i (1) Lord, eternity is yours, so you cannot be ignorant of what I tell you. Your vision of occurrences in time is not temporally conditioned. Why then do I set before you an ordered account of so many things? It is certainly not through me that you know them. But I am stirring up love for you in myself and in those who read this, so that we may all say ‘Great is the Lord and highly worthy to be praised’ (Ps. 47: 1).1 I have already affirmed this and will say it again: I tell my story for love of your love.2 We pray, and yet the truth says ‘Your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matt. 6: 8). Therefore I lay bare my feelings towards you, by confessing to you my miseries and your mercies to us (Ps. 32: 22), so that the deliverance you have begun may be complete. So I may cease to be wretched in myself and may find happiness in you. For you have called us to be ‘poor in spirit’, meek, mournful, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peace-makers (Matt. 5: 3–9).
See, the long story I have told to the best of my ability and will responds to your prior will that I should make confession to you, my Lord God. For ‘you are good, for your mercy is for ever.’ (Ps. 117: 1).
ii (2) But when shall I be capable of proclaiming by ‘the tongue of my pen’ (Ps. 44: 2) all your exhortations and all your terrors and consolations and directives, by which you brought me to preach your word and dispense your sacrament to your people? And if I have the capacity to proclaim this in an ordered narrative, yet the drops of time3 are too precious to me. For a long time past I have been burning to meditate in your law (Ps. 38: 4) and confess to you what I know of it and what lies beyond my powers—the first elements granted by your illumination and the remaining areas of darkness in my understanding—until weakness is swallowed up by strength. I am reluctant to expend on any other subject those hours which I find free of the necessities for restoring the body, of intellectual work, and of the service which we owe to people or that which we render to them when under no obligation.4
(3) Lord my God, ‘hear my prayer’ (Ps. 60: 2), may your mercy attend to my longing which burns not for my personal advantage but desires to be of use in love to the brethren. You see in my heart that this is the case. Let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thinking and my tongue, and grant that which I am to offer, ‘for I am poor and needy’ (Ps. 65: 15; 85: 1). You are ‘rich to all who call upon you’ (Rom. 10: 12). You have no cares but take care of us. Circumcise my lips (cf. Exod. 6: 12), inwardly and outwardly, from all rashness and falsehood. May your scriptures be my pure delight, so that I am not deceived in them and do not lead others astray in interpreting them. ‘Lord, listen and have mercy’ (Ps. 26: 7; 85: 3), Lord my God, light of the blind and strength of the weak—and constantly also light of those who can see and strength of the mighty: Listen to my soul and hear it crying from the depth. For if your ears are not present also in the depth, where shall we go? To whom shall we cry? ‘The day is yours and the night is yours’ (Ps. 73: 16). At your nod the moments fly by. From them grant us space for our meditations on the secret recesses of your law, and do not close the gate to us as we knock. It is not for nothing that by your will so many pages of scripture are opaque and obscure. These forests are not without deer which recover their strength in them and restore themselves by walking and feeding, by resting and ruminating (Ps. 28: 9). O Lord, bring me to perfection (Ps. 16: 5) and reveal to me the meaning of these pages. See, your voice is my joy, your voice is better than a wealth of pleasures (Ps. 118: 22). Grant what I love; for I love it, and that love was your gift. Do not desert your gifts, and do not despise your plant as it thirsts. Let me confess to you what I find in your books. ‘Let me hear the voice of praise’ (Ps. 25: 7) and drink you, and let me consider ‘wonderful things out of your law’ (Ps. 118: 18)—from the beginning in which you made heaven and earth until the perpetual reign with you in your heavenly city (Rev. 5: 10; 21: 2).5
(4) ‘Lord have mercy upon me and listen to my desire’ (Ps. 26: 7). For I do not think my longing is concerned with earthly things, with gold and silver and precious stones, or with fine clothes or honours and positions of power or fleshly pleasures or even with the body’s necessities in this life of our pilgrimage. They are all things added to us as we seek your kingdom and your righteousness (Matt. 6: 33). My God, look upon the object of my desire (cf. Ps. 9: 14). ‘The wicked have told me of delights, but they are not allowed by your law, Lord’ (Ps. 118: 85). See Father: look and see and give your approval. May it please you that in the sight of your mercy (Ps. 18: 15) I may find grace before you, so that to me as I knock (Matt. 7: 7) may be opened the hidden meaning of your words. I make my prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, ‘the man of your right hand, the Son of man whom you have strengthened’ (Ps. 79: 18) to be mediator between yourself and us. By him you sought us when we were not seeking you (Rom. 10: 20). But you sought us that we should seek you, your Word by whom you made all things including myself, your only Son by whom you have called to adoption the people who believe (Gal. 4: 5), myself among them. I make my prayer to you through him ‘who sits at your right hand and intercedes to you for us’ (Rom. 8: 34). ‘In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2: 3). For those treasures I search in your books. Moses wrote of him (John 5: 46). He himself said this; this is the declaration of the Truth.
iii (5) May I hear and understand how in the beginning you made heaven and earth (Gen. 1, 1). Moses wrote this. He wrote this and went his way, passing out of this world from you to you.6 He is not now before me, but if he were, I would clasp him and ask him and through you beg him to explain to me the creation. I would concen-trate my bodily ears to hear the sounds breaking forth from his mouth. If he spoke Hebrew, he would in vain make an impact on my sense of hearing, for the sounds would not touch my mind at all. If he spoke Latin, I would know what he meant. Yet how would I know whether or not he was telling me the truth? If I did know this, I could not be sure of it from him. Within me, within the lodging of my thinking, there would speak a truth which is neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Latin nor any barbarian tongue and which uses neither mouth nor tongue as instruments and utters no audible syllables. It would say: ‘What he is saying is true’.7 And I being forthwith assured would say with confidence to the man possessed by you: ‘What you say is true.’ But since I cannot question him, I ask you who filled him when he declared what is true; you my God I ask. ‘spare my sins’ (Job 14: 16). You have granted to your servant to utter these things; grant also to me the power to understand them.
iv (6) See, heaven and earth exist, they cry aloud that they are made, for they suffer change and variation. But in anything which is not made and yet is, there is nothing which previously was not present. To be what once was not the case is to be subject to change and variation. They also cry aloud that they have not made themselves: ‘The manner of our existence shows that we are made. For before we came to be, we did not exist to be able to make ourselves.’ And the voice with which they speak is self-evidence. You, Lord, who are beautiful, made them for they are beautiful. You are good, for they are good. You are, for they are. Yet they are not beautiful or good or possessed of being in the sense that you their Maker are. In comparison with you they are deficient in beauty and goodness and being. Thanks to you, we know this; and yet our knowledge is ignorance in comparison with yours.8
v (7) How did you make heaven and earth, and what machine did you use for so vast an operation? You were not like a craftsman who makes one physical object out of another by an act of personal choice in his mind, which has the power to impose the form which by an inner eye it can see within itself. This capacity it has only because you have so made it. He imposes form on what already exists and possesses being, such as earth or stone or wood or gold or any material of that sort. And these materials exist only because you had first made them. By your creation the craftsman has a body, a mind by which he commands its members, material out of which he makes something, a skill by which he masters his art and sees inwardly what he is making outwardly. From your creation come the bodily senses which he uses to translate his mental concept into the material objects he is making, and to report back to the mind what has been made, so that the mind within may deliberate with the truth presiding over it to consider whether the work has been well done.9 All these praise you, the creator of everything. But how do you make them? The way, God, in which you made heaven and earth was not that you made them either in heaven or on earth. Nor was it in air or in water, for these belong to heaven and earth. Nor did you make the universe within the framework of the universe. There was nowhere for it to be made before it was brought into existence.10 Nor did you have any tool in your hand to make heaven and earth. How could you obtain anything you had not made as a tool for making something? What is it for something to be unless it is because you are? Therefore you spoke and they were made, and by your word you made them (Ps. 32: 9, 6).
vi (8) But how did you speak? Surely not in the way a voice came out of the cloud saying, ‘This is my beloved Son’ (Matt. 17: 5). That voice is past and done with; it began and is ended. The syllables sounded and have passed away, the second after the first, the third after the second, and so on in order until, after all the others, the last one came, and after the last silence followed. Therefore it is clear and evident that the utterance came through the movement of some created thing, serving your eternal will but itself temporal. And these your words, made for temporal succession, were reported by the external ear to the judicious mind whose internal ear is disposed to hear your eternal word. But that mind would compare these words, sounding in time, with your eternal word in silence, and say: ‘It is very different, the difference is enormous. The sounds are far inferior to me, and have no being, because they are fleeting and transient. But the word of my God is superior to me and abides for ever’ (Isa. 40: 8). If therefore it was with words which sound and pass away that you said that heaven and earth should be made, and if this was how you made heaven and earth, then a created entity belonging to the physical realm existed prior to heaven and earth; and that utterance took time to deliver, and involved temporal changes.11 However, no physical entity existed before heaven and earth; at least if any such existed, you had made it without using a transient utterance, which could then be used as a basis for another transient utterance, declaring that heaven and earth be made. Whatever it might have been which became the basis for such an utterance, unless it was created by you, it could not exist. Therefore for the creation of a physical entity to become the basis for those words, what kind of word would you have used?
vii (9) You call us, therefore, to understand the Word, God who is with you God (John 1: 1). That word is spoken eternally, and by it all things are uttered eternally. It is not the case that what was being said comes to an end, and something else is then said, so that everything is uttered in a succession with a conclusion, but everything is said in the simultaneity of eternity. Otherwise time and change would already exist, and there would not be a true eternity and true immortality. This I know, my God, and give thanks. I know and confess it to you, Lord, and everyone who is not ungrateful for assured truth knows it with me and blesses you. We know this, Lord, we know. A thing dies and comes into being inasmuch as it is not what it was and becomes what it was not. No element of your word yields place or succeeds to something else, since it is truly immortal and eternal. And so by the Word coeternal with yourself, you say all that you say in simultaneity and eternity, and whatever you say will come about does come about. You do not cause it to exist other than by speaking. Yet not all that you cause to exist by speaking is made in simultaneity and eternity.
viii (10) Why, I ask, Lord my God? In some degree I see it, but how to express it I do not know,12 unless to say that everything which begins to be and ceases to be begins and ends its existence at that moment when, in the eternal reason where nothing begins or ends, it is known that it is right for it to begin and end. This reason is your Word, which is also the Beginning in that it also speaks to us. Thus in the gospel the Word speaks through the flesh, and this sounded externally in human ears, so that it should be believed and sought inwardly, found in the eternal truth where the Master who alone is good (Matt. 19: 16) teaches all his disciples. There, Lord, I hear your voice speaking to me, for one who teaches us speaks to us, but one who does not teach us, even though he may speak, does not speak to us. Who is our teacher except the reliable truth? Even when we are instructed through some mutable creature, we are led to reliable truth when we are learning truly by standing still and listening to him. We then ‘rejoice with joy because of the voice of the bridegroom’ (John 3: 29), and give ourselves to the source whence we have our being. And in this way he is the Beginning because, unless he were constant, there would be no fixed point to which we could return. But when we return from error, it is by knowing that we return. He teaches us so that we may know; for he is the Beginning, and he speaks to us.13
ix (11) In this Beginning, God, you made heaven and earth, in your Word, in your Son, in your power, in your wisdom, in your truth speaking in a wonderful way and making in a wonderful way. Who can comprehend it? Who will give an account of it in words? What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting? It fills me with terror and burning love:14 with terror inasmuch as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it. Wisdom, wisdom it is which shines right through me, cutting a path through the cloudiness which returns to cover me as I fall away under the darkness and the load of my punishments. For ‘my strength is weakened by poverty’ (Ps. 30: 11), so that I cannot maintain my goodness until you, Lord, who ‘have become merciful to all my iniquities, also heal all my sicknesses’. You will redeem my life from corruption and crown me with mercy and compassion, and satisfy my longing with good things, in that my youth will be renewed like an eagle’s (Ps. 102: 3–5). For ‘by hope we are saved’, and we await your promises in patience (Rom. 8: 24–5). Let the person who can hear you speaking within listen. Confident on the ground of your inspired utterance, I will cry out: ‘How magnificent are your works, Lord, you have made all things in wisdom’ (Ps. 103: 24). Wisdom is the beginning, and in that beginning you made heaven and earth.
x (12) See how full of old errors are those who say to us: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth? If he was unoccupied’, they say, ‘and doing nothing, why does he not always remain the same for ever, just as before creation he abstained from work? For if in God any new development took place and any new intention, so as to make a creation which he had never made before, how then can there be a true eternity in which a will, not there previously, comes into existence? For God’s will is not a creature, but is prior to the created order, since nothing would be created unless the Creator’s will preceded it. Therefore God’s will belongs to his very substance.15 If in the substance of God anything has come into being which was not present before, that substance cannot truthfully be called eternal. But if it was God’s everlasting will that the created order exist, why is not the creation also everlasting?’16
xi (13) People who say this do not yet understand you, O wisdom of God, light of minds. They do not yet understand how things were made which came to be through you and in you. They attempt to taste eternity when their heart is still flitting about in the realm where things change and have a past and future; it is still ‘vain’ (Ps. 5: 10). Who can lay hold on the heart and give it fixity, so that for some little moment it may be stable, and for a fraction of time may grasp the splendour of a constant eternity? Then it may compare eternity with temporal successiveness which never has any constancy, and will see there is no comparison possible. It will see that a long time is long only because constituted of many successive movements which cannot be simultaneously extended. In the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present.17 But no time is wholly present. It will see that all past time is driven backwards by the future, and all future time is the consequent of the past, and all past and future are created and set on their course by that which is always present. Who will lay hold on the human heart to make it still, so that it can see how eternity, in which there is neither future nor past, stands still and dictates future and past times? Can my hand have the strength for this? (Gen. 31:29). Can the hand of my mouth by mere speech achieve so great a thing?
xii (14) This is my reply to anyone who asks: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ My reply is not that which someone is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said: ‘He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question and to win approval for an answer which is a mistake.
No, I say that you, our God, are the Creator of every created being, and assuming that by ‘heaven and earth’ is meant every created thing I boldly declare: Before God made heaven and earth, he was not making anything. If he was making anything, it could only be something created. I only wish that other useful matters which I long to be sure about I could know with an assurance equal to that with which I know that no created being was made before any creature came into being.
xiii (15) If, however, someone’s mind is flitting and wandering over images of past times, and is astonished that you, all powerful, all creating, and all sustaining God, artificer of heaven and earth, abstained for unnumbered ages from this work before you actually made it, he should wake up and take note that his surprise rests on a mistake. How would innumerable ages pass, which you yourself had not made? You are the originator and creator of all ages. What times existed which were not brought into being by you? Or how could they pass if they never had existence? Since, therefore, you are the cause of all times, if any time existed before you made heaven and earth, how can anyone say that you abstained from working? You have made time itself. Time could not elapse before you made time. But if time did not exist before heaven and earth, why do people ask what you were then doing? There was no ‘then’ when there was no time.18
(16) It is not in time that you precede times. Otherwise you would not precede all times. In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come, and when they have come they are past. ‘But you are the same and your years do not fail’ (Ps. 101: 28). Your ‘years’ neither go nor come. Ours come and go so that all may come in succession. All your ‘years’ subsist in simultaneity, because they do not change; those going away are not thrust out by those coming in. But the years which are ours will not all be until all years have ceased to be. Your ‘years’ are ‘one day’ (Ps. 89: 4; 2 Pet. 3: 8), and your ‘day’ is not any and every day but Today, because your Today does not yield to a tomorrow, nor did it follow on a yesterday. Your Today is eternity. So you begat one coeternal with you, to whom you said: ‘Today I have begotten you’ (Ps. 2: 7; Heb. 5: 5). You created all times and you exist before all times. Nor was there any time when time did not exist.
xiv (17) There was therefore no time when you had not made something, because you made time itself. No times are coeternal with you since you are permanent. If they were permanent, they would not be times.
What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.19 If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If then, in order to be time at all, the present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also ‘is’? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.
xv (18) Nevertheless we speak of ‘a long time’ and ‘a short time’, and it is only of the past or the future that we say this. Of the past we speak of ‘a long time’, when, for example, it is more than a hundred years ago. ‘A long time’ in the future may mean a hundred years ahead. By ‘a short time ago’ we would mean, say, ten days back, and ‘a short time ahead’ might mean ‘in ten days’ time’. But how can something be long or short which does not exist? For the past now has no existence and the future is not yet. So we ought not to say of the past ‘It is long’, but ‘it was long’, and of the future ‘it will be long’. My Lord, my light, does not your truth mock humanity at this point? This time past which was long, was it long when it was past or when it was still present? It could be long only when it existed to be long. Once past, it no longer was. Therefore it could not be long if it had entirely ceased to exist.
Therefore let us not say ‘The time past was long’. For we cannot discover anything to be long when, after it has become past, it has ceased to be. But let us say ‘That time once present was long’ because it was long at the time when it was present. For it had not yet passed away into non-existence. It existed so as to be able to be long. But after it had passed away, it simultaneously ceased to be long because it ceased to be.
(19) Human soul, let us see whether present time can be long. To you the power is granted to be aware of intervals of time, and to measure them. What answer will you give me? Are a hundred years in the present a long time? Consider first whether a hundred years can be present. For if the first year of the series is current, it is present, but ninety-nine are future, and so do not yet exist. If the second year is current, one is already past, the second is present, the remainder lie in the future. And so between the extremes, whatever year of this century we assume to be present, there will be some years before it which lie in the past, some in the future to come after it. It follows that a century could never be present.
Consider then whether if a single year is current, that can be present. If in this year the first month is current, the others lie in the future; if the second, then the first lies in the past and the rest do not yet exist. Therefore even a current year is not entirely present; and if it is not entirely present, it is not a year which is present. A year is twelve months, of which any month which is current is present; the others are either past or future. Moreover, not even a month which is current is present, but one day. If the first day, the others are future; if the last day, the others are past; any intermediary day falls between past and future.
(20) See—present time, which alone we find capable of being called long, is contracted to the space of hardly a single day. But let us examine that also; for not even one day is entirely present. All the hours of night and day add up to twenty-four. The first of them has the others in the future, the last has them in the past. Any hour between these has past hours before it, future hours after it. One hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments. Whatever part of it has flown away is past. What remains to it is future. If we can think of some bit of time which cannot be divided into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we can call ‘present’. And this time flies so quickly from future into past that it is an interval with no duration. If it has duration, it is divisible into past and future. But the present occupies no space.20
Where then is the time which we call long? Is it future? We do not really mean ‘It is long’, since it does not yet exist to be long, but we mean it will be long. When will it be long? If it will then still lie in the future, it will not be long, since it will not yet exist to be long. But if it will be long at the time when, out of the future which does not yet exist, it begins to have being and will become present fact, so that it has the potentiality to be long, the present cries out in words already used that it cannot be long.
xvi (21) Nevertheless, Lord, we are conscious of intervals of time, and compare them with each other, and call some longer, others shorter. We also measure how much longer or shorter one period is than another, and answer that the one is twice or three times as much as the other, or that the two periods are equal. Moreover, we are measuring times which are past when our perception is the basis of measurement. But who can measure the past which does not now exist or the future which does not yet exist, unless perhaps someone dares to assert that he can measure what has no existence? At the moment when time is passing, it can be perceived and measured. But when it has passed and is not present, it cannot be.
xvii (22) I am investigating, Father, not making assertions. My God, protect me and rule me (Ps. 22: 1; 27: 9). Who will tell me that there are not three times, past, present, and future, as we learnt when children and as we have taught children, but only the present, because the other two have no existence? Or do they exist in the sense that, when the present emerges from the future, time comes out of some secret store, and then recedes into some secret place when the past comes out of the present? Where did those who sang prophecies see these events if they do not yet exist? To see what has no existence is impossible. And those who narrate past history would surely not be telling a true story if they did not discern events by their soul’s insight. If the past were non-existent, it could not be discerned at all. Therefore both future and past events exist.
xviii (23) Allow me, Lord, to take my investigation further. My hope, let not my attention be distracted.21 If future and past events exist, I want to know where they are. If I have not the strength to discover the answer, at least I know that wherever they are, they are not there as future or past, but as present. For if there also they are future, they will not yet be there. If there also they are past, they are no longer there. Therefore, wherever they are, whatever they are, they do not exist except in the present. When a true narrative of the past is related, the memory produces not the actual events which have passed away but words conceived from images of them, which they fixed in the mind like imprints as they passed through the senses. Thus my boyhood, which is no longer, lies in past time which is no longer. But when I am recollecting and telling my story, I am looking on its image in present time, since it is still in my memory. Whether a similar cause is operative in predictions of the future, in the sense that images of realities which do not yet exist are presented as already in existence, I confess, my God, I do not know. At least I know this much: we frequently think out in advance our future actions, and that premeditation is in the present; but the action which we premeditate is not yet in being because it lies in the future. But when we have embarked on the action and what we were premeditating begins to be put into effect, then that action will have existence, since then it will be not future but present.
(24) Whatever may be the way in which the hidden presentiment of the future is known, nothing can be seen if it does not exist. Now that which already exists is not future but present. When therefore people speak of knowing the future, what is seen is not events which do not yet exist (that is, they really are future), but perhaps their causes or signs which already exist.22 In this way, to those who see them they are not future but present, and that is the basis on which the future can be conceived in the mind and made the subject of prediction.
Again, these concepts already exist, and those who predict the future see these concepts as if already present to their minds.
Among a great mass of examples, let me mention one instance. I look at the dawn. I forecast that the sun will rise. What I am looking at is present, what I am forecasting is future. It is not the sun which lies in the future (it already exists) but its rise, which has not yet arrived. Yet unless I were mentally imagining its rise, as now when I am speaking about it, I could not predict it. But the dawn glow which I see in. the sky is not sunrise, which it precedes, nor is the imagining of sunrise in my mind the actuality. These are both discerned as present so that the coming sunrise may be foretold. So future events do not yet exist, and if they are not yet present, they do not exist; and if they have no being, they cannot be seen at all. But they can be predicted from present events which are already present and can be seen.
xix (25) Governor of your creation, what is the way by which you inform souls what lies in the future? For you instructed your prophets. By what method then do you give information about the future—you to whom nothing is future? Is it rather that you inform how to read the future in the light of the present? What does not exist, certainly cannot be the subject of information. This method is far beyond my power of vision. ‘It is too mighty for me, I cannot attain it’ (Ps. 138: 6). But it would be in my power with your help if you granted it, sweet light of my uncomprehending eyes.
xx (26) What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future.23 Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come. In the soul there are these three aspects of time, and I do not see them anywhere else. The present considering the past is the memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expecta-tion. If we are allowed to use such language, I see three times, and I admit they are three. Moreover, we may say, There are three times, past, present, and future. This customary way of speaking is incorrect, but it is common usage. Let us accept the usage. I do not object and offer no opposition or criticism, as long as what is said is being understood, namely that neither the future nor the past is now present. There are few usages of everyday speech which are exact, and most of our language is inexact. Yet what we mean is communicated.
xxi (27) A little earlier I observed that we measure past periods of time so that we can say that one period is twice as long as another or equal to it, and likewise of other periods of time which we are capable of measuring and reporting. Therefore, as I was saying, we measure periods of time as they are passing, and if anyone says to me ‘How do you know?’ I reply: I know it because we do measure time and cannot measure what has no being; and past and future have none. But how do we measure present time when it has no extension? It is measured when it passes, but not when it has passed, because then there will be nothing there to measure.
When time is measured, where does it come from, by what route does it pass, and where does it go? It must come out of the future, pass by the present, and go into the past; so it comes from what as yet does not exist, passes through that which lacks extension, and goes into that which is now non-existent. Yet what do we measure but time over some extension? When we speak of lengths of time as single, duple, triple, and equal, or any other temporal relation of this kind, we must be speaking of periods of time possessing extension. In what extension then do we measure time as it is passing? Is it in the future out of which it comes to pass by? No, for we do not measure what does not yet exist. Is it in the present through which it passes? No, for we cannot measure that which has no extension. Is it in the past into which it is moving? No, for we cannot measure what now does not exist.
xxii (28) My mind is on fire to solve this very intricate enigma. Do not shut the door, Lord my God. Good Father, through Christ I beg you, do not shut the door on my longing to understand these things which are both familiar and obscure. Do not prevent me, Lord, from penetrating them and seeing them illuminated by the light of your mercy. Whom shall I ask about them? And to whom but you shall I more profitably confess my incompetence? You are not irritated by the burning zeal with which I study your scriptures. Grant what I love. For I love, and this love was your gift. Grant it, Father. You truly know how to give good gifts to your children (Matt. 7: 11). Grant it, since I have undertaken to acquire under-standing and ‘the labour is too much for me’ (Ps. 72: 16) until you open the way. Through Christ I beg you, in the name of him who is the holy of holy ones, let no one obstruct my inquiry. ‘I also have believed, and therefore speak’ (Ps. 115: 1; 2 Cor. 4: 13).24 This is my hope. For this I live ‘that I may contemplate the delight of the Lord’ (Ps. 26: 4). ‘Behold you have made my days subject to ageing’ (Ps. 38: 6). They pass away, and how I do not know. And we repeatedly speak of time and time, of times and times: ‘How long ago did he say this?’ ‘How long ago did he do this?’ ‘For how long a time did I fail to see that?’ And ‘These syllables take twice the time of that single, short syllable.’ We speak in this way, and hear people saying this, and we are understood and we understand. These usages are utterly commonplace and everyday. Yet they are deeply obscure and the discovery of the solution is new.
xxiii (29) I have heard a learned person say that the movements of sun, moon, and stars in themselves constitute time.25 But I could not agree. Why should not time consist rather of the movement of all physical objects? If the heavenly bodies were to cease and a potter’s wheel were revolving, would there be no time by which we could measure its gyrations, and say that its revolutions were equal; or if at one time it moved more slowly and at another time faster, that some rotations took longer, others less? And when we utter these words do not we also speak in time? In our words some syllables are long, others short, in that the sounding of the former requires a longer time, whereas the latter are shorter.
God grant to human minds to discern in a small thing universal truths valid for both small and great matters. There are stars and heavenly luminaries to be ‘for signs and for times, and for days and for years’ (Gen. 1: 14). But I would not say that a revolution of that wooden wheel is a day; and that learned friend could not assert that its rotation was not a period of time.
(30) I desire to understand the power and the nature of time, which enables us to measure the motions of bodies and to say that, for instance, this movement requires twice as long as that. I have this question to raise: the word ‘day’ is used not only of the interval of time when the sun is up over the earth, so that day is one thing, night another, but also of the sun’s entire circuit from east to west, as when we say ‘so many days have passed’ where ‘so many days’ includes the nights, and the periods of night-time are not counted separately. So a complete day is marked by the, movement and circuit of the sun from east to west. My question then is whether the sun’s movement itself constitutes the day?26 or the actual interval of time during which it is accomplished? or both?
In the first instance, it would still be a day even if the sun completed its course in the space of a single hour. In the second case, it would not be a day if from one sunrise to the next so short an interval as one hour passed, but only if the sun completed a day of twenty-four hours. In the third case—a day being both the circuit and the time taken—it could not be called a day if the sun completed its entire circuit in an hour, nor if the sun ceased to move and the length of time passed were the twenty-four hours normally taken by the sun in completing its entire course from sunrise to sunrise. I will not, therefore, now investigate what it is which we call a day, but the nature of time by which we can measure the sun’s circuit and by which we might say that, if all was accomplished in twelve hours, the sun had completed its course in half the usual time. I ask what time is when we make a comparison and say that one interval is single and another double, even if the sun were to make its transit from east to west sometimes in single time, sometimes in twice the time.
Let no one tell me then that time is the movements of heavenly bodies. At a man’s prayer the sun stood still, so that a battle could be carried through to victory (Josh. 10: 12 ff): the sun stopped but time went on. That battle was fought and completed in its own space of time such as was sufficient for it. I therefore see that time is some kind of extension. But do I really see that? Or do I imagine that I see? You, light and truth, will show me.
xxiv (31) Do you command me to concur if someone says time is the movement of a physical entity? You do not. For I learn that no body can be moved except in time. You tell me so, but I do not learn that the actual movement of a body constitutes time. That is not what you tell me. For when a body is moved, it is by time that I measure the duration of the movement, from the moment it begins until it ends. Unless I have observed the point when it begins, and if its movement is continuous so that I cannot observe when it ceases, I am unable to measure except for the period from the beginning to the end of my observation. If my observing lasts for a considerable time, I can only report that a long time passed, but not precisely how much. When we say how much, we are making a comparison—as, for example, ‘This period was of the same length as that’, or ‘This period was twice as long as that’, or some such relationship.
If, however, we have been able to note the points in space from which and to which a moving body passes, or the parts of a body when it is spinning on its axis, then we can say how much time the movement of the body or its parts required to move from one point to another. It follows that a body’s movement is one thing, the period by which we measure is another. It is self-evident which of these is to be described as time. Moreover, a body may sometimes be moving, sometimes be at rest. We measure by time and say ‘It was standing still for the same time that it was in movement’, or ‘It was still for two or three times as long as it was in movement’, or any other measurement we may make, either by precise observation or by a rough estimate (we customarily say ‘more or less‘). Therefore time is not the movement of a body.
xxv (32) I confess to you, Lord, that I still do not know what time is, and I further confess to you, Lord, that as I say this I know myself to be conditioned by time. For a long period already I have been speaking about time, and that long period can only be an interval of time. So how do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Perhaps what I do not know is how to articulate what I do know. My condition is not good if I do not even know what it is I do not know. See, my God, ‘before you I do not lie’ (Gal. 1: 21). As I speak, so is my heart. You, Lord, ‘will light my lamp’. Lord, my God, ‘you will lighten my darknesses’ (Ps. 17: 29).
xxvi (33) My confession to you is surely truthful when my soul declares that times are measured by me. So my God, I measure, and do not know what I am measuring. I measure the motion of a body by time. Then am I not measuring time itself? I could not measure the movement of a body, its period of transit and how long it takes to go from A to B, unless I were measuring the time in which this movement occurs. How then do I measure time itself? Or do we use a shorter time to measure a longer time, as when, for example, we measure a transom by using a cubit length? So we can be seen to use the length of a short syllable as a measure when we say that a long syllable is twice its length. By this method we measure poems by the number of lines, lines by the number of feet, feet by the number of syllables, and long vowels by short, not by the number of pages (for that would give us a measure of space, not of time). The criterion is the time words occupy in recitation, so that we say ‘That is a long poem, for it consists of so many lines. The lines are long, for they consist of so many feet. The feet are long for they extend over so many syllables. The syllable is long, for it is double the length of a short one.’
Nevertheless, even so we have not reached a reliable measure of time. It may happen that a short line, if pronounced slowly, takes longer to read aloud than a longer line taken faster. The same principle applies to a poem or a foot or a syllable. That is why I have come to think that time is simply a distension.27 But of what is it a distension? I do not know, but it would be surprising if it is not that of the mind itself. What do I measure, I beg you, my God, when I say without precision ‘This period is longer than that’, or with precision ‘This is twice as long as that’? That I am measuring time I know. But I am not measuring the future which does not yet exist, nor the present which has no extension, nor the past which is no longer in being. What then am I measuring? Time as it passes but not time past? That is what I affirmed earlier.
xxvii (34) Stand firm, my mind, concentrate with resolution. ‘God is our help, he has made us and not we ourselves’ (Ps. 61: 9; 99: 3). Concentrate on the point where truth is beginning to dawn. For example, a physical voice begins to sound. It sounds. It continues to sound, and then ceases. Silence has now come, and the voice is past. There is now no sound. Before it sounded it lay in the future. It could not be measured because it did not exist; and now it cannot be measured because it has ceased to be. At the time when it was sounding, it was possible because at that time it existed to be measured. Yet even then it had no permanence. It came and went. Did this make it more possible to measure? In process of passing away it was extended through a certain space of time by which it could be measured, since the present occupies no length of time. Therefore during that transient process it could be measured. But take, for example, another voice. It begins to sound and continues to do so unflaggingly without any interrruption. Let us measure it while it is sounding; when it has ceased to sound, it will be past and will not exist to be measurable. Evidently we may at that stage measure it by saying how long it lasted. But if it is still sounding, it cannot be measured except from the starting moment when it began to sound to the finish when it ceased. What we measure is the actual interval from the beginning to the end. That is why a sound which has not yet ended cannot be measured: one cannot say how long or how short it is, nor that it is equal to some other length of time or that in relation to another it is single or double or any such proportion. But when it has come to an end, then it will already have ceased to be. By what method then can it be measured?
Nevertheless we do measure periods of time. And yet the times we measure are not those which do not yet exist, nor those which already have no existence, nor those which extend over no interval of time, nor those which reach no conclusions. So the times we measure are not future nor past nor present nor those in process of passing away. Yet we measure periods of time.
(35) ‘God, Creator of all things’—Deus Creator omnium28—the line consists of eight syllables, in which short and long syllables alternate. So the four which are short (the first, third, fifth, and seventh) are single in relation to the four long syllables (the second, fourth, sixth and eighth). Each of the long syllables has twice the time of the short. As I recite the words, I also observe that this is so, for it is evident to sense-perception. To the degree that the sense-perception is unambiguous, I measure the long syllable by the short one, and perceive it to be twice the length. But when one syllable sounds after another, the short first, the long after it, how shall I keep my hold on the short, and how use it to apply a measure to the long, so as to verify that the long is twice as much? The long does not begin to sound unless the short has ceased to sound. I can hardly measure the long during the presence of its sound, as measuring becomes possible only after it has ended. When it is finished, it has gone into the past. What then is it which I measure? Where is the short syllable with which I am making my measurement? Where is the long which I am measuring? Both have sounded; they have flown away; they belong to the past. They now do not exist. And I offer my measurement and declare as confidently as a practised sense-perception will allow, that the short is single, the long double—I mean in the time they occupy. I can do this only because they are past and gone. Therefore it is not the syllables which I am measuring, but something in my memory which stays fixed there.
(36) So it is in you, my mind, that I measure periods of time.29 Do not distract me; that is, do not allow yourself to be distracted by the hubbub of the impressions being made upon you. In you, I affirm, I measure periods of time. The impression which passing events make upon you abides when they are gone. That present consciousness is what I am measuring, not the stream of past events which have caused it. When I measure periods of time, that is what I am actually measuring. Therefore, either this is what time is, or time is not what I am measuring.
What happens when we measure silences and say that a given period of silence lasted as long as a given sound? Do we direct our attention to measuring it as if a sound occurred, so that we are enabled to judge the intervals of the silences within the space of time concerned? For without any sound or utterance we mentally recite poems and lines and speeches, and we assess the lengths of their movements and the relative amounts of time they occupy, no differently from the way we would speak if we were actually making sounds. Suppose someone wished to utter a sound lasting a long time, and decided in advance how long that was going to be. He would have planned that space of time in silence. Entrusting that to his memory he would begin to utter the sound which continues until it has reached the intended end. It would be more accurate to say the utterance has sounded and will sound. For the part of it which is complete has sounded, but what remains will sound, and so the action is being accomplished as present attention transfers the future into the past. The future diminishes as the past grows, until the future has completely gone and everything is in the past.
xxviii (37) But how does this future, which does not yet exist, diminish or become consumed? Or how does the past, which now has no being, grow, unless there are three processes in the mind which in this is the active agent? For the mind expects and attends and remembers, so that what it expects passes through what has its attention to what it remembers. Who therefore can deny that the future does not yet exist? Yet already in the mind there is an expectation of the future. Who can deny that the past does not now exist? Yet there is still in the mind a memory of the past. None can deny that present time lacks any extension because it passes in a flash. Yet attention is continuous, and it is through this that what will be present progresses towards being absent. So the future, which does not exist, is not a long period of time. A long future is a long expectation of the future. And the past, which has no existence, is not a long period of time. A long past is a long memory of the past.
(38) Suppose I am about to recite a psalm which I know. Before I begin, my expectation is directed towards the whole. But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory. The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because of the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say. But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to become the past. As the action advances further and further, the shorter the expectation and the longer the memory, until all expecta-tion is consumed, the entire action is finished, and it has passed into the memory. What occurs in the psalm as a whole occurs in its particular pieces and its individual syllables. The same is true of a longer action in which perhaps that psalm is a part. It is also valid of the entire life of an individual person, where all actions are parts of a whole, and of the total history of’ the sons of men’ (Ps. 30: 20) where all human lives are but parts.
xxix (39) ‘Because your mercy is more than lives’ (Ps. 62: 4), see how my life is a distension30 in several directions. ‘Your right hand upheld me’ (Ps. 17: 36; 62: 9) in my Lord, the Son of man who is mediator between you the One and us the many, who live in a multiplicity of distractions by many things; so ‘I might apprehend him in whom also I am apprehended’ (Phil. 3: 12–14), and leaving behind the old days I might be gathered to follow the One, ‘forgetting the past’ and moving not towards those future things which are transitory but to ‘the things which are before’ me, not stretched out in distraction but extended in reach, not by being pulled apart but by concentration. So I ‘pursue the prize of the high calling’ where I ‘may hear the voice of praise’ and ‘contemplate your delight’ (Ps. 25: 7; 26: 4) which neither comes nor goes. But now ‘my years pass in groans’ (Ps. 30: 11) and you, Lord, are my consolation. You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together31 to merge into you.
xxx (40) Then shall I find stability and solidity in you, in your truth which imparts form to me. I shall not have to endure the questions of people who suffer from a disease which brings its own punishment and want to drink more than they have the capacity to hold. They say ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’, or ‘Why did he ever conceive the thought of making something when he had never made anything before?‘32 Grant them, Lord, to consider carefully what they are saying and to make the discovery that where there is no time, one cannot use the word ‘never’. To say that God has never done something is to say that there is no time when he did it. Let them therefore see that without the creation no time can exist, and let them cease to speak that vanity (Ps. 143: 8). Let them also be ‘extended’ towards ‘those things which are before’ (Phil. 3: 13), and understand that before all times you are eternal Creator of all time. Nor are any times or created thing coeternal with you, even if there is an order of creation which transcends time.33
xxxi (41) Lord my God, how deep is your profound mystery, and how far away from it have I been thrust by the consequences of my sins. Heal my eyes and let me rejoice with your light. Certainly if there were a mind endowed with such great knowledge and prescience that all things past and future could be known in the way I know a very familiar psalm, this mind would be utterly miraculous and amazing to the point of inducing awe. From such a mind nothing of the past would be hidden, nor anything of what remaining ages have in store, just as I have full knowledge of that psalm I sing. I know by heart what and how much of it has passed since the beginning, and what and how much remains until the end. But far be it from you, Creator of the universe, creator of souls and bodies, far be it from you to know all future and past events in this kind of sense. You know them in a much more wonderful and much more mysterious way. A person singing to a song he knows well suffers a distension or stretching in feeling and in sense-perception from the expectation of future sounds and the memory of past sound. With you it is otherwise. You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let him who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house (Ps. 137: 6; 145: 8). You lift up those who are cast down (Ps. 144: 14; 145: 8), and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall.
1 Resuming the opening paragraph, above 1. i (1).
2 Above II. i (1).
3 Metaphor from the water-clock. Augustine passes from autobiography (up to conversion and Monica’s death) to an account of his theological concerns as bishop, especially anti-Manichee exegesis of Genesis and creation.
4 Echo of Cicero, De officiis I. 4. 13.
5 This would become the theme, 15 years later, of the City of God. Echoes of the Apocalypse of John pervade books XI–XIII.
6 Perhaps an echo of Plotinus’s ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’ (6. 9. 11. 51).
7 Plorinus 4. 3. 18. 13 ff. In the intelligible world they use no words, but communicate by intuition.
8 The argument is close to Plotinus’ vindication of providence: 3. 2. 3.
9 Cf. Plotinus 5. 8. 1 (beauty first in the designing artist’s mind).
10 Similarly Plotinus 5. 5. 9. 28 (no place existed before the world); 6. 8. 7. 26 (Nothing can bring itself into existence).
11 Plotinus (5. 3. 17. 24) stresses the temporal successiveness of human words. See above IV. x (15); IX. x (24).
12 Perhaps an echo of Plotinus 6. 8. 19. 1–3 who says the same.
13 The argument here has analogies in Plotinus 5. 5. 9, and especially 6. 5. 7 on knowledge as the route of return to true being. But Augustine has inserted the incarnate Lord as the revealer.
14 Similarly VII. x (16) above; Plotinus 1. 6. 7. Throughout this section Augustine wants to interpret the ‘beginning’ of Gen. 1: 1 to mean the Word or Son of God, to escape the temporal implications of ‘beginning’. Books XI—XIII offer a diffidently exploratory exposition of Genesis 1, partly in refutation of Manicheism, but partly also against Catholic interpreters unconvinced by his‘Neoplatonic language about the transition from unformed to formed matter and about the spiritual (non-material) creation not mentioned in Genesis. He had more Catholic tradition behind him in discerning the Trinity working in the creation.
15 Below XII. xv (18); Plotinus 6. 8. 13. 7.
16 Augustine’s argument against Porphyry’s Neoplatonic contention that the Incarnation is impossible because it implies change in God is here taken to be a principle equally affecting Creation. The argument is given a masterly statement at greater length in City of God 12.
17 So also Plotinus 3. 7. 3.
18 Aristotle, Metaphysics 12. 6: ‘Time cannot come into being or cease to be; if time did not exist, there could be no before and after.’
Philo, the Alexandrian Jew of St Paul’s time, maintains that time was created with the cosmos (De opificio mundi 26). Several early Christians say the same, including Ambrose. Plotinus (3. 9. 8. 1 ff.) says that the question why the Creator creates is asked by people who are assuming that that which always is had a beginning in time. Like Augustine, Plotinus thinks time does not antedate the cosmos (3. 7. 12. 23; as Plato, Timaeus 38b6).
19 Plotinus (3.7. 1. 1–13) observes that we think we know what time is until we begin to think about it in depth. Augustine’s discussion of time contains many echoes of philosophical debates among Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics, but is remarkable for its affinity with the Sceptical or ‘Academic’ position that for the human mind the question is unanswerable. At least Augustine does not answer it. His question is characteristically less philosophical than religious: what sense can we make of the chaos of history and the apparent meaninglessness of successive events? Between past and future humanity experiences what he will call a distending, a stretching out on a rack. Hence he picks up Aristodc’s suggestion (Physics 4. 14) that time is an experience of the soul, but gives this idea a new development by seeing ‘memory’ as cardinal to the comprehension of time.
20 The argument reflects older debates in the philosophical schools, e.g. that if time Cannot properly be divided into past, present, and future, then only its indivisibility remains a live option. Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3. 143–5) preserves summaries of the Sceptical arguments that all discussions of time end in nonsense, so that nothing can be known for certain in this regard.
21 See below, XI. xxix (39) on the inherent ‘distraction of multiplicity’ in thinking about past, present, and future, when the reality of eternity is simultaneity in the present.
22 Like Plotinus (4. 4. 12. 28–32), Augustine allows for the interpretation of fore-knowledge of the future as inspired insight into the meaning of events rather than a mantic ecstasy with suspension of reason.
23 Augustine’s view was anticipated by the Stoics.
24 Augustine forestalls Christian critics who may think his abstruse inquiries remote from his proper task of biblical exegesis, and invokes the mediation of Christ the high-priest who gives access to the Father’s mysteries.
25 Plotinus (3. 7. 8. 8–19) likewise rejects this view. The opinion is to be found in St Basil. But Augustine may have in mind Plato’s Timaeus (39 cd) which was available in Cicero’s Latin version. Numerous ancient writers, from the author of Genesis 1: 14 onwards, observed that our years, months, and days are based on the cycle of heavenly bodies. But Augustine’s argument is that no clue about the nature of time can be derived from this, or from the movement of any physical body. Time is not identical with the units by which we ordinarily measure it.
26 Plotinus (3. 7. 12. 34) has the same illustration.
27 Plotinus 3. 7. 11. 41 (tr. Armstrong) speaks of time as ‘a spreading out (diastasis) of life … the life of the soul in a movement of passage from one way of life to another’. This text may have influenced Augustine’s coining of the term dislenlio. But in Augustine this psychological experience of the spreading out of the soul in successiveness and in diverse directions is a painful and anxious experience, so that he can speak of salvation as deliverance from time (cf. above, ix. iv (10)). The theme is developed below, especially in xi. xxix (39) where St Paul’s language about ‘being stretched’ (Phil. 3: 13) becomes linked with the thought of Plotinus (6. 6. 1.5) that multiplicity is a falling from the One and is ‘extended in a scattering’.
28 Ambrose’s evening hymn.
29 Plotinus (3. 7. 11): Time is the soul’s passing from one state of life to another, and is not outside the soul.
30 See above XI. xxvi (33).
31 Augustine’s image of the historical process is that of a flowing river or rivers, with many stormy cataracts. Underlying this passage is the language of Plotinus (6. 6. i. 5) about the fall away from the One as a scattering and an extending. Temporal successiveness is an experience of disintegration; the ascent to divine eternity is a recovery of unity.
32 See xi. xii (14), above.
33 That is, the order of angels: City of God 12. 16. See below XII. ix (9).