Nick Nielsen

Nov 14, 2021

4 min read

Saint Augustine

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

The 13th of November 2021 is the 1,667th anniversary of the birth of Saint Augustine (13 November 354–28 August 430), who areas born Aurelius Augustinus on this date in 354 AD.

Happy Birthday Aurelius!

The birthday of Saint Augustine represents an important milestone in the philosophy of history. The philosophy of history in western thought begins with St. Augustine’s City of God (Civitas Dei), which Augustine wrote in response to the Sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths in 410 AD. First off, then, City of God is a work on the philosophy of history that was written in direct response to an actual historical event. Secondly, it is difficult to express the extent to which Rome was a not only a city, but a symbol, so that when Rome was sacked, a symbol of wealth and success and order was struck a mortal blow from which it did not recover. Rome had been a symbol of power for eight hundred years, and no one imagined that the city would fall so far, so fast. Needless to say, there was a lot of finger-pointing after the Sack of Rome. Whose fault was it? Some blamed the Christians, and the abandonment of the traditional gods of Rome. Augustine wrote his City of God in order to respond to these charges.

The City of God is an enormous book — it is remarkable that Augustine was able to write this and many other books in the midst of the circumstances of his busy life, and it is remarkable that the entire book has come down to us complete through its long history. As an enormous book, it covers a lot of ground. There is a lot of Christian apologetics, for obvious reasons, a lot of history, again for obvious reasons, Augustine’s theology, of course, long sections on demons and angels, a salvation history of humanity, and more and better besides.

What interests me most in the City of God are Augustine’s more technical passages on time and history (time is given a more detailed treatment in Augustine’s Confessions, Book XI, but there are also expositions of time in City of God). For my part, Book XII is the most philosophically substantial, and her Augustine makes arguments against the common ideas in classical antiquity of the infinity of worlds, the eternity of the world, and cyclical history. For Augustine, the world has a finite beginning in time, the result of God’s creatio ex nihilo, and will have a definite ending. There are, for Augustine, no infinity of worlds and no eternity of the world, nor is history cyclical.

There is an extract from chapter 13 of book XII:

“For the eternity during which God refrained from creating man is so great that it stretches backwards from us without any beginning. Therefore, no matter how great and ineffable the number of ages with which it is compared may be, such an expanse of time, so long as it has a definite conclusion, should not be regarded as being even so big as the smallest drop of water in the entire sea, or, indeed, in the ocean that surrounds the world. For of these two things, one, indeed, is extremely small and the other incomparably great; but both are finite. And as to that expanse of time which comes forth from some beginning and is terminated by some end: no matter how great its extent, if it be compared with that which has no beginning, I do not know whether to say that we should call it the very smallest thing, or nothing at all. Suppose we take a finite expanse of time and, working backwards, subtract the briefest moments from it one by one, as you might take one day at a time from a man’s life, starting with the day in which he now lives and going back to that of his birth. Even if the number of moments that you must subtract during this backward progression is so huge that no word can be found for it, this subtraction will nonetheless at some stage lead you back to a beginning. But now take a time which has no beginning, and, working backwards, take away from it, I do not say tiny moments one by one, or hours, or days, or months, or years, or even periods of years, but expanses of time so great that they cannot be counted by anyone whatsoever. Subtract expanses of time as great as that which we have supposed to be gradually consumed by the deduction of moments, and subtract them not once or twice or again and again, but for ever — and what do you achieve or accomplish by doing this? You never reach a beginning, for there is no beginning.”