5. On Time: Augustine, Borges, Benjamin

Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler - Matthew G. Whitlock

Carl Levensen [+-]
Idaho State University
Carl Levenson (Ph.D. University of Chicago) has been teaching philosophy at Idaho State University since 1981. For most of his adult life, he has enjoyed Proust, Kafka, Baudelaire, dialectical thinking, and memories of Paris. More recently, he became interested in Jewish mysticism. Thanks to a student, he learned that Walter Benjamin brought all this together, and he began to read him, intrigued, in particular, by his concept of "aura" and saddened by the shortness of his life. Levenson wrote his doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine (a chapter was published as "Distance and Presence in Augustine's Confessions," Journal of Religion, Oct. 1985), and he later wrote a book about Plato (Socrates among the Corybantes, Spring Publications, 1999). He is hoping to finish his current project, which is a study of Socrates in the context of prophesy, politics, and theater. He welcomes the dialogue between Benjamin and the classics and looks forward to its future unfolding.


There is an ancient teaching that just as the stars keep spinning and the seasons keep returning, so time itself keeps circling back to its beginning; and whatever is happening now has therefore happened already, the repetitions – past and future – echoing infinitely. In the Statesman, Plato teaches this fantastic doctrine; and Augustine, in Book XII of City of God, imagines the future Academy in which Plato would teach once again, disclosing Eternal Return to the same pupils as before, in exactly the words used previously. “But far be it from me to believe this!” writes Augustine. “Christ died once for our sins.” So Augustine evokes the linearity of time, the Cross-smashing circles and spheres. Fifteen centuries later, the story-teller Borges begins “The Theologians” by telling of a fire in a great monastic library, a huge conflagration which a single text survives miraculously: Book XII of City of God where Augustine resists time’s circularity. Borges translates Augustine’s polemic into concepts of identity and difference, and manages to evoke both the sublimity of boundless repetition and the freshness – and pathos – of that which can happen once only. Above all, he displays the strife between these visions, showing how certain ideas lead straight to gnostic madness (doing evil to precipitate goodness) and how the embattled views of time tempt an ambitious scholar to arrange the death of his rival, his more gifted “twin” or second self. Walter Benjamin – who fatally experienced the strife between concepts of history (Marxist, fascist, and liberal) – draws the circle and line together. The reconciliation, however, depends on setting aside global historical constructions, whether cyclical or linear, and focusing narrowly on fragments– apparently random moments “blasted out of time” by the inquirer. These moments, Benjamin says, will be continuous with moments long past, yet rich in Messianic expectation.

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Levensen, Carl. 5. On Time: Augustine, Borges, Benjamin. Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2021. ISBN 9781781794135. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=30148. Date accessed: 08 Jul 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.30148. Oct 2021

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