The Elusive Shape of Time

03/29/2016 01:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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"What is time?" Augustine, once wondered.

"If no one asks me", he said, "I know what it is". Then, with a disarming honesty he concluded, "if I wish to explain it to him who asks", he said, "I do not know".


Quid est ergo tempus?
Si nemo ex me quærat, scio.
Si quærenti explicare uelim, nescio.


Augustine of Hippo, Confessiones lib xi, cap xiv, sec 17 (ca. 400 CE)

The fundamental questions of life require a little shift inside us to take place before they are addressed, a definite change in our perspective that will align our mind with our heart. This is why Augustine's words are the most touching ones that ever tried to explain our relationship with time. They express a profound humbleness that feels like a blessing, and in their sublime simplicity they manifest that our connection with the cosmos is transcendental and mind independent.

This is a deeply personal relationship. In fact, our approach should always start from within and then be gently externalized towards a higher sphere. Time encompasses the timeless, for if it wasn't, then it would be finite. The constant transition of time from future to present to past is imperceptible because it doesn't have any measurable dimensions and this is why its essence is infinite. For it's not only the present that's momentary, but also the past and the future. There is no definite cosmic distance between something that happened a second ago and something that occurred, let's say, one century earlier. The line of events creates a linear sequence and it is the length of this sequence that we actually study with on our measurement units - been a second or a century as in the aforementioned case. We can feel the flow, the movement, through our emotions, our thoughts, our bodies but, in the end, all things gone have the same age. In the purity of this flow, things past are not placed further or closer to our present, but they all occupy the same single spot. Infinity itself is the essence and not the shape, since everything imperceptible can only be shapeless and therefore infinite. The essence is more important than the shape so we may as well choose to live within its essence and not within its shape.

All shapes are deriving from infinity. Time is sensed only as a flow and it can be framed into a certain shape only after our mind has applied a number of reference points. These reference points are memories that accommodate events and their subjective nature enhances the abstractness of the shape of time. Intensive memories create strong, unshakable reference points that define the shape of time the same way that the foundations of a construction define the structure of a building, the difference being that the foundations set by our mind are illusive. Identifying ourselves with unshakable shapes is a source of pain, as it is everything that blocks the undisturbed flow of infinity inside us. For in this case, time is relentless : All shapes are inevitably bound to entropy.

It's not a delusion to defy the shapes that our mind creates. On the contrary, shapes are likely to create illusions because they are subject to our perspective. A cylinder looks like a rectangle from the side and like a circle from above. Memories are interpretations of events, they are absolutely bound to our perspective and this is why same events can generate other memories to different people, or change their own shape inside us if we simply change our view. It's impossible not to notice this fluidness. Having acknowledged it though, it is impossible not to notice the futileness as well. For it's not a delusion to defy these shapes but only a process. If all shapes are deriving from infinity, then we should let infinity flow inside us shapeless. By exposing our consciousness to the versatility of time, we start to embrace the shapeless nature of things and this should be our only destination.

Plotinus, one of the most important philosophers of Neo-Platonism in the third century AD and a significant influence to Augustine, who spread his impact across the western world, wrote a number of essays that eventually became the Six Enneads, a collection of his writings. In the Third Ennead, there is a treatise named On Eternity and Time, dedicated to the nature of time. There, Plotinus is giving us the following lines. They come gently, closing the treatise with an almost divine touch, revealing the truth that lies inside us.

Ἆρ᾽ οὖν καὶ ἐν ἡμῖν χρόνος; Ἢ ἐν ψυχῆι τῆι τοιαύτηι πάσηι καὶ ὁμοειδῶς ἐν πάσηι καὶ αἱ πᾶσαι μία. Διὸ οὐ διασπασθήσεται ὁ χρόνος, ἐπεὶ οὐδ ὁ αἰὼν ὁ κατ ἄλλο ἐν τοῖς ὁμοειδέσι πᾶσιν.

Is time, then, within ourselves as well? It is in every soul and in like form in all souls, and all of them are One. This is why time can never be broken apart, any more than eternity which, similarly, under diverse manifestations, has its being as an integral constituent of all the eternal existences of the same substance.

And through these words it feels as if the mind and the heart are now perfectly aligned.

Image on top : "Insperato". Attica, Greece | by petroskoublis.com