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14

An Ontology of Time

A Dependent Mode of Being

While it cannot coherently be said that time itself begins at a given time, or that it exists between a starting date and an ending date, it is nevertheless a contingency as a whole, just as much as any of the events which occur in it. Although it is of indefinite length, it is a derivative and dependent reality in relation to the whole of being, which comprises countless non-temporal realities. The manner of time’s non-temporal origin can be understood in the light of the Principle of Plenitude. On this basis, the temporal process as a whole can be shown to come into being in a manner which is no different from the way in which its component phenomena arise.

There is no reason why a subordinate mode of being should not be realized by a non-temporal process. For example, the conclusions and answers reached in logical and mathematical problems follow from their premises in just such a timeless manner, even though these connected statements are traced by thought and verbally expressed in temporal sequences. Thus the conclusion ‘Socrates is mortal’ follows logically and timelessly from ‘all men are mortal’ and ‘Socrates is a man,’ even though these statements may be written down in a temporal sequence. Another example comes from what theology teaches about the Holy Trinity. The Son proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and these processions are eternal, even though we have to think of them temporally. The same thing can be seen in another way by means of the series of natural numbers. This is a timeless system of quantitative relationships whose non-temporal succession is translated into a temporal one by our act of counting.

The time process in which we exist comprises a real mode of being, but it is nevertheless a very limited one, which is assigned to the lower levels of the scale of being because the amount of reality it contains in each of its moments cannot be increased without the cessation of what went before. In contrast to this are the archetypal realities in which all modes of being and reality exist to the fullest degree of completeness. Subsequent to these are kinds of being which are real by participation, but which have progressively greater degrees of privation, in the Aristotelian sense of the word. This is the principle by which temporal things derive from states of being which are superior to change and corruption, while all the instantiations which are comprised in the temporal condition are much attenuated in the process, just as every greater possibility implies a lesser one as well.

That this applies to the contents of time appears in three different ways in which temporal existence differs from eternal being. Firstly, even the longest temporal durations are insignificant compared with the eternal; secondly, only a tiny amount of even this very limited share of being is ever realizable in any one moment of time; thirdly, temporal existence is contingent, that is to say, it always depends on its relations to many other temporal existences which are contemporary with it. These properties of temporal existence are also part of the difference between a Form and its instantiations, say between the Form of an axe and the material axes which manifest it; while a Form and its being are inseparable, its instantiations are under no necessity to exist. From this point of view, the passage of being from eternity to time is of the same nature as the descent of the causal power of the Forms into their material instantiations. These relations in the macrocosm are of course reflected in the microcosm inasmuch as the realm of Forms is present in each individual mind. Consequently, this ontological movement has its reverberations in the subconscious mind, where it may well have inspired Coleridge’s lines:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.1

The ‘sunless sea’ would therefore be the material world in which the Forms reach their final level of instantiation. The more usual interpretation, that this is an allusion to the rivers of Paradise, is also a symbol which could convey the same idea, since Paradise manifested, in a relative sense at least, the fount of the realities which make up this world.

The relation between Forms and their instances is of one nature with the reduction of being into time, but this does not explain the Principle of Plenitude. On the contrary, it follows from Plenitude that Forms automatically cause their instantiations in matter, since Plenitude conveys the general principle of the Form-matter relation in its ontologically ‘downward’ sense. This way of accounting for time in terms of its solidarity with instantiation is in conformity with what has already been argued against the idea of ‘empty time’, because the formation of the time-series and that of its contents are of one and the same nature on this basis. Moreover, the necessity for change and movement in the realm of time is also explained by the effect of Plenitude as it operates in its ‘downward’ or cosmogonic sense.

Given the progressive reduction of being and reality implicit in this process, there is a corresponding reduction in the potentialities of the instantiated beings, which can only be counterbalanced by the quantitative principle of continually increasing their number, and ensuring that they replace one another as rapidly as possible. As this cosmogonic descent tends to its extremity, therefore, the rate at which temporal change takes place should rise to a maximum, as a greater number of small quantities must compensate for a smaller number of large quantities. However, one must carefully observe a distinction here, between the timeless cosmogonic descent implied by Plenitude which produces the whole time-series and material instantiation, and the changes which reflect this descent in miniature in the various cycles of time. The ‘temporality of time’ thus increases between the beginning and the end of a world-cycle, as the quantitative reality increases.

The Three Levels of Being

Without looking further into the dynamics of time for the pre-sent, I shall enlarge on the idea of time’s issuance from eternity. As the origin, eternity has the peculiarity that, being exempt from change, it is more open to definition. Starting from this conception, time may be conceived from the suppression of some of the eternal attributes, which Plotinus speaks of as follows:

We know it as a life changelessly motionless and ever holding the Universal content in actual presence; not this now and now the other, but always all; not existing now in one mode and now in another, but a consummation without part or interval. All its content is in immediate concentration as at one point; nothing in it ever knows development. . . for ever in a Now. . . .2

The cosmic reality which we know only as divided, discontinuous and often without coherence is, at its origin, an integrated and undivided whole to which nothing can be added. All that derives from the absolute reality emerges increasingly fragmented, even though it may still manifest the same total content in a disarticulated manner. The unchanging nature of the eternal is not the same as its being simply static, which would in any case be a temporally-conditioned property. It rather combines immutability with the dynamism of change without any of the corruption, loss, or conflict which change involves in the material world.

But since Plenitude entails that all possible levels of being should be realized, time could not follow directly from eternity if it were possible for there to be another mode of being which possessed properties peculiar to both, and which would mediate between them. The difference between eternal and temporal being is sufficiently extreme to make a third mode of being necessary. It is conceived as being like time in that it develops through moments which succeed one another in a series, while on the other hand it is like eternity inasmuch as the duration of everything in it is endless. Such is the endless temporal existence called aevum, which seems to have been originally conceived by Plotinus, even though he does not distinguish it very clearly from finite time:

Existence for the [generated] All must similarly consist in a goal to be attained; for this reason it keeps hastening toward its future dreading to rest, seeking to draw Being to itself by a perpetual variety of production and action by its circling in a sort of ambition after Essential Existence.3

Temporality, whether finite or non-finite, appears as a state of deprivation of all but a minimum of real being, and the need to fill the vacuum allows no rest from the drive to ever more prolongations of itself, as if this could remedy the deficiency of temporal being. This is what Plotinus expresses in the same passage about the dynamics of time, as being a process which ‘seeks perpetuity by way of futurity’, although the ‘futurity’, when it arrives is necessarily of the same nature as the present time, whether it be in time as we know it or in the higher form of time. The latter is a whole of temporal wholes which is an archetype in relation to the finite and fragmented change of this world. The reduction of being from eternity through aevum to finite time can be compared with the process of representing a complex three dimensional object like a house in two dimensions by means of a set of elevations covering all its aspects. Such a transition from a higher-dimensional state to a lower one requires a certain increase in quantity so that the lower medium can in some sort match the higher on its own level.

That this ontological movement requires three, not two, universal categories of being is argued by Proclus in a way which depends directly on Plenitude:

For if all process is through likeness [prop. 29], and the first term of any series is immediately succeeded by terms which are like it rather than unlike, the wholly unlike having a lower station [prop. 28] and if it is impossible to attach directly to the eternals things which come-to-be in a part of time [since the latter are doubly distinguished from the former, both as things in process from things which are and as dated from perpetual existences], so that there must be an intermediate order which resembles the eternals in one respect but differs from them in the other. . . . It remains that the mean is that which perpetually comes-to-be: which in virtue of its coming-to-be is attached to the inferior order, while in its perpetuity it imitates the eternal nature.4

These three orders thus comprise the concentrated simultaneity of the eternal, the endless succession of aevum, and the lower temporal level which contains only finite durations. The latter comprises many different orders of duration, ranging from that of aevum itself down to forms of duration so short as to tend to non-existence. This descending series of possibilities, implicit in the idea of Plenitude, is essentially the same by nature when it proceeds from aevum to finite time, as when it proceeds from eternity to aevum. This continuous scale of durations is a property of time which will be looked at more closely in the next chapter.

Time, Soul, and Cosmic Process

The acceleration of finite time, or the shortening of the duration in which its phenomena develop, is never directly observable, and so it may well appear that we should have the right to ignore it. The rotation of the earth on its axis, and the cycle of the year always bear the same ratios to the length of a human lifetime, for example, regardless of the absolute duration comprised in them. Cosmic processes, and the constructive mental activities of mankind share in the same overall pattern of change, at least wherever mental activity is devoted to the production of changes in the outside world.

The possibility of evil is also implicit both in the production of finite time itself, and in the acceleration of change in it, because the instantiation of eternal Forms in the material world means that they acquire the possibility of forming combinations quite unlike their mutual relations quaForms. Instantiation thus involves a process of disarticulation which allows the material world a range of possibilities wider in many respects than those of the archetypal world, albeit at the price of negative potentialities for conflict. Thus destructive conflicts can result from the juxtaposition of cultural forms and human types which would not be nearly related in the realm of their archetypal causes.

In the human microcosm there are correspondences between the intellect and the realm of Forms and between the soul and the physical world. There is also the difference that the conformity of the intellect to the Forms is intrinsic to it, whereas the soul’s conformity to them is only conditional, which is why the soul, unlike the intellect, is in need of salvation. Soul and cosmos are both subject to time; just as the soul grasps intelligible realities in a serial manner, so in the macrocosm the archetypal reality is realized in a series of moments, the sum total of which will be in some sense equivalent to the original archetype. What Plotinus says of the soul in this connection applies mutatis mutandis to both the human soul and the world-soul. In either case, it is said to contain ‘an unquiet faculty’ whose passion is to recreate what it originally knew in the Authentic Realm. This is what gives rise to the endless series of different acts which aims to recreate that realm on a lower level of being, as where a centuries-long history of a nation would be much more adequate to its archetypal cause than its attributes over a few years.

This view of time and the world differs from that of subjectivism, however, inasmuch as the temporal world is not created as such by the conscious movements of either the individual soul or the world soul. The soul could be said to recreate the world by its representation, while this representation is based on the self-subsistent realities of both matter and the Forms. In addition to the representing power, the creative function of the soul appears in the dynamism and forward momentum which passes into nature from it. This dynamism can be qualified by innumerable different dispositions of the soul, depending on the combination of faculties which predominates. For this reason, a majority of minds or souls which have a broadly similar disposition can impart to their world a quality which goes far deeper than the material works they undertake. Insofar as we are subject to this psychic force, it is very difficult to see truth and falsehood apart from what they are taken to be by the prevailing ethos.

At times when only the sense faculties are operative in the majority, metaphysical truths will be made to seem more obscure than they are in themselves. The dominant properties in the collective consciousness give rise to different forms of the world, partly as a legitimate realization of new possibilities, and partly as a smothering of higher values by lower. The qualification of time by its mode of representation in individual minds has also a bearing on the fact that miracles are recorded much more in some periods in history than in others, not because divine intervention is more present at some times but because of the receptivity of the general state of mind. This receptivity is linked to the value which is placed on time and temporal development. While the soul and its world are both subject to time, there is a margin of choice within which the soul can choose how far its energies are absorbed in things of process and how far they can be committed to a reality which transcends time. This is not a mere choice of options; it is a creative act which decides the nature and value of a world. There is no reason in principle why any given individual should not thus recover, even in this life, a conscious participation in the eternal source of the material world, as numerous mystics have been known to do.

The choices made by the individual can thus be such as to either accelerate or to slow down the passage of time, even though the effect owing to that person will not be noticeable unless a similar choice is made by a large number of others. The modern preference for temporal movement is the opposite of that of the mystic, and it contains a denial of any final and enduring state to which the time process could tend, because the domination of short-term purpose excludes the ultimate purpose which can make life meaningful. Since the soul is under no inherent necessity to convert itself to the flux of time and matter, it belongs by nature to the world of the spirit, even though it does not yet exist in eternity. This means, as Inge has pointed out,5 that the spiritual world cannot be equated with eternity. While it includes eternity, it also includes other modes of being which are characterized by an authentic relation to the eternal. The fact that ensouled corporeal beings are not per se spirit does not prevent them from the completest participation in the essence and the power of the spirit.

This idea of the dynamics of cosmic change gives a much lower status to the role of the material universe than does scientific thought. The Forms, and material existence, constitute a reality shared in by all beings, but in addition to them there is the sum total of all the world-representations formed from them in conscious beings or monads. This is why the creative activities of minds are components of the real world with as much or more right as are the cosmic bodies. While this conclusion about the real world was reached most clearly by Leibniz, it is also implicitly the cosmology of the Neoplatonists. Much of the opposition it meets with is owing to the fact that it is not open to the reductions and simplifications so much desired by modern thought.

Time, Creation, and the Forms

The creation of the material world has been spoken of so far as the working-out of an ontological movement which appears to have nothing to do with the idea of a world being created by a personal choice by God. But the fact that the realization of Plenitude is in no way compatible with a personal choice made by a finite mind operating in time does not give us the right to presume without further ado that it is not compatible with a choice made outside time by an infinite mind. All the contingencies which characterize human choice are owing to its being exercised in time, and this cannot be a model for acts of choice by God.

We must also avoid setting up an absolute distinction between the original act of creation and the propagation of universal existence from moment to moment, which could be called a constant re-creation. Being is by its very nature extensible in time in a way which has no dependence on logic, that is, the existence of a given object in the future is not deducible from its existence now. As God has created it with this property, it is reasonable to conceive the creation of the material world as distributed along the time dimension in an infinite series of separate acts as well as to conceive it as a timeless ontological movement. Neither of these accounts can be taken as complete or exclusive, therefore. They closely parallel the distinction made in the above between the soul’s causal power over nature and the efficient causality the world at a given time has in regard to its being in a later moment. There is in fact more than a hint of a ‘creation out of nothing’ in the prolongation of all states of existence through time in the life of the cosmos as it is known in subjective representation. There is room for doubt here as to whether the ontological self-propagation takes place by a constant direct divine intervention, or whether this propagation is an inherent property created originally as an attribute of temporal being.

It is a fact supportive of the idea of creation out of nothing that the forward projection of existence from moment to moment reveals something of this level of creation. The continuation of existence does not result from logical relations, but is rather a contingent reality which shares in the continuous being of soul and intellect. Every moment of the material world which is future in relation to the present is in a sense a ‘nothing’ which is turned into a real existence by some power external to it. This conversion of future into present is only a relative ‘creation out of nothing,’ of course, because the future can be shown to be more than nothing because we can think constructively about it, and make plans in relation to it. Nevertheless, it could reasonably be taken for a natural image of an eternal act of production.

Such ideas about time and creation contrast with Plotinian ideas, according to which the emergence of a world and its contents comes as an almost automatic result of the relation between the eternal archetypes and the receptivity of matter. It is yet to be seen whether one can reconcile these perspectives of an almost motiveless creation or emanation on the one hand, and on the other hand one by which everything is intentionally brought into existence by the Creator for a specific purpose inclusive of the good of the beings created.

This difficulty is not solved by means of the Hebrew for creare, since it also has a construction which parallels that of the Latin word. The use of the word ‘created’ in Genesis would therefore seem to be a barrier against theoretical explanation. Whether it is primarily an act of intelligent choice which realizes itself in particular individuals, or whether it is an inevitable ontological descent, the idea of creation is as unanalyzable as that of Being.

There is no reason why these two approaches to creation should not be reconciled, however, because individual and universal realities need not exclude one another. There is a great difference in perspective between the theory of electromagnetic energy and the construction of radio transmitters and receivers but their mutual integration is complete. As man’s mind bridges the divide between the laws of energy and the structures which employ them, an analogous synthesis may well reside in the act of creation. The nothing which precedes creation is first of all a nothing on the cosmic plane, prior to the creation of matter, and of the Forms. The latter contain no will or purpose of their own as a collectivity, so that in themselves they have no co-ordinating and marshalling power which could ensure that their manifestation in matter will result in a cosmos and not a chaos.

God’s relation to the Forms can be understood as being like that between Plato’s Form of the Good and the Forms, that is, as the highest principle of the way in which a Form relates to all its instantiations in time and matter, in the sense of being their cause and pattern. But in addition to this, however, God has the power of determining which Forms shall be instantiated at a given time, and which shall not, and in which combinations.

There is an Aristotelian criticism of this view of creation by Saint Albert the Great which can also yield a conclusion supportive of it for those who are not committed to Aristotle on principle. Albert discounts the idea that the Formal causes of particular things should be essentially separate from them, on the grounds that ‘the proximate principles of particular things are particular, and the proximate principles of corruptible things are corruptible.’ He adds that ‘by universals which pre-exist and have beforehand the being of things, no thing is known; and thus they are useless to the knowledge of things.’6

According to this argument, the ‘proximate principles’ of things are as particular as the things themselves, like the subtle or etheric body in relation to the material body. However, their higher principles are sublated to God. The denial that the pre-existent universals can be known assumes that knowledge must be by sense-perception alone. In reality they are known to the intellect, without any need to read the mind of God. It will be seen later how they can subsist with other and more physical causes. Platonists were not using the idea of self-subsistent Forms because they were unable to understand physical or efficient causality and needed a substitute for it. (Aristotle himself teaches the simultaneous working of Formal, Final, Material, and Efficient causes.)

The alternative represented by Albert is to equate the Forms exclusively with their sources in the mind of God. But in this way all reality would be divided between God and material things. The intermediate orders of being would be eliminated, there including the subsistent Forms with their delegated creative powers, sacrificing the intelligibility of the world to the supposed requirements of a devotional perspective which does nor challenge common sense.

The text just quoted proceeds to another objection to the idea of the Forms as subsistent realities which brings us back to what has just been said about God’s relation to the Forms. It is, moreover, an objection which looks strangely unmindful of the role of the Creator, and shows how the materialistic tendency of Aristotle’s thought makes it unhelpful for discussions of this kind:

Moreover, if they [the Forms] were separated, [i.e., subsistent realities] what would make them touch matter and cause a natural being in it? For the etymagium which he [Plato] speaks of, does not touch wax for the purpose of sealing except when someone moves it [author’s italics]. But what there is to move separated Forms of this sort is impossible to say, although some wish to suppose some such thing.7

This objection has some matters of substance which deserve a fuller statement. Given that the Forms transcend their instantiations, they give us no means of deducing where or when these manifestations shall arise. Likewise, they give us no clue as to just how many such creatures would come into being, and neither do they reveal what combinations they would form with other entities like themselves. Finally, the question of purpose seems to have no place. The point seemingly ignored by Saint Albert is that the agency answering to the above conditions is that of God, and moreover in respect of a function specifically divine, even though the manner of the action involved is according to Plenitude. This objection against self-subsistent Forms, that they cannot by any volition of their own create a world or any part of one, is a rather strange one to be raised from a Christian point of view, and not only because it regards merely the natural level. If, conversely, it were possible to attribute such autonomous action to the Forms, there would in effect be as many creators as Forms, and this would be rejected at once as polytheism. For this reason Albert’s Aristotelian criticism of Formal causes requires that we should ignore their relation to God, without adequate reason.

The combination of the theistic conception of creation with the instancing of Forms as its modus operandi is recognized by a number of those who have studied the traditional cosmologies. For example, Titus Burckhardt8 speaks of the ‘vertical genesis of species’ into material existence, at a time when the material medium is still receptive to such large-scale changes. He conceives the Forms as causing a certain ‘condensation’ of themselves at ever-lower levels, so that they have prior instantiations in a more subtle matter than the matter of this world. These subtle kinds of creation play the part of Formal causes in relation to the creatures in this world in a strictly relative sense, and are in effect what Saint Albert thought of as their ‘proximate causes’, with which they are equally individual. But since causes of this kind result from the instantiation of subsistent Forms in a superior kind of matter, there is no question of conflict between these two kinds of explanation, except where Aristotelian thought would restrict all thinking to just one of them.

The resulting descent of these mediated Forms into this world would, according to Burckhardt, be quite sudden, and therefore without any previous evolutionary development. Each life-form would be complete from the start, and would be as it were a coagulation of a more subtle kind of being. However, it will be possible to see a pattern of evolution in the order in which these ontological descents take place, only with the difference that the sequence is owing to a power acting on matter and not to the generation of one species by another. In a related context, Proclus argues that the Form of Man is instantiated in three realms before this one,9 where the constitutive matter consists of the philosophical elements fire, air and water respectively, men being formed from each of these four elements in a kind of hierarchy. Man in this world is the fourth instantiation in order, that of the earth element. Such a descent of a Form through increasingly gross kinds of matter is matched in each one of them by the way in which the matter becomes increasingly opaque in the course of a cosmic cycle. This conception closely follows the Plenitude idea of each type of being filling all the levels of existence possible for it. In Proclus’s account a similar cosmogonic progression is applied to most other Forms, including the Horse Itself and the Lion Itself.

Unification Under One Concept

Not only is the ‘Platonic creationism’ consistent with the theistic idea of creation, it is also a means of correcting materialistic tendencies that can enter into the latter. Saint Gregory of Nyssa even took this metaphysical approach to the extent of eliminating the role of matter in it, on the grounds that all things could be explained by God’s gathering groups of Forms together in appropriate bundles by the action of His will alone.10 For example, a conjunction of hardness, coldness, heaviness, whiteness, and extension would account for marble without need for a material substance. If things were so made directly from ideas from the Divine mind, one could indeed speak of a creation out of nothing, as there would be nothing where there was supposed to be the prime matter or hyle. However, this use of the Forms in creation is too similar to the manner in which the Divine Word is generated from the Father, so that this theory is only spiritual in a way which would confuse God with created beings.

Without taking this conception to the lengths to which Gregory took it, however, it sheds light on the question as to whether the immediate object of creation consists in individual beings and physical objects. If the idea of omnipotence acting in eternity is taken by itself, there is no logical reason why the Creator should not be directly concerned with making individuals, right down to individual atoms. However, God’s action in creation must be conceived as commensurate with Divine intelligence and that would not normally include things that could be delegated to subordinate beings. The precise nature of the ingress and egress of the Forms in relation to the material world will no doubt always be obscure to those who live in this world, quite apart from the manner in which the material world is under Divine direction, but that is not an objection to arguments which imply that this ingress and egress does in fact happen. Neither does this obscurity detract from the complementarism which has been inferred between the theistic creation doctrine and the Platonic account of its means.

Besides this conception of the working-out of creation, the account given here makes it possible to say what time really is, provided the metaphysics involved is accepted as reflecting the constitution of the real, and not merely as a way of discussing its appearances. No other type of philosophy leads so directly to the resolution of this ancient problem, and it does so in a way which does not require that one should first solve the paradoxes to which time gives rise. Nevertheless, such problems must be confronted, as the technical aspect of time becomes more relevant where it is necessary to explain the changes that take place in the course of a cycle. Problems of this kind are the subject of the next chapter, which will prepare the ground for a numerical treatment of the subject.


1. Kubla Khan.

2. Enn. iii, 7, 3.

3. Enn. iii, 7, 4. (The All is both spiritual and material.)

4. Elements of Theology, prop. 55

5. The Philosophy of Plotinus, vol. 1, (vi–viii), ‘Time’.

6. Saint Albert the Great, treatise ii, chap. 5 (Selections from the Medieval Philosophers, Scribners).

7. Saint Albert, ibid.

8. See Titus Burckhardt, ‘Cosmology and Modern Science’ (in The Sword of Gnosis, Jacob Needleman, Ed.).

9. Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, Bk. iii, 812 (G.R. Morrow and J.M. Dillon translation).

10. See Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the Continuum, chap. 13, first section.

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