Time and Eternity

It is hard, if not impossible, for our small brains to really grok what it means to be eternal (well, at any rate, it is hard or impossible for my small brain). A while ago I was reading St. Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation, and was astonished to stumble across what I think is a very helpful illustration for understanding the difference between our human, time-bound way of seeing things and God’s eternal view.

This is not the sort of thing that one expects to encounter in a book dedicated to an analysis of enunciations (i.e., statements that predicate something of a thing and which are either true or false; don’t get me started on the ridiculous English name of Aristotle’s book, which suggests that it is about something else entirely). But maybe it is my expectations that were ill-founded. For Aristotle and Aquinas the true is that which is consistent with reality. To say that I am listening to Coldplay right now is “true”; to say I do not like them is “false”. This relationship of the true to what is real implies something about logic (well, I am at least drawing the inference): it is grounded in metaphysics. It is grounded in being. If this is so, then maybe it makes more sense why a discussion of time and eternity finds itself in a book devoted ultimately to logic.

Aquinas brings the subject up in Book I, Lesson XIV of the commentary. In this lesson he spends a significant amount of time defending what Aristotle says about the contingency of future events. There were (and are) folks like the Stoics who supposed that all future events take place necessarily: there is no possibility that they will not take place. This is a brilliant lesson because St. Thomas goes the extra mile to defend what Aristotle says about the contingency of future events. He addresses the arguments of Stoics and others who pretend to some sort of necessity for all actions, including those who like to find that necessity in the divine will. §§8-24 are the most relevant parts for this defense of contingency.

There is a fantastic illustration contrasting our time bound knowledge with God’s eternal knowledge, in §§19-20.

[I]f there are many men passing along some road, any one of those in the ranks has knowledge of those preceding and following as preceding and following, which pertains to the order of place. Hence any one of them sees those who are next to him and some of those who precede him; but he cannot see those who follow behind him. (§19)

In other words, what we can see about the past and the future is limited by the “stuff” (for lack of a better word at the moment) around us: the guys in front of me prevent me from seeing very far ahead, and certainly I have no chance of seeing the very front ranks. The same thing is true about when we look “behind” us into the past: we can’t see very far, and we certainly can’t see the very last men marching along behind us. And the same is true even for the “present”: we look to our left and right, and we might not be able to see very much right around us, either.

Contrast this with a different viewpoint Thomas offers:

If, however, there were someone outside of the whole order of those passing along the road, for instance, stationed in some high tower where he could see the whole road, he would at once see all those who were on the road—not under the formality of preceding and subsequent (i.e., in relation to his view) but all at the same time and how one precedes another.

Someone standing in a sufficiently high tower can see everyone marching all at once. He would be able to take in the whole thing in a single glance. Now, this is clearly not a perfect analogy nor illustration, but it helps me very much to get a handle on the difference between how I see things past, present, and future and how God sees them. He sees them from outside the stream of past and present and future; He sees all of the past, present, and future all at once.

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Posted in Aquinas - Philosophy

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