In this book Augustine tackles the topic of eternity as it relates to the nature of God and creation. He is particularly intrigued by the quality of time. He begins with the biblical narrative of creation. He is convinced that biblical narrative is true but puzzles over the mystery of how God made heaven and earth (11.3.5). Clearly his senses prove that heaven and earth exist and that they undergo both change and variation which demonstrate that they are things which were made and were not previously there (11.4.6). Augustine repeatedly asks how God made heaven and earth. They were made by God’s word and they were not made not out of that which already existed (11.5.7, 11.6.8). How did God speak his word? He notes, “It seems my God made use of audible, evanescent words to say that heaven and earth should come to be” (11.6.8).
The very nature of God demands that the Word is God and “and through him are eternally uttered all things . . . [and] all things are uttered in one eternal speaking” (11.7.9). The Word is coeternal with God and speaks simultaneously and eternally and God’s creative act is no different from his speaking.
Augustine confesses that the eternal Word is the Beginning and that in Beginning God made the heaven and the earth. He notes that some have asked the meaningless and impious question, “What was God doing before he made the heaven and earth?” (11.10.12). This question does not make sense because, “if some element appears in God’s substance that was previously not there, that substance cannot accurately be called eternal” (11.9.11). Eternity can have neither future nor past (11.11.13). In response to the previous question he is tempted to respond, God “was getting hell ready for people who inquisitively peer into deep matters” such as this (11.12.14) but he acknowledges this is to evade the question. He answers boldly, “Before God made heaven and earth he was not doing anything” (11.12.14). Since God also created time there can be no ‘measureless ages’ or ‘time’ before he created heaven and earth. God is outside of time and there is not time in existence before God who exists in ever-present eternity (11.13.16).
In Augustine’s analysis time is an elusive quality which rushes toward non-being (11.14.17). In fact the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist. The ‘presents’ only claim to be ‘time’ is that it is slipping away into the past. If we try to measure time he notes, “on what ground can something that does not exist be called long of short?” He observes that whether we consider a century, a year or day, none of these can be present all at once, but rather is divisible into past and future. The past is only an image of events which have taken place. The future, even if we had mysterious presentiments of events, would still be announcements of events which as yet have no being (11.17.24). He notes that “What is clear and unmistakable is that neither things past nor things future have any existence” (11.20.26). Although in common usage we talk about past, present and future, neither the past nor the future actually exist (11.20.26). All things are present. “The present of past things is memory, the present of present things is attention, and the present of future things is expectation” (11.20.26).
As Augustine moves on to explore the ‘intricate enigma’ of time (11.22.28) he talks about the measurement of time and the physics of time in relation to the movements of heavenly bodies. He concludes that although we can measure time, we cannot define it (11.26.33). In the case of a voice that sounds, we can measure it only while it is sounding. It exists while it is sounding and can be measured but it is in the process of moving on into the past (11.27.34). The present exists but is not extended. The measurement of sound is bounded by a beginning and an end. A limitless time cannot be measured.
Vaught summarizes Augustine’s complicated argument,
Augustine draws conclusions about the nature of time from conclusions about how time is to be measured. Since we measure what we remember, and since memories are distensions of the soul, he claims that time itself is to identified with the distensions in question. By contrast with the past, the present, and the future, which do not exist (non esse) in the strict sense of the term, a distention of the soul exists (esse) in the present all at once.[i]
Vaught notes that for Augustine, time is identified with the flux that comes to be and passes away and participates in relative nonbeing (non esse). It is the mind that stabilizes this situation by measuring our “present mental states rather than things that come to be and pass away.”[ii] Time is identified with measured states of the soul. Time is experienced through the mental states of expectation, memory and attention. Augustine notes “the mind expects and attends, and remembers, so that what it expects passes by way of what it attends to into what it remembers” (11.28.37).
Having established how attention can bind expectation and memory together, Augustine moves on to discuss how distraction is part of the Fall state of man. The Mediator can take the torn fragments of his soul’s thoughts and purge them through the fire of God’s love (11.29.39). Our minds are stretched to what lies ahead and to understand God who exists before all ages of time (11.30.40). God’s created time flows out of his unchangeable eternity and unifies past, present and future (11.31.41).
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)
[i] Vaught, Access, p. 138.
[ii] Ibid. p. 139.