In his massive and uncompleted masterpiece, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger provides an insightful and faithful phenomenological explication of St. Augustine’s Confessions, including in his use of St. Augustine’s concept of distentio. Just as St. Augustine explores the depths of his own soul in order to reach down through memory into the depths of the God Who created him, so Heidegger also explores memory and time as being the fundamental meaning of the soul. In outlining his project at the beginning of Being and Time, he promises that “we shall point to temporality as the meaning of that Being of that entity we call Dasein” (Sein und Zeit 38); here, I shall show that his entire work is an extended commentary on St. Augustine’s concept of distentio - one which is limited by its phenomenological approach, but which nonetheless is faithful to the Augustinian tradition.
The phenomenological starting-point or primordial experience which is the fundamental datum that both Heidegger and Augustine draw their insights from is memory, and the intuition that memory is a form of extention, or distentio, across both space and time. By his memory, St. Augustine’s soul could stretch back into the past and make his mother once again present; within the “vast court of [his] memory [became] present to me sky, earth, and sea, together with all things that I could perceive in them, aside from all the things I have forgotten” (Confessions 237) - all times and all places thus become present to the soul.
Heidegger likewise saw as an essential function of the soul’s act of being (Dasein) a stretching-out or “de-severing” across both space and time, a function which lies at the heart of both remembrance and knowledge. “The circumspective de-severing of Dasein’s everydayness reveals the Being-in-itself of the ‘true world’ - of that entity which Dasein, as something existing, is already alongside” (Heidegger 141; his italics), and we are disposed to commit this act of de-severing by our human nature, or almost by instinct - “In Dasein there lies an essential tendency towards closeness. All the ways in which we speed things up, as we are more or less compelled to do today, push us on towards the conquest of remoteness. With the ‘radio’, for example, Dasein has so expanded its everyday environment that it has accomplished a de-severance of the ‘world’ - a de-severance which, in its meaning for Dasein, cannot yet be visualized.” (Heidegger 140) By “de-severance” Heidegger means simply making the remote object present to the consciousness, just as St. Augustine’s “distentio” means not just extending the soul out to the object, but pulling the object out of the “treasures of countless images of things of every manner” and making them present to the soul. “The great cave of memory,” St. Augustine says, “and I know not what hidden and inexpressible recesses within it, takes in all these things to be called up and brought forth when there is need for them… When I am in that realm, I ask that whatsoever I want be brought forth.” (Augustine 236-7, 236) Heidegger saw at the heart of this act of bringing-forth the removal of distance of the object from the soul doing the remembering: “De-severing amounts to making the farness varnish - that is, making the remoteness of something disappear, bringing it close.” (Heidegger, 139)
Although Heidegger viewed it as being a less primordial element in the phenomenological constituency of Dasein - since the fundamental datum of experience is sense-impression and not memory - distentio across time is nonetheless an authentic human act, one which proceeds from the act of Dasein, and which itself is the phenomenological foundation for the study of time. Temporality itself for Heidegger is the fundamental reality of Dasein, or in his words, “the primordial ontological basis for Dasein’s existentiality” (277), and “the meaning of that Being of that entity which we call Dasein” (38). By temporality Heidegger means that Dasein remains actual through time, and not just in any individual point in time - as Augustine and the Scholastics generally thought - but through all of its time at once: “its own Being is constituted in advance as a stretching-along” (426).
Heidegger’s conception of Dasein as actual through the totality of its times (which he calls historicality) is not found in St. Augustine, for whom “the past no longer exists, and the future is not yet in being” (Augustine 288), but it is eminently Augustinian for it is the fruition of Augustine’s introspective epistemology of the soul. St. Augustine sought the truth of his soul by looking inward, towards his own soul’s distentio across the vast courts of memory and the depths of time, to an eternal God for Whom all is present. Heidegger was uncomfortable with the religious terminology that this analysis implied, yet inconsistently tried to incorporate Augustine’s divine Present into his conception of Dasein. “Dasein does not exist as the sum of the momentary actualities of Experiences which come along successively and disappear. Nor is there a sort of framework which this succession gradually fills up. For how is such a framework to be present-at-hand, where, in each case, only the Experience one is having ‘right now’ is ‘actual’, and the boundaries of the framework - the birth which is past and the death which is only oncoming - lack actuality?” (Heidegger 426) It is in God, the Eternal Present, in which all times can exist in order to be made present to the soul, Augustine would teach us, and insofar as this eternal Present is making-present time to the soul and is found in the soul, then memory is the dwelling-place of God. “Truly, you dwell in my memory, since I have remembered you from the time I learned of you, and I find you there when I call you to mind” (Augustine 254), and it is in this way that the Being of Dasein - Who is God, the source of all being - achieves actual historicality.
Dasein is not for Heidegger however the eternal Present, but rather in the eternal Present, for it is through the temporal Present that historizing occurs. “Presence” or Anwesenheit is the only mode through which something can be made-present to Dasein - “Entities are grasped in their Being as ‘presence’; this means they are understood with regard to a definite mode of time - the Present [die Gegenwart]” (Heidegger 47). Heidegger clearly distinguishes the mode of time in which entities are made-present and the ‘connectedness of life’ or eternal Present which permits the possibility of making-present: “The movement [Bewegtheit] of existence is not the motion [Bewegung] of something present-at-hand; it is definable in terms of the way Dasein stretches along” (Heidegger 427). By making this distinction, Heidegger rescues his system from pantheism and brings himself into full conformity with St. Augustine’s thought, despite Heidegger’s arbitrary and irrational avoidance of explicit theological phraseology.
Reading Heidegger in this manner, an ontological-existential explanation can be made of Augustine’s description of the process of memory as found in chapter 8 of book 10 of his Confessions. Augustine paints memory with a rather crude analogy with to a filing-cabinet, which we store in and then draw from at will. Everything is brought into the memory according to “its own proper entrance” (p. 236), and are then recalled with varying levels of difficulty when needed. St. Augustine believes that by exploring the recesses of his memory he can find God; Heidegger explains the ontological reasons why this is possible. It is the meaning of the soul or Dasein to be extended throughout space and time by residing in the eternal Present; the eternal Present is the very act of being of our soul.
Heidegger’s secular bias unfortunately hinders his description of the intentionality of memory. What Augustine ultimately finds as the object of his memory is God, and his memory is motivated by love; but memory is not the ultimate reality but rather the passage of his love to God, or even the motion of the soul towards God, and which like all motions must be terminated in its end - and so, Augustine “will pass beyond even memory” (246) to find God, “who abides in my memory” (253). Heidegger sees the intentionality of Dasein only in terms of the triple acts of ‘care’ (Sorge), ‘concern’, and ‘solicitude’, which even of themselves can only understood through the unifying act of love which these acts presuppose, and their intentionality (when viewed only in and of themselves) is consequently that only of being-towards-Death. In and of itself, being-towards-Death is still a very real description of the intentionality of Dasein because of the God to Whom we go at death, but it is a very incomplete description, since God is present to the soul in the eternal present and not just the future. If we are being-towards-death, in other words, it is because we are eternally dying, and encountering God.
If God can be encountered through memory which is knowledge of the past, then how much more should He encountered by the Dasein’s distentio in the present in that act of intelletual union called ‘knowledge’. Thus knowledge, for Augustine, eminently deserves the name “memory”, and several chapters in book 10 of his Confessions are devoted to the exploration of learning as anamnesis. Thought itself is nothing but the bringing together of memories in an act of union, in a sublime analogy to the union of the divine ideas in the Godhead; this is because while memory qua memory is distentio across the medium of time, knowledge qua knowledge is distentio to the object known, which exists in a multitude of modes and times known simultaneously qua knowledge (thereby uniting the across-nesses in which the object exists, which is to say the same thing as uniting memories). The intellect, therefore, is necessary to the very act of memory itself, for it is the intellect which is the agent that makes memory present-at-hand and therefore intelligible (since if intelligibility is union of the idea with the Dasein, then the act of knowing is identical to the act of making-present-at-hand). As Heidegger teaches us, Dasein’s act of making-present is actual in the eternal Present, and in a very real way it is within the mind of God that all knowledge takes place, insofar as our being is in the Being of God and our logoi within the divine Logos; thus it is known that we subsist in God because in knowledge our souls dis-tend across eternity. Knowledge, as St. Augustine’s and Heidegger’s insights suggest, is a participation in God’s own knowledge, and to rephrase this insight in a paradoxical manner, Gestalt psychology (making-present and rendering-intelligible) presupposes the Beatific Vision.
Because he did not describe Heidegger’s ontology of Presence, St. Augustine himself does not explicitly tell us in what manner learning can be a form of anamnesis as I have attempted using Heidegger’s philosophy. St. Augustine’s concern is theology and not phenomenological, so he does not attempt to provide a systematic and complete phenomenology of making-present as Heidegger does, nor overtly extend his description of memory as distentio to include knowledge as a more general case; however, viewing the matter phenomenologically from within Heidegger’s ontology of Dasein, this would be a consistent and enlightening step to make. Had St. Augustine been a phenomenologist, he would have provided this analysis himself, so it is proper to say that Heidegger’s treatment of knowledge as anamnesis resides virtually within the Augustinian system itself.
Knowledge through memory is then a making-present of reality to the soul through a distentio of the soul through the eternal Present to its delimitation as the temporal present; by describing distentio, Augustine and Heidegger have thereby implicitly described the ontological essence of time itself - an essence which cannot be described explicitly, and which will always remain a mystery to the human mind. Augustine describes the mysteries of memory in time in quasi-apophatic terms, calling memory “an inner chamber, vast and unbounded” (238), through which - and through which alone - an infinite reality is contemplated, an “awesome thing, deep and boundless and manifold in being! And this thing is the minds, and this am I myself” (246). Temporality, which is the only frame in which the term “Dasein” or “soul” has any sense - the “horizon for the understanding of Being” in Heidegger’s terms (Being and Time 39) - cannot even be talked about qua itself in explicit terms in any way that is helpful for understanding it: “If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know” (Augustine, 287).
Time is incomprehensible because it can only be understood in reference to eternity; is is the “ever present eternity” (Augustine 287) in which God created time, and in which Dasein is distended across times. Time itself, considered as the temporal present qua temporal present, is nothing for Augustine; “the past no longer exists, and the future is not yet in being” (288), but “the present has no space” either (289); the only time that exists is an ever-fleeting moment of no duration. “If any point of time is conceived that can no longer be divided into even the most minute parts of a moment, that alone it is which may be called the present. It flies with such speed from the future into the past that it cannot be extended by even a trifling amount. For if it is extended, it is divided into past and future.” (289) Time then, can only be spoken of from within eternity; and therefore Augustine proposes as a solution to the problem the fundamental role of Dasein or the soul as making-present all times to itself, within the soul’s own present: “Perhaps it might properly be said that there are three times, the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future. These three are in the soul, but elsewhere I do not see them: the present of things past is in memory; the present of things present is in intuition; the present of things future is in expectation.” (293) Heidegger reaches this conclusion from the opposite angle; while for Augustine, the fact that we speak of the past and future indicates an eternal Now, for Heidegger, the fact that we speak of a now indicates the presence of time. “When we say ‘now’, we always understand a ‘now that so and so…’ though we do not say all this. Why? Because the “now” interprets a making-present of entities.” (460-461) When these entities are made-present, the “past” no longer means a time which has ceased to exist, but rather a time made present to Dasein which the Dasein can reference, or what Heidegger calls its “datability”: “The structure of the datability of the ‘now’, the ‘then’, and the ‘on that former occasion’, is evidence that these, stemming from temporality, are themselves time.” (461)
What makes Heidegger’s “datability” differ from the non-existent past that Augustine describes, and makes it correspond to the true “present of things past” in the memory, is that the datability of events can only be known through their making-present; that is, we do not know anything in the past through the past, but only through their presence to the soul. As with Augustine, there is no past as past or future as future, but only present of past and future.
To clarify the phenomenological chain of reasoning that both Augustine and Heidegger are using, it must be kept in mind that when they consider the duration of time and its infinitessitude, they are still working quite heavily within the idea of memory of experience of time as distentio, and it is this notion of distentio which logically implies both Heidegger’s “datability” and Augustine’s three “presents” as being within the soul. It is significant that it is not until Heidegger describes the three “presents” of temporality that he explicitly and unequivocally states his doctrine of distentio, twenty pages after he identified “making-present” as the root of our experience of temporality, by quoting St. Augustine for the first and only point in his entire work: “Inde mihi visum est, nihil esse aliud tempus quam distentio; sed cuius rei nescio; et mirum si no ipsius animi.” “Hence it seemed to me that time is nothing else than extendedness; but of what sort of thing it is an extendeness, I do not know; and it would be surprising if it were not an extendedness of the soul itself.” (Confessions 298, quoted in Heidegger 480) Time is the ordering of eternity; or in Hegel’s words quoted by Heidegger, “time is the ‘truth’ of space” (quoted in Heidegger 481); and all truth qua truth exists solely in the human soul.
Though Heidegger’s analysis neither extends nor attempts to extend beyond the phenomenology of the human soul, like St. Augustine he has looked within himself and discovered ultimate truth, for we now have all the data we need to solve the centuries-old problem of describing the difference between time and eternity; but rather than begin with time and describe eternity analogously to it, we must - even as a phenomenological necessity - begin with eternity and describe time analogously. It is eternity, Heidegger suggests with Augustine, that we know more immediately. Eternity is the state in which all things are made present to the soul, which is nothing other than a restating of Boethius’ definition of eternity as the “total, perfect, and simultaneous possession of unending life” (paraphrased by Maurer 33); the negation of eternity is a single point of time, in which the totality of life or things-made-present is excluded in favor of a fleeting, non-existent instant; this moment or instant Heidegger calls “punctuality” because of its infinitesimal or point-like nature. The negation in turn of this instant is the sum of successive non-existent moments, or the “negative unity of Being-outside-itself” (Heidegger 482), and this reconstituted and disjointed series of moments, this “negation of a negation” (Heidegger 484) is what we call time.
We have seen in the above pages that Heidegger’s analysis of time and Dasein in Sein und Zeit provides an insightful and faithful philosophical explication of St. Augustine’s description of time and memory in his Confessions. Underlying the Augustinian description of time and memory is an introspective journey within the human Dasein in which the inquirer discovers that memory and knowledge is a form of distentio, in which the soul stretches itself out to that which it knows, making the object of memory present to Dasein, thereby revealing that the act of knowledge occurs not in time, but that time itself occurs in the eternal present of Dasein. Eternity, then, is the underlying reality in which time flows, and which forms the Being of Dasein and the fullness of that which is merely a negation thereof.
Augustine, St. The Confessions, trans. John K. Ryan. New York: Doubleday, 1960.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Maurer, Armand CSB. Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982.