Saint Augustine of Hippo
Born Aurelius Augustinus at Thagaste in Roman North Africa (today’s Algeria) of a pagan father and Christian mother, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was formally educated as a rhetorician, but sought pagan, Manichaean, and Neoplatonic answers to questions about reality. After his conversion to Christianity, he became a monk, and in the year 396 was appointed bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. He wrote sermons, devotions, prayers, letters, polemical writings (against Manichaeans, Donatists, and Pelagians), and doctrinal treatises (e.g., On Christian Doctrine and On the Trinity). He is best known for his autobiography of his conversion, The Confessions, and his apologetic of divine providence, The City of God.
Augustine helped to develop the Christian view of time, particularly in the following writings: On Music, The Immortality of the Soul, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and chiefly in The Confessions, his account of his early life up to his conversion to Catholic Christianity and his decision to enter service to the church. The first ten books contain this story, and the final three contemplate God and Creation. In Book 11, amid a discussion on the creation of the cosmos, Saint Augustine enters into a meditation on time. The bishop of Hippo does not give us a scholastic argument, but in humility, an extended prayer and dialogue on time and eternity, in which he asks God to reveal to him the mystery of time, “this most intricate enigma.”
Saint Augustine first asks about God in relationship to time. He notes that God is eternal and changeless and, as time means change, then time is not eternity. Time is a creature, a creation of God; thus God is exempt from the relation of time. Eternity is fixed and time is never fixed: “No time is all at once present.” Before creation, there was no time—no past and no future: “Before all times God is: neither in any time was time not.”
Next, Augustine discusses humanity in relation to time: for Saint Augustine, it is always present and never past or future. Using images of time, motion, age, and words, he discusses the extent of the present and our perception of intervals of time. Although we recognize a past in memories (as in our childhood) and future (as in contemplating our next action), they are not present. He then proposes three categories of time: “a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future,” all perceived by memory (present past), sight (present present), and expectation (present future).
After addressing humanity in relation to time, Saint Augustine discusses the measurement of time. Humans measure time in space, in that we perceive time as an extension or distention a stretching of our humanness. Yet not only do humans measure time as a movement in space but we also measure time even when things are standing still. So time, then, is not the motion of a body. Time is measured by long time and short time, “a protraction,” though we do not measure the past, present, and future. It is in the human mind that times are measured in proportion as they pass by in short or long. So, the human mind expects, considers, and remembers time: “that is that which it expects, through that which it considers, passes into that which it remembers.”
Finally, Saint Augustine sees time as a distention, a distraction in life (ecce distentio est vita mea). He concludes that time, needing the human mind to consider it, cannot exist outside of creation and is not eternal. Therefore, God is eternal as are all those things that are co-eternal with God (the Word and the Spirit).
For Saint Augustine, while time is inscrutable, time is a mutable creation of God. Time is always present and measurable only in proportion to that present. Because time is measured by human beings, it is human beings that have the sensation of time stretching and spreading each human in the journey of time.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aquinas and Augustine; Bible and Time; Christianity; Eternity; God and Time; God as Creator; Time, Sacred
Flasch, K. (1993). What is time? St. Augustine of Hippo. The confessions, Book XI. Frankfurt, Germany: Klostermann.
George, T. (2005). St. Augustine and the mystery of time. In H. L. Poe & J. S. Mattson (Eds.), What God knows: Time, eternity, and divine knowledge. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Jackelen, A. (2005). Time and eternity. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation.