Book 11 Overview

Having considered memory, Augustine moves on to the consideration of time itself, in which any recollection and confession must take place. Beginning with questions about Genesis and the creation of the world, Augustine expands his realm of inquiry in an attempt to account for the apparent separation of God (who is eternal) from his creation (which seems trapped in temporality). Throughout this Book, Augustine lets us know that these are extremely difficult questions for him, and continually asks God to help keep his mind focused. (This device probably serves at least two purposes: it mitigates the extent to which Augustine might be criticized for putting philosophy over God, and it helps to keep the reader from simply giving up on the intricacies of the argument).

Book 11 Summary & Analysis

Lines 1-16

Noting that any confession he makes must be ordered in time, Augustine again reminds us of the common ground between the philosophical, religious, and autobiographical material in his book: all are in praise of God.

Following this introduction (and justification), Augustine begins in earnest to determine when time started and the nature of God's relation to this "beginning." The first misconception to clear up concerns the statement in the Book of Genesis that God "made" creation. Augustine argues that God did not make the heavens and the earth in a literal sense (like a craftsman). In fact, God did not make his creation "within" the universe at all, since nothing (including space) could exist before this act of creation.

Turning to the mechanism by which God created, Augustine again puzzles over Genesis: "by your word you made [the creation]...but how did you speak?" As with his reading of the term "made" above, Augustine here shows us that the words of Genesis are not to be taken literally but spiritually (a crucial approach that he learned largely from Bishop Ambrose).

God created the universe with a "word," but this word is not like normal speech. Normal speech is successive—even a single word has a part that comes before and a part that follows. This cannot be the case with God's "word" of creation, because it would require there already to have been time before God created it. God's word cannot have unfolded in time (which did not yet exist), but must be "spoken eternally." It has no "becoming," and does not come into being over time. Rather, it is "spoken" continuously, and never changes.

If this is the case, however, how could it come to be that creation is temporal? If God created all through an eternally uttered Word, how could the things he created succeed one and other and change constantly? Augustine is not yet sure how to answer this question precisely, but he hints at a kind of holism-in-determinism. Things change, but only according to God's whole, unchanging design: "everything which begins to be and ceases to be begins and ends its existence at that moment when, in the eternal reason where nothing begins or ends, it is known that it is right for it to begin and end."

In the context of this roughly sketched answer, Augustine notes a deeper meaning of the word "beginning." God himself (in the form of Christ, who is the living "Word" of God) is the "beginning," not in the sense that he was there "first" (remember, God is eternal and has nothing to do with time) but in the sense that he is the "fixed point" to which we can return. "The Word" is first in the sense that he is the first cause, the unmoving point that is the source of all things. This reading of the "beginning" as the Word (Christ) allows Augustine to get around the apparently temporal implications of the "beginning" in Genesis.

Another way of stating this same interpretation is to refer to Christ (who is the "beginning") as "wisdom." Christ, for Augustine (and for all Christians), is the route by which one can seek the wisdom of God. Hence, Augustine can write here: "Wisdom is the beginning, and in the beginning you made heaven and earth." Again, this is a profoundly spiritual reading of the words used in Genesis. We are no longer talking about a temporal beginning at all, but simply about the context of eternal wisdom (accessible to us through Christ) in which God eternally "makes" the world.

Such a reading of Genesis also allows Augustine to respond to a criticism made by the Neoplatonist Porphyry (the primary disciple of Plotinus). Porphyry claimed that the creation was impossible, because there would have had to be a moment when God decided to create. In other words, the will of God (which is by definition unchanging) would have had to change.

Augustine can now reply that this is a misconception based on the failure to recognize the eternal, constant sense of the word "creation." God did not create the universe at a given time, because for God there isno time. The act of creation is both instantaneous and eternal. Since time is a feature only of the created world (not of God), there couldn't have been any time before God created the universe. Augustine puts this in a number of ways: "There was no 'then' when there was no time," or, "It is not in time that you [God] precede all times. Otherwise you would not precede all times." Again, God is "first" only in the sense of being the eternal cause of all creation. He wasn't "doing" anything before he created the world (a common Manichee challenge), because there was no "before."

Lines 17-41

Augustine now begins to consider time itself. He has argued that time has nothing to do with God himself (thus clearing up the apparent temporality of the creation act), but the creation in which we live still seems to exist in time. Following Aristotle, Augustine notes that everyone thinks they know what time is, at least until they are asked.

Past, present, and future seem to be the defining elements of time. Augustine begins, then, by noting that time depends on things passing away (past), things existing (present), and things arriving (future). Already, Augustine is ready to hint at a significant point: if time is defined by things arriving, remaining for a moment, and passing away, then time seems to depend utterly on a movement toward non-being. As Augustine quickly concludes, "indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence."

This idea (and its paradoxical consequences) will occupy Augustine for the rest of Book 11. He strengthens his proof that time does not exist with a lengthy discussion of past, present and future. Neither past nor future, he points out, actually exist—the past is certainly not extant now, and neither is the future (if they were, they would be the present). Even the present is hard to pin down; Augustine divides it into years, months, days, and so on, eventually determining that the present itself cannot truly be said to exist. The present occupies "no space" of course, but it also has "no duration" (any duration would immediately become past and future, which do not exist). Thus, when we look for time we find it to have no real existence.

Nonetheless, time would seem to have some sort of existence, since we can all talk about it and even measure it. The best Augustine can do here is to say that time can only exist in the present, through the mechanisms of memory and prediction. The past is nothing but memory images that exist in the present. The future, on the other hand, gets its apparent existence from predictions based on signs that exist in the present. With this provisional account of "where" time exists, Augustine is willing to accept the common "usage" of the terms past, present, and future (as long as we know we are actually only referring to a present instant without duration).

Augustine still has a problem, however, because it does appear that we can measure time. Yet how could we possibly be measuring something that has no actual duration and (of course) no extension? A provisional answer may lie in the fact that we seem to measure time as it "passes" through the present moment.

This still leaves us, however, with the paradox of measurement--we may measure time as it passes us, but with what? Given only the present instant, what increments could we possibly use to measure something with no duration or extension?

Augustine toys with and dismisses some possible accounts of temporal measurement put forth by others, most significantly the astronomically inspired idea that time is measured by the movements of the heavenly bodies. He argues strongly that bodies, heavenly or otherwise, move in time, and are not themselves definitive of time. The course of the sun may mark a day, but twenty-four hours would still pass if the sun stopped.

Augustine has now debunked a number of ideas about time, namely the idea that it has any existence other than in a durationless present instant. He still, however, cannot account for the "time" with which we all are familiar. Indeed, he will not provide a solid answer at all. He does make one suggestion, however: time seems to be a sort of "distention" (distentio; stretching) of the soul. The soul, which should be abiding in the eternal present (since no other time truly exists), becomes stretched out into temporality, into an apparent successiveness of events.

This idea, though it goes largely unexplicated, comes from Plotinus, who wrote of time as "a spreading out of life." Unlike Plotinus, however, Augustine sees this stretching or distension as a painful fall away from God. This is another version of the fall from God's eternal, unified, and unchanging grace into the created world of multiplicity and temporality.

Augustine does offer some brief confirmation of this idea that time is a property not of the external world but rather of the soul itself. Returning to the issue of memory, he notes that when we appear to be measuring time as some property of the world, we are actually measuring something in our own memory. Since the past does not truly exist, we can only be considering the images of past times as they are now retained within us. Thus, it would indeed seem that time is some property of the mind (or soul) itself, perhaps a kind of "distention."

Augustine closes this discussion with a comparison between his own existence in temporality and God's existence in eternity. Augustine, muddled in his complex pursuit of the nature of time, finds himself "scattered in times whose order I do not understand." For God, on the other hand, it is not simply a matter of being able to know all times (as a superhuman might), but a matter of the unity of all times in a single, timeless eternity.