Augustine’s Understanding of Time and the Problem of Time

Augustine’s Understanding of Time and the Problem of Time

June 26, 2021 Off By Felso

Augustine is a name often cited in discussions of time. The subject of time is one of the most striking parts of his book “Confessions”. According to him, time that we perceive and know and real time are separate things.

Augustine began to examine the problem of time starting from the 11th book in his “Confessions”. His study had a profound effect.

As a matter of fact, Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenology movement, quoted Augustine’s statements on this subject at the very beginning of his work in which he analyzed the inner time consciousness and admitted that he was influenced by the way he handled this problem.

The passage in which Augustine posed the problem in his “Confessions” is as follows:

“Indeed, what is time? Who can identify it easily and immediately? Who will grasp it, at least with thought, enough to put it into words? But can we say something closer and more recognizable in conversation than time? We certainly understand it when we speak of it, and we understand it again when someone else speaks of it. So what time is it? I know if no one asked me this; but if I wanted to explain it to the person asking, I don’t know.” (Augustinus, Confessions, book 11, chapter 14).

Augustine sees God as the Maker of all times. Hence, “What was God doing before he created heaven and earth?” He says that those who ask, are stupid and do not know what they are asking. For times did not pass before God, who created the times, made them. So when there is no time, “What was God doing before he created time?” To ask would be to assume a time before times, which is obviously nonsense.

As a matter of fact, according to Augustine, time is out of question for God to come before times. Because otherwise God would not have come before all times. However, God is eternal and transcendent to all times.

The years of God are neither going nor coming. For him, just as there is no past, there is no future. Our years will come and go. God’s years are one day, and his day is not every day. His day is always today. Because its today does not disappear with tomorrow and it did not come after yesterday. God’s present is eternity. It is God who makes all time. It would therefore be illogical to speak of a time when God did nothing.

Augustine had an admirable insight into and articulated the paradoxical aspects of time. He describes such a paradoxical situation in “Confessions”:

“Yet I can say with certainty that if nothing had happened there would be no past tense, if nothing would have happened there would be no future tense, if nothing had happened there would be no present. So, these two tenses, past and future, since the past is no more and the future is not yet, in what form does it exist? Again, if the present was always now, if it were not lost in the past, it would no longer be ‘time’, it would be eternity. So, in what sense can we call it ‘Exists’ if the ‘now’ has to be lost in the past in order to become ‘time’? Since it exists because it ceases to exist, then it is correct to say that there is ‘time’ as it ceases to exist.” (Augustinus, Confessions, book 11, chapter 15).

The works of Augustine are full of countless rich ideas about which volumes could be written. In this lesson, we are content with making an extremely incomplete exposition of his thoughts. Augustine is a very important thinker who changed and enriched the mentality of the Middle Ages.

His work has also profoundly influenced existential philosophers such as the School of Phenomenology. Nicolai de Malebranche, who is also one of the important philosophers of the New Age, developed an original interpretation known as occasionalism (intermediate causality, occasionalism), which combines the philosophy of Augustine with the philosophy of Descartes.

Human understanding is incapable of reaching the reality of time. Man can only perceive the passage of time. The past, future, and present divisions are time units that have no reality, but are designs of our minds.

With an impressive reasoning of Augustine, he states that the past tense no longer exists, the future tense does not exist yet, and we cannot know because we cannot determine the dimensions of the present as the only tense we have left. The time we measure and divide into units is when we perceive its passage, whereas we do not know whether time has passed, or what time is in it. Time is an eternal flow for us, and therefore we do not know the nature, direction, spread, dimensions of this flow; real time is always outside of us.

Thus, reality and knowledge are fundamentally separated over the concept of time, and when it comes to modern philosophy, this distinction will be a fundamental philosophical trend, as in the example of Kant.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd Year