Chapter 9: Space, Time, and Eternity
If we keep in mind what has been said in the former chapters, it becomes obvious that what basically characterizes created sensible being is that they consist of matter and body, that they are given at a place or in space, that they change and move, and that they have a temporal existence. When we treated matter and body in Chapter 8, we started with pagan thinkers and ended with the idea of matter in St Gregory of Nyssa. In the present chapter we shall start with the Christians and note that, according to Gregory, diastema or extension in space and time, are fundamental characteristics of being created.1 Gregory says ‘creation is to be viewed in an extension of distances’, and: ‘Created things are confined within the fitting measures, as within a boundary, with due regard to the good adjustment of the whole by the pleasure of a wise Creator’.
According to St Maximus, all created sensible beings in motion have a beginning and an end. The basic conditions for the development from beginning to end are place or space and time.2 All beings of this kind have a ‘where?’ and a ‘when?’ The Greek terms are to pou, that is ‘whereness’, and to pote, that is ‘whenness’. Maximus says that nothing can exist at all, ‘neither essence, nor quantity, nor quality, nor relation, nor action, nor passion, nor movement, nor habit’, in separation from ‘where?’ and ‘when?’3 In these words we may discern a set of Aristotelian categories. However, there seems to be a difference between Aristotle and Maximus in this regard. While Aristotle relates all categorical states of being to substance (ousia) as their basic ontological foundation, Maximus treats place/space and time as basic. Not even sensible substance may exist if not being given in place/space and time. Like in Gregory, place/space- and time-extension are fundamental features of created sensible being.
In this connection a word may be added on eternity. Contrary to place/space and time, eternity, as the condition of divine existence is non-diastematic. It is quite tempting to speak of time and eternity together as if they had something to do with one another. I suppose this is due to the vulgar conception of eternity as an infinitely extended time. But eternity has nothing to do with time, if time is understood as a sequence in which there is succession of events or states, one before another. One could be tempted to say eternity is a state contrary to the state of time, but what could that mean? It gives sense if we understand it to mean that while time is diastematic and successive, eternity is non-diastematic and non-successive. The last will be contrary to the first.
According to Sorabji, the standard Neoplatonic view was that eternity is timelessness.4 Eternity is compared with an unextended point. This is obviously the view of Gregory of Nyssa, when the claims that the being of God is non-diastematic. It is also the view taken by St Augustine, when he says in the Confessions (11,11) that in eternity everything is present. Duration of succession is excluded. Augustine may have got this idea from a Neoplatonic or a Greek Christian source.
It is interesting to see that John Philoponus disagrees on this understanding of eternity. He thinks of eternity as the measure of eternal things.5 Here there is, obviously, a certain kind of extension. However, this extension is single and uniform, ‘not cut by any differentiation, but staying always (aei) the same, and remaining without change in itself’. — Why does Philoponus nurture this view? Does it have a potential that may be developed into an interesting theory of divine eternity and furnish a clue to any problems? This strikes me as a hard question indeed. One more thing, St Maximus says the following, rather enigmatic words in the Ambiguum 10:6 ‘For time is eternity, when movement is stilled, and eternity is time, when it is measured by movement, since, by definition, eternity is time deprived of movement, and time is eternity measured by movement.’ This seems to indicate that Maximus’ conception of eternity is at least similar to Philoponus’ idea. The two dimensions of time and eternity are respectively characterized by addition and subtraction of movement. I do not doubt that Maximus is in complete agreement with Gregory of Nyssa that diastema is a basic feature of created sensible being. I suppose Maximus would agree that diastema is synonymous with creatureliness as such. In a sense there is no diastema in God or in divine eternity, still the whole of divine being, without movement or differentiation, is somehow conceived as the extent of divine existence.
I am not sure if it is possible to highlight this further. However, in the above quotation from Maximus, it is movement that is the decisive factor that turns eternity into time. That movement is the basic characteristic of time is a rather ancient idea. We start with Aristotle and take a closer view on this.
In his Physics, Aristotle gives the following, famous, definition of time: ‘For time is just this: The number of motion with respect to before and after.’7 Sorabji puts it this way:8 ‘that aspect of change which can be counted in respect of before and after.’ We may think of a movement going on along a straight line or in a circle, and when we count one event as happening before and another as happening after, there is time. According to Simplicius, Themistius thinks that what is basic in this conception of time, is the phenomenon of change.9 It is change that is the foundation of time, and it is before and after in change that gives birth to the before and after in time. This may be illustrated with the common notion that time, in Greek thought, often is circular. Sorabji remarks that it is usually not time that is circular, it is events that come around in a circle, like the seasons. There is spring, then summer, then autumn, then winter. We may think of these as events occurring in a circle. We might make the picture more diversified and think of a series of events that makes up all events in the whole history of the cosmos, and then we may let this come to an end, following which it all is repeated. Time is added whenever we start counting and structuring events in accordance with our reckoning one event before another and one event after another in a sequence.
The basic physical feature of the created sensible cosmos is movement and change. Time depends upon counting. Counting, further, presupposes someone who counts. For this reason there lurks in the background an idea of mind. In the Physics, Aristotle himself says time depends on the soul, for without conscious beings there would be no counting:10
One might also raise the problem of whether time would exist or not if no soul existed; for, if no one can exist to do the numbering, no thing can be numbered and so clearly no number can exist, for a number is that which has been numbered or that which can be numbered. So if nothing can do the numbering except a soul or the intellect of a soul, no time can exist without the existence of a soul.
Time depends on the soul. We find this idea in Plotinus as well.
1 Cf. Contra Eunomium, GNO 1, 133ff., NPNF 5, 69-70.