CHAPTER 16

THE LATER AGES

 

Another change was necessary in order to arrive at the idea eternity. That change took place, and it was this: The original idea of life was subordinated and disappeared, and ideas of time alone took possession of the whole ground, and aion, instead of denoting life, came to denote time.

The change is seen in its greatest completeness in Marcus Aurelius. In his twelve books of “meditations,” so called, he uses aion twenty times, and always denotes by it some form of time, and never life.

He says (iv. 43): “Time (aion) is a sort of river of events, and a mighty current; for as soon as each event has appeared and has been borne by, still another is carried by and shall be borne onward.” Again (vii., 19): “how many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epicetetus, has time (aion) already swallowed up!” Again he says (iv., 50): “Behold the immensity of time (aion) behind thee, and before thee another boundless expanse.”

Speaking as a Stoic, he says (v., 32), “The reason, which pervades all substance, through all time (aion) administers the universe by fixed periods.”

Again he says (v., 24), “Call to mind the universal substance of which thou sharest a very small part, and the whole of time (aion), of which a short and insignificant portion has been assigned to thee.”

Again (x., 17): “Contemplate habitually universal time (aion) and universal substance, and consider that all individual things as to substance are as a fig-seed, and as to time [Greek letters] the turning of a gimlet.”

It deserves notice that here he uses [Greek letters] (time) as a synonym of aion.

Again (iv., 3), he says, “Consider the boundless extent of infinite time (aion) on each side of the present.”

Again (xii., 32), “How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time (aion) is assigned to every man!”

Again, in iv., 21, he speaks of the bodies of preceding generations as “buried in time (aion) so remote.”

We are now in a position to see how there could be, without absurdity, a transition of (time) into the sense eternity; for, when it is qualified by adjectives denoting totality, it acquires the sense eternity. All past time is past eternity. All future time is future eternity. All time past, present, and future, is absolute eternity. At first this qualifying adjective was expressed, as we see in Marcus Aurelius. But by degrees it came to be sometimes implied and understood, but not expressed, and aion, with this understanding, was used for eternity. Marcus Aurelius almost always expresses the qualifying adjective, but, in one or two instances, he implies it, and aion alone stands for eternity. Thus (vi., 36), “The present time is a point in (universal) time,” i.e., eternity (aion). The same process is seen in Diodorus Siculus, who, in the introduction to his history (i., 1), qualifies aion, and says that “Divine providence has its circuit through all time (aion), and by worlds and seasons creates common relations among men, and causes every age so to revolve as to assign a destined end to each.” Here the qualifying adjective is used; but in his statement of theories of the origin of mankind, he introduces it once and omits it once. Thus he says (lib. i., Section 6): “There are two theories as to the origin of men: one that the world was uncreated and immortal, and that men existed from (all) time (aion) and had no beginning of their generation; the other, that all men, by the weakness of nature, live but a small part of all time (aion), and perish for all after-time.” In this case, the qualifying adjective is expressed once and omitted once, but the sense in each case is the same. Thus the expression eis ton aiona came sometimes to mean for all time, that is forever, and to eternity. In such cases, Cremer says that it means “for the future,” that is, for all time to come. In such a case the article is commonly used.

But this same form, that may thus denote eternity, may also denote for an age, or for a dispensation, in other circumstances.

The transition from the sense life to time and from time to eternity can thus be explained by actual facts. But suppose that the word had, as alleged, begun with the idea eternity. How could it ever have reached the sense life, not including time or eternity? What links could there be for such a transition? The supposition is as much at war with the laws of the mind as it is with actual historical facts. 

But, besides this approach to the sense eternity, there is still another of a rhetorical kind, in which aion in the plural is taken in the sense of ages, and, by reduplicated ages, approximates to the conception of eternity. Of this I shall soon speak.

There is still another use of aion, introduced by Plato to denote a kind of philosophical eternity, from which past, present, and future time are eliminated, and absolute being only is retained. This philosophical speculation is unknown to aion in its earlier centuries, and was developed by those who supposed that it had some meaning, though to common-sense minds it is nonsense.

I have thus shown that an appeal to the ancients, like that of Aristotle, can never sustain the assertion that eternity is the original sense of aion. I have shown that for many centuries this sense was unknown, and that it came in only in the later ages of the Greek language. To translate aion eternity in the passage of Aristotle which has been considered would do him a great wrong, for it would represent him as ignorantly contradicting the universal usages of those to whom he appeals.

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