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Book 11: Reflections on Time

Confessions Book 11 clock 200 x 113This page is the eleventh entry in the Core Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 11, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.

Summary:

It is not surprising that Augustine is interested in the subject of time in his Confessions. The book itself is an exercise in remembering his personal past. That past time, moreover, lives on in his present consciousness in the very act of composing his book.

Augustine locates the measurement of time within himself despite his perplexity in understanding what time is. — Dr. Leland Ryken, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH

The following organizational scheme will provide help in progressing through Book 11: opening invocation to God (chapters 1–2); Augustine’s desire to understand how God created heaven and earth (chapters 3–4); reflections on the fact that God created heaven and earth by his Word (chapters 5–9); digression in which Augustine pays his disrespects to some people’s practice of asking what God did before he created heaven and earth (chapters 10–13); musings on the nature of time, with special emphasis on what we mean by past, present, and future (chapters 14–22); Augustine’s disagreement with the view that the heavenly bodies produce time (chapters 22–24); Augustine locates the measurement of time within himself despite his perplexity in understanding what time is (chapters 25–28); meditation on God’s eternity, beyond time (chapters 29–31).

Commentary:

Following the cue of a comment that Augustine himself made late in life—that the last three books of Confessions are an exposition of the book of Genesis—commentators regularly claim that Book 11 is an exegesis of Genesis. Genesis 1:1 is Augustine’s only point of departure for a free-floating series of reflections on the topic of time. Some recurrent motifs are interwoven throughout the book: (1) Augustine’s perplexity and accompanying humility as he thinks about his chosen subject of time; (2) Augustine’s approach to time as a series of problems and paradoxes; (3) God’s eternity and transcendence of time.

The most helpful aspect of Augustine’s meditation on time is his distinction between time and eternity, and of how time-bound people can relate to the God who is eternal. The great biblical repository on time is the book of Ecclesiastes, which makes excellent collaborative reading for Book 11 of Confessions. The writer of Ecclesiastes, like Augustine, plays with the contrast between time-bound people living “under the sun” and the eternal heavenly realm where God reigns.


For Reflection or Discussion:

For you personally, what ideas stated in Augustine’s musings on time are most useful? If you were to compose a series of meditations on time, what would be your main
questions?

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