St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 11: Chapters 1-31


Augustine considers the meaning of the first words of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." Augustine asks how he can know that this is true. It is obvious that all things were created, because they are subject to change. God created them through the Word, Jesus Christ. The Word is co-eternal with God and not created. People ask what God was doing in the time before he created the world. Augustine replies that there was no time, because God created time itself. Augustine considers the nature of time. One can speak of past, present, and future time, but the past has ceased to be, the future is not yet, and only the present exists, but the present moment cannot have any duration. But if this is true, how can one speak of history, or how can prophets foresee future events? The human memory retains images of past events. Perhaps some can predict the future by reading likely signs of what will happen. How do people measure time? The movement of the sun and planets is not time, as many assert. Augustine concludes that time is a "distension" of the mind; what human beings measure is the impression that things or events make on them. Augustine is torn and divided by time, but God alone is eternal and unchanging.


Having addressed the subject of memory in Book 10, Augustine now moves on to the nature of time itself. God's creation of the world, as described in Genesis, forms the basis of the final three books of the Confessions, and many readers have had difficulty seeing the connection between these three books and the first ten. However, a consideration of time is not completely out of place in a work that relies so much upon the memory of past events. Augustine himself frames his discussion of time by referring to his own act of writing the Confessions. He is confessing the times of his own life, the past events that live in his memory, so he asks, what is the nature of time?

As always, Augustine lays out his argument in careful stages. First, he considers God, the creator of all things and of time itself. As Augustine noted in other sections of the Confessions, God is timeless. God dwells in eternity, outside human notions of past, present, or future. Therefore, it is irrelevant to ask how God occupied his time before he created the world, because there was no such thing as time. As part of this argument, Augustine engages in another bit of Christology, as he did near the end of Book 7. Genesis says that God created the world by speaking, and that speech was the Word, or the Logos, as described at the beginning of the Gospel of John, which Augustine has already quoted at length at 7.9. As the Word, Christ is not a created thing, but is co-eternal with God.

So if time is not divine and transcendent, what is it? Augustine embarks on an analysis of time that quickly becomes absurd: The distinguishing characteristic of time is that it tends toward non-existence! If neither the past nor the future exist, then only an infinitesimally small moment of the present can be said to actually exist. But Augustine recognizes the absurdity of the argument and pulls back from it. Everyday language about time may be inaccurate, he concedes, but still, people manage to understand each other. He considers a second argument, that time is the movement of the heavenly bodies such as the sun and stars. This, too, is incorrect, Augustine concludes. These things are simply indicators that humankind uses to mark the passing of time, and in this sense, the revolutions of the planets are no different than the spinning of a potter's wheel as devices for marking regular intervals of time.

Finally, Augustine gets to the crux of his argument: If time does not exist, how can people talk about the past or the future, or a "long time" or "short time," as all human beings do? Time is really a function of human memory and perception, Augustine decides. Augustine uses a unique Latin term for this function: distentio, usually translated as an "extension" or "distension" of the mind. These terms reflect a sense of tension, or even of painful stretching, that the perception of time creates. Three functions of the mind relate to this distension: attention, which focuses on the present; memory, which focuses on the past; and expectation, which focuses on the future. Interestingly, Augustine draws all his examples for these functions from human language: He compares syllables and lines of poetry to demonstrate how people perceive sound events and rhythms as longer or shorter, and the act of reciting a memorized psalm as an example of memory, attention, and expectation. Only at the end of 11.28 does Augustine move this argument out into the realm of broader human experience, as he observes that what is true of the psalm is true of the events of human life (like Augustine's own life story in the Confessions) and the whole of human history.

Time, for Augustine, is a painful affair, a reflection of the limited material nature of human beings. The perception of time leaves human beings torn, fragmented, confused by jumbled events. Only God, living in eternity, is free from the confusions of time. Significantly, words are always stuck in time: sounding, then falling silent, following one another sequentially to create meaning. Augustine's narrative, made as it must be of time-bound words, is similarly stuck in time, unable to rise above the inherent limitations of language. As in Book 10, questions of language become related to questions of credibility. Augustine asks, how can he know that Moses (the traditional author of Genesis) was telling the truth? How can anyone know what he meant? If he could question Moses, would Augustine even understand the answer, given that Augustine himself does not speak Hebrew, and Moses would not speak Latin? Language and time are both veils that cover human understanding, obscuring the perfect vision of divine eternity, where there are no sequences, no divisions, no passing into nonexistence, no past or future. All human language is only a pale shadow of the eternal Word, and yet language is humanity's vehicle for thinking about God and communicating God's revelation throughout human history. Only in the beatific vision, the direct contact with God that human beings cannot sustain, does one find a taste of what God's timelessness is like.

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