Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 11 Sections 14 28 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 11, Sections 14–28 (Time and Eternity) | Summary

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Summary

Augustine then asks a hackneyed question: "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?" In developing an answer he says, "Eternity, which stands firm, has neither future nor past, but ordains future and past times." The "measureless ages" could not have passed by if God had not made them; indeed, they could not have existed if God had not created them. There could have been no passing time before God created heaven and earth. Augustine says, "If, therefore, there was no time before heaven and earth came to be, how can anyone ask what you were doing then? There was no such thing as 'then' when there was no time." Thus, there was never a time when God had not made anything, since he created time itself. What then, is time?

The human mind has the power of being aware of duration and can even measure it. Augustine then pares time down to a hypothetical moment, the smallest possible particle that can be called the present, and finds that the "present" flies by from the future into the past so quickly that "it seems to last no time at all." The present is thus "reduced to a vanishing-point." Thus, time disappears, even though people are aware of duration. But in truth, human beings can't measure the duration of the past nor the future in their awareness because it no longer exists. It now becomes clear that neither the past nor the future "have any existence."

Analysis

These sections are quite brilliant in their reasoning. The Manichaeans who make fun of parts of the Bible (particularly the stories of the Old Testament) taunt orthodox Christian believers by asking them what God was doing before creation. Augustine's answer to this is that time (temporality) did not exist before creation, since it came into being with creation. God created time when he created manifestation (the material world). To ask where God was is also a silly question because God does not live in time, and in that sense there never was a time when Creation did not exist. God is always in the now, which must encompass people's ideas of the past and the future.

Next, Augustine analyzes time to show how there is only the now. In a thought experiment he imagines the smallest piece of time—less than a moment, perhaps—and concludes that the future is flying by into the present and receding into the past; in the process the moment is continually vanishing. Memory allows people to create a mental construct of duration, which is entirely relative. The measurement of time is derived from the experience of duration, since time cannot be grasped. In these sections Augustine is thinking about questions that continue to engage not only theologians but also physicists and neuroscientists. Although physicists have sophisticated methods for measuring duration, time has no physical attributes, and there is no direct evidence of time. There are even a few physicists who have argued that time doesn't exist. Scientists today talk about space-time, and neuroscientists wrestle with questions of how memory works and why some people lose the ability to keep track of time. From a philosophical perspective, Augustine's conclusions make sense: while people can imagine the past and the future, they can live only in the now.

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