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No. 590. MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 6.
-Assiduo labuntur tempora motu
Non secus ac flumen. Neque enim consistere flumen,
Tempora sic fugiunt pariter, pariterque sequuntur;
WE Consider infinite space as an expansion without a circumference: we consider eternity, or infinite duration, as a line that has neither beginning nor an end. In our speculations of infinite space, we consider that particular place in which we exist, as a kind of centre to the whole expansion. In our speculations of eternity, we consider the time which is present to us as the middle, which divides the whole line into two equal parts. For this reason, many witty authors compare the present time to an isthmus or narrow neck of land, that rises in the midst of an ocean, immeasurably diffused on either side of it.
Philosophy, and indeed common sense, naturally throws eternity under two divisions; which we may call in English, that eternity which is past, and that eternity which is to come. The learned terms of æternitas a parte ante, and æternitas a parte post, may be more amusing to the reader, but can have no other idea affixed to them than what is conveyed to us by those words, an eternity that is past, and an eternity that is to come. Each of these eternities is bounded at the one extreme; or, in other words, the former has an end, and the latter a beginning.
Let us, first of all, consider that eternity which is past, reserving that which is to come for the subject of another paper. The nature of this eternity is utterly inconceivable by the mind of man: our reason demonstrates to us that it "has been," but, at the same time, can frame no idea of it, but what is big with absurdity and contradiction. We can have no other conception of any duration which is past, than that all of it was once present, and whatever was once present, is at some certain distance from us; and whatever is at any certain distance from us, be the distance never so
remote,1 cannot be eternity. The very notion of any duration's being past, implies that it was once present; for the idea of being once present, is actually included in the idea of its being past. This, therefore, is a depth not to be sounded by human understanding. We are sure that there has been an eternity, and yet contradict ourselves when we measure this eternity by any notion which we can frame of it.
If we go to the bottom of this matter, we shall find that the difficulties we meet with in our conceptions of eternity proceed from this single reason, that we can have no other idea of any kind of duration, than that by which we ourselves, and all other created beings, do exist; which is a successive duration, made up of past, present, and to come. There is nothing which exists after this manner, all the parts of whose existence were not once actually present, and consequently may be reached by a certain number of years applied to it. We may ascend as high as we please, and employ our being to that eternity which is to come, in adding millions of years to millions of years, and we can never come up to any fountain-head of duration, to any beginning in eternity: but, at the same time, we are sure, that whatever was once present, does lie within the reach of numbers, though perhaps we can never be able to put enough of them together for that purpose. We may as well say, that anything may be actually present in any part of infinite space, which does not lie at a certain distance from us, as that any part of infinite duration was once actually present, and does not also lie at some de
1 Be the distance never so remote.] Some have thought this mode of expression incongruous and ungrammatical: but, never, is the same as not ever; and the sentence is to be filled up thus-" be the distance not [near, but] ever so remote." This, then, is one of those elliptical forms (see No. 535) which are to be explained, by observing nicely the posture of the mind in discoursing, (to use Mr. Locke's words,) and not by attending merely to the obvious sense of the terms employed. For, in discoursing, we love to contrast our ideas, though the opposition be not always, or but imperfectly, expressed. Never so remote, if we regard this posture of the mind, is, therefore, as intelligible, and as proper, asever so remote-and, till of late, was more commonly used. We now say —ever so remote-more clearly, indeed, but with something less force: for-never so-implies an effort, or vehemence in asserting, which-ever so-has not. However, as perspicuity is the main object of grammar, I acknowledge it to be a good general rule, to avoid not only real, but seeming incongruities of speech.
termined distance from us. The distance in both cases may be immeasurable and indefinite as to our faculties, but our reason tells us that it cannot be so in itself. Here, therefore, is that difficulty which human understanding is not capable of surmounting. We are sure that something must have existed from eternity, and are at the same time unable to conceive, that anything which exists, according to our notion of existence, can have existed from eternity.
It is hard for a reader, who has not rolled this thought in his own mind, to follow in such an abstracted speculation; but I have been the longer on it, because I think it is a demonstrative argument of the being and eternity of a God: and though there are many other demonstrations which leads us to this great truth, I do not think we ought to lay aside any proofs of this matter which the light of reason has suggested to us, especially when it is such a one as has been urged by men famous for their penetration and force of understanding, and which appears altogether conclusive to those who will be at the pains to examine it.
Having thus considered that eternity which is past, according to the best idea we can frame of it, I shall now draw up those several articles on this subject which are dictated to us by the light of reason, and which may be looked upon as the creed of a philosopher in this great point.
First, It is certain that no being could have made itself; for if so, it must have acted before it was, which is a contradiction.
Secondly, That, therefore, some being must have existed from all eternity.
Thirdly, That whatever exists after the manner of created beings, or, according to any notions which we have of existence, could not have existed from eternity.
Fourthly, That this Eternal Being must therefore be the great Author of nature, “the Ancient of days," who, being at infinite distance in his perfections from all finite and created beings, exists in a quite different manner from them, and in a manner of which they can have no idea.
I know that several of the school-men, who would not be thought ignorant of anything, have pretended to explain the manner of God's existence, by telling us, "That he comprehends infinite duration in every moment; that eternity is with him a punctum stans, a fixed point; or, which is as good
sense, an Infinite Instant: that nothing with reference to his existence is either past or to come: To which the ingenious Mr. Cowley alludes in his description of heaven,
Nothing is there to come, and nothing past,
But an eternal NOW does always last.
For my own part, I look upon these propositions as words that have no ideas annexed to them; and think men had better own their ignorance, than advance doctrines by which they mean nothing, and which indeed are self-contradictory. We cannot be too modest in our disquisitions, when we meditate on him who is environed with so much glory and perfection, who is the source of being, the fountain of all that existence which we and his whole creation derive from him. Let us, therefore, with the utmost humility, acknowledge, that as some being must necessarily have existed from eternity, so this Being doth exist after an incomprehensible manner, since it is impossible for a being to have existed from eternity after our manner or notions of existence. Revelation confirms these natural dictates of reason in the accounts which it gives us of the Divine existence, where it tells us, that he is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; that he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending; that a thousand years are with him as one day, and one day as a thousand years; by which, and the like expressions, we are taught that his existence, with relation to time or duration, is infinitely different from the existence of any of his creatures, and consequently that it is impossible for us to frame any adequate conceptions of it.
In the first revelation that he makes of his own Being, he entitles himself, "I am that I am;' " and when Moses desires to know what name he shall give him in his embassy to Pharaoh, he bids him say that, "I am hath sent you.' Our great Creator, by this revelation of himself, does in a manner exclude everything else from a real existence, and distinguishes himself from his creatures, as the only Being which truly and really exists. The ancient Platonic notion, which was drawn from speculations of eternity, wonderfully agrees with this revelation which God has made of himself. There is nothing, say they, which in reality exists, whose existence, as we call it, is pieced up of past, present, and to
Such a flitting and successive existence is rather a
shadow of existence, and something which is like it, than existence itself. He only properly exists whose existence is entirely present; that is, in other words, who exists in the most perfect manner, and in such a manner as we have no idea of.
I shall conclude this speculation with one useful inference. How can we sufficiently prostrate ourselves and fall down before our Maker, when we consider that ineffable goodness and wisdom which contrived this existence for finite natures? What must be the overflowings of that good-will, which prompted our Creator to adapt existence to beings in whom it is not necessary? especially when we consider, that he himself was before in the complete possession of existence and of happiness, and in full enjoyment of eternity. What man can think of himself as called out and separated from nothing, of his being made a conscious, a reasonable, and a happy creature, in short, of being taken in as a sharer of existence, and a kind of partner in eternity, without being swallowed up in wonder, in praise, in adoration! It is, indeed, a thought too big for the mind of man, and rather to be entertained in the secrecy of devotion and in the silence of the soul, than to be expressed by words. The Supreme Being has not given us powers or faculties sufficient to extol and magnify such unutterable goodness.
It is, however, some comfort to us, that we shall be always doing what we shall never be able to do, and that a work which cannot be finished, will, however, be the work of an eternity.
This sublime passage, with many others of the like stamp, dispersed through Mr. Addison's works, may let us see how unjust the observation is, that he was an agreeable writer only. But the natural turn and easy perspicuity of his expression, imposes on the judgment, when we would make an estimate of his capacity. There is so little effort in his manner, that he appears to want force; especially to those who have formed their idea of this quality on some later models. Such will tell us, that this Attic writer has not the nerves of Montesquieu, or the pomp of Bolingbroke. Without doubt. But neither has Livy the convulsions of Tacitus, nor Cicero, let me add, the swagger of Seneca.