Augustine's Confessions, Book XI – Augustine's Theory of Time, the Soul, and It's Reception in Modern Philosophy
Summary of Book XI
Book XI is a mixture of prayer and meditation, where Augustine tries to solve some problems and paradoxes of time. This book of Augustine's Confessions bears the title Time and Eternity, but a more fitting title, as I will show, would perhaps have been Time and the Soul. When quoting from the text, I will refer to the Oxford text's subdivisions (1-41) rather than Augustine's chapters (i-xxxi).
The text initially begins with a prayer, before focusing more specifically on time, and the so-called Aristotelian paradox of time. Augustine sees a certain conflict in trying to grasp the nature of eternity, wherein God exists, and the nature of time, wherein Man exists. (12) Augustine uses much effort to understand and explain excactly how Man percieves, understands and describes time, in order to better understand the relationship between time and eternity: "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?" (13) Augustine obviously develops a theory of time, and in so doing, also creates a theory of the human mind, prefiguring much of modern phenomenology's insight and rhetoric. Concepts such as "Man, the mind, I, we, the human heart, and the soul is used more or less interchangeably, and can be seen as imprecise subdivisions to an epistemology or philosophy of mind.
Attempting to define time, or put the phenomenon of time into words, Augustine writes "What is time? [...] We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. [...] Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes awy, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed, there would be no present time. [...] So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existensce." (17) In this way, Augustine argues that time, in a way, is both existent and non-existent. However, he is certain that Man exists in time, and in space. But it is not necessarily human matter as such that percieves or experiences time, but the souls itself, operating as an interlocutor between existent matter and non-existent time. "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." (19) There is thus a separation between the soul and it's intuitive understanding of time, and the way in which we transfer understanding into communicable knowledge. Augustine constantly argues that no description or measurement of time, is able to grasp the concept of time satisfactorily, even though our immediate intuition grasps it. Both language, formulas and numbers fall short. Whether or not time itself can be said to exist, Augustine makes the claim that past and future events exist, or at least, will or have existed. "To see what has no existence is impossible. And those who narrate past history would surely 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." (22) As we see, happenings concerning a time of human existence and thus human experience, can be called events, that can be both memorized (impressed upon the soul) and recollected (gathering of the impressed from the soul). "When a true narrative of the past is related, the memory produces not the actual events which have passed away, but words conveived from images of them, which they fixed in the mind like imprints as they passed through the senses. [...] [W]hen I am recollecting and telling my story, I am looking on its image in present time, since it is still in my memory." (23)
When Augustine has explained how past events have "existence" in our memories and can be brought into present existence through recollection, he wants to understand in what way future events can be said to exist. When the human mind has "intention" towards the future, we are said to be expecting, waiting, hoping, anticipationg, preparing for, etc. But most important of all, for Augustine, some people are "prophesying". How can this be if future events does not yet exist, readily discernible to the "average" human mind? Augustine never finds a real answer to how prophets are informed, but writes: "Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are tree 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 memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation." (26) However, Augustine has discerned that it is the "soul" that can contemplate time in its past, present and future. And he writes further: "That is why I have come to think that time is simply a distention." (33) We can therefore see how Augustine understands the relation between time and the soul as "distentio animi" (extended soul), as the soul is "outstretched" and "threefold" in time. And further, when the mind actively is recollecting, experiencing or predicting, we can speak of a "intentio animi" (intended soul). Augustine gives an example of how the mind is " intended threefold": "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." (38)
To discern between time and eternity, and how the soul serves as an interlocutor between the two, we can imagine "the soul" as being somewhere between the mind that exists in time and movement (the classic four physical dimensions) within God that exists or is in Eternity (imagine a transcendant fifth dimension). A prophet would thus be "informed" because God used his/her soul as an interlocutor, as a prophet would be divinely "chosen" to have his/her soul extended miraculously into the future. We can see that Augustine not only is able to make an interesting anatomy of how the soul and prophesy works, but also enriches our understanding of the human mind and it's grasp of time, preceding modern phenomenology.
Time in Plato and Aristotle
Plato's view of time is not intertwined with the mind in the same way as with Augustine. However, Plato offers a description of time in a dialogue about the creation of the world, Timaeus. "And so he began to thing of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we noe call "time". For before the heavens came to be, there were no days or nights, no months or years. But now, at the same time as he framed the heavens, he devised their coming to be. There all are parts of time, and was and will be are forms of time that have come to be." (Tim. 37d-e) furher: [...] [W]e also say things like these: that what has come to be is what has come to be, that what is coming to be is what is coming to be, and also that what will come to be is what will come to be, and that what is not is what is not. None of these expressions of ours is accurate. But I don't suppose this is a good time right now to be too meticulous about these matters." (Tim. 38b) As we can see, Plato neither describes time's effect on humans, nor does he give a very helpful investigation into time at all. He obviously had little time for time.
A more modern theory of time is given in Aristotle's Physics, where time is treated as a merely physical phenomenon. "Hence time is not movement, but only movement in so far as it admits of enumeration. [...] Time then is a kind of number." (Phys. 219b) As with Augustine, Aristotle more or less sees time as being divided between present and future. But time is always relative to moving bodies, and therefore understood and described through physics, as points in time, lines, numbers and so on, and not as perceived by Man, other than it being measured. (Phy 220a-222a) "It is also worth considering how time can be related to the soul; and why time is thought to be in everything, both in earth and in sea and in heaven. It is because it is an attribute, or state, or movement (since it is the number of movement) and all these things are movable (for they are all in place), and time and movement are together, both in respect of potentiality and in respect of actuality? Whether if soul did not exist time would not exist or not, is a question that may fairly be asked; for if there cannot be some one to count there cannot be anything that can be counted, so that evidently there cannot be number; for number is either what has been, or what can be, counted. But if nothing but soul, or in soul reason, is qualified to count, there wouold not be time unless there were soul, but only that of which time is an attribute i.e. if movement can exist without soul, and the before and after are attributes of movement, and time is these qua numerable." (Phy 223a) It is important to note here, and as we shall see later, that the soul of Aristotle is not the same as the soul of Augustine. For Aristotle, the soul is a physical lifeforce present in all living things, while for Augustine, the soul is immaterial and spiritual.
Soul in Plato and Aristotle
Plato's theory of the memory is a clear influence upon Augustine's theory of the mind, consisting as it were of "impressions" made upon the soul. However, Plato's soul is always already in a state of reincarnation and rebirth, and the soul in a way already posess hidden knowledge waiting to be recollected. The notion of "lethe" is used to describe the constant forgetfulness and uncovering of memories.
Annas (2003) describes how Plato sees the body and soul as to distinct features, and his dualist theory holds the souls and body as two radically different things (Annas 2003: 65) She explains further that the soul is immortal, but that Plato offers some conflicting views on whether the soul controls the body, or whether the soul is in a way trapped by the body. Indeed, "[t]here is no one consistent account, however general uniting everything that Plato says about the soul. (Annas 2003: 66-67) The most relevant aspect in this case, however, is that view of the soul and the body that has most strongly affected Christian thinkers: "Plato tends to contrast the soul with the body; in describing our psychological life and quest for knowledge he often sees these as competing forces, always to the disadvantage of the body. This is one reason why his ideas appealed to the ascetic Church Fathers, who interpreted the scriptural contrast of spirit and flesh as the Platonic contrast of sharply opposed soul and body, thus having a drastic effect on Western Christianity's attitude to the body. (Annas 2003: 70) Furthermore, Plato also, like Augustine, talks more or less interchangeably of the soul and the mind, as both soul and the mind are capable of interpreting sensory impressions, although some of these sensory impressions are merely to be regarded as "dreams", and not belonging to the world of ideas. (Annas 2003: 72-73)
In contrast to Augustine and Plato, Aristotle's view of the soul is purely based in the physical world, and the soul is regarded as a physical part of the body. Although "psychê" in Aristotle is often translated as "the soul", Barnes (2000) emphasizes that "Aristotle does indeed include those features of the higher animals which later thinkers associate with the soul. But "soul" is a misleading translation. It is a truism that all living things - prawns and pansies no less than men an gods - possess a psuchê; but it would be odd to suggest that a prawn has a soul, and odder to ascribe souls to pansies. Since a psuchê is what animates, or gives life to, a living thing, the word "animator" [...] might be used." (Barnes 2000: 105) While Plato and Augustine has a "supernatural" explanation to how the soul works, Aristotle holds the soul to be of a physical quality, and a philosophy of the soul is necessarily grounded in the physiological. "The "principles" or powers of the soul are corporeal principles - to be animated is to be a body with certain capacities. Hence to suppose that those capacities could exist outside any body is as absurd as to imagine that walking could take place apart from any legs." (Barnes 2000: 108) We can therefore hardly assume that Aristotle's soul is capable of things like immortality, reincarnation, divination and prophesying. However, when speaking of "the intellect", we can assume that Aristotle has in mind something more akin to our modern concept of the soul, and indeed Plato and Augustine's concept of the soul as "eternal". The "active intellect" is for Aristotle "seperable and impassive and unmixed, being essentially actuality ... And when separated it is just what it is, and it alone is immortal and eternal." (Aristotle, quoted in Barnes 2000: 108-109) Thus, the "active intellect" can, as it were, inform the "passive intellect" of knowledge that transcend and survive time and space, but would not have fruition without being received and acted upon by the passive intellect or the physical psyche. Knowledge and active intellect is therefore a metaphysical "potential" that will or will not be actualized, and thus similar to how Plato and Augustine describes the "soul".
Augustine in Contemporary Philosophy
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur was strongly influenced by Augustine in creating a theory of narrative, especially Book XI. Although his theory was a synthesis of Augustine and Aristotle, the Aristotelian influence is not overly relevant to this paper.
Ricoeur sees a universal structure to all narrative, and developes his theory on narrative in Time and Narrative 1-3 (1984-1988) In his work, he looks at how narratives work and gives new meaning to time through a creative composition of time in stories, just as the composition of words created meaning through methaphors. As a narratological concept, the word "story" has recieved wide-ranging definitions, to more specific definitions concerning a specific, literary phenomenon. For Ricoeur, a story is an act that creates meaning through its arrangement of time: "With narrative, the semantic innovation lies in the inventing of another work of synthesis - a plot. By means of the plot, goals, causes, and chance ar brought together within the temporal unity of a whole and complete action. It is this synthesis of the heterogenous that brings narrative close to metaphor. In both cases, the new thing - the as yet unsaid, the unwritten - springs up in language. Here a living metaphor, that is, a new pertinence in the predication, there a feigned plot, that is, a new congruence in the organization of events." (Ricoeur 1984: ix) Ricoeur creates a theory of narration by sythesizing ideas of Augustine an Aristotle, as well as other influential philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze. In the first three chapters of Time and Narrative 1, he attempts to combine Augustine's notion of "distentio animi" and Aristoteles' concepts mimesis and muthos. His synthesis of these can be said to be a phenomenological understanding of narration.
Because he emphasizes Man's experience of time, Ricoeur is interested in the phenomenological perception of time. Man can be said to liv in a linear time consisting of past, present and future. In the chapter "The Experience of Time" in Time and Narrative 1, Ricoeur shows how Augustine explains that Man not only lives in and experiences the present, but also in the past and future, because of the threefold distention of the soul. For Ricoeur, this theory of the soul might explain how narration, being a human action, is able to convey universal messages about life itself, because narration, according to Ricoeur, speaks of universal situations, and is based on human action taking place in time: "Time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and a narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence." (Ricoeur 1985: 52). Ricoeur creates a model of a "threefold mimesis", and names the parts mimesis 1-3, where mimesis 1 means prefiguration, namely that the author has a prefigured understanding of human action, and Man's being in time, which is shared with the reader. "Upon this preunderstanding, common to both poets and their readers, emplotment is constructed and, with it, textual and literary mimetics" (Ricoeur 1985: 64) The text, mimesis 2 (configuration) is thereby read by the reader or "hermeneut", whereby mimesis 3 (refiguration) entails the reader's understanding of and inspiration by the text.
Soul, time and contemporary life
So let's look at someone like Judith Butler uses the concept of "gendering" as a formative power in identities, or, even more recently, Karen E. Fields and the notion of "racecrafting", meaning that racism itself creates percieved differences in identity rather than the other way around. Similarly, wouldn't the Augustinian synthesis of time and soul, work similarly in creating "historical subjects" today. A people or nation, broadly speaking, shares an identity not only in a singular point in time and space, but is, so to speak, "timespaced" threefold. A Jewish identity would refer to localizable events through history, their present situation, and their so-called "messianic" expectations. Therefore, the Augustinian timespaced subject is not necessarily concern the individual psyche, but potentially the notion of belonging to a people with a shared past, present and destiny.
Personally, I feel that a theory of identity, or an ethics centered on the primacy of some belonging to a "one", or oriented from a specific evil lack the necessary universality required for it to be a proper ethics. Although Augustine is right in arguing that an identity is rooted in memories, histories, presence and future, a theory of the soul as an active lifeforce must always already be rooted in the immanent rather than transcendant (e.g. mythic or messianic) realm. Although Augustine paints a beautiful metaphoric picture, creating an "aesthetic of truth", his philosophy could be a "fall from immanence and life" rather than viewing much of life as a falling from the "transcendent and good".
Annas, Julia Plato - A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press 2003
Saint Augustine Confessions Oxford University Press 1991
Barnes, Jonathan Aristotle - A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press 2000
Plato Timaeus in Complete Works Hackett Publishing Company 1997
Ricoeur, Paul Time and Narrative Vols. 1-3 University of Chicago Press 1984-1988