Eternity in Early Modern Philosophy

In Yitzhak Y. Melamed (ed.), Eternity: A History. Oxford University Press. pp. 129-167 (2016)
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Modernity seemed to be the autumn of eternity. The secularization of European culture provided little sustenance to the concept of eternity with its heavy theological baggage. Yet, our hero would not leave the stage without an outstanding performance of its power and temptation. Indeed, in the first three centuries of the modern period – the subject of the third chapter by Yitzhak Melamed - the concept of eternity will play a crucial role in the great philosophical systems of the period. The first part of this chapter concentrates on the debate about the temporality of God. While most of the great metaphysicians of the seventeenth century – Suarez, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz – ascribed to God eternal, non-temporal, existence, a growing number of philosophers conceived God as existing in time. For Newton, God’s eternity was simply the fact that “He was, he is, and is to come.” A similar view of God as being essentially in time was endorsed by Pierre Gassendi, Henry More, Samuel Clarke, Isaac Barrow, John Locke, and most probably Descartes as well. In the second part of the chapter we study the concept of eternal truth, and its relation to the emerging notion of Laws of Nature. The third part of the chapter explicates Spinoza’s original understanding of eternity as a modal concept. For Spinoza, eternity is a unique kind of necessary existence: it is existence that is self-necessitated (unlike the existence of other things whose necessity derives from external causes). Eternity is the existence of God or the one substance. Yet, Spinoza claims that if we conceive finite things adequately - “sub specie aeternitatis” – as nothing but modes flowing from the essence of God, even finite things (like our minds) can take part in God’s eternity. The fourth and final part of the chapter is mostly focused on the reception of Spinoza’s original conception of eternity by Leibniz and other eighteenth century philosophers.

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Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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