5 May 2014

Augustine on Time, Confessions Book 11, summary

by Corry Shores [Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]
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[The following is summary and quotation. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are mine. Proofreading is incomplete, so mistakes are still present.]



Book XI
Brief summary:
Time is mysterious. We know there is a present. But it passes. The future and past do not exist, but we remember and anticipate them. Can the present have a duration? But whatever its duration, there will always be within it a segment that is more present. Thus the present is momentary and the past and future do not exist. However, because we remember and anticipate them right now in the present, there is “a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future.” Another mystery is when God created the world and thus when time began. God could not have existed in a moment before it, because there was no time before it. But God is eternal, and eternity does not have successive moments. All its parts are simultaneous. God did not exist successively before creation, but creation is the product of him. These mysteries of time tell us of the greatness of God whose ways we can scarcely comprehend.

Quoting Outler’s summarization at the beginning:
The eternal Creator and the Creation in time. Augustine ties together his memory of his past life, his present experience, and his ardent desire to comprehend the mystery of creation. This leads him to the questions of the mode and time of creation. He ponders the mode of creation and shows that it was de nihilo and involved no alteration in the being of God. He then considers the question of the beginning of the world and time and shows that time and creation are cotemporal. But what is time? To this Augustine devotes a brilliant analysis of the subjectivity of time and the relation of all temporal process to the abiding eternity of God. From this, he prepares to turn to a detailed interpretation of Gen. 1:1, 2. [215]
Chapter I

Augustine notes that God is eternal but his current appeals are temporal, and so he wonders if God can even hear them. [For, he might be somewhere else in time or even nowhere in time.]
Is it possible, O Lord, that, since thou art in eternity, thou art ignorant of what I am saying to thee? Or, dost thou see in time an event at the time it occurs? If not, then why am I recounting such a tale of things to thee? Certainly not in order to acquaint thee with them through me; but, instead, that through them I may stir up my own love and the love of my readers toward thee, so that all may say, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” I have said this before406 and will say it again: “For love of thy love I do it.”

Chapter II


Augustine confesses his ignorance of God’s divine law and how much he wants to meditate on it.


He asks for mercy for his longing.
“Thine is the day and the night is thine as well.” At thy bidding the moments fly by. Grant me in them, then, an interval for my meditations on the hidden things of thy law, nor close the door of thy law against us who knock.
Let me drink from thee and “consider the wondrous things out of thy law”416--from the very beginning, when thou madest heaven and earth, and thenceforward to the everlasting reign of thy Holy City with thee.


Augustine’s desire  for this knowledge comes from his love for God.
Chapter III


Augustine wants to know how God created heaven and earth. Moses wrote of it, but he is dead now.
since I cannot inquire of Moses, I beseech thee, O Truth, from whose fullness he spoke truth; I beseech thee, my God, forgive my sins, and as thou gavest thy servant the gift to speak these things, grant me also the gift to understand them.

Chapter IV


Because heaven and earth are changing, they must have been something different before. From this Augustine concludes they were created. [If something was always the same, then maybe it was always there without origin.]
Look around; there are the heaven and the earth. They cry aloud that they were made, for they change and vary. Whatever there is that has not been made, and yet has being, has nothing in it that was not there before. This having something not already existent is what it means to be changed and varied. Heaven and earth thus speak plainly that they did not make themselves: “We are, because we have been made; we did not exist before we came to be so that we could have made ourselves!” And the voice with which they speak is simply their visible presence.

Chapter V


Augustine wonders how God created the world. Man creates by changing the shapes of things already given to him. But God creates from nothing. And from what place did he create them? God must have created solely by his word.
But how didst thou make them? How, O God, didst thou make the heaven and earth? For truly, neither in heaven nor on earth didst thou make heaven and earth--nor in the air nor in the waters, since all of these also belong to the heaven and the earth. Nowhere in the whole world didst thou make the whole world, because there was no place where it could be made before it was made. And thou didst not hold anything in thy hand from which to fashion the heaven and the earth, for where couldst thou have gotten what thou hadst not made in order to make something with it? Is there, indeed, anything at all except because thou art? Thus thou didst speak and they were made, and by thy Word thou didst make them all.

Chapter VI


Augustine now wonders how God’s voice sounded out in creation. When announcing his son of God, it was a voice in time in the created world. But the eternal word that created the world could not be corporeal, because then something created would have preceded it. Augustine wonders if the word itself decreed that there be some source from which that word word be spoken?
And what these words were which were formed at that time the outer ear conveyed to the conscious mind, whose inner ear lay attentively open to thy eternal Word. But it compared those words which sounded in time with thy eternal word sounding in silence and said: “This is different; quite different! These words are far below me; they are not even real, for they fly away and pass, but the Word of my God remains above me forever.” If, then, in words that sound and fade away thou didst say that heaven and earth should be made, and thus madest heaven and earth, then there was already some kind of corporeal creature before heaven and earth by whose motions in time that voice might have had its occurrence in time. But there was nothing corporeal before the heaven and the earth; or if there was, then it is certain that already, without a time-bound voice, thou hadst created whatever it was out of which thou didst make the time-bound voice by which thou didst say, “Let the heaven and the earth be made!” For whatever it was out of which such a voice was made simply did not exist at all until it was made by thee. Was it decreed by thy Word that a body might be made from which such words might come?

Chapter VII


It seems Augustine is saying that the eternal word never finished. It also seems Augustine is saying that although the eternal word is not temporally located, God does say other things which are.
Thou dost call us, then, to understand the Word--the God who is God with thee--which is spoken eternally and by which all things are spoken eternally. For what was first spoken was not finished, and then something else spoken until the whole series was spoken; but all things, at the same time and forever. For, otherwise, we should have time and change and not a true eternity, nor a true immortality. [...] But there is nothing in thy Word that passes away or returns to its place; for it is truly immortal and eternal. And, therefore, unto the Word coeternal with thee, at the same time and always thou sayest all that thou sayest. And whatever thou sayest shall be made is made, and thou makest nothing otherwise than by speaking. Still, not all the things that thou dost make by speaking are made at the same time and always.

Chapter VIII


It seems here that Augustine is saying that because we see change, it tells us there must be an origin of change.

Why is this, I ask of thee, O Lord my God? I see it after a fashion, but I do not know how to express it, unless I say that everything that begins to be and then ceases to be begins and ceases when it is known in thy eternal Reason that it ought to begin or cease--in thy eternal Reason where nothing begins or ceases. And this is thy Word, which is also “the Beginning,” because it also speaks to us.424 Thus, in the gospel, he spoke through the flesh; and this sounded in the outward ears of men so that it might be believed and sought for within, and so that it might be found in the eternal Truth, in which the good and only Master teacheth all his disciples. There, O Lord, I hear thy voice, the voice of one speaking to me, since he who teacheth us speaketh to us. But he that doth not teach us doth not really speak to us even when he speaketh. Yet who is it that teacheth us unless it be the Truth immutable? For even when we are instructed by means of the mutable creation, we are thereby led to the Truth immutable. There we learn truly as we stand and hear him, and we rejoice greatly “because of the bridegroom’s voice,” restoring us to the source whence our being comes. And therefore, unless the Beginning remained immutable, there would then not be a place to which we might return when we had wandered away. But when we return from error, it is through our gaining knowledge that we return. In order for us to gain knowledge he teacheth us, since he is the Beginning, and speaketh to us.

Chapter IX


Augustine praises God.
“How wonderful are thy works, O Lord; in wisdom thou hast made them all.”428 And this Wisdom is the Beginning, and in that Beginning thou hast made heaven and earth.

Chapter X


In this section Augustine raises the issue of what comes before creation, but more importantly, if the creation was the will of God, and that will is as eternal as he is, then why is the world not as eternal as he is? Why did he have to create it?
Chapter XI


Augustine says that those who asks such questions do not understand how God creates things. They also do not understand the nature of eternity. It is not progressive time going on forever. To think that is to then be confused about beginnings and ends. In a long progressive time, what makes it long is that all the parts of that time are happen one after each other. But in eternity, the whole of time is simultaneous with itself.
They endeavor to comprehend eternal things, but their heart still flies about in the past and future motions of created things, and is still unstable. Who shall hold it and fix it so that it may come to rest for a little; and then, by degrees, glimpse the glory of that eternity which abides forever; and then, comparing eternity with the temporal process in which nothing abides, they may see that they are incommensurable? They would see that a long time does not become long, except from the many separate events that occur in its passage, which cannot be simultaneous. In the Eternal, on the other hand, nothing passes away, but the whole is simultaneously present. But no temporal process is wholly simultaneous. Therefore, let it see that all time past is forced to move on by the incoming future; | that all the future follows from the past; and that all, past and future, is created and issues out of that which is forever present. Who will hold the heart of man that it may stand still and see how the eternity which always stands still is itself neither future nor past but expresses itself in the times that are future and past? Can my hand do this, or can the hand of my mouth bring about so difficult a thing even by persuasion?
Chapter XII


[God is eternal. This means ‘before’ and ‘after’ does not have the normal meaning in terms of succession. The whole of eternity is simultaneous with itself. So we cannot designate in eternity points where one thing comes before or after another thing.] We would be misunderstanding the nature of eternity if we asked what God was doing before he made heaven and earth.
Chapter XIII


When God created the world, he created successive progressive time with it. There could not be a ‘before’ to is since no successivity existed until the world was created.
For in what temporal medium could the unnumbered ages that thou didst not make pass by, since thou art the Author and Creator of all the ages? Or what periods of time would those be that were not made by thee? Or how could they have already passed away if they had not already been? Since, therefore, thou art the Creator of all times, if there was any time before thou madest heaven and earth, why is it said that thou wast abstaining from working? For thou madest that very time itself, and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was no time. [161]


For eternal God, all of time is altogether at once. His years do not pass but rather are always abiding. All of time for Him is an eternal today.
Nor dost thou precede any given period of time by another period of time. Else thou wouldst not precede all periods of time. In the eminence of thy everpresent eternity, thou precedest all times past, and extendest beyond all future times, for they are still to come--and when they have come, they will be past. But “Thou art always the Selfsame and thy years shall have no end.” Thy years neither go nor come; but ours both go and come in order that all separate moments may come to pass. All thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding. Nor do thy years past exclude the years to come because thy years do not pass away. All these years of ours shall be with thee, when all of them shall have ceased to be. Thy years are but a day, and thy day is not recurrent, but always today. Thy “today” | yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity. Therefore, thou didst generate the Coeternal, to whom thou didst say, “This day I have begotten thee.” Thou madest all time and before all times thou art, and there was never a time when there was no time.
Chapter XIV


Augustine acknowledges that we have implicit knowledge of time, but we cannot say what it is.
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who can even comprehend it in thought or put the answer into words? Yet is it not true that in conversation we refer to nothing more familiarly or knowingly than time? And surely we understand it when we speak of it; we understand it also when we hear another speak of it.
What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.
He then wonders about the present. The present must pass, or else it would be eternal. But what defines time is that it is passing away. But then its cause of being seems like a contradiction. The present comes to exist because it ceasing to exist.
But, then, how is it that there are the two times, past and future, when even the past is now no longer and the future is now not yet? But if the present were always present, and did not pass into past time, it obviously would not be time but eternity. If, then, time present--if it be time--comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be? Thus, can we not truly say that time is only as it tends toward nonbeing?
Chapter XV


We say that some time ago was long ago. [It seems Augustine is then saying that a period of time can only be long if it is present, perhaps because when it is past it no longer exists. Perhaps Augustine is saying that the present of which it was a part carried on for a long time. Please see for yourself:]
And yet we speak of a long time and a short time; but never speak this way except of time past and future. We call a hundred years ago, for example, a long time past. In like manner, we should call a hundred years hence a long time to come. But we call ten days ago a short time past; and ten days hence a short time to come. But in what sense is something long or short that is nonexistent? For the past is not now, and the future is not yet. Therefore, let us not say, “It is long”; instead, let us say of the past, “It was long,” and of the future, “It will be long.” And yet, O Lord, my Light, shall not thy truth make mockery of man even here? For that long time past: was it long when it was already past, or when it was still present? For it might have been long when there was a period that could be long, but when it was past, it no longer was. In that case, that which was not at all could not be long. Let us not, therefore, say, “Time past was long,” for we shall not discover what it was that was long because, since it is past, it no longer exists. Rather, let us say that “time present was long, because when it was present it was long.” For then it had not yet passed on so as not to be, and therefore it still was in a state that could be called long. But after it passed, it ceased to be long simply because it ceased to be.


Augustine then points out that a long time cannot all be present. Only its most current part can be. [[This is a useful point for the discussion of Barry Dainton’s notion of the specious present. He claims that the present can have a length, and to say what Augustine is saying here that there must always be a privileged part of any duration that is present is called ‘presentism’]].
Is a hundred years when present a long time? But, first, see whether a hundred years can be present at once. For if the first year in the century is current, then it is present time, and the other ninety and nine are still future. Therefore, they are not yet. But, then, if the second year is current, one year is already past, the second present, and all the rest are future. And thus, if we fix on any middle year of this century as present, those before it are past, those after it are future. Therefore, a hundred years cannot be present all at once.
Let us see, then, whether the year that is now current can be present. For if its first month is current, then the rest are future; if the second, the first is already past, and the remainder are not yet. Therefore, the current year is not present all at once. And if it is not present as a whole, then the year is not present. For it takes twelve months to make the year, from which each individual month which is current is itself present one at a time, but the rest are either past or future.


But the present cannot have any length, because that length would always have a smaller more present point within it. The present must then be a durationless moment.
Thus it comes out that time present, which we found was the only time that could be called “long,” has been cut down to the space of scarcely a single day. But let us examine even that, for one day is never present as a whole. For it is made up of twenty-four hours, divided between night and day. The first of these hours has the rest of them as future, and the last of them has the rest as past; but any of those between has those that preceded it as past and those that succeed it as future. And that one hour itself passes away in fleeting fractions. The part of it that has fled is past; what remains is still future. If any fraction of time be conceived that cannot now be divided even into the most minute momentary point, this alone is what we may call time present. But this flies so rapidly from future to past that it cannot be extended by any delay. For if it is extended, it is then divided into past and future. But the present has no extension whatever.
Where, therefore, is that time which we may call “long”? Is it future? Actually we do not say of the future, “It is long,” for it has not yet come to be, so as to be long. Instead, we say, “It will be long.” When will it be? For since it is future, it will not be long, for what may be long is not yet. It will be long only when it passes from the future which is not as yet, and will have begun to be present, so that there can be something that may be long. But in that case, time present cries aloud, in the words we have already heard, that it cannot be “long.”
Chapter XVI


We measure time, even after it has passed. But Augustine also says that we cannot measure passed time, since it no longer exists. [I am not sure how it is we measure the present if it has no duration, unless we compare it with the past or future. So I am not sure what Augustine is saying here:]
And yet, O Lord, we do perceive intervals of time, and we compare them with each other, and we say that some are longer and others are shorter. We even measure how much longer or shorter this time may be than that time. And we say that this time is twice as long, or three times as long, while this other time is only just as long as that other. But we measure the passage of time when we measure the intervals of perception. But who can measure times past which now are no longer, or times future which are not yet--unless perhaps someone will dare to say that what does not exist can be measured? Therefore, while time is passing, it can be perceived and measured; but when it is past, it cannot, since it is not.
Chapter XVII


But we have much reason to think that there does exist a past and future.
Who can say that there is only time present because the other two do not exist? Or do they also exist; but when, from the future, time becomes present, it proceeds from some secret place; and when, from times present, it becomes past, it recedes into some secret place? For where have those men who have foretold the future seen the things foretold, if then they were not yet existing? For what does not exist cannot be seen. And those who tell of things past could not speak of them as if they were true, if they did not see them in their minds. These things could in no way be discerned if they did not exist. There are therefore times present and times past.
Chapter XVIII


So there is a past in future in some sense. But if they exist, they must be there somehow as present. When we remember something, that image is there presently to our mind. And it seems when we think about the future, it is also being conceived or imagined presently.
Give me leave, O Lord, to seek still further. O my Hope, let not my purpose be confounded. For if there are times past and future, I wish to know where they are. But if I have not yet succeeded in this, I still know that wherever they are, they are not there as future or past, but as present. For if they are there as future, they are there as “not yet”; if they are there as past, they are there as “no longer.” Wherever they are and whatever they are they exist therefore only as present. Although we tell of past things as true, they are drawn out of the memory--not the things themselves, which have already passed, but words constructed from the images of the perceptions which were formed in the mind, like footprints in their passage through the senses. My childhood, for instance, which is no longer, still exists in time past, which does not now exist. But when I call to mind its image and speak of it, I see it in the present because it is still in my memory. Whether there is a similar explanation for the foretelling of future events--that is, of the images of things which are not yet seen as if they were already existing--I confess, O my God, I do not know. But this I certainly do know: that we generally think ahead about our future actions, and this premeditation is in time present; but that the action which we premeditate is not yet, because it is still future. When we shall have started the action and have begun to do what we were premeditating, then that action will be in time present, because then it is no longer in time future.


So we do not foresee the things themselves, rather we see their signs or causes existing presently.
Whatever may be the manner of this secret foreseeing of future things, nothing can be seen except what exists. But what exists now is not future, but present. When, therefore, they say that future events are seen, it is not the events themselves, for they do not exist as yet (that is, they are still in time future), but perhaps, instead, their causes and their signs are seen, which already do exist. Therefore, to those already beholding these causes and signs, they are not future, but present, and from them future things are predicted because they are conceived in the mind. These conceptions, however, exist now, and those who predict those things see these conceptions before them in time present.
Chapter XIX


Augustine now asks how it is that God teaches the prophets of things in the future. [165]

Chapter XX


So there are three times, past, present, and future, but only insofar as they are given in the present. It is more accurate to speak of a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future.
But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation. If we are allowed to speak of these things so, I see three times, and I grant that there are three. Let it still be said, then, as our misapplied custom has it: “There are three times, past, present, and future.” I shall not be troubled by it, nor argue, nor object-- always provided that what is said is understood, so that neither the future nor the past is said to exist now. There are but few things about which we speak properly-- and many more about which we speak improperly--though we understand one another’s meaning.
Chapter XXI


We measure time, like from the past to know, as though it had extension. But we just said it does not have extension.
I have said, then, that we measure periods of time as they pass so that we can say that this time is twice as long as that one or that this is just as long as that, and so on for the other fractions of time which we can count by measuring.
So, then, as I was saying, we measure periods of time as they pass. And if anyone asks me, “How do you know this?”, I can answer: “I know because we measure. We could not measure things that do not exist, and things past and future do not exist.” But how do we measure present time since it has no extension? It is measured while it passes, but when it has passed it is not measured; for then there is nothing that could be measured. But whence, and how, and whither does it pass while it is being measured? Whence, but from the future? Which way, save through the present? Whither, but into the past? Therefore, from what is not yet, through what has no length, it passes into what is now no longer. But what do we measure, unless it is a time of some length? For we cannot speak of single, and double, and triple, and equal, and all the other ways in which we speak of time, except in terms of the length of the periods of time. But in what “length,” then, do we measure passing time? Is it in the future, from which it passes over? But what does not yet exist cannot be measured. Or, is it in the present, through which it passes? But | what has no length we cannot measure. Or is it in the past into which it passes? But what is no longer we cannot measure. [165-166]
Chapter XXII


Our assessments of measured time have meaning, but how so given that time has no extension? Augustine pleads with God for this knowledge.
Chapter XXIII


Some say that the motion of the heavenly bodies constitute time. But we can have ongoing cycles without them. And while they might measure time, we cannot thereby equate the two.


There is an absolute sort of time, such that if the sun stopped moving, we could still count the ‘days’ that it has not moved, since it measures time and does not constitute its passage. So it seems time in a way is an extension, but how?
I see, then, that time is a certain kind of extension. But do I see it, or do I only seem to? Thou, O Light and Truth, wilt show me.
Chapter XXIV


Some say that motion is time. But we measure also how long something is at rest.
Chapter XXV


Augustine confesses his ignorance of how we measure time when time has no extension, pleading for God to enlighten him on the matter.
Chapter XXVI


Augustine restates the question. How can we say that one duration is twice as long as another if neither extends and if both no longer exist?
Chapter XXVII


Augustine again restate the problem. We measure an event after it happened. But it no longer exists.


Augustine illustrates this problem with a phrase. It has short and long syllables. How is it that we measured them?


The future is constantly moving into the past, making the past larger and the future shorter. “The past increases by the diminution of the future until by the consumption of all the future all is past.” [170]
Chapter XXVIII


future time, which is nonexistent, is not long; but “a long future” is “a long expectation of the future.” Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; a “long past” is “a long memory of the past.”


Augustine now describes what happens when he repeats a Psalm. It is in his memory. And he anticipates saying it in the future. The future then carries over into the past, and yet his attention remained in the present the whole time. [171]
Chapter XXIX


Augustine finds inspiration in God. [Perhaps the point here is that because God is eternal, he is always before us.]
Thus through him I may lay hold upon him in whom I am also laid hold upon; and I may be gathered up from my old way of life to follow that One and to forget that which is behind, no longer stretched out but now pulled together again--stretching forth not to what shall be and shall pass away but to those things that are before me.
Chapter XXX


[It seems Augustine is no longer trying to get answers for his questions but is instead interesting in focusing on the divine reality of eternal time, which does not present these problems.]
Chapter XXXI


[It seems again that the idea is that for eternal God, all times are one. Perhaps the overall message is that time as we experience presents us with mysteries whose inexplicability results from the fact that time was caused by something eternal, and perhaps for that reason it is an odd mixture of eternal impermanence and momentary change. What is most important is that we take these mysteries of the time we experience as pointing to the majesty of the eternal creator. By meditating on the unsolvable mysteries of time, our attention and appreciation are directed to God.]
For whatever is past and whatever is yet to come would be no more concealed from him than the past and future of that psalm were hidden from me when I was chanting it: how much of it had been sung from the beginning and what and how much still remained till the end. But far be it from thee, O Creator of the universe, and Creator of our souls and bodies--far be it from thee that thou shouldst merely know all things past and future. Far, far more wonderfully, and far more mysteriously thou knowest them. For it is not as the feelings of one singing familiar | songs, or hearing a familiar song in which, because of his expectation of words still to come and his remembrance of those that are past, his feelings are varied and his senses are divided. This is not the way that anything happens to thee, who art unchangeably eternal, that is, the truly eternal Creator of minds. As in the beginning thou knewest both the heaven and the earth without any change in thy knowledge, so thou didst make heaven and earth in their beginnings without any division in thy action. Let him who understands this confess to thee; and let him who does not understand also confess to thee! Oh, exalted as thou art, still the humble in heart are thy dwelling place! For thou liftest them who are cast down and they fall not for whom thou art the Most High.
Augustine. Confessions. Ed. and Trans. Albert C. Outler. First published MCMLV Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 55-5021 This book is in the public domain. It was scanned from an uncopyrighted edition. Available online here:

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