Chaplains' Corner

Augustine's Theory of Time

‘. . . The unfolding of a life in acts of freedom, in varying experiences of fragmentation, inrebellion against mortality, and in partial integration through meaning and purpose, point totime as a crucial but ambivalent feature of all human experience’ Professor James McEvoy
February 5, 2021


Augustine, in Book XI of the Confessions2, offers a memorable exploration of one of the

recurring subjects of philosophical analysis, namely time. His treatise represents not only a

synthesis of the ancient philosophers’ musings on the subject but goes further by providing an

account of time which ‘underlines the moral and spiritual element in man and the task of

liberation from waste and dispersal’3. Time, for Augustine, is presented as fundamental to his

theory of the human subject. It is therefore no coincidence that he should accord it special

significance in his autobiography. His approach is one of intense sensitivity ‘to the pathos of

mutability, of the rapidity, transitoriness and irreversibility of time’4. For these reasons, it comes

as no surprise that he should be hailed as ‘the first thinker to take time seriously’5.

The purpose of this paper is to critically assess Augustine’s dialectical investigation into this

complex subject and the extent to which he succeeds in presenting a cogent philosophy of time

and its measurement.


Augustine embarks upon his exploration of the nature of time by addressing a controversy

which finds its origins in the ancients6 and which had been resurrected by the followers of Mani

as a supposed refutation of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo7. The question, ‘What was

God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ invites a response which juxtaposes time and

eternity.8 The former is seen as unchanging unity or constancy out of which the latter proceeds

in multiplicity. For Augustine, there was no time before creation for time is a creature. The

question posed is therefore rendered otiose.9 When compared to the immutable, simultaneous

presence that is the eternity of God, time is seen as a successive state of motion or experience10

which ‘contains . . . negation of the fullness of being from which it flows out’11. For the same

reason, then, eternity cannot be seen as time extended to infinity in some form of everlastingness,

for ‘[i]n the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present’12. Rather, eternity must

transcend time entirely and be seen as stability; an unchanging, simultaneous presence.13 In this

way, Augustine is seen to remain faithful to the heritage of Neoplatonism14; by placing Him

outside of time and space, the dignity of God is preserved and ‘eternity and time are [seen as]

absolutely incompatible . . . [and] [t]heir differences . . . absolute’15 In short, only God is

eternal. Life after death, therefore, is best described as everlasting rather than eternal, for unlike

God, mankind admits of a beginning.



As Augustine moves through his dialectic he at once stumbles upon three apparent paradoxes

which seem to expose, as logically contradictory, our commonsense assertions about time.

Firstly, ‘we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards nonexistence’

17, for the future is not yet, the past is no more, and only the present has real being.

Secondly, ‘we speak of ‘a long time’ and ‘a short time’, and it is only of the past or the future

that we say this..[b]ut how can something be long or short which does not exist? For the past

now has no existence and the future is not yet.’18 Thirdly, ‘the present occupies no space’, for

it is extensionless and indivisible.19

McEvoy cautions against interpreting this triad of apparent paradoxes as ‘flat, apodictic

statements of final contradictions’20. Rather, they ought to be regarded as ‘a movement in a

dialectic’ that is progressing ‘towards that sane wholeness of view, to which it has not yet

attained’21. Augustine makes clear that it is not his intention to overthrow the use of ordinary

language22 in his quest to capture metaphysical reality and he readily admits that ‘[t]here are few

usages of everyday speech which are exact, and most of our language is inexact.’23 Despite this,

‘what we mean is communicated’24.

That said, does his dialectic investigation arrive at that sane wholeness of view which he

seeks? O’Daly would argue that Augustine errs when he asserts that only the present ‘is’,

despite being extensionless and without duration.25You cannot at once have the possibility of ‘a

minimal present time which is indivisible, a “time-atom” ’26 and at the same time argue that the

present cannot be extended: ‘an indivisible minimum time is . . . necessarily extended, and so

cannot constitute a present’27. Does the notion that the present constitutes a dimensionless point

betray commonsense belief? McEvoy would refute such criticism as ‘wholly premature’28.

There is no ‘sceptical betrayal of commonsense belief’ for Augustine quickly ‘reinstates our

ordinary awareness’ with his introduction of the notion of measurement.29 This operates as a

prelude to his unfolding of the nature of the present.30

Augustine invites us to speak not of the three grammatical tenses, but rather of three present

tenses, all of which ‘coincide by the grace of the mind’31. Whilst the present of things present

can be said to exist in the now, the present of things past and the present of things future exist

as ‘objects of intellectual perception’32. The past exists in the memory as ‘images . . . fixed in

the mind like imprints as they passed through the senses’33. The future exists in expectation as

pre-existing concepts which can be seen as if already present to one’s mind.34



Faithful to the Aristotelian tradition36, Augustine asserts that one’s experience of time is not

reducible to a material component of the external world such as the revolution of the sun37.

Rather, time is one of the incorporeals and thus our understanding of it transcends the idea of

physical motion to reside in the psyche as an object of thought.38 This is demonstrated by the

fact that one’s sense of time can be sufficiently Archimedean as to be able to observe, for

instance, the acceleration of a body: the body’s movement being one thing, the period by which

we measure it another.39 Time then can be seen as a psychological phenomenon which ‘like

lekta has no independent existence but is rather something which rational beings make use of

in order to explain the movements of bodies’40.

Whilst our sense of time is not reducible to physical motion, it is amenable to measurement.

This measurement, however, is not the mechanical ticking of a clock upon the wall or a

metronome atop a piano, but a faculty of the mind41. Through memory, awareness and expectation,

the mind has the ability to ‘retain an ever-extending past and . . . to diminish the future

correspondingly’42. Whilst the mind never arrives at an exact measure of time, a well-practised

sense of timing, as is often encountered in artistic performance, offers something of an approximation

to a certa mensura. Take for instance, the metric measure by which the recitation of a

line of verse is ordered43. Absent the faculty of memory, each syllable uttered in any such

recitation would be immediately consigned to the past. It would be impossible to set upon any

metric measure of poetry for ‘. . . when one syllable sounds after another, the short first, the long

after it, how [does one keep hold] on the short, and how use it to apply a measure to the long,

so as to verify that the long is twice as much?’44 The answer to this quandary must be that time

is measured in the memory, ‘for in the memory, as part of the mental powers, the impress of

things past is retained; and that memory is made present, by recall’.45


Wittgenstein saw himself as engaged in ‘a fight against the fascination which forms of expression

exert upon us’46 and for this reason, he recoils at Augustine’s supposed attempt at

supplanting the ordinary language of common parlance with a language of exactitude. It seems,

however, that such criticism is misplaced. Augustine himself concedes, with neither argument

nor objection, that whilst it is incorrect to say that there are three times, past, present and future,

custom allows it.47 All that could be said of one trained in oratory and rhetoric, and possessed

of a natural gift for exactitude in thought, is that he was motivated by a desire for ‘choice of the

right word’.48 His ‘was not the standard of the logician or of the mathematic scientist’, but rather

one who ‘respected linguistic custom and tried only to avoid the misconceptions to which it may

expose us.’49

Wittgenstein further argues that Augustine has confused two senses of the word measure.

Augustine’s analogy between temporal and spatial measurement, he believes, militates against

any attempt at linguistic exactitude.50 The metaphor of measuring time as distance between two

marks on a travelling band that passes us or the simile of time flowing by us ‘as logs of wood

[that] float down a river’51 are apt ‘to conjure, to trick or to fascinate, the language-user’52.

Again, McEvoy53 cogently refutes these alleged embarrassments. Firstly, he reminds that

Augustine expressly acknowledges the difference between temporal and spatial measurement:

‘. . . we measure poems . . . not by the number of pages – for that would give us a measure of

space, not of time.’54 It seems reasonable to interpret Augustine as regarding spatial measurement

as an external act which ‘gives an evident basis for exact comparisons of lengths’55.

Temporal measurement, on the other hand, belongs to the ‘realm of interior experience’56.

Secondly, when Augustine uses the language of time as passing, or flying, he does not seek to

‘assimilate time to passing objects’ but rather to ‘exhibit the gulf that exists between time that

passes and eternity which stands still’.57

Finally, Wittgenstein argues that an explanation cannot be something private; it cannot ‘be

sought for within certain ‘states’of consciousness that elude observation and appraisal by any but

myself’58. For Augustine it is the human soul, transcendent to matter, that is the measure of all

things and that is itself measured only by God who cannot be said to have measure for he is above

every measure.59With such emphasis on ‘the spirituality of the soul, on inwardness, and on the

life of the mind’60, has Augustine produced a philosophy of time and its measurement that is

irredeemably idealist, or subjectivist? The answer must be in the negative.Whilst his account is

personal and interior, he draws a distinction between time in the physical sense and time in the

experiential sense. It is the latter ‘in which the experience of a rational creature unfolds, the time

we know ‘from within’ is of a higher nature than physical time, because it is human’61. If this

amounts to idealism, it is not that which flows from Cartesian thought62 but rather the idealism of

the Platonic and Christian traditions which ‘exclude[s] nothing from reality’63.


As this exploration of Augustine’s temporal philosophy nears its end, it might be instructive to

consider how best to interpret time and its place within the broader Augustinian corpus.64Wetzel

observes that ‘the metaphysics of time, though always diverting, is rarely discomforting’65.

Augustine’s dialectic on temporal distentio might appear, at first sight, to betray Wetzel. The

‘psychological spreading out of the soul in successiveness and in diverse directions is a painful

and anxious experience’66. How then, does Augustine bring his dialectic to a consoling end? The

answer might well be found in his philosophical method: ‘Augustine prays as he reflects and

reflects as he prays. He is not a philosopher who happens also to pray, but a philosopher who

philosophises by praying’.67 Augustine is one who knows the limits of philosophical inquiry. He

knows also that ‘faith has a philosophical genealogy’68. The two then – faith and philosophy –

are inextricably linked. To seek to ‘sort out his religious from his philosophical interests’69 is to

embark on a futile endeavour likely to render interpretations which are at best, incomplete.

The problem of time, for Augustine, becomes the problem of sin. The Confessio, ‘his

masterpiece of self-revelation’, is above all, ‘an experiment in memory, whose object has been

to recollect sin’.70 According to Wetzel, however, it is ‘a failed experiment in memory’71.

Augustine is acutely aware of this and it is this failure he seeks to represent: ‘[s]in perplexes him

because he can confess sin only as an end of desire, and yet he can recollect sin only as desire

without an end’72. The perplexity is resolved with the realisation that ‘sin’s time is not time but

time’s absence’73. Sin then, is the giving up of time. And, if time can somehow be reclaimed,

forgiveness is made possible: ‘[t]o look at time through God’s eyes is to see life gathered from

death, a distention inverted’74.

Allied to time – and its absence, sin - is the notion of tolerance. For Augustine, it is tolerance

which ought to characterise the ecclesial societas permixta. It falls to the lay faithful to observe

a ‘dynamic form of tolerance for the sake of the sinner’s correction and conversion’75. In this

way, their reconciliatory role is exercised76 and ecclesial unity preserved. The present nighttime

of the Church is to be interpreted as a tempus misericordiae during which toleration affords a

suspension of judgment77: ‘God tolerates all so that sinners might repent and return to him. The

locus of that toleration is the Church’. The fruits of justice can only be reaped in the context of

ecclesial peace and ‘[t]he love, which animates that peace, expresses itself in tolerance’78. The

hermeneutical key that unlocks Augustine’s temporal philosophy must, then, be tolerance, a

tolerance motivated by pastoral charity. It is tolerance which inverts – or at least, suspends –

time’s distentio and makes possible forgiveness.


It can be deduced from the foregoing arguments that Augustine offers a theory of time and its

measurement which is both eloquent and illuminating. His analysis of time as amounting to

three present tenses offers a more rationally defensible view of metaphysical reality than that

offered by the three grammatical tenses. His account of the relationship between temporal

experience, duration and movement, is particularly insightful and offers ‘a synthesis of many of

the ancient philosophical treatises’79 on the subject. Perhaps his ‘greatest originality lies in his

insistence on the indispensable function of memory in all time calculation’80. What is clear is

that, in his exploration of the relationship between time and eternity, Augustine demonstrates

the latter’s salvific ability to deliver man from the distentio animi. The ‘concrete fullness of life’

which eternity holds out offers consolation ‘for man [whose] life is wasted because it flows,

because it dissipates and consumes itself in time’.81 In offering an explanation of the timeprocess

itself82, one which gives its distractions and scatteredness meaning, purpose and unity,

Augustine not only breaks new ground83 but appears to have brought a difficult yet worthwhile

endeavour to a consoling end.


Translation of Augustine’s Confessions – Chadwick (Oxford: 1991)

O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions: Commentary on Books VIII–XIII (Oxford: 1992)


Carola, Augustine of Hippo: The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Reconcilliation, (Rome, 2005)

Stump and Kretzman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge, 2001)

Articles and Essays:

Hausheer, ‘St. Augustine’s Conception of Time’, 46 (5) The Philosophical Review 503

McEvoy, ‘Augustine’s Account of Time and Wittgenstein’s Criticisms’, 37 The Review of Metaphysics 547

O’Daly, ‘Augustine on the Measurement of Time: Some Comparisons with Aristotelian and Stoic Texts’, in

Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought, Essays in Honour of AH Armstrong, ed. HJ Blumenthal and RA

Markus (Variorum Publications, 1981)

Wetzel, ‘Time After Augustine’, 31 (3) Religious Studies 341

Other Sources:

Catechism of the Catholic Church (Dublin: 1995)


1 McEvoy, ‘Augustine’s Account of Time and Wittgenstein’s Criticisms’, 37 The Review of Metaphysics

547, at p. 550.

2 The translation used in this paper is that of Henry Chadwick, (Oxford: 1991). See generally, Stump and

Kretzman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge, 2001).

3 Ibid., at p. 576.

4 Hausheer, ‘St. Augustine’s Conception of Time’, 46 (5) The Philosophical Review 503.

5 Ibid., at p. 512.

6 The controversy concerning the temporal beginning of the world can be observed in debates between

Epicureans and Stoics, and by ‘some Platonists against others who, taking the Timaeus myth literally, believed

in creation’. Cf. McEvoy, ibid., at p. 553.

7 ‘God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary

emanation from the divine substance.’ Dei Filius, cann. 2–4: DS 3022–3024. God creates freely ‘out of nothing.’


Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 800; DS 3025. ‘If God had drawn the world from pre-existent matter, what

would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God

shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants.’ St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum II,

4: PG 6, 1052. See generally, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 296: 317–318.

8 Conf. XI.10.12.

9 ‘Thus, sinceYou are the Maker of all times, if there actuallywas any time beforeYou made heaven and earth,

how can it be said thatYou were not at work? If there was time,You made it, for time could not pass beforeYou

made time. On the other hand, if before heaven and earth were made there was no time, then what is meant by the

question, ‘What wereYou doing then?’ If there was not any time, there was not any “then”.’ (Conf. XI.11.13)

10 ‘. . . temporal successiveness’. Ibid.

11 McEvoy, loc. cit., at pp. 553–554. Cf. Augustine, De Genesi contra Man. 1.2.3.

12 Conf. XI.11.13.

13 Ibid.

14 Cf. infra., no. 36. Augustine is faithful to both Neo-Platonist and Aristotelian thought. The synthesis of

these diverse philosophical traditions within his temporal philosophy bears testament to Augustine’s genius.

15 Hausheer, loc. cit., at p. 509.

16 Conf. XI.14.17.

17 Ibid.

18 Conf. XI.15.18.

19 Conf. XI.15.20.

20 McEvoy, loc. cit., at p. 556.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., at p. 568.

23 Conf. XI.20.26.

24 Ibid.

25 O’Daly, ‘Augustine on the Measurement of Time: Some Comparisons with Aristotelian and Stoic Texts’,

in Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought, Essays in Honour ofAHArmstrong, ed. HJ Blumenthal and RA

Markus (Variorum Publications, 1981), at p. 172.

26 Ibid. O’Daly here refers to Conf. XI.15.20.

27 Ibid. O’Daly recognises that this ‘philosophical blunder’ (p. 177) is a conceptual presupposition inherited

from the ancient Greek philosophers (p. 172). He prefers Locke in this regard: ‘Every part of duration is duration

too, and every part of extension is extension, both of them capable of addition or division in finitum’. (An Essay

Concerning Human Understanding, ed.JWYolton (London, 1961). See also, Janich, ‘Augustins Zeitparadox und

seine Frage nach einem Standard der Zeitmesung’, Arch. Gesch. Phil. 54 (1972), at pp. 168–186.

28 McEvoy, loc. cit., p. 556.

29 Ibid. ‘Nevertheless, Lord, we are conscious of intervals of time, and compare them with each other, and

call some others shorter. We also measure how much longer or shorter one period is than another, and answer

that the one is twice or three times as much as the other, or that the two periods are equal.’ Conf. XI.16.21)

30 ‘Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three 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 the memory, the present considering the present is immediate

awareness, the present considering the future is expectation.’ Conf. XI.20.26.

31 Hausheer, loc. cit., at p. 508.

32 O’Daly, loc. cit., at p. 173.

33 Conf. XI.18.23.

34 Conf. XI.18.24.

35 Conf. XI.27.36

36 Cf. supra, no. 14.

37 Conf. XI.23.30.

38 Cf. O’Daly, loc. cit., at p. 173 ff.

39 Conf. XI.24.31.

40 Long, Helenistic Philosophy (London, 1974), at p. 138. Quoted in O’Daly, loc. cit., at pp. 173–174.

41 Conf. XI.27.36.

42 McEvoy, loc. cit., p. 561.

43 ‘. . . we measure poems by the number of lines, lines by the number of feet, feet by the number of

syllables, and long vowels by short, not by the number of pages (for that would give us a measure of space, not

of time).’ Conf. XI.26.33.


44 Conf. XI.27.35.

45 McEvoy, loc. cit., at p. 561.

46 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), at p. 27. Quoted in McEvoy, ibid., at p. 564.

47 Conf. XI.20.26.

48 McEvoy, loc. cit., at pp. 566–567.

49 Ibid.

50 Cf. Wittgenstein, op. cit., at pp. 26; 107.

51 Ibid., at p. 26.

52 Ibid., at p. 107.

53 McEvoy, loc. cit., at pp. 568–570.

54 Conf. XI.26.33.

55 McEvoy, loc. cit., at p. 569.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., at p. 570.

58 Ibid., at p. 565.

59 Conf. XI.13.15.

60 McEvoy loc. cit., at p. 574.

61 Ibid., at p. 575.

62 Contra Hausheer, loc. cit., at p. 503 ff.

63 McEvoy, loc. cit., at p. 576.

64 Augustine’s temporal philosophy is part of a much wider opus, the tenor of which is intensely pastoral.

Remember Augustine was a bishop when he wrote his Confessio and so the guidance of his flock in the way of

truth would have been the primary impetus for such a work.

65 Wetzel, ‘Time After Augustine’, 31 (3) Religious Studies 341, at p. 341.

66 ‘. . . so that he [Augustine] can speak of salvation as deliverance from time. The theme is developed . . .

especially . . . where St. Paul’s language about ‘being stretched’ (Phil. 3:13) becomes linked with the thought

of Plotinus that multiplicity is a falling from the One and is ‘extended scattering’. Augustine, in the development

of the concept of distentio is influenced by Plotinus who talks of time as ‘a spreading out (diastasis) of life . . .

the life of the soul in a movement of passage from one way of life to another’. Chadwick, op. cit., at p. 240.

‘Time is the distension of the eternal; eternity is an immutable present, which is neither preceeed nor followed

by another moment’. Hausheer, loc. cit., at p. 509. See also, O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions: Commentary

on Books VIII–XIII (Oxford: 1992), esp. pp. 289–290; 292.

67 Wetzel, loc. Cit., at p. 345.

68 Ibid., at p. 342.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid., at pp. 352–353.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid., at p. 355.

74 Ibid.

75 Carola, Augustine of Hippo: The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Reconcilliation, (Rome, 2005), at p. 219.

76 Carola seeks to demonstrate how the lay faithful concretely perform this reconciliatory role and administer

according to their proper vocation the keys to the kingdom which have been entrusted to the Church. The

role is characterised by fraternal correction, intercessory prayer, and tears. See generally, Carola, ibid., esp. pp.


77 ‘. . . certainly on man’s part and in fact also on the part of the Just Judge’. Ibid., at p. 223.

78 Ibid., at p. 232,

79 McEvoy, loc. cit., at p. 550.

80 O’Daly, loc. cit., at p. 177.

81 Hausheer, loc. cit., at p. 509.

82 Hausheer’s interpretation is particularly pleasing: ‘time [for Augustine] is not a perpetual revolving image

of eternity, but is irreversibly moving in a definite direction. It has an organic finality. Creation has had an

absolute beginning and travels to an absolute goal. There can be no return. That which is begun in time is

consummated in eternity.’ Ibid., at pp. 511–512.

83 Hausheer would argue that whilst Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus had written about time, their endeavour

was to explain it away. In contrast, Augustine can be seen as ‘the first thinker to take time seriously’ and to truly

discover its meaning. Ibid., at p. 512.

Augustine's Theory of Time
Fr Dominic McGrattan

Fr Dominic McGrattan is from Portaferry and a priest of Down and Connor Diocese. He studied law and theology in Dublin, Cambridge, Rome and Louvain.  

He previously served as parish curate, hospital chaplain and an associate of the Diocese’s pastoral planning office, Living Church. He currently assists in nearby St Brigid’s Parish.

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