Passing Through the Gates of Time: The Mind, Time Travel, and St Augustine


The topic of time has always fascinated people. It also seems that since the beginning, people wanted to travel in time. Sometimes, analyses related to questions like what is time and if it is possible to jump from the past to the future, present to the past, etc., appeared in ancient philosophical essays.

As archbishop of Hippo Regius in modern Algeria, St. Augustine was influenced by ancient books, but at the same time he was strongly connected to early Christian theology. Along with his beliefs related to holy texts, he was influenced by Neoplatonism and Manichaeism. However, it seems that his imagination was also more developed than one usually gives him credit for.

The earliest portrait of St. Augustine. (6th century fresco) Lateran, Rome. ( Public Domain )

The Matter of Time

At first glance, it may be hard to believe that St Augustine’s teachings can be useful while searching for the answer if time travel is possible. However, his explanation of time is one of the most inspirational. It is still uncertain what time really is. Many researchers suppose that it’s an illusion, but others try to prove that it’s linear and logical. In the case of St Augustine, he started to analyze this topic in Book 11 of his works. As he wrote in Chapter 20, Heading 26:

”Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Could this mean that St Augustine was interested in the topic of time travel? Some specialists in his writings suggest that he thought about it, but others suppose that this perspective is a misinterpretation of his works. Nonetheless, his writings continue to provide inspiration for many researchers in a variety of disciplines, including physicists who are trying to understand intriguing subjects like time travel.

A Saint Who Could Have Been a Scientist

If St Augustine had lived in the 21st century, he could have had a problem while choosing the right discipline in which to study. Although he was born in 354 and died on August 28, 430 AD, his knowledge and philosophy was like a bridge between an ancient and medieval way of thinking.

Most of the ancient civilizations and philosophers were interested in the topic of time, but they believed that time was cyclical. Homer tried to conceptualize this topic in his works. Plato and Aristotle were also interested in the topic of how to measure time. Their ideas still exist, but many of their lost works were in the hands of St Augustine when he was analyzing this topic.

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’.

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’. ( Public Domain ) Many ancient philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle (center) were interested in the topic of time.

St Augustine died after a few days of praying and shortly before the Vandals’ final attack on his city. When he was dying, he asked that his monumental library be well preserved. When the Vandals entered the city soon after his death, they burned everything except Augustine’s library. The damage to his impressive collection was done much later – probably by priests who wanted to have a piece of his collection in their own parishes.

According to St Augustine, time may be measured in the mind. He believed that time is not an event which is measured by itself, but it is the impression that it leaves on the mind that can be seen. This is related to his idea that the mind expects the future, and this picture of the future becomes reality for present events. Moreover, when the event becomes the past, the mind remembers it and considers it as the past.

This simple way of thinking became a fundamental theory of time for many centuries. It supposes that the future and the past don’t really exist as long as our mind doesn’t create them. Therefore, the present has no duration if the minds’ attention is focused on it. Augustine saw it as an illusion which the human mind can create. He defined time with his imagination, but his explanation is very similar to the idea of dimensions of space, which is well known nowadays.

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