Augustine and the Music of Time
October 17, 2017

One of the best discussions of Augustine’s views on time comes from Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time (ch. 3).

Following Paul Ricoeur, Begbie claims that Augustine’s distentio “is conceived as the three-fold present, and the threefold present as distentio. The distentio consists in the non-coincidence of the mind’s three modes of action. They are in discord. As we attend to impressions, expectation and memory pull in opposite directions: in the process of reciting a psalm, ‘the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the past which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite.’”

The “enigma” (Ricoeur) that Augustine brings up is “that the more the mind engages in its three-fold activity, the more acutely distentio is felt: discordance emerges ‘again and again out of the very concordance of the intentions of expectation, attention, and memory’ (Ricoeur). The more the mind works in memory, attention and expectation, the more it is felt to be pulled asunder.”

Begbie analyzes Augustine’s view by asking what kind of reality time has for Augustine, and how Augustine conceives of the goodness of time.

On the first question, he notes that Augustine shares the conviction of his contemporaries that pure being, “true” existence, is immutable existence. Temporal beings, which come into existence and fall out of existence, stand ontologically between being and non-being. Begbie denies that Augustine is subjectivizing time, reducing it to a mode of mental experience. When he talks about the non-existence of past and future, he is speaking from the perspective of the creature; from God’s perspective, all events are immediately present and thus exist as present.

Yet, Begbie wonders if Augustine has given an adequate account of time “even from the perspective of the creature.” He argues that Augustine has not fully grasped the implications of his own doctrine of creation, and that Augustine does not pay sufficient attention to the work of the Son and Spirit in temporal reality.

Regarding the goodness of time, Begbie emphasizes that Christian theology, “which affirms the direct involvement of God the Son, the mediator of creation, with material historicity in a human life, and the Spirit as the one who gives shape and temporal orientation to creation,” prohibits us from seeing “temporality as fundamentally problematic or evil.”

Augustine is ambivalent about the goodness of temporality, an ambivalence revealed in his early de Musica. For Augustine and most ancients, music is “a way of discerning the mathematical proportions which pervade the universe. Music, as the science of measurements, engages with the proportions which characterize the whole of reality.” Augustine is less interested in music performed than in music as “the intellectual knowledge of the numerical character of the universe.” According to Augustine, “the numbers of music derive from the unchanging order of ‘eternal numbers’ which themselves proceed from God.”

From this perspective, Augustine treats the fall as a fall into individuality and temporality: “The soul is fallen from the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy-ness of temporal activity. Because of the fall, we are ordered by the tapestry of time, ‘sewn into’ the order of spatio-temporality. We have become so many individual ‘words,’ each forming part of the poem of the temporal whole but unable to perceive the harmony and beauty of the connected work. By immersion in temporal sequence, we have lost that purview of the whole temporal series we possessed before the fall.” O

nly reason retains “insight into the higher, beautiful, unchanging order of numbers,” and music is designed to life the soul from the realm of sense and time to the world of perfect number, thence to God.

In Confessions, Augustine has “a more positive attitude to the created order, materiality and temporality,” yet even here Augustine is haunted by the earlier suspicion of temporality. Even after all qualifications have been made, “it is hard to ignore the signs of the ancient tendency to run together temporality and fallenness.”

Begbie is particularly interested in the way music functions in Augustine’s argument: “What is valuable about music is discovered and known insofar as we abstract from the temporal relations of physical realities patterns which reflect in some measure the order of eternity.”

Positively, Begbie develops four points about time using musical categories:

  1. Music shows that fixity and order are not identical. Music gives, in Victor Zuckerkandl’s words, “an order in what is wholly flux, of a building without matter.”
  2. Subjection to time is not evil, but useful. Rowan Williams: “There are things you will learn only by passing through this process, by being caught up in this series of relations and transformations.” Time demands patient waiting, and thus living in time is a way to maturity. Though Begbie doesn’t say so, this implies that by-passing time is infantile.
  3. Time has different qualities: “different rates at which things happen, different concentrations of activities at different periods . . . . Plants and animals possess different rates of change and flourish at different points relative to their birth and death. People ‘reach their peak’ at different stages.” This is not a sign of corruption but rather “part of the diversity God bestows on his creation, intrinsically bound up with the constitution of entities themselves and intended for good.”
  4. Music depends on transience (as does language): “Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level. Tones give way to tones. Music is constantly dying, giving way.” But transience doesn’t make music futile; music has its integrity, beauty, order, glory “in and through this very transience.”

Augustine would have been on stronger ground if he had been more attuned to the music of time.

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