Saint Augustine on Time

In Book I, Section 6 of his Confessions, Saint Augustine discusses beginnings. He describes his early years as a suckling infant and a crying baby, though he has no recollection of being a baby (he feels as if it were another person at the time). In the course of the reflection, Augustine muses on the surety that all life comes from infinite life and an infinite being, since we humans are mere dust and ashes. If human life is transitory, there must be some greater life that exists beyond the mere life of a human (according to Augustine).

“For you are infinite and never change. In you ‘today’ never comes to an end : and yet our today does come to an end in you, because time, as well as everything else, exists in you. If it did not , it would have no means of passing. And since your years never come to an end, for you they are simply ‘today.’ The countless days of our lives and of our forefathers’ lives have passed by within your ‘today.’ From it they have received their due measure of duration and their very existence. And so it will be with all the other days which are still to come. But you yourself are eternally the same. In your ‘today’ you will make all that is to exist tomorrow and thereafter, and in your ‘today’ you have made all that existed yesterday and for ever before” (Book I, Section 6, pp. 27).

For Augustine, time exists (or ‘has being’) because God has being. And time is essential to the Christian tradition because God appears at certain particular moments within time to reveal himself, such as the revelation to Moses, or the appearance of Jesus. However, humans measure time in terms of numbers. The past is a measurement, and the future can also be measured in terms of number, but the ever-present “now” (as Augustine notes) has a unique ontological status: it both has being and non-being. We know and understand what “now” means, yet it also always in flux. A moment exists only briefly and it is always disappearing.

“Time never stands still, nor does it idly pass without effect upon our feelings or fail to work its wonders on the mind” (Book IV, Section 8).

According to the modern tradition, most famously espoused by Einstein, the idea of “now” is different in different places (such as a man standing at a train station and another man standing aboard a train – both experience time differently). The measurement of time is different depending upon local conditions (prior to Einstein, physicists like Newton generally took the measurement of time for granted, as if it were universal in all places). For example, in Plato’s Timaeus, a visiting physicist named Timaeus offers an orderly account of the cosmos where a city might appear, in which time comes to light through the counting of motion. Aristotle offers a similar account of time in the Physics -as a causal account of nature reflected upon by a counting soul. Augustine takes both notions of time and absorbs them into the theological perspective. First in order to do so, he must address God and his relationship to all things temporal.

Augustine opens Book XI of the Confessions with a series of questions about God:

“O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you. Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (11.1)

Augustine build on the idea that God is logos, and therefore when God began to articulate things into motion, he created time -a measurement of motion which the human ear has “intelligence and inward hearing responsive to [God’s] eternal Word” (11.6).

“In eternity nothing moves into the past: all is present. Time, on the other hand, is never all present at once. The past is always driven by the future, the future always follows on the heels of the past, and both the past and the future have their beginning and their end in the eternal present. If only men’s minds could be seized and held still!” (11.11).

For Augustine, time is the human parallel to God’s eternal present. In a word, he makes a Kantian phenomenological distinction between a priori and a posterori knowledge (i.e. the capacity to measure time is located within us, and the ability to measure time is the human image of God, while God actually exists outside the human mind). To use a Platonic example, the distance between Athens and Larissa can be measured because those places never change, however the distance between the past, present, and future is difficult to discern because they are always in motion. God’s knowledge of time which he imparts on humans is like a man singing a Psalm. In this way, Augustine paints a beautiful, albeit simplistic picture of the human experience of time.

The “now”-ness Augustine seeks is forever spread between the disappearing past and the yet-to-be-experienced future. In a way, the present moment is a poetic concept shaped by an image of the past and a vision of the future (perhaps a Platonic image). Augustine calls this ‘moment’ a kind of stretching out of/from the human mind. He agrees, to an extent, with the Taoist concept that the only real moment for humans is the ever-present “now,” but he disagrees with the timeline concept of “now,” as a mere dot in a long string of infinite dots on a chart, and he also disagrees with the hedonistic embrace of the “now” as forever requiring new stimulation to fill the void.

Time passes through the daily noise and clatter of life, but in moments of sober quietitude the soul, itself, is counting its heart beat in a natural rhythm. Augustine suggests time is the movement of all bodies -both in states of motion and rest (11.23) but, more accurately, he later acknowledges as a certain “extension” or “stretching out of the human mind” (11.26). The past is not fact, but rather a series of images conjured by the mind’s eye (11.18) and the future is composed of preliminary thoughts from the present moment (11.18). Both the past and the future give the grounds for ontological present.

“What, then, is time? There can be no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it” (11.14). The present moment of time has a certain degree of non-being. How can we say the present moment exists when it always in flux between the past and the future? For Augustine all things that come into being and leave an impression. Time, which exists within the mind as an extension of itself, is an impression of something divine, but not the “thing in itself.”

For this reading I used the Penguin edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, as well as What, Then, Is Time? by Eva Brann (2000).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s