Do you know the concept of guilty pleasures? Till some weeks ago it was unknown to me, but it is taking pleasure in listening to music which is considered wrong. The context was pop music, but transferred to my taste of music it is something like admiring Brahms and Bruckner, but secretly also having a weak spot for waltzes and operettas from late 19th century Austria. I confess… Talking about confessions, I have also a guilty pleasure in reading Saint Augustine’s Confessiones. It is the kind of literature left aside by classicists – too late, too Christian - and by theologians – old stuff and in Latin. Besides isn’t that the man to whom we own the burden of original sin? Yes, but he was an existentialist writer. Of course he expresses himself in the ideas of his time – how could he else? – but there is something fascinating in his soul searching and his intellectual honesty.
Augustine is contemplating God’s eternity and the relation between eternity and time. The question is: if God is eternal, why isn’t the world eternal? Or in modern terms: why is there something rather than nothing and what was there before the Big Bang?
qui haec dicunt nondum te intellegunt, o sapientia dei, lux mentium, nondum intellegunt quomodo fiant quae per te atque in te fiunt, et conantur aeterna sapere, sed adhuc in praeteritis et futuris rerum motibus cor eorum volitat et adhuc vanum est. quis tenebit illud et figet illud, ut paululum stet, et paululum rapiat splendorem semper stantis aeternitatis, et comparet cum temporibus numquam stantibus, et videat esse incomparabilem, et videat longum tempus, nisi ex multis praetereuntibus motibus qui simul extendi non possunt, longum non fieri; non autem praeterire quicquam in aeterno, sed totum esse praesens; nullum vero tempus totum esse praesens; et videat omne praeteritum propelli ex futuro et omne futurum ex praeterito consequi, et omne praeteritum ac futurum ab eo quod semper est praesens creari et excurrere? quis tenebit cor hominis, ut stet et videat quomodo stans dictet futura et praeterita tempora nec futura nec praeterita aeternitas? numquid manus mea valet hoc aut manus oris mei per loquellas agit tam grandem rem?
qui haec dicunt: those who say that the world must be eternal
conor conatus sum: to try
sapio sapivi: to taste, perceive, understand
paululum: for a moment
rapio rapui raptum: to seize
nisi ex multis praetereuntibus motibus : it is by movement that time is constructed e.g. the movement of the stars.
sed totum esse praesens: eternity is not an extension of time, but an absence of time and therefore everything is present there, as there is no movement.
omne praeteritum propelli ex future: all past to be driven away by the future i.e. there is a constant flux.
ab eo quod semper est: i.e. eternity
quis tenebit cor hominis: because our mind (`cor’) is constant moving, we are unable to grasp fully the idea of eternity.
quomodo stans aeternitas dictet: eternity `dictates’ time
valeo valui: to be able to
Saint Augustine answers now the question what God did before He created the world: nothing!
ecce respondeo dicenti, 'quid faciebat deus antequam faceret caelum et terram?' respondeo non illud quod quidam respondisse perhibetur, ioculariter eludens quaestionis violentiam: 'alta,' inquit, 'scrutantibus gehennas parabat.' aliud est videre, aliud ridere: haec non respondeo. libentius enim responderim, 'nescio quod nescio' quam illud unde inridetur qui alta interrogavit et laudatur qui falsa respondit. sed dico te, deus noster, omnis creaturae creatorem et, si caeli et terrae nomine omnis creatura intellegitur, audenter dico, 'antequam faceret deus caelum et terram, non faciebat aliquid.' si enim faciebat, quid nisi creaturam faciebat? et utinam sic sciam quidquid utiliter scire cupio, quemadmodum scio quod nulla fiebat creatura antequam fieret ulla creatura.
quidam …perhibetur: someone is alleged to
eludo elusi elusum: to mock
violentiam `force, earnestness’
alta scrutantibus: for those examining deep items
gehenna (Hebrew): hell
unde: by which
si enim faciebat, quid nisi creaturam faciebat? i.e. to create means to create something, but this would imply – according to Augustine - the beginning of time. So the answer to the question of what God did before the creation must be `nothing’.
et utinam sic sciam quidquid utiliter scire cupio, quemadmodum scio quod nulla fiebat creatura antequam fieret ulla creatura: And I pray I could know whatever I desire to know to my advantage in the same why as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.
Translation by J.G. Pilkington (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1886)
13. Those who say these things do not as yet understand You, O Thou Wisdom of God, Thou light of souls; not as yet do they understand how these things be made which are made by and in You. They even endeavour to comprehend things eternal; but as yet their heart flies about in the past and future motions of things, and is still wavering. Who shall hold it and fix it, that it may rest a little, and by degrees catch the glory of that everstanding eternity, and compare it with the times which never stand, and see that it is incomparable; and that a long time cannot become long, save from the many motions that pass by, which cannot at the same instant be prolonged; but that in the Eternal nothing passes away, but that the whole is present; but no time is wholly present; and let him see that all time past is forced on by the future, and that all the future follows from the past, and that all, both past and future, is created and issues from that which is always present? Who will hold the heart of man, that it may stand still, and see how the still-standing eternity, itself neither future nor past, utters the times future and past? Can my hand accomplish this, or the hand of my mouth by persuasion bring about a thing so great?
14. Behold, I answer to him who asks, "What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?" I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), "He was preparing hell," says he, "for those who pry into mysteries." It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh—these things I answer not. For more willingly would I have answered, "I know not what I know not," than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asks deep things, and gain praise as one who answers false things. But I say that Thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature; and if by the term "heaven and earth" every creature is understood, I boldly say, "That before God made heaven and earth, He made not anything. For if He did, what did He make unless the creature?" And would that I knew whatever I desire to know to my advantage, as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.