The Threefold Present: How Augustine Re-invented Time


On Tuesday 27 November 2019 I had the joy of attending the annual Augustine lecture, which this year was delivered by Dr. Martijn Boven, a lecturer from Leiden University in the Netherlands. The lecture’s title was: The Threefold Present How Augustine Re-invented Time.

Time has always been a philosophical and existential problem. Where time exists? In Book 11 of his Confessions, Augustine makes a thorough examination of time. When is time? Thus replies the Bishop of Hippo:

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know. I can state with confidence, however, this much I do know: if nothing passed away [praeterinet], there would be no past time [praeteritum tempus]; if there was nothing still on its way [adveniret] there would be no future [futurum tempus]; and if nothing existed [esset], there would be no present time [praesens tempus]” (XI.14/17).

Augustine is, in fact, a great innovative thinker. To answer to the question regarding where should time be located and what do we measure when we measure time, Augustine says that time exists in the mind as a threefold present. He says: “There are three realities in the mind, but nowhere else as far as I can see, for the present of past things is memory [praesens de praeteritis memoria], the present of present things is perception [praesens de praesentibus contuitus], and the present of future things is expectation [praesens de futuris expectatio]” (XI.20.26).

The second innovation Augustine offers about time is that the extension of time is a distention. He writes: “Let no one tell me, then, that time is simply the motion of heavenly bodies. After all, at the prayer of a certain man [Joshua] the sun halted so that he could press home the battle to victory. The sun stood still, but time flowed on its way. In this way, the fight had a sufficient space of time [spatium temporis] to be carried through to the finish. I see, therefore, that time is a kind of distention [distention: strain, fragmentation]. But do I really see it? Or only seem to see? You will show me, O light, O Truth” (XI.23.30).

For Augustine time is distentio animi, that is the distention of the soul by time. In paragraph 26 of Book 11 of the Confessions Augustine observes: “But the mensuration of time by these methods yields no result that is absolute, since it may happen that the sound of a shorter line spoken with a drawl, actually lasts longer than that of a longer one hurried over. The same holds for the whole poem, a foot, and a syllable. I have therefore come to the conclusion that time is nothing other than a distention [distentio]: a distention of what, I do not know, but I would be very surprised if it is not a distention of the mind [distentio animi]” (XI.26.33).

The third innovation regarding time, according to Augustine, is that it deals with the passivity of the impressions and the activity of the mind. For the North African bishop and philosopher time is a passage that has an extension. He says: “Only a passing thing [praeteriens] was it stretched out [tendebatur] into some space of time [spatium temporis] whereby it might be measured – only as passing, because the present moment occupies no space [spatium]” (XI. 27.34).

Moreover, impressions can be measured by time and certainly not syllables. Thus, writes Augustine: “Evidently, then, what I am measuring is not the syllables themselves, which no longer exist, but something in my memory, something fixed and permanent there. In you, my mind, I measure time. […] What I measure is the impression which passing phenomena leave in you, which abides after they have passed by: that is what I measure as a present reality, not the things that passed so that the impression could be formed” (XI. 27.34).

Digging down into the concept of time, Augustine also see it as active transit, in Latin traico. In Book 11 he states: “Suppose a person wishes to utter a fairly long sound … [The sound continues] “… as our present intention [praesens intentio] carries it over [traicit] from the future to the past. As the future dwindles the past grows, until the future is used up altogether and the whole thing is past”.

In Augustine’s greatest innovation time plays three tensions. He says: “Suppose I have to sing a song [canticum] that I know. Before I begin, my expectation is stretched out over [tenditur] the whole song, but once I have begun, my memory also starts to stretch itself out over [tenditur] whatever I have plucked away from the domain of expectation and tossed behind me to the past. And the vital energy of my activity [actionis] is strained [distenditur] between my memory (because of the part I have already sung) and my expectation (on account of the part I still have to sing). But my attention is present all the while and through it ‘what was in the future’ is carried over to [traicitur: traico, active transit] ‘what becomes the past’. As the activity goes on and on, expectation is curtailed and memory prolonged, until exception is entirely used up, when the whole completed action has been transformed [transierit: transeo, passive transformation] into memory” (XI.28.38).

And what does this beautiful presentation by Dr. Boven on Augustine’s threefold present tell us about time? Time remains a challenge to us simply because we cannot define and control it. Memory, perception and expectation represent time. Having said that time remains fragmented and distends from our minds to space. Time, through passing things, takes us into its space to see how it really occupies no space. It just flies away. Furthermore, time measures impressions that remain fixed and permanent in our memory. Time ends up either in the past or in the future. However, the present remains the golden way in which time, through the attention we give to it, is capable of carrying over our future to the past. The more we live in the present, which instantly becomes past, our memory is prolonged and our expectation is completely used when our living the present has been transformed into our memory.

This lecture made me more aware of the Bible’s insistence regarding the intelligent use of time when it says in the Letter to the Ephesians: Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph 5:15-17).

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap