Aleksei Pleshkov participated in a conference on Plato in Paris
The concept of eternity plays a crucial role in Plato’s philosophy. “Eternal forms,” “the eternal world of forms” are phrases so usual in the literature that “the eternal” could be considered almost as a synonym for the “forms.” Nevertheless, up to the Timaeus, Plato does not offer a more or less complete analysis of the concept. And even in the Timaeus the description of eternity (as well as of the eternal) is ambiguous and causes controversy in the historical and philosophical literature.
There are two main strategies for interpreting the notion of eternity in a broader context. First, by eternity one can understand the infinity of time: x is eternal, iff there is no such past when x did not exist, and there is no future when x will not exist. This strategy can be called temporalism. Second, by eternity one can understand the transcendence of time and duration: x is eternal iff no element of x is a part of the temporal series. This is a strategy of traditional eternalism. Both of these strategies are applied to interpret Plato’s eternity, but both of them seem unsatisfactory.
The explicit temporal connotations of the keywords for the description of eternity (ἀεί, ἀίδιος, αἰών) are spoken in favor of temporalism. Nevertheless, the difference between the eternal and the temporal in Plato is not quantitative, but qualitative, as eloquently attested by the exclusion of the presentfrom the list of the forms of time in the Timaeus (37e4). The position of traditional eternalism also raises questions. First, if eternity is transcendental to time, it contradicts Plato’s description of temporal things in “eternal” terms (e.g., αἰώνιος in 37d7 for the description of the copy; ἀίδιος in 37c6 and 40b5 for celestial bodies). Secondly, if eternity is transcendent to time, then the forms can in no way participate in the organization of the cosmos.
I believe that the exit from the interpretative deadlock could be found in the Parmenides. Here, Plato discusses the notion of the present time (ὁ νῦν χρόνος or merely τὸ νῦν – Parm. 151e–152e), which has a unique position in the flow of time. According to Plato, the presentplays the role of the link or the principle of unity and existence in the flow of time: “[I]f nothing that comes to be can sidestep the now, whenever a thing is at this point, it always stops its coming-to-be and then is whatever it may have come to be [εἰ δέ γε ἀνάγκη μὴ παρελθεῖν τὸ νῦν πᾶν τὸ γιγνόμενον, ἐπειδὰν κατὰ τοῦτο ᾖ, ἐπίσχει ἀεὶ τοῦ γίγνεσθαι καὶ ἔστι τότε τοῦτο ὅτι ἂν τύχῃ γιγνόμενον]” (152с–d, hereinafter transl. by M. L. Gill and P. Ryan). Reaching in its becoming the present, an object ceases to become and turns out to be what it was becoming. The present, therefore, is the place of the being, deprived of becoming. Moreover, since the objects are in constant change, the passage through the present is not only the participation of the object in the being but also its self-identity condition: the object still retains its own identity in the present while becoming different to its past states.
Nevertheless, in the Parmenides, the present as a place of the being is considered not independently but as an element of time. Here all the paradoxicality of time is revealed: everything that exists in time is in constant change and becoming; all that exists in time passes through the present deprived of change and becoming. This paradox indicates that in the very heart of all becoming there is the being. While the present in the flow of time is the principle of unity and existence, it is still only a trace of the being: “For if it were going forward, it could never be grasped by the now [ληφθείη ὑπὸ τοῦ νῦν]. A thing going forward is able to lay hold of both the now and the later – releasing the now and reaching for the later, while coming to be between the two, the later and the now” (152c). The present as a part of the time, thus, always slips from the future into the past; it is not able to hold the being. On the one hand, the presence of the present ensures the existence of temporal objects; on the other hand, it is only a relative being, i.e., becoming.
The present in the flow of time performs several functions at once. First, the present guarantees self-identity and existence of any object in time. It is possible to argue that objects in time do not exist: once born they perish, and in the transition from non-being-before to non-being-after temporal things are in constant change. Nevertheless, participation in the present guarantees at least a relative existence of these objects, since the passage through the present links the temporal things to the being. Secondly, the present guarantees the self-identity and the existence of time itself. Every present moment was the future and will become the past. There is no past was not present, and there is no future will not be present. Without the present, carrying the being in itself, time would be impossible, it literally could not be. Therefore, the present is the fundamental for time.
Scholars repeatedly noted the connections between the discussion of temporal problematics in the Timaeus and the Parmenides. I believe, the Parmenides offers a specification of the Timaeus’ eternity. While in the Parmenides the present is considered as a constitutive, but still an element of the flow of time, in the Timaeus Plato conceptualizes the present as a metaphysical principle, writing about its independent of time existence. The present, not as an element of a time series, but as the fundamental for time is the sought eternity of the Timaeus. It is not extra-temporal, because it is a durational basis of time, but atemporal, because the present per se is irreducible to the succession. Thus, eternity is atemporal duration, a specific mode of existence of the forms in the entirety and soleness of the present.
Aleksei A. Pleshkov