St Augustine On Time

Peter Oye Sagay

The great theologian and philosopher St Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) was born in Tagaste, Numidia (a place now called Souk-Ahras, Algeria) in North Africa. His analysis of Time as presented in his treatise, The Confessions: Book XI, Time and Eternity, remains one of the most insightful.

St Augustine's analysis of Time can be categorized into two broad stages: In the first stage, his focus was on the realities of past time, present time, and future time. I call these components the Time Triad. St Augustine wrote: "What about those two times, past and future: in what sense do they have real being, if the past no longer exists and the future does not exist yet? As for the present time, if that were always present and never slipped away into the past, it would not be time at all; it will be eternity." He plausibly argued that the time triad are realities in the mind: the present is a fleeting attention; our acquaintance with the past is through present recollection of it; and our acquaintance with the future is through expectation. He wrote:

It is inaccurate to say, "there are three tenses of time: past, present and future," though it might properly be said, "there are three tenses of times: the present of past things, the present of present things, the present of future things." These are three realities in the mind, but nowhere else as far as I can see, for the present of past things is memory, the present of present things is attention, and the present of future things is ex[ectation. If we are allowed to put it that way, I do see three tenses or times, and admit that they are three."

In the second stage, St Augustine's focus was on the nature of Time and how it is measured. He wrote:

" I want to know the essence and nature of time, whereby we measure the movement of bodies and say, for instance, that one movement lasts twice as long as another." He rejected the assertion that Time is the motion of celestial bodies. For he believed that Time will still exist if celestial bodies were not in motion and that the movements of celestial bodies are markers of Time. He wrote: "No corporeal object moves except within time... When a body moves, I measure in terms of time how long it is in motion, from the moment when it begins until its motion ceases. If I did not notice when it began, and it continues to move without my seeing when it stops, I cannot measure the time, except perhaps the interval between the moment when I began to watch and that when I cease to observe it...If the motion of an object is one thing, and the standard by which we measure its duration another, is it not obvious which of the two has the stronger claim to be called time?"

St Augustine used several interesting illustrations to explain the nature of Time. Here is one of such illustrations:

"Suppose I have to recite a poem I know by heart. Before I begin, my expectation is directed to the whole poem, but once I have begun, whatever I have plucked away from the domain of expectation and tossed behind to the past becomes the business of my memory, and the vital energy of what I am doing is in tension between the two of them: it strains toward my memory because of the part I have already recited, and to my expectation on account of the part I still have to speak. But my attention is present all the while, for the future is being channeled through it to become the past. As the poem goes on and on, expectation is curtailed and memory prolonged, until expectation is entirely used up, when the whole completed action has passed into memory."

St Augustine concluded his exposition of Time as follows:

"There are three realities in the mind,...the present of past things is memory, the present of present things is attention, and the present of future things is expectation. The mind expects, and attends, and remembers, so that what it expects passes by way of what it attends to into what it remembers... In you, my mind, I measure time..What I measure is the impression which passing phenomena leave in you, which abides after they have passed by... the impression itself is what I measure when I measure intervals of time. Hence either time is this impression, or what I measure is not time."

In essence, St Augustine posited that Time is a continuum of existential awareness and is measured through the intervals of its continuity. Finally he presented the Wholeness of Time. He wrote:

"What is true of the poem as a whole is true equally of its individual stanzas and syllables.The same is true of the whole long performance, in which this poem may be a single item. The same thing happens in the entirety of a person's life, of which all his actions are parts; and the same in the entire sweep of human history, the parts of which are individual human lives."
Bergson On Time

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