thought experiment:

If it [the sun] travelled around the earth in a space of time equal to twelve hours, we should say that it had completed its course in half the usual time. By comparing the two times, we should say that, if twelve hours were taken as a single period [i.e. a standard], twenty-four hours was a double period, and this calculation would hold good whether the sun completed its circuit from the east round to the east again in the single or the double period on different occasions (Augustine 272).

Since time is relative to a standard and these arguments on the nature of time seem to be contrary to how we experience time, Augustine dismisses any notion of time as the movement of material bodies.

Another argument is that time is long periods that can be reduced to shorter ones. Augustine notes that this is how we measure the length of a poem:

We use the same method when we measure the length of a poem by the lengths of the lines, the lengths of the lines by the lengths of the feet, the lengths of the feet by the lengths of the syllables, and the lengths of the long syllables by the lengths of the short ones. We do not measure them by pages – that would give us a measurement in terms of space, not time – but by the pronunciation as they are read (Augustine 274).

However, Augustine also notes that a short line said slowly can take more time to utter than a long line said quickly (Augustine 274). Thus, Augustine rejects this argument.

After rejecting these two common arguments on the nature of time, Augustine argues that past, present and future are, in fact, illusory. Furthermore, he argues that there are but three presents: the present of past things (memory), the present of future things (expectation), and the present of present things (perception). He is led to this argument when he asks how we can say anything about the past or the future, when the past no longer exists and the future is yet to exist. Augustine, in hopes of locating when we experience the present, elucidates a phenomenological description of time. He begins by asking if we experience the present as the current century, but notes that we can further pinpoint the time which we are experiencing as present to a single year, which can be further pinpointed to a month, then a week, then a day, then hours, then minutes, then seconds, then fractions of seconds and so forth. He then concludes that we will eventually reach a point that is immeasurable, that is, of no duration. This point is simply an instant, and is when we experience the present. Unlike the past and the future, the present exists. (Augustine 264-265).

As noted earlier, we cannot experience the past as past or the future as future, because the past no longer exists and the future has yet to exist. This leads Augustine to conclude that past, present and future are all experienced in the instant just described, that is, in the present, since the present is the only time that exists. So, the past is present as memory. That which we remember has left an impression on our memory by means of conscious experience, and can be recalled unless we have forgotten it. Moreover, we can remember the order by which memories have been formed. Thus, when something happened long ago it is a relatively old memory. Of course, memories are recalled in the present and thereby allow the “past” to exist in the present. Furthermore, the present is present as perception, which includes all of our conscious experience. Likewise, the future exists in the present as expectation. Examples of this are abound: we think before we act (at least for the most part), we see the light of dawn quickly sweep across the earth and therefore expect the sun to rise soon, etc. At any rate, when something is far into the future, it is something that we do not expect for a great amount of time (relative to a standard, of course) (Augustine 265-268).

Through this phenomenological description, we conclude that there is only a continuous, unceasing present which is distorted by our experiences of memory and expectation. Earlier, we distinguished human time from the divine eternity on the grounds that human time changes as it progresses from future, to present and to past, while the divine eternity is an eternal and unchanging present. However, Augustine’s phenomenological description shows that, fundamentally, human time is also an eternal present. At any rate, Augustine refers to the distortion of the fundamental nature of human time as an eternal present as distentio, which is Latin for “distention.” He further says that our experience of time is distended in a two-fold way. We are pulled into the past by our memories and extended into the future by our expectations, which thereby distracts us from the reality of the eternal present that is, most fundamentally, our experience of time. As concluded earlier, the divine eternity is “a never-ending present.” Therefore, we can experience the divine eternity if we simply ignore the distractions of our memories and expectations. Now, we must ask ourselves: can we ignore those distractions? 

Work Cited 

Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin Group (USA), Incorporated, 1970.

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