Time and Eternity in Augustine
(and in Medieval Scholasticism)



1.     As we have previously established, the protagonist’s death and rebirth in the person of the narrator is “the end of the story”, providing the narrator with a new perspective: a complete survey of the whole story in his memory.

2.     It is this feature of the new perspective, the synoptic view of his entire past, that sends Augustine on the quest for the meaning of it all, which he eventually finds in a glimpse of what is beyond all times, on the basis of the following analogy: just as memory allows me to look at my whole past from “outside”, so God’s omniscience allows Him to have a view over all times from “outside”. In fact, we may interpret the whole argument of bk. X as an elaboration of this analogy.

3.     It is the synoptic view over the entirety of one’s temporal being (having every part of past and future in the present consideration of the mind through memory and expectation) that allows the conclusion that temporal being is “almost nothing”. The “whittling away” of the existence of every duration of time, by showing that whatever is in the past is no longer, and whatever is in the future is not yet, and any present time is composed of past and present parts, establishes the near-nothingness of temporal existence, reducing it to the fleeting, ephemeral, “now” of present existence. For if any time has to have some duration, and the present, being the co-terminus of past and future, cannot have any duration, then the present is no time, so there is no present time. And there is no past time, nor future time, for the former is not already, and the latter is not yet. But since all parts of time are past, present, and future, none of which exists, the paradoxical conclusion that time does not exist seems inevitable.

4.     This argument is not new with Augustine. It occurs in Aristotle, although Augustine probably did not take it from Aristotle. In case you are wondering about the Aristotelian formulation of the paradox and its solution, here is a brief reconstruction of both provided by John Buridan in the 14th century: “We should note that Aristotle made a similar argument in bk. 4 of the Physics concerning time,[1] arguing that it is not, for the future time is not yet, and the past time is no longer, and the present time, as there is no indivisible instant, is composed of part of the past and part of the future which, as has been said, are not. But there is no whole such that its parts are not; therefore, no time is. And Aristotle responds that time is, though not the whole together, but in succession, one part after the other. And when it is argued that the past is not and neither is the future, I concede it, talking about past or future time absolutely. But the present time is, and is composed of parts which also are, though they are not together, but one earlier and another later. Nor is some part of the present time past or future, speaking about past and future absolutely; indeed, each part is present, although one is earlier and another is later. But then you ask: ‘How long is the present time, as there is no indivisible instant?’, given that this is to be assumed, and to be shown in [connection with] bk. 6 of the Physics.[2] And I say that it is not determined for us how much time we ought to use as the present, but we may use as much as we want. For we call this year the present, and this day the present, and this hour the present, and if we use this day as the present, then the first hour is and the noon hour is and the vesper hour is, but successively. If, however, we use only the noon hour as the present, then we say that the first hour is past, and is no longer, and the vesper hour is future, and not yet is.” [3]

5.     Augustine did not provide this solution to the paradox, in fact, he did not provide a solution at all. His main interest simply did not lie in finding out about the nature of time, and how we can consistently speak about temporal being in a language primarily oriented to talk about permanent beings. It is perfectly sufficient for his purposes to point out that the things we normally talk about as existing in time, despite their apparent permanence, are far from permanent in their being. Their being, which is measured by time, is just as ephemeral as time itself. It is only after we understand the ephemeral character of temporal being that we can gain some insight into the nature of eternal being.

6.     Nevertheless, using some of the more sophisticated conceptual tools of medieval Aristotelianism, we can restate the main distinguishing characteristics of temporal vs. eternal being, hinted at, but not quite spelled out by Augustine, in the following way.

7.     According to the Aristotelian conception, time is the number, i.e., measure of motion. (tempus est numerus seu mensura motus) Thus, Augustine, when he is arguing against the identification of time with motion, is not arguing against Aristotle, since for Aristotle the measure and that which is measured are never the same. But the notion of measure immediately involves, besides the thing measured, the act of measurement, the comparative act of a mind. Therefore, Augustine is right in pointing out that time in a way is mind-dependent, yet, it is objective. Well, how can this be?

8.     The concept of time is not a simple, absolute concept: it denotes something, namely the number which measures whatever is in time (i.e., the duration of any temporal being), and connotes something else, namely, the act of the measuring mind, which assigns this number as the measure of the duration measured. But for this measuring to take place, obviously a mind and its act of measurement are needed, which of course cannot take place without memory and expectation, which can distinguish the order of past, present, and future. So if there were no mind to measure temporal being, then there would be no time, i.e., nothing would actually be measured by time. And to this extent, time is mind-dependent. (This is the point of Augustine’s claim that time is a “distention of the mind”.) However, temporal being, namely, anything that can be measured by time, and periodical motion, which could serve as the measure in measuring time, would be there regardless, even if there were no mind to measure, so to this extent time is objective. (In short, using scholastic terminology, time is the numerus numeratus motus, but something is numerus numeratus, only if there is a numerans, although that which is the numerus numeratus can exist even if no numerans exists, but then it is not numerus numeratus, but numerus numerabilis.)

9.     Now, any change, event, or process that can be measured by time is a successive entity (res successiva), as opposed to a permanent entity (res permanens). A successive entity is one that consists of several essential parts (i.e. parts without which it would not be the same whole) which are each divisible into further parts indefinitely, and no two such parts can exist together, only one after the other, in succession. By contrast, a permanent thing may have several essential parts that can exist together. Yet, even among permanent things, those that exist in time have an act of being that is measured by time, in the sense that parts of their being is in parts of time. Hence, their act of being is also successive, not permanent. By contrast, the eternal act of being of God is absolutely permanent, it is actual as a whole at once, indivisible into parts that would be in parts of time. This is precisely the point of Boethius’ definition of eternity (which merely spells out in a compact formula Augustine’s idea): interminabilis vitae tota simul perfecta possessio – the perfect possession of an interminable life, the whole together.

10.  Indeed, divine eternity is just one manifestation of the absolute unity and simplicity of divine being, consequent upon the idea of the absolute fullness of divine being, which is absolutely unmixed with non-being in any possible respect.

11.  For any sort of multiplicity of parts along any possible dimensions necessarily involves the distribution of those parts along those dimensions, and consequently the non-being of some parts of the whole in some parts of those dimensions, where the other parts of the whole are. So the whole in respect of some of is parts would not be somewhere along those dimensions, even if in respect of other of its parts it would. But anything that in some respect is not, cannot be said to be, absolutely, without any qualification. (Cf. the same type of argumentation concerning absolute unity in my reconstruction of Augustine’s argument in De Libero Arbitrio, II, 8.) So the divine being cannot be divisible along any dimensions, whence it is simple, and it alone is what truly IS, without any qualification, limit, or restriction, in accordance with Exodus 3:13: “I am who am. This is what you shall say to the children of Israel: He who IS, has sent me to you”.

12.  It is this insight into the nature of divine perfection that allows Augustine a broader perspective on temporal being as a whole, and to solve the apparently puzzling aspects of creatio ex nihilo. (If the world came out of nothing, what is that nothing it came from? (well, nothing: there was not any thing such that the world came out of that thing, but of course there was something by which it came into being, namely, God) – what was there before? (only God) – if it makes sense to talk about what was before creation, then wasn’t there time? (no, before, need not only mean at an earlier time, for it may also mean earlier than at any time, i.e., before or earlier may be interpreted as a relation whose domain is [all things at] all times, but whose range is [all things at] all times plus something that is not in time).

13.  But then, with the philosophical understanding of temporal being and its relation to, and difference from, eternity at hand, Augustine can confidently set out on his quest for a deeper understanding of his faith, as revealed in Scripture.

14.  So the remaining task is exegesis, which is a process of gaining ever deeper understanding of the message of revelation, moving from the plain literal meaning of the text to various, occasionally conflicting allegorical meanings, whose conflicts, however, may just serve to bring out the underlying spiritual meaning. But reaching this spiritual meaning is nothing but catching sight precisely of that reflection of the divine light, that glimmer of divine wisdom in us, which was the whole point of the entire journey of the soul. That was its destination attainable in this life, preparing it for its final destiny in the next.


[1] Aristotle, Physics, IV, 10, 217b32-218a30.

[2] Aristotle, Physics, VI, 3, 234a9-23; and J. Buridan, Quaestiones super octo Physicorum libros Aristotelis: Kommentar zur Aristotelischen Physik (Paris: 1509, reprint: Frankfurt am Main: Minerva, 1964), lb. 6, q. 4.

[3] Buridan: Sophismata, c. 7. First Sophism.