Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 11 Sections 29 41 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 11, Sections 29–41 (Time and Eternity) | Summary



Augustine refutes the idea that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars constitute time. In that case, the movement of all material things must also constitute time, which makes no sense. He now concludes that time is "a kind of strain or tension," perhaps of consciousness itself, and asks God, addressing him as "Light" and "Truth," to instruct him further. He confesses that he still doesn't know what time is, although he realizes that he is speaking "in time." He notes that he measures time in his mind but says it has no objective existence. Augustine arrives at a dead end, confessing his life "is no more than anxious distraction" although "the Son of Man ... upholds me." His thoughts will continue to be torn into bits by change, he says, until that time when he flows into God, "purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love." He concludes that nothing happens to God in his "unchangeable eternity," who knew "earth in the beginning" and "made heaven and earth in the beginning without any distension in ... [his] activity."


After explaining his own ideas about time, Augustine goes on to dispute the notion that somehow the movement of the sun, stars, and planets are creating time. He uses another thought experiment, imagining a potter's wheel that keeps turning even after the "luminaries" in the sky have stopped moving, to show that these celestial objects are not creating time. When Augustine refers to time as tension in human consciousness, he is borrowing from the Neoplatonist Plotinus, according to the editors of the Maria Boulding translation of The Confessions. Plotinus says that time is a diastasis or spreading out of the soul. This refers to the soul's (mind's) ability to move back in time, by remembering, and forward by anticipating the future. The relative nature of time can be seen even in an individual life: in childhood time goes very slowly, and as a person ages, it seems to pass more quickly. This is because there is more in memory in the form of time that has passed. Thus, a year for a middle-aged person passes more quickly than one for a child because the child is comparing a year against few years that have already passed, while the adult is comparing that same year against decades of lived years.

Augustine admits at the end of this discourse that his ability to think about eternity has its limits. In referring to his life as "anxious distraction," perhaps he means that worry is the product of living either in the past or the future instead of in the now, where God is more easily found. Thus, he asks that he "may be gathered in from dispersion in my stale days to pursue the One, forgetting the past and stretching undistracted not to future things doomed to pass away, but to my eternal goal."

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