Aristotle: Time is the Measure of Change

From Aristotle’s Physics (Book IV, part 10-13) For full text, click here

Part 10
Next for discussion after the subjects mentioned is Time. The best plan will be to begin by working out the difficulties connected with it, making use of the current arguments. First, does it belong to the class of things that exist or to that of things that do not exist? Then secondly, what is its nature? To start, then: the following considerations would make one suspect that it either does not exist at all or barely, and in an obscure way. One part of it has been and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet. Yet time-both infinite time and any time you like to take-is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.

Further, if a divisible thing is to exist, it is necessary that, when it exists, all or some of its parts must exist. But of time some parts have been, while others have to be, and no part of it is though it is divisible. For what is 'now' is not a part: a part is a measure of the whole, which must be made up of parts. Time, on the other hand, is not held to be made up of 'nows'.

Again, the 'now' which seems to bound the past and the future-does it always remain one and the same or is it always other and other? It is hard to say.

(1) If it is always different and different, and if none of the parts in time which are other and other are simultaneous (unless the one contains and the other is contained, as the shorter time is by the longer), and if the 'now' which is not, but formerly was, must have ceased-to-be at some time, the 'nows' too cannot be simultaneous with one another, but the prior 'now' must always have ceased-to-be. But the prior 'now' cannot have ceased-to-be in itself (since it then existed); yet it cannot have ceased-to-be in another 'now'. For we may lay it down that one 'now' cannot be next to another, any more than point to point. If then it did not cease-to-be in the next 'now' but in another, it would exist simultaneously with the innumerable 'nows' between the two-which is impossible.

Yes, but (2) neither is it possible for the 'now' to remain always the same. No determinate divisible thing has a single termination, whether it is continuously extended in one or in more than one dimension: but the 'now' is a termination, and it is possible to cut off a determinate time. Further, if coincidence in time (i.e. being neither prior nor posterior) means to be 'in one and the same "now"', then, if both what is before and what is after are in this same 'now', things which happened ten thousand years ago would be simultaneous with what has happened to-day, and nothing would be before or after anything else.

This may serve as a statement of the difficulties about the attributes of time.

As to what time is or what is its nature, the traditional accounts give us as little light as the preliminary problems which we have worked through.

Some assert that it is (1) the movement of the whole, others that it is (2) the sphere itself.

(1) Yet part, too, of the revolution is a time, but it certainly is not a revolution: for what is taken is part of a revolution, not a revolution. Besides, if there were more heavens than one, the movement of any of them equally would be time, so that there would be many times at the same time.

(2) Those who said that time is the sphere of the whole thought so, no doubt, on the ground that all things are in time and all things are in the sphere of the whole. The view is too naive for it to be worth while to consider the impossibilities implied in it.

But as time is most usually supposed to be (3) motion and a kind of change, we must consider this view.

Now (a) the change or movement of each thing is only in the thing which changes or where the thing itself which moves or changes may chance to be. But time is present equally everywhere and with all things.

Again, (b) change is always faster or slower, whereas time is not: for 'fast' and 'slow' are defined by time-'fast' is what moves much in a short time, 'slow' what moves little in a long time; but time is not defined by time, by being either a certain amount or a certain kind of it.

Clearly then it is not movement. (We need not distinguish at present between 'movement' and 'change'.)

Part 11
But neither does time exist without change; for when the state of our own minds does not change at all, or we have not noticed its changing, we do not realize that time has elapsed, any more than those who are fabled to sleep among the heroes in Sardinia do when they are awakened; for they connect the earlier 'now' with the later and make them one, cutting out the interval because of their failure to notice it. So, just as, if the 'now' were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time, so too when its difference escapes our notice the interval does not seem to be time. If, then, the non-realization of the existence of time happens to us when we do not distinguish any change, but the soul seems to stay in one indivisible state, and when we perceive and distinguish we say time has elapsed, evidently time is not independent of movement and change. It is evident, then, that time is neither movement nor independent of movement.

We must take this as our starting-point and try to discover-since we wish to know what time is-what exactly it has to do with movement.

Now we perceive movement and time together: for even when it is dark and we are not being affected through the body, if any movement takes place in the mind we at once suppose that some time also has elapsed; and not only that but also, when some time is thought to have passed, some movement also along with it seems to have taken place. Hence time is either movement or something that belongs to movement. Since then it is not movement, it must be the other.

But what is moved is moved from something to something, and all magnitude is continuous. Therefore the movement goes with the magnitude. Because the magnitude is continuous, the movement too must be continuous, and if the movement, then the time; for the time that has passed is always thought to be in proportion to the movement.

The distinction of 'before' and 'after' holds primarily, then, in place; and there in virtue of relative position. Since then 'before' and 'after' hold in magnitude, they must hold also in movement, these corresponding to those. But also in time the distinction of 'before' and 'after' must hold, for time and movement always correspond with each other. The 'before' and 'after' in motion is identical in substratum with motion yet differs from it in definition, and is not identical with motion.

But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by 'before' and 'after'; and it is only when we have perceived 'before' and 'after' in motion that we say that time has elapsed. Now we mark them by judging that A and B are different, and that some third thing is intermediate to them. When we think of the extremes as different from the middle and the mind pronounces that the 'nows' are two, one before and one after, it is then that we say that there is time, and this that we say is time. For what is bounded by the 'now' is thought to be time-we may assume this.

When, therefore, we perceive the 'now' one, and neither as before and after in a motion nor as an identity but in relation to a 'before' and an 'after', no time is thought to have elapsed, because there has been no motion either. On the other hand, when we do perceive a 'before' and an 'after', then we say that there is time. For time is just this-number of motion in respect of 'before' and 'after'.

Hence time is not movement, but only movement in so far as it admits of enumeration. A proof of this: we discriminate the more or the less by number, but more or less movement by time. Time then is a kind of number. (Number, we must note, is used in two senses-both of what is counted or the countable and also of that with which we count. Time obviously is what is counted, not that with which we count: there are different kinds of thing.) Just as motion is a perpetual succession, so also is time. But every simultaneous time is self-identical; for the 'now' as a subject is an identity, but it accepts different attributes. The 'now' measures time, in so far as time involves the 'before and after'.

The 'now' in one sense is the same, in another it is not the same. In so far as it is in succession, it is different (which is just what its being was supposed to mean), but its substratum is an identity: for motion, as was said, goes with magnitude, and time, as we maintain, with motion. Similarly, then, there corresponds to the point the body which is carried along, and by which we are aware of the motion and of the 'before and after' involved in it. This is an identical substratum (whether a point or a stone or something else of the kind), but it has different attributes as the sophists assume that Coriscus' being in the Lyceum is a different thing from Coriscus' being in the market-place. And the body which is carried along is different, in so far as it is at one time here and at another there. But the 'now' corresponds to the body that is carried along, as time corresponds to the motion. For it is by means of the body that is carried along that we become aware of the 'before and after' the motion, and if we regard these as countable we get the 'now'. Hence in these also the 'now' as substratum remains the same (for it is what is before and after in movement), but what is predicated of it is different; for it is in so far as the 'before and after' is numerable that we get the 'now'. This is what is most knowable: for, similarly, motion is known because of that which is moved, locomotion because of that which is carried. What is carried is a real thing, the movement is not. Thus what is called 'now' in one sense is always the same; in another it is not the same: for this is true also of what is carried.

Clearly, too, if there were no time, there would be no 'now', and vice versa. just as the moving body and its locomotion involve each other mutually, so too do the number of the moving body and the number of its locomotion. For the number of the locomotion is time, while the 'now' corresponds to the moving body, and is like the unit of number.

Time, then, also is both made continuous by the 'now' and divided at it. For here too there is a correspondence with the locomotion and the moving body. For the motion or locomotion is made one by the thing which is moved, because it is one-not because it is one in its own nature (for there might be pauses in the movement of such a thing)-but because it is one in definition: for this determines the movement as 'before' and 'after'. Here, too there is a correspondence with the point; for the point also both connects and terminates the length-it is the beginning of one and the end of another. But when you take it in this way, using the one point as two, a pause is necessary, if the same point is to be the beginning and the end. The 'now' on the other hand, since the body carried is moving, is always different.

Hence time is not number in the sense in which there is 'number' of the same point because it is beginning and end, but rather as the extremities of a line form a number, and not as the parts of the line do so, both for the reason given (for we can use the middle point as two, so that on that analogy time might stand still), and further because obviously the 'now' is no part of time nor the section any part of the movement, any more than the points are parts of the line-for it is two lines that are parts of one line.

In so far then as the 'now' is a boundary, it is not time, but an attribute of it; in so far as it numbers, it is number; for boundaries belong only to that which they bound, but number (e.g. ten) is the number of these horses, and belongs also elsewhere.

It is clear, then, that time is 'number of movement in respect of the before and after', and is continuous since it is an attribute of what is continuous.

Part 12
The smallest number, in the strict sense of the word 'number', is two. But of number as concrete, sometimes there is a minimum, sometimes not: e.g. of a 'line', the smallest in respect of multiplicity is two (or, if you like, one), but in respect of size there is no minimum; for every line is divided ad infinitum. Hence it is so with time. In respect of number the minimum is one (or two); in point of extent there is no minimum.

It is clear, too, that time is not described as fast or slow, but as many or few and as long or short. For as continuous it is long or short and as a number many or few, but it is not fast or slow-any more than any number with which we number is fast or slow.

Further, there is the same time everywhere at once, but not the same time before and after, for while the present change is one, the change which has happened and that which will happen are different. Time is not number with which we count, but the number of things which are counted, and this according as it occurs before or after is always different, for the 'nows' are different. And the number of a hundred horses and a hundred men is the same, but the things numbered are different-the horses from the men. Further, as a movement can be one and the same again and again, so too can time, e.g. a year or a spring or an autumn.

Not only do we measure the movement by the time, but also the time by the movement, because they define each other. The time marks the movement, since it is its number, and the movement the time. We describe the time as much or little, measuring it by the movement, just as we know the number by what is numbered, e.g. the number of the horses by one horse as the unit. For we know how many horses there are by the use of the number; and again by using the one horse as unit we know the number of the horses itself. So it is with the time and the movement; for we measure the movement by the time and vice versa. It is natural that this should happen; for the movement goes with the distance and the time with the movement, because they are quanta and continuous and divisible. The movement has these attributes because the distance is of this nature, and the time has them because of the movement. And we measure both the distance by the movement and the movement by the distance; for we say that the road is long, if the journey is long, and that this is long, if the road is long-the time, too, if the movement, and the movement, if the time.

Time is a measure of motion and of being moved, and it measures the motion by determining a motion which will measure exactly the whole motion, as the cubit does the length by determining an amount which will measure out the whole. Further 'to be in time' means for movement, that both it and its essence are measured by time (for simultaneously it measures both the movement and its essence, and this is what being in time means for it, that its essence should be measured).

Clearly then 'to be in time' has the same meaning for other things also, namely, that their being should be measured by time. 'To be in time' is one of two things: (1) to exist when time exists, (2) as we say of some things that they are 'in number'. The latter means either what is a part or mode of number-in general, something which belongs to number-or that things have a number.

Now, since time is number, the 'now' and the 'before' and the like are in time, just as 'unit' and 'odd' and 'even' are in number, i.e. in the sense that the one set belongs to number, the other to time. But things are in time as they are in number. If this is so, they are contained by time as things in place are contained by place.

Plainly, too, to be in time does not mean to co-exist with time, any more than to be in motion or in place means to co-exist with motion or place. For if 'to be in something' is to mean this, then all things will be in anything, and the heaven will be in a grain; for when the grain is, then also is the heaven. But this is a merely incidental conjunction, whereas the other is necessarily involved: that which is in time necessarily involves that there is time when it is, and that which is in motion that there is motion when it is.

Since what is 'in time' is so in the same sense as what is in number is so, a time greater than everything in time can be found. So it is necessary that all the things in time should be contained by time, just like other things also which are 'in anything', e.g. the things 'in place' by place.

A thing, then, will be affected by time, just as we are accustomed to say that time wastes things away, and that all things grow old through time, and that there is oblivion owing to the lapse of time, but we do not say the same of getting to know or of becoming young or fair. For time is by its nature the cause rather of decay, since it is the number of change, and change removes what is.

Hence, plainly, things which are always are not, as such, in time, for they are not contained time, nor is their being measured by time. A proof of this is that none of them is affected by time, which indicates that they are not in time.

Since time is the measure of motion, it will be the measure of rest too-indirectly. For all rest is in time. For it does not follow that what is in time is moved, though what is in motion is necessarily moved. For time is not motion, but 'number of motion': and what is at rest, also, can be in the number of motion. Not everything that is not in motion can be said to be 'at rest'-but only that which can be moved, though it actually is not moved, as was said above.

'To be in number' means that there is a number of the thing, and that its being is measured by the number in which it is. Hence if a thing is 'in time' it will be measured by time. But time will measure what is moved and what is at rest, the one qua moved, the other qua at rest; for it will measure their motion and rest respectively.

Hence what is moved will not be measurable by the time simply in so far as it has quantity, but in so far as its motion has quantity. Thus none of the things which are neither moved nor at rest are in time: for 'to be in time' is 'to be measured by time', while time is the measure of motion and rest.

Plainly, then, neither will everything that does not exist be in time, i.e. those non-existent things that cannot exist, as the diagonal cannot be commensurate with the side.

Generally, if time is directly the measure of motion and indirectly of other things, it is clear that a thing whose existence is measured by it will have its existence in rest or motion. Those things therefore which are subject to perishing and becoming-generally, those which at one time exist, at another do not-are necessarily in time: for there is a greater time which will extend both beyond their existence and beyond the time which measures their existence. Of things which do not exist but are contained by time some were, e.g. Homer once was, some will be, e.g. a future event; this depends on the direction in which time contains them; if on both, they have both modes of existence. As to such things as it does not contain in any way, they neither were nor are nor will be. These are those nonexistents whose opposites always are, as the incommensurability of the diagonal always is-and this will not be in time. Nor will the commensurability, therefore; hence this eternally is not, because it is contrary to what eternally is. A thing whose contrary is not eternal can be and not be, and it is of such things that there is coming to be and passing away.

Part 13
The 'now' is the link of time, as has been said (for it connects past and future time), and it is a limit of time (for it is the beginning of the one and the end of the other). But this is not obvious as it is with the point, which is fixed. It divides potentially, and in so far as it is dividing the 'now' is always different, but in so far as it connects it is always the same, as it is with mathematical lines. For the intellect it is not always one and the same point, since it is other and other when one divides the line; but in so far as it is one, it is the same in every respect.

So the 'now' also is in one way a potential dividing of time, in another the termination of both parts, and their unity. And the dividing and the uniting are the same thing and in the same reference, but in essence they are not the same.

So one kind of 'now' is described in this way: another is when the time is near this kind of 'now'. 'He will come now' because he will come to-day; 'he has come now' because he came to-day. But the things in the Iliad have not happened 'now', nor is the flood 'now'-not that the time from now to them is not continuous, but because they are not near.

'At some time' means a time determined in relation to the first of the two types of 'now', e.g. 'at some time' Troy was taken, and 'at some time' there will be a flood; for it must be determined with reference to the 'now'. There will thus be a determinate time from this 'now' to that, and there was such in reference to the past event. But if there be no time which is not 'sometime', every time will be determined.

Will time then fail? Surely not, if motion always exists. Is time then always different or does the same time recur? Clearly time is, in the same way as motion is. For if one and the same motion sometimes recurs, it will be one and the same time, and if not, not.

Since the 'now' is an end and a beginning of time, not of the same time however, but the end of that which is past and the beginning of that which is to come, it follows that, as the circle has its convexity and its concavity, in a sense, in the same thing, so time is always at a beginning and at an end. And for this reason it seems to be always different; for the 'now' is not the beginning and the end of the same thing; if it were, it would be at the same time and in the same respect two opposites. And time will not fail; for it is always at a beginning.

'Presently' or 'just' refers to the part of future time which is near the indivisible present 'now' ('When do you walk? 'Presently', because the time in which he is going to do so is near), and to the part of past time which is not far from the 'now' ('When do you walk?' 'I have just been walking'). But to say that Troy has just been taken-we do not say that, because it is too far from the 'now'. 'Lately', too, refers to the part of past time which is near the present 'now'. 'When did you go?' 'Lately', if the time is near the existing now. 'Long ago' refers to the distant past.