The problem of the concept of time in the last books of the Confessions has attracted the attention of philosophers since the Middle Ages. The 20th century has seen a renewed attention on this topic: important philosophers, such as Husserl, Heidegger, Ricoeur and more recently Lyotard, von Hermann, Castoriadis and Marion have investigated it. Van Dusen’s book proposes a new perspective on this long lived problem. Put in a few words, the author holds that the concept of time in Augustine is based on a sensualist understanding of the relation of the human soul to the outside world. Augustine understands time as inextricably linked to the life (vita) of the soul within a body. To demonstrate this philosophical interpretation, van Dusen uses a philological method, whereby he tries to establish links between Augustine and Epicureanism, as it appears through some of the works of Cicero and Lucretius’ De rerum natura. This operation aims at shifting the scholars’ attention from the relation between Plotinus, and Platonism in general, and Augustine to a focus on the relation with other thinkers, such as Lucretius.
The book is divided in an introduction (chapter 1 to 2), three main sections, an envoi and four appendices. I will focus on the three sections, as it is there that van Dusen’s argumentation unfolds. In the first section (chapters 3 to 5) van Dusen sustains that Augustine’s understanding of time is not dependent on a Neoplatonic relation between time and eternity, but rather on a sensualist one. The question of time for Augustine has not to do with metaphysics, but rather with what the ancients catalogued as naturales quaestiones. Thus, all the approaches, which the author lists in ch. 2, used so far to elucidate Augustine’s concept of time, have to be discarded. Van Dusen tries to substantiate his thesis by backing it up with the suggestion that Augustine might have been influenced not by Plotinus, but rather by Epicureanism, such as he would find in Cicero’s De natura deorum and in Lucretius. Bringing forth Cicero and Lucretius, the author wants to show “a pointed and distributed, structuring presence of Cicero’s ‘Epicurus’ and Lucretius in Augustine’s Confessions” (p. 95). The author seems to be aware of the weakness of his textual parallels, for he keeps repeating that it is not his “intent to pursue the question of a direct Epicurean influence on Augustine’s time-concept; but if Augustine’s time-concept could be shown to be Epicurean in a direct sense, this influence would not be an isolated one.” Finally, van Dusen anticipates what will be the guiding hypothesis of the rest of the book, namely that in the last books of the Confessions time (tempus) and times (tempora) are used respectively to refer to the reality by which times, i.e. the movement of all things, are measured and to the reality that finds its proper place in the soul’s distentio. These two moments are deeply interconnected, since the soul can measure times, only because through the senses it is constitutively connected to the perception of external reality. Thus sensus holds a pivotal importance for understanding the constitution of Augustine’s concept of time.
Discussion about this central point of van Dusen’s thesis is suspended to proceed to section 2 (ch. 6 to 9). In it the author tries to show that the two realities Augustine refers to while commenting on the first words of Genesis, namely the coelum coeli and the materies serve as specular counterpoints through which it is possible to highlight that time pertains only to the soul, and not just to any soul, but to one that is embodied, hence existence in a sensualist dimension. Van Dusen holds that when Augustine speaks of vita, he refers only to an embodied soul. He has to stress this to prove his point, according to which there is no relation of dependence between Augustine’s investigation on time and his reflection on eternity. However, what he says at p. 157: “The caelum intellectuale is posited as living, but is not characterized as a life (vita)” is readily contradicted by a passage he himself quotes on the same page at n. 33 (Conf. XIII.2.3-3.4: erat iam qualiscumque vita… et quod utcumque vivit et quod beate vivit non deberet nisi gratiae tuae, where the term vita clearly appears. But the reason for this assertion is due to the fact that he wants to attribute to vita a meaning, according to which vita happens only when a soul adheres to a body giving thus place to a sensuous life. In section 3 (chapters 10 to 13) he comes back to his main topic and tries to show, somewhat successfully, that the ability to measure time, proper to the soul, is possible only because the soul is intrinsically linked to a body and through it to a dimension of sense perception. Van Dusen stresses in Augustine examples for the passing and measuring of time based on metric measurement of the length of syllables, both in the Confessions and in De musica (which van Dusen insists on calling De rhythmo). In the last chapter van Dusen proposes to identify in Aristoxenus as well as in Aristotle’s Categories the sources of the centrality of sense perception (sensus, αἴσθησις) in Augustine’s investigation on time. Also in this case, the textual parallels he suggests are so vague as to be ultimately irrelevant.
Van Dusen’s thesis is thought provoking, as it proposes an interpretation, above all of book 11 and 12 of the Confessions, that would help to go beyond some of the philosophical interpretations that have been circulating so far. However, the exposition of his central argument is obscured for the reader by a structure that is at best idiosyncratic. The book proceeds through endless anticipations mirrored by just as many repetitions: the result is a quite confused and confusing argumentation. The reader has to do the work of reconstructing and summarize what van Dusen’s main point is: doing this is not less difficult than elucidating Augustine’s elusive concept of time. As noted above, the author uses the philological method to substantiate his philosophical point. This is surely commendable. However, from the philological point of view, van Dusen’s arguments do not hold. I will bring three examples. At p. 57 n. 102 and then again at p. 74 n. 52 van Dusen underlines the fact that in his opinion Ep. 1 would show that Augustine was much more under the influence of the Academic than of the dogmatic Platonists, as the author defines them, such as Plotinus. Unfortunately, Ep. 1 does not support van Dusen’s conclusion, because Augustine keeps looking up to the Academici, only after having defeated them; or, as he says, after having understood that their methodical doubt is aimed at avoiding that the impure ears do not approach the heart of real philosophy. Thus, for him real philosophy remains what he has found in Plotinus and the Platonicorumi libri, as Confess. VII is clearly shows. At p. 83 n. 106, we find another baffling list of supposed textual parallels, which are in fact linked only by the fact of presenting identical words. These words, however, are so common and of such general use that it is unthinkable to ascribe to them any systematic value that would enable us to establish even just a parallelism.
Finally at pp. 87-88 we find the quite astonishing statement, according to which: “Already at line 205 of his first book, Lucretius writes: “Therefore we must confess (fatendumst) that nothing can possibly arise from nothing.” According to the Author fateor becomes synonymous with Confiteor, and with the sense that Augustine, a Christian, ascribes to the word! Thus the parallels van Dusen tries to establish can at most be used to elucidate Augustine’s philosophical ideas through a comparison that remain at the typological level. This procedure would be legitimate. However, it would not be uncontroversial. For, whereas Lucretius or the Epicureans, whose positions Augustine could have extracted from Cicero’s works—as far we know—, expose a clear and coherent doctrine, Augustine’s concept of time is not so transparent and needs in fact van Dusen’s laborious interpretation to be made to align with that of his alleged models. Here we touch the first problematic point of van Dusen’s work from the philosophical perspective. His argumentation has systematized what in the Confessions remains unsystematic. While this could be a merit, it however raises the doubt that van Dusen himself has created for Augustine a clear and vivid idea of time, where in fact Augustine had none. To escape this doubt, a further investigation of Augustine’s other works would be required, but van Dusen does not develop it. Moreover, and this is the second problem, van Dusen’s work does not take into account the inextricable link of Augustine’s concept of time with the rest of the Confessions. By stressing an interpretation of Augustine’s concept of time that privileges a sensualist understanding, van Dusen obscures the guiding question that opens and defines Confessions: namely, the question regarding the nature and unity that Augustine obscurely perceives himself to be. This perception has to reckon with the multiplicity that Augustine also sees himself to be: it constitutes the tension between intentio and distentio. Where the latter leads ultimately to a chaotic disintegration, the former represents the possibility of being, and specifically of being something defined. But in turn this possibility is sustained only by the constitutive ontological relation to God. Van Dusen’s approach reads the concept of time in the Confessions (and thus, one may infer, the Confessions tout court) as a proto-phenomenological investigation; thus, he effectively gives us a Heideggerian Augustine. However, from a Heideggerian perspective, the question regarding unity finds an answer in the idea of Entschlossenheit, but this is not the case for Augustine. The investigation and clarification of the essence of eternity in book XII is not a counterfactual parallel, as van Dusen proposes, to grasp the concept of time, but it is rather the necessary dialectical-ontological pendant for the very possibility of something like a temporal existence that be not mere disintegration.
[For a response to this review by D.L. Dusenbury, please see BMCR 2016.06.19.]