Thomas De Quinceys Views

It will be of interest to give here the views of Thomas De Quincey, one of the most accurate students of language, and profoundest reasoners and thinkers among English scholars. He states the facts of the case with almost perfect accuracy: "I used to be annoyed and irritated by the false interpretation given to the Greek word aión, and given necessarily, therefore, to the Greek adjective aiónios as its immediate derivative. It was not so much the falsehood of this interpretation, as the narrowness of that falsehood that disturbed me That reason which gives to this word aionion what I do not scruple to call a dreadful importance, is the same reason, and no other, which prompted the dishonesty concerned in the ordinary interpretation of this word. The word happened to connect itself —but that was no practical concern of mine, —me it had not biased in the one direction, nor should it have biased any just critic in the counter direction —happened, I say, to connect itself with the ancient dispute upon the duration of future punishment. What was meant by the aionion punishments of the next world? Was the proper sense of the word eternal, or was it not? . . . That argument runs thus —that the ordinary construction of the word aionion, as equivalent to everlasting, could not possibly be given up, when associated with penal misery, because in that case, and by the very same act, the idea of eternity must be abandoned as applicable to the counter bliss of paradise. Torment and blessedness, it was argued, punishment and beatification stood upon the same level; the same word it was, the word aionion, which qualified the duration of either; and if eternity, in the most rigorous acceptation, fell away from the one idea, it must equally fall away from the other. Well, be it so. But that would not settle the question. It might be very painful to renounce a long cherished anticipation, but the necessity of doing so could not be received as a sufficient reason for adhering to the old unconditional use of the word aionion. The argument is —that we must retain the old sense of eternal, because else we lose upon one scale what we had gained upon the other. But what then? would be the reasonable man's retort. We are not to accept or to reject a new construction (if otherwise the more colorable,) of the word aionion, simply because the consequences might seem such, as, upon the whole, to displease us. We may gain nothing; for by the new interpretation our loss may balance our gain, and we may prefer the old arrangement. But how monstrous is all this! We are not summoned as to a choice of two different arrangements that may suit different tastes, but to a grave question as to what is the sense and operation of the word aionion. . . Meantime all this speculation, first and last, is pure nonsense. Aionian does not mean eternal, neither does it mean of limited duration.

Nor would the unsettling of aionian in its old use, as applied to punishment, to torment, to misery, etc., carry with it any necessary unsettling of the idea in its application to the beatitudes of Paradise.

What is an aion? The duration or cycle of existence which belongs to any object, not individually of itself, but universally, in right of its genius. . . . Man has a certain aionian life; possibly ranging somewhere about the period of seventy years assigned in the Psalms. . . . The period would in that case represent the "aion" of the individual Tellurian; but the "aion" of the Tellurian race would probably amount to many millions of our earthly years, and it would remain an unfathomable mystery, deriving no light at all from the septuagenarian "aion" of the individual; though between the two aions I have no doubt that some secret link of connection does and must subsist, however undiscoverable by human sagacity.

This only is discoverable, as a general tendency, that the aion, or generic period of evil is constantly towards a fugitive duration. The aion, it is alleged, must always express the same idea, whatever that may be; if it is less than eternity for the evil cases, then it must be less for the good ones. Doubtless the idea of an aion is in one sense always uniform, always the same, —viz., as a tenth or a twelfth is always the same. Arithmetic could not exist if any caprice or variation affected their ideas —a tenth is always more than an eleventh, always less than a ninth. But this uniformity of ratio and proportion does not hinder but that a tenth may now represent a guinea, and the next moment represent a thousand guineas. The exact amount of the duration expressed by an aion depends altogether upon the particular subject which yields the aion. It is, as I have said, a radix, and like an algebraic square-root or cube-root, though governed by the most rigorous laws of limitation, it must vary in obedience to the nature of the particular subject whose radix it forms." De Quincey's conclusions are:

A. That man who allows himself to infer the eternity of evil from the counter eternity of good, builds upon the mistake of assigning a stationary and mechanic value to the idea of an aion, whereas the very purpose of Scripture in using the word was to evade such a value. The word is always varying for the very purpose of keeping if faithful to a spiritual identity. The period or duration of every object would be an essentially variable quantity, were it not mysteriously commensurate to the inner nature of that object as laid open to the eyes of God. And thus it happens, that everything in the world possibly without a solitary exception, has its own separate aion; how many entities, so many aions.

B. But if it be an excess of blindness which can overlook the aionian differences amongst even neutral entities, much deeper is that blindness which overlooks the separate tendencies of things evil and things good. Naturally, all evil is fugitive and allied to death.

C. I, separately, speaking for myself only, profoundly believe that the Scriptures ascribe absolute and metaphysical eternity to one sole being —viz., God; and derivatively to all others according to the interest which they can plead in God's favor. Having anchorage in God, innumerable entities may possibly be admitted to a participation in divine aion. But what interest in the favor of God can belong to falsehood, to malignity, to impurity? To invest them with aionian privileges, is, in effect, and by its results, to distrust and to insult the Deity. Evil would not be evil, if it had that power of self-subsistence which is imparted to it in supposing its aionian life to be co-eternal with that which crowns and glorifies the good."(57)

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