Time in the Shadow of Augustine: A Review of “Augustine and Time”
Augustine and Time. Edited by John Doody, Sean Hannan, and Kim Paffenroth. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021.   “What is time?” The vexing question of time is one of philosophy’s most perennial. And no individual stands so prominently in the philosophy of time than Saint Augustine. Augustine’s philosophy of time has many admirers and critics;… The post Time in the Shadow of Augustine: A Review of “Augustine and Time” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Augustine and Time. Edited by John Doody, Sean Hannan, and Kim Paffenroth. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021.


“What is time?” The vexing question of time is one of philosophy’s most perennial. And no individual stands so prominently in the philosophy of time than Saint Augustine. Augustine’s philosophy of time has many admirers and critics; they come far and wide and can make an odd fan club, like the notorious Atheist Bertrand Russell who considered Augustine’s philosophy of time a great leap forward from the Greeks and his best original philosophical insight even though Russell—following modern physics—ultimately sees Augustine’s outlook on time as wrong. Others have appropriated Augustine’s philosophy of time to mediate and moderate contemporary philosophies, like new materialism and new feminism (not exactly the schools of philosophy one might expect to be utilizing Augustine). In short, Augustine’s philosophy of time has been enduring after nearly two millennia.
In dealing with time and Augustine we must inevitably ask: Was Augustine wrong about time? In Augustine and Time, an assembled team of leading Augustine scholars enter the debate. Was Russell right to see Augustine’s philosophy of time as purely subjective without any objective basis? Was Augustine’s wrestling with time in Confessions actually a reflection on the question of memory instead of time? What is the role of time in Augustine’s musical mysticism in which creation and salvation are united as a single chorus of song?
One of the most enduring issues in dealing with the bishop of Hippo is Augustine’s debt to Platonism, specifically the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. When we speak of Augustine as a Platonist, or a Neoplatonist, we really mean Plotinian—for it was Plotinus’s interpretations of Plato and Plotinus’s own writings (the Enneads) that captured Augustine’s imagination and prompted the saint’s moderate praise of the Greek philosopher in his various writings (especially the Confessions and City of God). As Thomas Clemmons reminds us, “While Augustine’s discussion [of time] … is certainly Platonic, it is hardly Plotinian simpliciter.” Augustine does borrow from Platonism, but it cannot be forgotten that he also transcends Platonism and goes beyond it—refining it and subjecting it to Christian theology rather than fitting Christian theology into Platonism as philosophical apologists proclaim.
The notion of Augustinian refinement, rather than rejection, is what Clemmons finds in assessing Augustine’s philosophy of time across his many works. From De immortalitate anime, De Musica, De Genesi contra Manichaeos, and De uera religione, to Confessions and beyond, Clemmons finds a commonality in Augustine’s view: eternity, love, and beauty serve as the triune basis of Augustine’s understanding of time. These themes are refined across Augustine’s life, but these themes hitherto outlined remain central to the saint’s philosophy of time and part of his critique of the strict Neoplatonists and the Manichaeans he ultimately leaves behind.
Beyond ancient disputes, Augustine is also a fixture in modern disputes over the nature of time. As mentioned, Bertrand Russell was a critical admirer of Augustine’s philosophy of time in the twentieth century. As was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Alexander Eodice notes in his chapter, “[Augustine’s] argument prefigures many more modern philosophical concerns about the nature of time, its movement, measurability, and objectivity, and poses problems that have yet to be determinately resolved.” The fact that Augustine demolishes the eternal/cyclical view of time and considers the measurability and movement of time central to the problem of time makes him a modern figure compared to his predecessors. Additionally, Augustine’s association of time as in the human mind anticipates and prefigures Kant. No matter where you turn, ancient or modern, Augustine’s shadow looms large over any philosophy of time. Augustine demolishes the ancient and cyclical view of time, paving the way for a progressive and linear conception of time, and he also asserts the primacy of a subjective view of time anticipating, by over 1,000 years, the philosophies of the Enlightenment.
One of the great joys of this work is how the contributing scholars do not speak univocally but, at times, in tension with each other. James Wetzel, one of the most respected and preeminent Augustine scholars in the United States, is a prime example of this. After having two chapters dealing with the objectivity and subjectivity of Augustine’s philosophy of time, Wetzel’s chapter disputes the claim that Augustine’s famous discussion on time was actually about time at all. Instead, Wetzel makes a compelling argument that we have been misinterpreting Augustine all along. Rather than time, Augustine was really writing a treatise about memory, “[Augustine’s] masterpiece of self-revelation,” Wetzel writes, “though admittedly multileveled, is above all an experiment in memory.”
Wetzel’s view is one with which I am deeply sympathetic. In teaching and explaining Augustine in the past, I have made special note that Augustine’s philosophy of the self and identity is bound up with memory. You are your memories. Your memories stretch through time, so to speak. And memory is the core heart running through the entire Confessions including Book XI which includes his ruminations on time. From Wetzel’s convincing reading of this infamous book within Augustine’s most famous book, we get the feeling that Augustine wasn’t interested so much in time, as such, but in memory. Augustine has plenty to say about time from which we can draw a philosophy of time out of, this is true, but the saintly bishop was primarily concerned with memory and time was more a secondary extension of his primary concern for memory.
Given that Augustine was a mystic, a mystical understanding of time must be included in any volume dealing with Augustine’s thought. Makiko Sato provides an excellent chapter on Augustine’s mystical notion of time and song and how time and song are bound up with the saint’s theology of creation and salvation. While it would be anachronistic to call Augustine a Romantic, the retrojection is appropriate on several levels. First, Augustine believes we live in a musical cosmos, we live a musical existence. Second, the musical cosmos we inhabit is also a beautiful cosmos which means we live aesthetically. Third, this musical and beautiful cosmos we inhabit is alive, personal, and relational. All are core aspects of Romantic imaginative cosmology and thought. All are found in Augustine’s writings from late antiquity.
Moving away from objective and subjective debates over time, Sato reminds us of the more central Augustinian perspective: Time permits us to listen and love, to order ourselves into harmony with the song of Beauty that governs the cosmos. “Personifying mutable things in order to give them a voice allows Augustine to connect his account of collaborative listening to his philosophy of love.” In De Musica, for instance, which Sato includes in his discussion, Augustine articulated the view that the creation was itself a grand choral composition by God with each life a note in the song of creation; Augustine elsewhere described the creation as a poem! Of course, song and time are intimately bound together—the purpose of time in Augustine’s mystic cosmological theology is an invitation to join in the chorus of God’s beauty and love, to participate in that beauty and love with your own voice, your own life, and inspire others to join. If Shelley had read some Augustine, he would have found a friendly theologian.
While we generally remember Augustine as the theologian of grace and love—Augustine famously inverted “God is love” to “love is God” in his homilies—we often forget the role that time plays in manifesting that love to which he speaks. Patricia Grosse and Megan Ulishney have particularly illuminating chapters on gender, love, and time. In time, we have the opportunity to exhibit our love and be more fully ourselves. Time is the means by which divinization occurs.
Even though Augustine was a creature of his culture and the world of late antiquity, to which feminist critics have roundly critiqued him, our authors dealing with Augustine’s treatment of love and time regarding the female sex help paint a more nuanced portrait of the great church doctor. Monica features prominently in Confessions. Augustine devotes a lot of time to the subject of the rape of Lucretia in the context of rape survivors from Alaric’s sack of Rome in the City of God. Augustine also sees women playing an important role in the formation of human love in imitation of the Divine. Patricia Grosse notes that this separates Augustine from many other patristic theologians, or Greek philosophers (like Aristotle), insofar that “Augustine seeks to uphold women’s bodies as perfect in their form at the same time as he seeks to protect them from further domination from men.” Megan Ulishney likewise writes, “Augustine is more generous to women than many of his contemporaries.”Women, contra Tertullian, have nothing to be ashamed of in their bodies. Women are, like men, instantiations of the divine image, carriers of divine beauty. Augustine, despite being a creature of his culture and era, went to great lengths to defend this proposition.
Our illuminating book then turns away from gender and time toward Augustine’s reception by medieval and modern thinkers. The tome concludes with Augustine’s similarities to Buddhism, something that is very worthwhile and welcome given the newly cosmopolitan and global realities of our world—not to mention the longstanding, near two century, infatuation with the Asiaticization of the West. Many great Western thinkers with Augustinian stripes, like Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot, embarked on their rapprochement between Augustinian and Buddhist ideas, even if imperfectly. Augustine, therefore, serves as an intellectual bridge between west and east.
Davey K. Tomlinson, in his chapter deconstructing Augustine’s view of memory and time in Confessions, gives a renewed argumentation for “the Eternal Present.” Moreover, our consciousness is meant to break away from the temporal illusions that ground material existence, pointing to true nature which is eternity and very similar to “yogic perception.” This, of course, ends in absolute “self-awareness.” Here, the Augustinian Christian and Buddhist part company—for Augustine’s lament on the fleeting reality of temporal existence lends him to seek eschatological hope in God but the Buddhist has “no need for [such] hope” because what we have is the eternal present in no need of eschatological rest once the fleeting nature of reality is understood and accepted: the Buddhist becomes one with the present even knowing that death is all that lay ahead. It is unsurprising that as Christianity encountered Buddhism, Christianity has looked upon Buddhism with great awe and horror in how close and how far the two religions are from each other.
Augustine and Time is a splendid treatment of one of the more nuanced and expansive aspects of Augustine’s theology. John Doody, Sean Hannan, and Kim Paffenroth have done an exceptional job in organizing this work and inviting the various contributors to this volume. Anyone who has a fondness for Augustine will need to consult this tome for their own research or enlightenment even if they fall on different sides of the many sides continuing to debate and advance the multifaceted layers of Augustinian scholarship.

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