Mon 22 Feb 2010
“If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know” (Confessions 11.14). So Augustine presents the puzzle that is time. It seems obvious to us that time is real. We sing songs, we play games, we read blogs—all of which take time. If our timing is off on any of these, they suffer or cease to be. But when we try to define time, we run into trouble. The two traditional approaches to the problem—that from the many and that from the one—do not seem to get us very far.
From the perspective of the many, understanding time seems impossible. For atomism old and new (Democritus or Hume), time is quantified into discrete moments with no real relation to each other. Augustine tries out this method of analysis in his reflections. He says we speak as if there were three times—past, present, and future—but our words seem to have no real referent. The past is gone; the future is yet to come; and the present has no space. Thus, none of the times we speak of really exists.
From the perspective of the one, time fares no better. As Parmenides presupposes logically and Plato proves from the many changing things we experience, the ultimate principle of explanation is one—unchanging and timeless. Intelligibility seems to transcend space and time, and so must its principle. Were the one in time, it would not be primary. The duality of the one and the temporal context in which it is found would need to be accounted for by some prior principle, and that principle would be the true one. It is the Forms which are intelligible (and ultimately the Form of Forms—the Good or One), not the changing and multifarious particulars. At times Augustine seems to buy into this Platonic (later Cartesian) answer. “That truly exists which endures unchangeably” (Confessions 7, 11).
If time is fundamentally unintelligible, either because of a materialist disintegration or an idealist transcendence, then it does not seem to be worth the time to discuss it.
But Augustine cannot accept either answer to the puzzle that is time, nor give up trying to answer it himself. He cannot and remain true to his human intuition of the reality of time and, even more profoundly, to his Christian commitment. “When shall I suffice to proclaim by the tongue of my pen all your exhortations, and all your warnings, consolations, and acts of guidance, by which you have led me to preach your Word and dispense your sacrament to your people? If I am sufficient to declare all these in due order, the drops of time are precious to me” (Confessions 11.2). Faith comes through hearing, and our participation in salvation is sacramental: time is essential to both.
How, then, Augustine asks, can we explain time? It must somehow be simultaneously one and many, transcendent and experiential. Augustine ends up calling time a “distention” of the mind (Confessions 11.26) by which we simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation. The analogy he uses to illustrate his point is more helpful (if less analytical—perhaps because less analytical) than his idea of distention. Time is like the recitation of a psalm or the singing of a song, which requires the continuing presence in the mind of past and future, memory and expectation, for its accomplishment. Every part is related at every time to the other parts and to the whole. “What takes part in the whole psalm takes place also in each of its parts and in each of its syllables. The same thing holds for a longer action, of which perhaps the psalm is a small part. The same holds for a man’s entire life, the parts of which are all the man’s actions. The same thing holds throughout the whole age of the sons of men, the parts of which are the lives of all men” (Confessions, 11.28).
All times exist simultaneously in the Creator, who is present as Creator to all moments of time. Our minds, too, grasp simultaneously past, present, and future. Intelligent conversation shows this to be true. Indeed, Augustine will conclude that the mind can know, choose, and communicate only as it participates in and is illuminated by God, who is “truly eternal, the creator of minds” (Confessions 11.31).