Tuesday, 13 November 2012

St. Augustine writing about time

'Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.'
(Time, that is a strange thing)
Aria from act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss

When at a bright night we are looking at the stars, we are looking far back into time.  I realized this again, when I was last weekend at some place outside the city. It was in the middle of nowhere, with the Ijsselmeer at one side and endless green pastures at the other side. There were neither streetlights, nor the lights of big buildings, just the bright lights of the stars and even the Milky Way was visible. I could very well imagine that the Babylonians and many other peoples and tribes took their religious inspiration from the stars, but I must say that as a historian of religion, I am unashamedly romantic – as I think many historians of religions are. While looking at the stars and being fascinated by the idea of looking backwards into time, it suddenly crossed my mind that in his Confessiones, that strange combination of autobiography, prayer and philosophical reflections, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote about the concept of time. First he stated that eternity is not the endless sum of time, but something outside time. In this way he solved the problem of God’s foreknowledge. As God created time, he must stand outside time and so He can see what will happen. St. Augustine doesn’t use the word `other dimension’ but that is exactly what it is. Suppose there are flatlanders living in a 2 dimensional world: we can see this 2 dimensional world as a postcard or a picture and, looking to it from a 3 dimensional world, we can see it at one glance. Now God is looking to us living in time from a dimension outside time and so He can see past, present and future at one glance. One doesn’t need to be religious to see the brilliance of this thought. Next St. Augustine asks himself: what is time? 

Confessiones 11.17 (XIV)
(…). quid est enim tempus? quis hoc facile breviterque explicaverit? quis hoc ad verbum de illo proferendum vel cogitatione comprehenderit? quid autem familiarius et notius in loquendo commemoramus quam tempus? et intellegimus utique cum id loquimur, intellegimus etiam cum alio loquente id audimus. quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus. duo ergo illa tempora, praeteritum et futurum, quomodo sunt, quando et praeteritum iam non est et futurum nondum est? praesens autem si semper esset praesens nec in praeteritum transiret, non iam esset tempus, sed aeternitas. si ergo praesens, ut tempus sit, ideo fit, quia in praeteritum transit, quomodo et hoc esse dicimus, cui causa, ut sit, illa est, quia non erit, ut scilicet non vere dicamus tempus esse, nisi quia tendit non esse?

The Latin is not easy!

quis hoc ad verbum de illo proferendum vel cogitatione comprehenderit? Who can understand this by talking (ad verbum proferendum = by bringing to word) about this even (vel) by thinking? (Vel has here probably not the meaning of a disjunctive but is an intensifying particle, though some translators take it as a disjunctive, like the one I copied below.)
commemoro (1): to mention
utique: certainly
cum alio loquente = cum alius loquaretur
quaero – sivi –situs: to ask
praeter-eo: to pass away
fidenter tamen….praesens tempus. i.e. If nothing happens, then there is no time
duo ergo…sed aeternitas.   We speak of two times: past and future, however, If the past time isn’t there anymore and if the future time isn’t there yet, then there is no time at all, but just eternity. We can quibble about the last point, but in St. Augustine’s definition of eternity is that, where no time exists. Present time does not exist at an ontological level, as it is an in-between these two times. We are so to say in a constant flow. This is further explained in the next sentence.
si ergo praesens, ut tempus sit, ideo fit, quia in praeteritum transit, quomodo et hoc esse dicimus, cui causa, ut sit, illa est, quia non erit, ut scilicet non vere dicamus tempus esse, nisi quia tendit non esse?
The words are not difficult, but the train of thought is, and indeed the syntax doesn’t make it easier to understand. Many translators have been wrestling how to translate this and I have seen some monstrosities. I will first give a literal translation - as far as possible – and then an understandable translation:
If therefore the present, as soon as it exists as time, in that way acts, that it goes over to the past, how can we say that that exists, for which the reason (of its existence), as soon as it exists, this is, that it will not exist, so that we indeed cannot say in truth that time exists, unless it strives not to exist?
And now what St. Augustine meant to say:
If the present time, as soon as it exists, will go over to the past, how can we say that the present time exists, as the reason for its existence is to become non-existent? So indeed can we not say in truth that time exists only in so far it strives to become nothing?

St. Augustine continues trying to understand time. He asks what it means when we speak of a short and long time ago or in the future. The past does not exist anymore and the future isn’t here yet, so past and future are non-existent. But how can we attribute a quantity to something that does not exist? He comes to the conclusion that it is in our and with our mind that we measure time: the past is in our remembrance, the future in our expectations. Time is in our mind and it is a subjective experience. It took St. Augustine pages of Latin to come to this conclusion, but he had no predecessors to build upon. It was worth the trouble: up to this day philosophers have been fascinated by his treatment of time and that is not a bad result for a bishop living 1600 years ago!

Translation by Abert C. Outler (1955)

17 (…) 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. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time.
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?

About the Confessiones

About St. Augustine

Aria from the Rosenkavalier


  1. The punctuation helps a lot when trying to translate this.
    I guess there was not much punctuation in the original text?

  2. Indeed, the punctuation is made by later editors.