- Jul 14, 2013
Three classes were given by Professor Vincent Giraud over two weeks from 3 June.
Lectures handled the writing of Saint Augustine (354-430), father of early Christianity, and shed light on existential aspects of his thought. The central text was Confessions, with particular focus on the discussion of time found in Volume 11. According to Augustine, although time is something we all understand, nobody can explain what it is. Time has three forms: past, present and future, yet past contains an element of "no longer", and future, "not yet". This means that past and future do not exist, and the only one that we have is present. What, however, is the present? For example, over the period of a year, whilst we are living through one month, the other months are either in the future or the past. It follows that only one month of the year is the present, but then there is a single day within that month, and a single hour within that day... Time that can be called the present shrinks down without limits, until it ultimately becomes nothing. Consequently, the only time that is in existence - the present - has no length, and is hard to capture. We feel the passing of time, however, and we judge its length. Herein lies the difficulty of explaining time.
According to Augustine, time is something sensed by us, and so it is related to the mind. When we talk about events in the past and future, those events are already in our minds, so that the three forms of time - past, present, and future - are actually "the present about the past", "the present about the present", and "the present about the future", Augustine states. The present about the past is memory (memoria), the present about the present is intuition/sight (contuitus), and the present about the future is expectation (expectatio). These three are behind the functioning (intentio) of the mind, while time is a distention/stretching out (distentio) of this functioning of the mind.
Understanding the world in the form of a distention, that is, time, is a fundamental condition of humanity in Augustine. Yet at the same time, when humans are conscious of something they also usually add an explanation to it. Understanding the pure reality of something, without the engagement of time, is possible only by God, although humans - the created - seize reality through their original sin. The word distentio is in fact used in places in Confessions with the meaning of "dispersion". Human consciousness that can only operate within the diversity of time (past, present and future) indicates our sin and incompleteness since we distanced ourselves from the one and only God. Human existence therefore is inevitably set to disperse its own life. For this reason Augustine grasps time - the structure of human consciousness - as an existential method.
The above explanation of the working of time is described as "inauthentic" in the thought of Augustine. However, the contrasting "authentic" working does not transcend time, and exists through a method different from distentio. It reconsiders the individual events in a human life, and by interpreting their meaning, reassembles a dispersed life into one whole. Confessions is moreover an exploration of Augustine's own life; an attempt to uncover the significance of "the search for God" in his life full of doubt. The existential problem of time in Augustine, therefore, can be understood as an ethical issue of how to live life.