Christian and Pagan Ideas of Time
Given the cyclic idea of time, our own world-cycle must be one of a long series of comparable worlds, and having no special importance among them. Such a world-view would conflict with Christian doctrine if it meant that time and temporal events proceeded with a degree of uniformity that excluded any moment of creation and any end of the present world. For this reason, disputes between Christians and the Athenian school of Neoplatonism in the fifth century ad became centered around the question whether the world as we know it is everlasting. As Christian belief was focused on the end of time and the Last Judgement, this was a logical point of attack for its philosophical opponents. Pagan Neoplatonists like Proclus argued that the world was immortal and divine, and so could neither perish nor be engendered.
However, neither side offered any definition as to what it meant by ‘the world.’ On the one hand, it could mean either the world-age in which we live, or the series of all such ages. On the other hand, it could mean either the objective cosmos which is the cause of all experience, or the familiar stream of fragmentary and distorted experiences of that cosmos, as filtered through human faculties. These different possibilities should be borne in mind when arguments for and against ‘the eternity of the world’ are considered in what follows.
Because of the partisan nature of this dispute, neither side would concede that this world might end in some way which would allow the continuation of creation in other worlds after it. Similarly, no one on the Christian side (at least after the seventh century) would concede that a succession of different worlds might constitute a ‘world’ in an extended sense of the word, and which could well be everlasting. The fact that Platonic opponents of Christianity held so firmly to the idea of a uniformly existing world is the more remarkable in view of what Plato says in the Statesmandialogue, quoted in chapter 5, where the world is said to alternately decline and to be restored by God, and what Plato says in the Timaeus about the periodic devastations of the earth by fire and by water alternately. It is clear that by the later part of classical antiquity neither side was trying to be fair, and that their dispute was conducted on a much lower ethical level than either professed to uphold, at least according to modern ideas of honesty. Prejudice was too strong to allow any examination of ideas which could reconcile them, such as the question whether a temporal beginning of this world must mean that this world is in every way unique, or whether it is compatible with comparable worlds before and after it.
What could be called the uniformitarian view of the world was therefore defended by Proclus, who put forward eighteen arguments in support of it.1 In these arguments it will be seen that cyclic time is never referred to directly, possibly because its implication that the world could change in some profound way was felt to concede too much to the Christian position. Nevertheless, the idea of a world existing without assignable limits in time remains the basis for the cyclic idea. It is not hard to see why the idea of an endless world-order became suspect from a Christian point of view, in view of its association with such anti-eschatological thinking. The consciousness of antiquity was, in the broadest sense of the word, ‘spatial’, whereas that of Christianity is ‘temporal’, and this change of perspective was no doubt an effect of the world-cycle’s entry into its latter phases, where the passage of time is necessarily more rapid and more invasive.
The Eighteen Arguments
The account I am about to give of these arguments is designed to explain as well as reproduce what appears in the text, and to show how they are related to one another. The names applied to them are of my own choosing, for ease of reference and to help fix them in the mind:
(1) The Consubsistence Argument. The Creator brings the world into existence in a way which arises from His essential nature, so that the world itself is a manifestation of that nature. For this reason, the creation has a consubsistent relation to its Creator, while still being wholly dependent on Him for its being. This is illustrated by an analogy of the relation between the sphere of light around the sun and the sun itself. As Taylor expresses it:
as the sun, which produces light by its very being, has the light so produced consubsistent with itself, and neither is light prior or posterior to the sun, nor the sun to light.2
While this analogy conveys the relations of consubsistence and one-sided dependence, it does not express the personal idea of creation as an act of choice or intention. The preceding argument would be stronger if creation were indeed as automatic as is the production of light by an incandescent body, or of a shadow by an object in light, but this seems to be an impersonal oversimplification. However, allowance should be made for the fact that the Divine intention is in eternity, whereas the only intentions directly known to us are in time. An eternally-formed intention is emphatically not the same kind of thing as a temporal intention robotically repeated ad infinitum.
(2) The Eternal Paradigm Argument. The world as a whole, just like any of the things in it, is an instantiation of an eternal Form or paradigm. This paradigm, along with matter, is as it were a protocreation, by means of which the material creation is brought into being. The paradigmatic nature of the cosmic Form, being the cause of its image in the material world, is essential to it; without the formation of its image it would be unable to be what it is. If the image ceased to be, the paradigmatic nature would cease to be at the same time. In this way, the image can be said to be as necessary for the paradigm as the paradigm is for the image:
Thus if the paradigm of the world is eternally the paradigm of it, the world always is an image of an eternally existing paradigm.3
This is perhaps the most typically Platonic of these arguments. The Forms are above all an extension of the idea of creation beyond the things of time and matter.
(3) The Causal Regress Argument. The Creator must either be a creator in actuality or else in capacity or potentiality. But whatever has a property x in potentiality can only have x in actuality (or ‘energy’) through the action of something else which has x in actuality already. Thus actual knowledge in one person realizes potential knowledge in another. This points to two alternatives, either that the series of beings changing one another from potentiality to actuality extends to infinity, or else that the series begins from a causal agent whose causal power is always in actuality or energy. Given the existence of this cause, it will follow that the effects proceeding from it will, as a whole, always exist in actuality as well.
(4) The Argument From Perfection. Whatever is produced by an immobile cause will share the immobility of its cause. Where such a cause happens to have no effect, therefore, it never will have one, and where it does, it will never cease to have one.
This immobility in the Creator results from the fact that movement means change, and change means a movement to either a greater or a lesser degree of goodness. But as God is perfect, it would be equally impossible to say that He could become either better or worse. If the creation were to cease to exist, therefore, it would mean that the Creator was thereby attaining to a better state or a worse one, the very things which perfection excludes.
(5) The Temporal Inseparability Argument. In the Timaeus, it is asserted that time and the universe subsist together, so that they could only be created together and be dissolved together. To say that the universe existed when time did not would be the same as saying that there was a time when time was not. This is contradictory because if time were to begin or end absolutely in this world, the temporal condition would not really be escaped. The perpetuity of time itself results from its being the image of eternity. Accordingly, its nature requires it to realize in a serial manner the full reality which eternity has all at once. The oneness of time with the world implies the same perpetuity for the world.
(6) The Benevolence of Creation Argument. The final dissolution of creation, if it were possible, could not be brought about by any being other than God, as only He who creates the bond can know how to unloose it. But, as Taylor quotes from the Timaeus: ‘it pertains only to an evil nature to dissolve that which is beautifully harmonized and constituted well.’4
Such a supposed action by God against the creation would also be an act of the ‘violence’ which Aquinas excludes from the Divine nature in SCG I, chapter 19, because it would conflict with the perfection of immobility. Now either God has not created the world with the greatest harmony and goodness possible for it, or He has. If He has not, He would not be the supreme artificer, which by definition He must be, but if He has, it could not be finally dissolved without a negation of the Divine goodness. Proclus adds here the idea that if the universe is incorruptible it must also be unbegotten, which is simply a dogma which he does not try to substantiate. If it were true that the incorruptible and the unbegotten were logically inseparable, we should not be able to believe that God could create angels or any kind of immortal soul.
(7) The Soul of the World Argument. That the world has a soul is an idea held on the general grounds that the world itself cannot be lifeless and soulless if ensouled living beings are produced from it. Given that there is a World Soul, it will have the essential property common to souls, that of self-motion. Being self-motive, it will be immortal, and from thence will come the perpetuity of the material creation it animates. Here again, the idea that the soul is both unbegotten and incorruptible is repeated like a mantra, al-though these two things are not logically inseparable.
(8) The External Corruption Argument. When things are corrupted, it appears that their corruption is brought about by agencies which are external to them, and which have a nature alien to theirs. But there is by definition nothing external to the universe, as it is the ‘whole of wholes’. Likewise things generated require something other than themselves to be generated from, whence the universe cannot be generated, at least not in the manner of the generated things contained in it. The need for an external instrument for either corruption or generation is simply asserted without argument, though it is by no means clear that either of these does in fact require external agency. It is certainly debatable whether corruption must always be owing to external agency. Among material things, for example, radioactive elements break down without any external cause, and so also do chemically unstable compounds. In metaphysical terms, the Aristotelian idea of Privation in all things seems to be an inherent property in them, and one which is not caused from without, and always liable to increase.
(9) The Inherent Corruption Argument. This is an argument which prima facie requires the exact opposite of what is required by the last argument. Proclus quotes Plato to the effect that everything is corrupted by its own evil. This is because it cannot be corrupted either by the good which pertains to it or by the things which are only neutral in its make-up. Before it could perish, therefore, the universe would have to contain something actively hostile to its own good, and this is what Proclus denies, declaring that it contains nothing liable to corruption, and denying that the universe could contain ‘the unadorned and the unarranged, into which it will be dissolved.’5
If this were the case, the universe would clearly be beyond corruption and generation. However, this argument contradicts what Plato says in the Timaeus concerning the material chaos upon which the instances of the Forms are imposed. The disorder of matter is never actually overcome, according to Plato, but only held in check by the Forms. On this basis, the world does contain the source of its own corruption, and in a form which is liable to spread in the manner described earlier.
To sustain this argument, one must concentrate attention on the orderly aspect of the world. Insofar as it is ordered, it cannot of itself turn into anything else, but order is always contiguous with disorder, and this is why the amount of order in the world cannot in fact remain at a constant level. This order must be understood to include even the perennial pattern of descents into disorder which alternate with reascents of regeneration. As these alternations always proceed according to the same laws, the total system could be said to be incorruptible inasmuch as its liability to corruption is governed and contained in a way which ultimately neutralizes it.
This interpretation of the argument is really no more than an extension of what is implied in the physical fact that even scenes of disorder in the world around us are only perceptible as such because the propagation of light rays and sound waves always takes place by constant laws, and because our organs of perception are working according to their laws. Thus even the greatest incursions of physical disorder depend wholly on an underlying physical order which makes them perceptible and knowable. In a superficial sense, disorder is the opposite of order, but ultimately order has no opposite; there is only order or nothing. Consequently, this argument is only valid on the basis that the world’s inherent evil is counteracted by its Creator.
(10) The Cosmic Order Argument. Everything in the world is said by this argument to be either located in its proper place, or else it is moved in a circle, while things which are not in their proper places are all endeavoring to get there. These are typically Aristotelian premises, and if they apply to the world definitively, then their conclusion will be certain, but only because these premises mean the same thing as the conclusion.
All change according to this argument must result from things which are not in their proper places, and in the process of reaching those proper places they are not liable to do any violence to any others which are already in their proper places. Only an external cause could remove things to new places which are alien to them, which would be a departure from nature. Such a change could only mean that the proper places for things already existed prior to the operation of such external causes. Thus the world must be everlasting if all its processes are divisible without remainder into the three categories of: abiding in the proper place; moving in a circle; and returning to the proper place. But to say that everything in the world always abides in its proper place or course of motion is just an expanded way of saying that it is everlasting.
(11) The Perpetuity of Matter Argument. Matter exists for the sake of the universe, being ‘the receptacle of generation’. More specifically, it exists for the sake of ‘generation,’ the endless flow of cosmic change. As the Forms do not change in themselves, their changes take place only in and between their instantiations in matter. Matter is produced from nothing, and for the sake of something else. What is formed by means of it will possess matter fortuitously, because the essence of every being is not in itself material.
Matter is created from nothing before all else, and therefore not in relation to anything else created, but in eternity; at its creation there is nothing else but the eternal. For this reason, its existence cannot be determined by any finite length of time, its origin being outside all finite relations. Quamatter, it is not in need of anything else in order to be what it is, or to be able to be receptive of Forms. Thus Forms and matter are both equally perpetual, and by implication so also is the instantiation of Forms in matter, by which the world is constituted.
(12) The Eternal Activity Argument. If God creates by means of the action of Forms on matter, it may seem that created things could cease to exist through the annihilation of either Form or of matter, or of both, although this idea is actually excluded by the foregoing arguments. Annihilation might also result from a failure by matter to be receptive of the Formal causes, or by a loss of productive power by the Formal causes, or again by both of these things.
But matter cannot undergo any change in its own nature because any such change would require an internal diversity which matter by definition cannot have. Neither can there be any loss of power either by God or by the Forms. This seems not to exclude the possibility that God might choose to cease to exert this power (figuratively speaking, as though God acted in time). This, however, could only be either trivially true or not true at all. It is true to the extent that God or any free agent can both retain a given power and decline to use it in some limited context, but it is false if this choice of inaction becomes final and definitive. This would amount to an actual loss of the power in question. Such would be the case if the Divine action was temporal. If, however, it is in eternity, the very question of such an internal change or abrogation could not arise.
(13) The Circular Motion Argument. This argument depends on the Aristotelian dogma that the heavens are immutable because they are spheres of an indestructible matter which turn in circles. The rectilinear and disorderly motion necessary for corruption can exist only on earth, therefore. All generation and corruption come from the actions of things with properties contrary to one another, and no such contrarieties can exist in the celestial realm. This was the argument used by Hakewill (see chapter 6).
(14) The Co-Adaptation of Form and Matter Argument. Matter and the ‘vestiges of Forms’, and order are said to have a simultaneous existence. Unlike human fabricators and artists, God creates the matter from which His creation is made. This reiterates what has been argued already, that the world must be everlasting if all the basic components of creation have always existed, and have always existed for one another. This line of argument is clearly not free from circularity; what is made of things that always exist must always exist if they always act in the same way.
(15) The Platonic Authority Argument. This again is an argument which adds little to the ones above, but which emphasizes the role of the paradigmatic Form of the world, as well as Plato’s expressions for it, these being ‘only-begotten’, ‘eternal’, and ‘all-perfect’. The latter expression is said to be applicable to the universe. As before, the similarity between the world and its paradigmatic cause must imply perpetuity for the world. The world is conceived as a divinity, and therefore not dependent on God.
(16) The Order and Disorder Argument. This concerns the Divine will, as it is inferred that the will to create the world implies a further will that all confused and disorderly phenomena should not exist. It thus preserves what is ordered and destroys the inordinate, and this will is not subject to any temporal change, because time is not in God, but exists only as a consequence of the creation. Only through disordered things could the world be corrupted, and their existence and increase is opposed by the Divine will. Disorders are in any case never created as such, but result from deviations in time to which originally ordered things have become subject.
(17) The Generation and Corruption Argument. Here again is an argument which adds little to the previous ones, one in which Plato is cited in a manner more religious than philosophical. What is generated must also be corruptible, and whatever is unbegotten must be incorruptible. The world contains order, and order is a manifestation of the eternal and unbegotten paradigm, whence it too must be incorruptible, and in any case, no benign creator could destroy a world which has been ordered with wisdom.
(18) The Divine Uniformity Argument. This is a lengthy argument which reverts to the Argument from Perfection. God will not be able to act differently in different parts of time because His nature, and therefore action, cannot vary. The world is conceived as a created divinity, therefore dialogues such as the Statesman, in which the world is described as alternately falling into disorder and being re-ordered by God, must not be understood to mean any such alternation of activity in God himself. Our temporal trends both to order and to disorder result from a single uniform action by God which proceeds from outside time. In support of this, it is asserted that God’s presence in, and absence from, the world must be taken ‘in conception only’, a subjectivization of the ideas which is clearly selective. The objective nature of uniformity is never questioned.
Religious Orthodoxy and Timeless Creation
The above arguments are typical of the thinking of the pre-Christian world in antiquity, to which only the Judeo-Christian tradition made any exception. In the absence of revealed teachings which show God to be essentially other than the universe, the idea that the creation should share in the attributes of the Creator is practically irresistible. If God is infinite and eternal, then any creation worthy of Him must have the same properties. Failing this, God must have produced something less than the greatest creation possible, which is not to be supposed inasmuch as God is defined as the being than whom there can be none greater.
At the same time, however, creationist critics of this idea are not free to go to the opposite extreme and deny that the universe reveals anything of the Divine nature. To do that would be to fall into the Manichean doctrine for which this world is effectively a hell which completely conceals God from human awareness. For this reason, it follows that Christian criticism of the Proclan arguments is hampered by the fact that it cannot oppose them very radically, if one is committed to the belief that the world is created by God and is expressive of the highest goodness and wisdom. In these respects, it is clear that one must agree with the pagan view that the world does manifest attributes of the Creator, while still dissenting from it on the grounds that not all the Divine attributes are manifested in this way, or to the same degree.
Thus there is a problem as to why some of the attributes should be excluded from the world, but not others. Nevertheless, this can be reasonable in principle, if the truth is taken to be a via media between an inclusion of all the attributes, which would effectively make the world and God the same thing, and a Manichean exclusion of them, which would make it utterly evil. The pagan side of the issue can acquire a measure of irrational support from the fact that human nature (without the influence of revelation) nearly always tends to make a God of the world in any case, so that God is then perceived as a rather shadowy entity behind it with little or no power over it once it had been created. The history of ideas and religions shows that human intuition naturally tends to a mixture of pantheism and idolatry, and this negative element can easily be allowed to sway the argument.
Some of the above arguments rest on grounds common to the different traditions where they proceed from the idea that God created an intelligible world () of everlasting Forms and the primary matter of creation, besides the material world known to the senses. The inclusion of the spiritual order of creation in the general category of ‘world’ or ‘universe’ has an appreciable effect on the arguments for the world’s perpetuity. If creation were solely a thing of stocks and stones, there would be far less reason to expect it to be everlasting. However, the central role of consciousness in the world makes materialistic views of creation unrealistic, and once consciousness is taken into account, we find that consciousness is determined just as much by ideas or intelligible realities as by sensory ones. Consequently, it appears that a full account of the world must include subtle and suprasensible things whose laws are not those of matter.
Besides this, the study of human consciousness shows it to have the attribute of infinity, even if it is an order of infinity in its own kind. This also reacts upon the nature of the world inasmuch as it shows how the world contains infinite constituents as well as finite ones. Intelligible realities and infinite ones are both profoundly unlike the material substances which the senses perceive to be generable and corruptible, and when the latter are seen to be caused by the former, it must seem that the world as a system containing mutable things will as a whole participate in the everlasting nature of the ideal causes which interpose between it and God.
This way of thinking is also supported by the traditional idea that God can never be conceived to be idle. R. Sorabji explains Philo’s use of this idea as follows:
God made it (the intelligible world) to serve as a pattern (paradeigma) for making perceptible things. There are as many perceptible kinds (gene) as there are intelligible. The intelligible world consists of ideas (ideai), and we may compare them to the plan in an architect’s mind. In the same way, God first thought up the imprints (tupoi) and put together an intelligible world which exists in the divine reason (logos).6
This conception was continued by Origen, who treated the Forms or intelligibles as an earlier creation which was later to be the means for creating the material world, while the intelligibles had existed without temporal origin. Sorabji comments on this idea as follows:
Not only did God create material worlds earlier than the present one, but he also created an earlier (or a timeless) intelligible world. Origen offers this twice as a solution to the idleness problem. . . . From Philo to Augustine there was a continuous tradition of belief in a separate intelligible heaven, and Augustine discusses a ‘heaven of heaven’, somewhat like that of Origen, in Confessions xii.7
Augustine deduces the heaven of heavens, the eternal heaven of Christian belief which specifically belongs to God, from the text: ‘In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.’ This can mean that God created a heaven before the six days of creation in which the earth and the visible heavens were made. Its origin is in the ideas in the Divine mind, and it is the object of angelic intelligence. At the same time, the original matter which was said to be without form and void was also made before the six days of creation, and therefore it too must be beyond the conditions of corruption and evanescence which reign in the material world. Augustine denies that the heaven of heavens is coeternal with the Trinity (or it would be another God), but asserts that it partakes in God’s eternity. It is possible that the heavens could still be consubsistent with God without being consubstantial as well, as the persons of the Trinity are.8 Not much more is involved in this idea of the universe as a quasi-divine creature than is involved in Catholic teachings concerning the nature of the Church, in which the natural and the supernatural are also combined in this way.
The mode of duration corresponding to the heaven of heavens would naturally be that of the ‘ages of ages’ or ‘eternal times’ referred to in chapter 10. This may be eternity, or a very high order of duration. The tendency of this thinking shows that the Christian idea of creation was by no means completely opposed to that of the gentile tradition, and as a result, the latter had to be distorted by the pagan faction into a strict uniformitarianism to ensure the existence of a difference worth contending over. A corresponding extremism arose later on the Christian side, as will be seen. But in the first place it was enough for Christian thought to deny the pagan belief that the world was a god, while still allowing it an intelligible dimension which comprises far more than appears to common sense or to materialism.
Transition to a New Cosmology
Historical changes have a way of preparing the ground for continuations of themselves, more as a result of their acquired momentum than of any practical necessity, as a pendulum must go to an extreme. This seems to have been the case where the doctrine of creation was concerned. In the sixth century ad, things were taken a stage further by Philoponus, a Christian philosopher in Alexandria. He engaged in a dispute against Proclus and the older philosophical tradition, and found a hitherto unsuspected weakness in their arguments (see next chapter). It appeared that he, unlike previous philosophers, was able to sustain the idea that this world was not only of finite duration, but was as it were a unique episode between two eternities in which there was no creation. His ideas were found acceptable by the authorities of Church and State, and as a result they came to be widely regarded as defining the truly Christian position for a long time afterward.
That this idea was believed to be more Christian was probably owing to the fact that the thinking involved was more directly opposed to that of the older tradition, rather than to the idea’s inherent content. Philoponus’s work on this subject appeared in 529 ad, and thereafter his arguments had an influence on what theologians taught about the world in relation to God, even down to the time of Saint Bonaventure, seven hundred years later.
These arguments must be considered next, but first of all one should have a general idea of what else was taking place in the sixth century, so that this doctrinal change can be seen in context. A new kind of world was being born, with an idea of reality which must certainly be called different, if not exactly new; for more than a century before this time, some Fathers of the Church had been teaching that the earth was flat, mainly from a desire to dissociate Christians as much as possible from pagans, who were occupied with the sciences that showed it to be round. There was possibly also a belief that if human beings knew too much about their world they would feel too much at home in it. During the sixth century this flat earth also became generally accepted, with the help of the writings of another Alexandrian, a monk called Cosmas:
The first comprehensive cosmological system of the early Middle Ages, destined to replace the teachings of pagan astronomers from Pythagoras to Ptolemy, was the famous Topographica Christiana by the monk Cosmas. . . . The first of its twelve books is entitled: ‘Against those who, while wishing to profess Christianity, think and imagine like the pagans that the heaven is spherical’. The Holy Tabernacle, described in Exodus, was rectangular and twice as long as it was wide; hence the earth has the same shape, placed lengthwise from East to West at the bottom of the universe.9
This flat, rectangular earth was said to slope from North West to South East, and was surrounded by four walls. Such was the idea of the world which became equated with orthodoxy during the next three centuries. Only during the ninth century was it again possible for it to be publicly acknowledged that the earth was round. Even so, there is evidence from maps like the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral that many in the Church continued to teach that the earth was flat, nearly up to the fourteenth century. In the latter example the earth appears as a flat disc with Jerusalem at the center. The need to create a Christian cosmology even without regard to actual observation, would today be called a category mistake between facts and values, but it had a certain psychological relevance inasmuch as the formation of a different kind of human being is made easier if one can get him to believe in a different idea of the universe. It should also be appreciated that the question of our world’s being a unique creation can only be a serious one on the basis of a geocentric cosmology, with creation effectively centered on this planet. Once creation is extended to innumerable stars and planetary systems, all coming into being at different times, the question of an absolute beginning for this whole universe must lose human significance, even if it could be exactly determined. The importance today of an absolute beginning lies rather in the way in which the possibility of such a beginning tests the arguments which are used in support of the perpetuity of the world.
1. Translated by Thomas Taylor in Fragments of the Lost Writings of Proclus, chap. 6. Taylor saw himself as a continuator of Proclus’s polemic.
2. Fragments of the Lost Writings of Proclus, chap. 6, p. 35.
3. Ibid., p. 36.
4. Fragments of the Lost Writings of Proclus, chap. 6, p. 44.
5. Ibid., p. 51.
6. R. Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the Continuum, chap. 15, p. 250.
7. Ibid., chap. 15, pp. 251–252.
8. Confessions, Bk. xii, 8 and 9.
9. Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, pt. 2, chap. 1.