The following was originally delivered as a talk, jointly by me and Ilaria Ramelli, in Edinburgh at the international conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, in 2006. A revised version appeared subsequently in the Mexican journal, Nova Tellus 24 (2006) 21-39. Please do let me know what you think of it.
Edinburgh-talk-Terms-for-Eternity.pdf (80.5 KB)
In the brief time we have today, we offer a summary of the research we are undertaking into the uses of two ancient Greek terms that are commonly translated as “eternal.” The terms are aiônios and aïdios. Neither word is to be found in the Homeric epics or in the major poems of Hesiod, although the noun aiôn, from which aiônios derives, is very common, mainly in the sense of a “life” or “lifetime.” Aïdios enters into Greek sooner, whereas aiônios first occurs, surprisingly enough, in Plato. Plato’s introduction of the term is philosophically significant, as is the fact that Aristotle eschewed it completely in his own copious writings. The subsequent history of these terms, and the dance in which they engage with each other throughout Greek literature and philosophy, is fascinating in itself, but the real pay-off is in the way they are employed in the Septuagint and the New Testament, and thereafter in Christian writers who are usually equally familiar with their connotations both in the pagan tradition and in Scripture. What is more, a great deal proves to be at stake in how these two terms are interpreted: in fact, nothing less than the prospect of the eternal damnation of sinners versus the universal salvation of all. Thus, what may seem to be a dry investigation of subtle terminological distinctions proves to be a key to understanding ancient philosophical and religious thought.
The notion of “eternity” is not simple, in part because “eternity” has multiple senses, in part too because some of these significances involve a high level of philosophical abstraction. On the one hand, terms for “eternal” may bear the loose sense of “a very long time,” as in the English “always,” without implying a rigorous notion of infinitely extended time. Even at this level, the Greek adverb aiei, like the English “always,” has at least two distinct connotations, referring both to an indefinitely prolonged stretch of time, equivalent to the English “forever” (“I will always love you”), and to an action that is regularly repeated (“he always comes late to class”). Again, there are intermediate uses, for example, “the house has always been on that street,” meaning that, as long as the house has existed, it has been in the same place, without any implication of unlimited duration. On the other hand, “eternal” may signify a strictly boundless extent of time, that is, greater than any numerical measure one can assign. This latter description is itself imprecise, of course. It may mean nothing more than “countless,” that is, too large to grasp, or grasp easily. But eternal time is more commonly understood to be strictly endless, with no termination at all. Even on this more rigorous conception, there are two senses in which time may be said to be eternal. It may have a beginning but no end; or it may have neither a beginning nor an end, but extend infinitely into the past and the future. What is more, in addition to all these varieties of “eternal,” the adjective has been appropriated also to denote something like “timelessness,” a changeless state that has no duration and hence is not subject to time at all.
To begin with aiônios in the presocratics, Ps.-Plutarch ascribes to Anaximander the idea that corruption and genesis occur in cycles “from an infinite aiôn,” but these are surely not Anaximander’s own words. Similarly, Hippolytus Ref. explains that Heraclitus “calls the eternal fire ‘Thunderbolt.’” Similar usages are ascribed to the Pythagoreans, but these again are clearly later inventions.
In contrast to aiônios, the adjective aïdios is attested in the sense of “eternal” or “perpetual” as early as the Homeric Hymn to Hestia and the Hesiodic Shield of Heracles, but in neither case does the expression does imply a technical sense of “eternal.” With the Presocratics, however, the term aïdios in the sense of “eternal” seems to come into its own, in a series of testimonies beginning with Anaximander and continuing on down to Melissus and beyond, although here again one must be careful to distinguish between paraphrases and original terminology. For Anaximander, any of the attributed sentences would, taken alone, be of doubtful authority; taken together, the several passages perhaps suggest that Anaximander himself may have applied the adjective aïdios to motion. For Xenophanes we have attestations of his use of aïdios in the sense not only of “indestructible” or “immortal” but also that of agenêtos, "uncreated. Again, the convergence of the various accounts suggests that Xenophanes may in fact have employed the adjective aïdios in reference to god or the universe. Two testimonies concerning Heraclitus cite aïdios as referring to the perpetual movement of things that are eternal and to the cyclical fire, which is god. Heraclitus’ use of the term aïdios in connection with cyclical phenomena is particularly noteworthy, for in later texts recurring or periodic events tend to be described rather by the word aiônios.
With Empedocles, we have the use of the term aïdios in his Katharmoi, guaranteed by the meter: “there is a thing of Necessity, an ancient decree of the gods, eternal.” Among the Eleatics, Parmenides is said to have described the “all” as aïdios, in that it is ungenerated and imperishable. As for Melissus, Simplicius provides what appears to be a direct quotation affirming that “nothing that has a beginning and end is either eternal [aïdion] or infinite.” It is worth noting that nowhere is the term aiônios ever attributed to the Eleatics. Finally, Democritus too argued that time was aïdios, on the grounds that it was ungenerated, and that the whole of things too was eternal (aïdion to pan).
It would appear, in sum, that the term of art for eternal things – all that is ungenerated and imperishable – among cosmological thinkers in the period prior to Plato was aïdios, never aiônios. In addition, aïdios is the standard adjective meaning “eternal” in non-philosophical discourse of the fifth century as well.
When we come to Plato, we find uses of both adjectives, aiônios and aïdios, in the sense of “eternal.” It is in the Timaeus that Plato enters most fully into the question of eternity, and here we find aïdios six times, aiôn four times, and aiônios twice. Plato introduces the concept in reference to the model that the demiurge followed in creating the sensible universe by looking “to the eternal” (pros to aïdion, bis). Then, in a crucial passage, Plato remarks that the created universe was seen to be moving and living, an image of the eternal gods (tôn aïdiôn theôn, 37C6), and adds that it was itself an “eternal living thing” (zoion aïdion). Plato goes on to say that it was the nature of the living thing to be aiônios but that this quality could not be attached to something that was begotten (gennêton). The creator therefore decided to make “a kind of moving image of eternity” (eikô d’epenoei kinêton tina aiônos), and so as he arranged the universe he made “an eternal image moving according to number of the eternity which remains in one” (menontos aiônos en heni kat’arithmon iousan aiônion eikona), and this he called “time.”
On the one hand, aïdios and aiônios appear to be virtually interchangeable: the model for the universe is “an eternal living thing” (zôion aïdion) and its nature is eternal (tou zôou phusis ousa aiônios). And yet, Plato seems to have found in the term aiôn a special designation for his notion of eternity as timeless; and with this new sense of aiôn, aiônios too seems to have come into its own as a signifier for what is beyond time. It was Plato who first articulated this idea of eternity, and he would appear to have created a terminology to give it expression. Plato’s conception of a timeless eternity remained specific to Platonism and closely related schools in antiquity.
Aristotle, as we have said, seems never to use the term aiônios, though there are nearly 300 instances of aïdios, which is Aristotle’s preferred word to designate things eternal. It is clear that Aristotle was not moved to adopt Plato’s novel terminology, whether because he perceived some difference between his own concept of eternity and that of his teacher, or because he felt that aiônios was an unnecessary addition to the philosophical vocabulary, given the respectability of aïdios as the appropriate technical term.
In the Stoics, aïdios occurs over thirty times in the sense of that which endures forever. It is applied to bodies and matter, the onta or realities that truly exist according to Stoic materialism, and above all to god or Zeus. To the extent that the Stoics employed aiônios and aiôn, however, there is either a connection with their specific view of cosmic cycles, as opposed to strictly infinite duration, or else the noun occurs in phrases indicating a long period of time. The Epicureans, in turn, regularly employ aïdios to designate the eternity of such imperishable constituents of the universe as atoms and void. Epicurus uses aiônios in reference to the future life that non-Epicureans expect, with its dreadful punishments: that is, to an afterlife in which Epicureans do not believe, and which does not deserve the name “eternal” (aïdios), properly reserved for truly perpetual elements.