Eternity of the world

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The question of the eternity of the world was a concern of the philosophers of the classical period and particularly the medieval theologians and philosophers of the 13th century. The problem is whether the world has a beginning in time, or whether it has existed from eternity. The problem became a focus of a dispute in the 13th century, when some of the works of Aristotle, who believed in the eternity of the world, were rediscovered in the Latin West. This view conflicted with the view of the Catholic church that the world had a beginning in time. The Aristotelian view was prohibited in the Condemnations of 1210–1277.


The ancient philosopher Aristotle argued that the world must have existed from eternity in his book Physics as follows. Everything that comes into existence does so from a substratum. Therefore, if the underlying matter of the universe came into existence, it would come into existence from a substratum. But the nature of matter is precisely to be the substratum from which other things arise. Consequently, the underlying matter of the universe could have come into evidence only from an already existing matter exactly like itself; to assume that the underlying matter of the universe came into existence would require assuming that an underlying matter already existed. As this assumption is self-contradictory, Aristotle argued, matter must be eternal.[1]

The Greek philosopher Critolaus (c. 200-c. 118 BC)[2] of Phaselis defended Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the world, and of the human race in general, against the Stoics. There is no observed change in the natural order of things; humankind recreates itself in the same manner according to the capacity given by Nature, and the various ills to which it is heir, though fatal to individuals, do not avail to modify the whole. Just as it is absurd to suppose that humans are merely earth-born, so the possibility of their ultimate destruction is inconceivable. The world, as the manifestation of eternal order, must itself be eternal.

The Neo-Platonists[edit]

The Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (412 – 485 AD) advanced in his De Aeternitate Mundi (On the Eternity of the World) eighteen proofs for the eternity of the world, resting on the divinity of its creator.[3]

In 529 John Philoponus wrote his critique Against Proclus in which he systematically argued against every proposition put forward for the eternity of the world. The intellectual battle against eternalism became one of Philoponus’ major preoccupations and dominated several of his publications (some now lost) over the following decade.

Philoponus originated the argument now known as the Traversal of the infinite. If the existence of something requires that something else exist before it, then the first thing cannot come into existence without the thing before it existing. An infinite number cannot actually exist, nor be counted through or 'traversed', or be increased. Something cannot come into existence if this requires an infinite number of other things existing before it. Therefore the world cannot be infinite.

The Aristotelian commentator Simplicius of Cilicia and contemporary of Philoponus bitterly argued against the Aristotelian view.[4]


The Islamic philosopher and Aristotelian commentator Averroes supported Aristotle's view, particularly in work The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against al-Ghazali's claims in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa). Averroes' work was an important influence on the thirteenth century so-called Latin Averroists.

Thirteenth century[edit]

The 'Latin Averroists' were a group of philosophers writing in Paris in the middle of the thirteenth century, who included Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia. They supported Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the world against conservative theologians such as John Pecham and Bonaventure. The conservative position is that the world can be logically proved to have begun in time, of which the classic exposition is Bonaventure's argument in the second book of his commentary on Peter Lombard's sentences, where he repeats Philoponus' case against a traversal of the infinite.[citation needed]

Thomas Aquinas argued against both the conservative theologians and the Averroists, claiming that neither the eternity nor the finite nature of the world could be proved by logical argument alone. According to Aquinas the possible eternity of the world and its creation would be contradictory if an efficient cause were precede its effect in duration or if non-existence precedes existence in duration. But an efficient cause, such as God, which instantaneously produces its effect would not necessarily precede its effect in duration. God can also be distinguished from a natural cause which produces its effect by motion, for a cause that produces motion must precede its effect. God could be an instantaneous and motionless creator, and could have created the world without preceding it in time. To Aquinas, that the world began to be was an article of faith.[5]

The position of the Averroists was condemned by Stephen Tempier in 1277.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Physics I, 7
  2. ^ Tiziano Dorandi, Chapter 2: Chronology, in Algra et al. (1999) The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, page 50. Cambridge.
  3. ^ Lang, Helen, "Introduction", p.2 in Proclus (2001). On the Eternity of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22554-6. 
  4. ^ Simplicius, in Arist. de Caelo, 6, b, etc., 72; in Phys. Ausc. 257, 262, etc., 312, etc., 320.
  5. ^ Cfr. his De eternitate mundi

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