Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions begins with his musings on creation, but quickly segues into an extended reflection on time – the rest of his discussion of creation will have to wait for Book 12. But time is the prelude to any further talk of creation, because created material bodies exist and move in time. Time is God’s first creature, the frame for the rest of creation, and yet its present “being” is so fleeting as to be impossible to pin down, its immediacy a constantly moving flow. Time is the measure by which we trace our lives, movements, and events, and yet it is profoundly elusive.

Augustine’s interest in time, however, is only partially in timekeeping itself, for which humans have functional methods and mechanisms. His more pressing question is how we experience and orient ourselves in time. It’s here that he introduces the idea that time is a “distension” of the mind itself. This isn’t merely intellectual, but affective:

“It is in you, my mind, that I measure my times. Do not clamor at me, or rather, do not clamor at yourself, with your disorderly mob of affections. In you, I say, I measure times. The affection (affectionem), which times passing make in you and which remains after they have passed, is what is present for me to measure, not the times which have passed to make it. Affection is the very thing I measure when I measure times” (conf. 11.27.36, as translated by James Wetzel in “Time After Augustine,” Religious Studies 31.3 (Sept 1995): 341–57, 347).

The term affectionem, typically translated “affection” or “emotion,” is often not included in this passage, probably because the association of measuring time with emotion is deemed an odd one. And yet this association is at the heart of Augustine’s probing of human experience of time, which presents a spiritual conundrum, the fragmentation of the self in time:

“I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you” (conf. 11.29.39, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

This difficulty in understanding the order of times is not primarily intellectual – it is affective and spiritual, as is its resolution.

It’s not incidental that key examples Augustine uses for describing the experience of time are reciting a poem (conf. 11.26.33), singing a hymn (conf. 11.27.35), and singing a psalm (conf. 11.28.38). The third and culminating example of singing a Psalm is especially telling, since for Augustine the Psalms are a kind of “key” to the healing and ordering of the emotions. Further, for Augustine, collecting oneself out of these scattered times, these “storms of incoherent events,” requires orienting oneself to a particular end: “I ‘pursue the prize of the high calling’ where I ‘may hear the voice of praise’ and ‘contemplate your delight’ (Ps. 25:7; 26:4) which neither comes nor goes.” (conf. 11.29.39, trans. Chadwick). Our sense of time, then, and of ourselves in time, is a kind of spiritual vocation (I use this term in the broad sense of the range of aims and practices to which we might feel called).

For Augustine, the human experience of time is spiritual, affective, and vocational. To briefly draw this into view via a very different context, consider these enigmatic words of nineteenth-century Crow Chief Plenty Coups, reflecting on the devastation of his community’s way of life:

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened” (cited in Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006, 2).

What does Plenty Coups mean by saying after this nothing happened? Jonathan Lear theorizes this as reflecting the loss not only of the practices that structured the Crow way of life (significantly, hunting buffalo) but the ethical-cultural values and aims that gave meaning to that life. How can anything “happen” in a meaningful way if one no longer can orient oneself in time? Despite the wide historical-cultural divide, this resonates with Augustine’s emphasis on our sense of time as affectively and vocationally charged. That isn’t the end of the story for Plenty Coups or the Crow, nor for Augustine, who (among other things) goes on to develop one of the most influential Christian theological frameworks for how we orient ourselves in time to certain ends (for better and for worse), in the “two cities” of the City of God.

The ends that structure our lives orient our minds (understanding), hearts (emotions and loves), and actions (liturgical, political, communal). What Confessions 11 shows is that these ends also structure our very sense of time itself, which is the frame within which any and all understanding, emotion, and action take place – meaningfully, one hopes.

For a more detailed examination of Augustine’s theory of time and how it relates to the temporality of climate change, see Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “‘Scattered in Times’: An Augustinian Meditation on Temporal Fragmentation, Imagination, and Climate Change,” Journal of Religious Ethics 48/1 (2020), 45-73.

Sarah Stewart-Kroeker is the author of Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) and La Terre martyre (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2022). Her current research project focuses on the role of emotions in Augustine’s political theology.