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Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

By Maria Popova

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.”


“All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote with an indebted eye to Blake and Whitman. “[Is] only the present comprehended?” Patti Smith asked two decades later in her magnificent meditation on time and transformation.

This temporal tension between the immediate and the eternal is one of the core characteristics and defining frustrations of the human experience — over and over, we strain to locate ourselves within time, against time, grasping for solid ground while aswirl in its unstoppable flow. We struggle to hold it all with what Bertrand Russell called “a largeness of contemplation,” but we continually suffer at the smallness of our temporal existence — suffering reflected in our cultural fascination with time travel, which illuminates the central mystery of human consciousness.

How to inhabit the time-scale of our existence without suffering and fill the moment with eternity is what the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in a portion of his 1844 classic The Concept of Anxiety, later included in the indispensable volume The Essential Kierkegaard (public library).

Søren Kierkegaard

A century before Borges’s famous proclamation — “time is the substance I am made of” — and more than a century and a half before Einstein revolutionized human thought by annealing our two primary modes of existence to one another in the single entity of spacetime, Kierkegaard writes:

Man … is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.

Centuries before physicist came to explore the science of why we can’t remember the future, Kierkegaard probes our familiar temporal ordering of events and experiences:

If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).

[…]

The present, however, is not a concept of time, except precisely as something infinitely contentless, which again is the infinite vanishing. If this is not kept in mind, no matter how quickly it may disappear, the present is posited, and being posited it again appears in the categories: the past and the future.

The eternal, on the contrary, is the present. For thought, the eternal is the present in terms of an annulled succession (time is the succession that passes by). For representation, it is a going forth that nevertheless does not get off the spot, because the eternal is for representation the infinitely contentful present. So also in the eternal there is no division into the past and the future, because the present is posited as the annulled succession.

Time is, then, infinite succession; the life that is in time and is only of time has no present. In order to define the sensuous life, it is usually said that it is in the moment and only in the moment. By the moment, then, is understood that abstraction from the eternal that, if it is to be the present, is a parody of it. The present is the eternal, or rather, the eternal is the present, and the present is full.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard so poetically observed that “if our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” Kierkegaard arrives at the problem of definition and the paradox of defining time-as-succession via the instant:

If at this point one wants to use the moment to define time and let the moment signify the purely abstract exclusion of the past and the future and as such the present, then the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. Thus it is seen that the moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.

With an eye to the ancient Greeks, Kierkegaard considers the not uncomplicated loveliness emanating from what Plato called “the sudden”:

“The moment” is a figurative expression, and therefore it is not easy to deal with. However, it is a beautiful word to consider. Nothing is as swift as a blink of the eye, and yet it is commensurable with the content of the eternal… Whatever its etymological explanation, [“the sudden”] is related to the category of the invisible, because time and eternity were conceived equally abstractly, because the concept of temporality was lacking, and this again was due to the lack of the concept of spirit. The Latin term is momentum (from movere [to move]), which by derivation expresses the merely vanishing.

Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At this meeting point of the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard argues, our entire experience of time plays out:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time. As a result, the above-mentioned division acquires its significance: the present time, the past time, the future time.

And yet this temporal taxonomy suggests that past, present, and future don’t exist on equal terms:

The future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time… The moment and the future in turn posit the past.

[…]

The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly revelatory The Essential Kierkegaard with T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, the story of how Einstein and Gödel redefined our understanding of it, Virginia Woolf on the past and how to live more fully in the present, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, and why haters hate.


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