Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Definition of Eternity


1.  Having laid the groundwork in the previous question, Thomas sets out to discuss God’s Eternity.  The order of the question follows the usual order (Is God eternal? Is God alone eternal?  Clarifications, etc.) but he prefaces his main discussion with an article defending Boëthius’s definition of eternity as the “simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life.”  This definition is taken from On the Consolation of Philosophy.

2.  He gives six objections to the definition.  The first is that “interminable”, as a negative term, signifies a defect, and therefore doesn’t belong to eternity.  The second is that eternity, being a kind of duration, is about a thing’s existence, and not life in particular.  The third is that wholes are always spoken of relative to parts, but eternity is simple, so it shouldn’t be called a “whole”.  The fourth is that in scripture the “days” of eternity are spoken of, which imply succession, and therefore eternity cannot be simultaneous.  The fifth is that “whole” and “perfect” imply each other and are redundant.  The sixth is that eternity, being a duration, isn’t a matter of “possessing” something.

3.  He gives no Sed Contra in this article, possibly because the authority of Boëthius should suffice.

4.  In the Corpus he observes that our notion of a thing follows from the order of its discovery.  We are naturally inclined to recognize time and succession, because we learn things by our senses, by which we receive the forms of material, mobile things.  So for us in the order of discovery the notion of time precedes the notion of eternity.  Time is the quantity of motion with respect to before and after.  So, in expressing the notion of eternity, which we do not directly observe, we define it by removing from it everything belonging to time: specifically, that time begins and ends, and that it involves succession.  So we say that eternity is interminable and simultaneously whole.

5.  The objections are answered as follows:  First, that with respect to eternity, negative terms are used by way of remotion, to remove what imperfect characteristics we know in ordinary things from the eternal, not to signify defect.  Second, he says that whatever is eternal must have life.  This is demonstrated in Q.18.  Third, that in this case totality signifies that nothing is lacking.  Fourth, that the descriptions quoted are metaphorical, as other descriptions we have encountered in previous articles.  Fifth, that “total” and “perfect” are meant to signify two different aspects of the eternal: totality removes temporal succession, and perfection removes the notion that eternity involves a “now” ordered to some future.  Sixth,  that possession is used mainly to emphasize the stability of the eternity of whatever is eternal: what is possessed is held firmly.


- “Interminable” is a negative term and signifies a privation.
- Duration belongs to existence, and not to life specifically.
- Wholes are only spoken of relative to parts, but eternity is simple.
- Eternity is spoken of as having days, and therefore is not simultaneous.
- To be whole and to be perfect are the same.
- Eternity is a duration, not a possession.

- We recognize what eternity is by arriving at it from the more accessible notion of time.
- Eternity is defined by removing time from a thing: time is the quantity of motion with respect to before and after.
- Eternity is without succession, has no before or after, no beginning or end, and no parts.

- Negative terms in this case signify removal from mutable things, not a defect.
- What is truly eternal is also living, to be demonstrated later.
- Eternity is a whole because it lacks nothing.
- These are metaphors.
- “Whole” signifies the lack of successive duration, “Perfect” signifies the lack of an imperfect now.

- “Possession” implies the stability of a thing’s hold on a state of being.

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