It seems that a lot of modern arguments over the existence and nature of immaterial reality hinge on a misunderstanding of what classic philosophers mean by ‘eternal’. Fool rushing in, I, the least among philosophers, will try to explain in one blog post what Aristotle and Thomas and hundreds of vastly better thinkers have filled libraries discussing. But, hey, never stopped me before! And maybe it will prove helpful to somebody. Weirder things have happened.
Here’s a description of how I understand the relationship between time and eternity as understood in a Thomist/baptized Aristotelian scheme:
Time is, as Aristotle says, the measure of motion. By motion, philosophers mean a change of any kind, not just changes in location. This definition may seem a little weird, but upon reflection is what any other meaningful definition must boil down to. For something to be one way or in one place and then get to another way or place, time must pass. A moment ago, the ball was orange and at my feet; now it is green and over there. Somethings have changed – time has passed.
Oddly enough, the key here is the verb ‘to be’ in its various forms. A mutable thing *is* at a given point of time; it *becomes* something else – green and over there – over time.
The funny thing: a man or a dog or tree or a river is what it is over the course of its life or existence, even though the material it is made of – meat or wood or water – changes over time. A man is the same man in some fundamental way over the course of his life, even if, as is the case, most of the material his body is made of gets swapped out, often many times, over the course of that life. Something persists over time that makes that man who he is, and it can’t be material. If it were matter, then a man would not be the same man after each meal or breath.
This fact, without which we could talk of no thing, has inspired much philosophizing and is at the roots of the Perennial Philosophy. It is the recognition that some things are not matter and that talking and thinking about things requires a type of presence and persistence that matter alone does not offer.
Further, there are certain fundamental ideas to which no matter at all corresponds, that have no place in time whatsoever. No physical thing is a triangle or a rule of logic. Yet we are more certain of what a triangle is and what the law of noncontradiction means than we are of any of the ‘blended’ being we encounter in the physical world. These pure ideas are not mutable – it is of their nature that, if we understand them at all, we understand that they cannot change.
Some understanding of the nature of being falls out of this necessarily. Unchanging things belong to eternity. Eternity is not lots of time, or even infinite time, but rather is – something else. When we say that triangles, laws of logic, our souls or God are eternal, we don’t mean they last a long time, even an infinitely (unbounded) amount of time. We mean they are of a different order of being.
Over the Physics and Metaphysics, hundreds of pages of Aristotle filled with arguments teasing out what reality is like. The Philosopher concludes that things in time – all the common things we experience – are the way they are because of immaterial things. Ultimately, through however long a chain of causes (or ‘becauses’ if you want) everything is caused – is and does what makes it the thing it is – by an eternal, unchanging Unmoved Mover. This, as Thomas pointed out 1500 years later, is what everyone understands is ‘God’.
In De Anima, Aristotle discusses the ‘soul’, by which he means the animating principle of all living things. Plants have souls which cause them to grow and reproduce; animals have souls that, in addition to growth and reproduction, allow them to sense and move about. Men, as animals, have a soul that shares these powers. But men do one thing animals and plants don’t do – they understand.
Aristotle saw no reason animal and vegetable souls would be any less mortal than the material bodies they informed. You dog dies – its soul is gone. The remains are no longer a dog in any coherent sense – dead means ‘its soul is gone’ and that soul is what made that dog a dog. A dog, or a petunia, or a person does not have a soul; a living thing IS a soul and a body – an immaterial form informing matter. For plants and animals, the distinction between body and soul is purely intellectual or even theoretical. In practice, every plant and animal is both, or it is not a living thing.
Aristotle puts a surprising number of mental activities within the realm of the animal soul, because he, unlike most of us modern men, lived intimately with animals. He could see that a horse or dog figured things out, imagined some sorts of things in the course of acting (like where the rabbit was likely to be hiding), and even, in the case of dogs at least, dreamed dreams. But men do some categorically different thinking. We are capable of knowing eternal things, of pondering triangles, moral law and God Himself. Aristotle saw that this kind of thinking is different in kind from anything animals do, and so recognized a third kind of soul, the rational soul or intellect.
Here’s the logical step not followed, one I can’t spell out in a blog post: Souls capable of contemplating eternal things must themselves be eternal at least in some sense. Aristotle isn’t clear that this sense is personal as we understand it – that each individual human being has a unique immortal soul. Thomas spells this out: each human being has a unique immortal human soul that is and must be a direct creation of God.
The human soul is a creature of eternity. When we speak of our eternal home, we don’t mean a place within time, except with way more time. We mean a state beyond human understanding, of which we have only the faintest ideas as if seen in a mirror darkly. Somehow, within the Eternity that is God Himself, all creation from beginning to end is loved into being. Somehow, we have been given the incomprehensible gift of Time, within which we get to act on our nature formed in the image of God by understanding and creating and especially procreating.
A mystical as this all sounds, Aristotle, no Christian and no respecter of gods, got almost all the way there as a result of pure, hard-headed reasoning. He asked the hard questions: how is it that we know anything at all? How do we know about things like math, logic and the moral law that don’t materially exist? How is it that the world is so rationally ordered? In modern times, we flinch, and instead ask sophomoric questions and smirk suicidally at our own cleverness as we assert that our better questions are unanswerable: do we know anything at all? Are math etc. knowledge at all? Is the world really rational, or is that just us projecting?
Then we answer them. It is not clever to saw off the branch you’re sitting on, especially considering how high off the ground you are. To say we know nothing, that only material things exist and that what appears as an orderly world is just a projection, wishful thinking or a construct, is to destroy any basis for understanding or even communicating. It’s not more reasonable. It’s just another flavor of the impulse that drives teenagers who snap back at their parents: I didn’t *ask* to be born!