St. Augustine: Confessions

BOOK XI  

CHAPTER XII. -- WHAT GOD DID BEFORE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD.

14. I answer him who asks, "What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?" I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), "He was preparing hell," said he, "for those who pry into mysteries." It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh -- these things I do not answer. For more willingly would I have answered, "I know not what I know not," than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asks deep things, and gain praise as one who answers false things. But I say that You, our God, are the Creator of every creature; and if by the term "heaven and earth" every creature is understood, I boldly say, "That before God made heaven and earth, He made not anything. For if He did, what did He make unless the creature?" . . .  I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.

CHAP. XIII. -- BEFORE THE TIMES CREATED BY GOD, TIMES WERE NOT.

15. But if the roving thought of any one should wander through the images of bygone time, and wonder that You, God Almighty, and All-creating, and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, did for innumerable ages refrain from so great a work before You made it, let him awake and consider that he wonders at false things. For could innumerable ages pass by which You did not make, since You are the Author and Creator of all ages? Or what times should those be which were not made by You? Or how should they pass by if they had not been? Since, therefore, You art the Creator of all times, if any time was before You made heaven and earth, why is it said that You refrained from working? For that very time You made, nor could times pass by before You made times.

But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it asked, What did You then? For there was no "then" when time was not.

16. Nor did You precede time by any time; because then You would not precede all times. But in the excellency of an ever-present eternity, You precede all times past, and survive all future times, because they are future, and when they have come they will be past; but "You are the same, and Your years shall have no end." Your years neither go nor come; but ours both go and come, that all may come. . . . You have made all time; and before all times You are, nor in any time was there not time.

CHAP. XIV. -- NEITHER TIME PAST NOR FUTURE, BUT THE PRESENT ONLY, REALLY IS.

17. At no time, therefore, had You not made anything, because You made time itself. And no times are co-eternal with You, because You remain for ever; but should these continue, they would not be times. For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present -- if it be time -- only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be -- namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?

CHAP. XV. -- THERE IS ONLY A MOMENT OF PRESENT TIME.

18. And yet we say that "time is long and time is short" . . .  A long time past, for example, we call a hundred years ago; in like manner a long time to come, a hundred years hence. But a short time past we call, say, ten days ago: and a short time to come, ten days hence. But in what sense is that long or short which is not? For the past is not now, and the future is not yet. Therefore let us not say, "It is long;" but let us say of the past, "It has been long," and of the future, "It will be long." . . .

19. Let us therefore see, O human soul, whether present time can be long; for to you is it given to perceive and to measure periods of time. What will you reply to me? When present, is a hundred years a long time? See, first, whether a hundred years can be present. For if the first year of these is current, that is present, but the other ninety and nine are future, and therefore they are not as yet. But if the second year is current, one is already past, the other present, and the rest future. And thus, if we fix on any middle year of this hundred as present, those before it are past, those after it are future; wherefore a hundred years cannot be present. See at least whether that year itself which is current can be present. For if its first month be current, the rest are future; if the second, the first has already passed, and the remainder are not yet. Therefore neither is the current year present as a whole; and if it is not present as a whole, then the year is not present. For twelve months make the year, of which each individual month that is current is itself present, but the rest are either past or future. Although neither is the current month present, but one day only: if the first, the rest being to come, if the last, the rest being past; if any of the middle, then between past and future.

20. Behold, the present time, which alone we found could be called long, is abridged to the space scarcely of one day. But let us discuss even that, for there is not one day present as a whole. For it is made up of four-and-twenty hours of night and day, of which the first hour has the rest future, the last has them past, but any one of the intervening hours has those before it past, those after it future. And each hour passes away in fleeting particles. Whatever of it has flown away is past, whatever remains is future. If any portion of time is conceived which cannot now be divided into even the smallest particles of moments, this only is that which may be called present; which, however, flies so rapidly from future to past, that it cannot be extended by any delay. For if it is extended, it is divided into the past and future; but the present has no space. Where, therefore, is the time that we measure? . . .

CHAP. XVI. -- TIME CAN ONLY BE PERCEIVED OR MEASURED WHILE IT IS PASSING.

21. And yet, O Lord, we perceive intervals of times, and we compare them with themselves, and we say some are longer, others shorter. We even measure by how much shorter or longer this time may be than that; and we answer, "That this is double or treble, while that is but once, or only as much as that." But we measure times passing when we measure them by perceiving them; but past times, which now are not, or future times, which as yet are not, who can measure them? No one will dare to say that they can measure that which is not. When, therefore, time is passing, it can be perceived and measured; but when it has passed, it cannot, since it is not.

CHAP. XVIII. -- PAST AND FUTURE TIMES CANNOT BE THOUGHT OF BUT AS PRESENT.

23. . . . If there are times past and future, I desire to know where they are. But if as yet I do not succeed, I still know, wherever they are, that they are not there as future or past, but as present. For if there also they be future, they are not as yet there; if even there they be past, they are no longer there. Wherever, therefore, they are, whatsoever they are, they are only so as present. Although past things are related as true, they are drawn out from the memory, -- not the things themselves, which have passed, but the words conceived from the images of the things which they have formed in the mind as footprints in their passage through the senses. My childhood, indeed, which no longer is, is in time past, which now is not; but when I call to mind its image, and speak of it, I behold it in the present, because it is as yet in my memory. Whether there is a like cause of foretelling future things, that of things which as yet are not the images may be perceived as already existing, I confess, my God, I know not. This certainly I know, that we generally think before on our future actions, and that this premeditation is present; but that the action we premeditate is not yet, because it is future; and when we have begun to do that which we were premeditating, then shall that action be, because then it is not future, but present.

24. In whatever manner, therefore, this secret preconception of future things may be, nothing can be seen, save what is. But what is now, is present, not future. . . .

CHAP. XX. -- IN WHAT MANNER TIME MAY PROPERLY BE DESIGNATED.

26. But what now is manifest and clear is, that neither are there future nor past things. Nor is it right to say, "There are three times, past, present and future." But it might be right to say, "There are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future." For these three times do somehow exist in the soul. Otherwise I would not see them: present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation. If of these things we are permitted to speak, I see three times, and I grant there are three. It may also be said, "There are three times, past, present and future," as usage falsely has it. See, I trouble not, nor gainsay, nor reprove; provided always that which is said may be understood, that neither the future, nor the past, now is. For there are but few things which we speak properly, many things improperly; but what we may wish to say is understood.

CHAP. XXI. -- HOW TIME MAY BE MEASURED.

27. I have just now said, then, that we measure times as they pass, that we may be able to say that this time is twice as much as that one, or that this is only as much as that, and so of any other of the parts of time which we are able to tell by measuring. . . . And if any one should ask me, "How do you know?" I can answer, "I know, because we measure; nor can we measure things that are not; and things past and future are not." But how do we measure present time, since it has not space? It is measured while it passes; but when it shall have passed, it is not measured; for there will not be anything that can be measured. . .

But what do we measure, unless time in some space? For we say not single, and double, and triple, and equal, or in any other way in which we speak of time, unless with respect to the spaces of times. In what space, then, do we measure passing time? Is it in the future? Or is it in the present? Or in the past? But that which is not now, we measure not.

CHAP. XXIV. -- THAT TIME IS NOT A MOTION OF A BODY THAT WE MEASURE BY TIME.

31. . . .when we say, "How long," we speak by comparison, as, "This is as long as that," or, "This is double as long as that," or any other thing of the kind. But if we were able to note down the distances of places from and to which the body is moved, or its parts, if it moved as in a wheel, we can say in how much time the motion of the body or its part, from this place unto that, was performed. Since, then, the motion of a body is one thing, that by which we measure how long it is another, who cannot see which of these is rather to be called time? For, although a body be sometimes moved, sometimes stand still, we measure not its motion only, but also its standing still, by time; and we say, "It stood still as much as it moved;" or, "It stood still twice or thrice as long as it moved;" and if any other space which our measuring has either determined or imagined, more or less, as we are accustomed to say. Time, therefore, is not the motion of a body.

CHAP. XXVII. -- TIMES ARE MEASURED IN PROPORTION AS THEY PASS BY

35. Deus Creator omnium; this verse of eight syllables alternates between short and long syllables. The first, third, fifth and seventh are short. They are short in comparison with the four long syllables, the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth. Each of these has a double time to every one of those. I pronounce them, report on them, and thus it is, as is perceived by common sense. By common sense, then, I measure a long by a short syllable, and I find that it has twice as much. But when one sounds after another, if the former be short the latter long, how shall I hold the short one, and how measuring shall I apply it to the long, so that I may find out that this has twice as much, when indeed the long does not begin to sound unless the short leaves off sounding? That very long one I measure not as present, since I measure it not save when ended. But its ending is its passing away. What, then, is it that I can measure? Where is the short syllable by which I measure? Where is the long one that I measure? Both have sounded, have flown, have passed away, and are no longer; and still I measure, and I confidently answer (so far as is trusted to a practiced sense), that as to space of time this syllable is single, that double. Nor could I do this, unless because they have past, and are ended. Therefore do I not measure themselves, which now are not, but something in my memory, which remains fixed.

CHAP. XXVIII. -- TIME IN THE HUMAN MIND, WHICH EXPECTS, CONSIDERS, AND REMEMBERS.

37. But how is that future diminished or consumed which as yet is not? Or how does the past, which is no longer, increase, unless three things are done in the mind that enacts this there? For the mind expects, and considers, and remembers, that that which it expects, through that which it considers, may pass into that which it remembers. Who, therefore, denies that future things as yet are not? There is already in the mind the expectation of things future. And who denies that past things are now no longer? But, however, there is still in the mind the memory of things past. And who denies that time present wants space, because it passes away in a moment? But yet our consideration endures, through which that which may be present may proceed to become absent. Future time, which is not, is not therefore long; but a "long future" is "a long expectation of the future." Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; but a long past is "a long memory of the past."

 

A Note on the Text:

This translation is by by J. G. Pilkington, originally published in The Early Church Fathers and Other Works. Edinburgh: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1867. The translation is now in the public domain and may be freely reproduced. The translation has been modernized.