Konstan and Ramelli 2: Preliminary Comments on "Eternity" (Guest post, part 2)

The notion of “eternity” is not simple, in part because “eternity” has multiple senses, in part too because some of these significances involve a high level of philosophical abstraction.

On the one hand, terms for “eternal” may bear the loose sense of “a very long time,” as in the English “always,” without implying a rigorous notion of infinitely extended time. Even at this level, the Greek adverb aiei, like the English “always,” has at least two distinct connotations, referring both to an indefinitely prolonged stretch of time, equivalent to the English “forever” (“I will always love you”), and to an action that is regularly repeated (“he always comes late to class”). Again, there are intermediate uses, for example, “the house has always been on that street,” meaning that, as long as the house has existed, it has been in the same place, without any implication of unlimited duration.

On the other hand, “eternal” may signify a strictly boundless extent of time, that is, greater than any numerical measure one can assign. This latter description is itself imprecise, of course. It may mean nothing more than “countless,” that is, too large to grasp, or grasp easily. But eternal time is more commonly understood to be strictly endless, with no termination at all.

Even on this more rigorous conception, there are two senses in which time may be said to be eternal. It may have a beginning but no end; or it may have neither a beginning nor an end, but extend infinitely into the past and the future. What is more, in addition to all these varieties of “eternal,” the adjective has been appropriated also to denote something like “timelessness,” a changeless state that has no duration and hence is not subject to time at all.

[part 3 will consider the use of aiônios and aïdios in classical Greek literature]


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