“I go to seek a great perhaps,” said François Rabelais at the moment of his death in 1553. Or so we are told.1 Whether he said it or not matters little: it fits the man perfectly, and also his era. It's an aphorism that sums up a great rupture in Western history, when unquestioned assumptions were successfully challenged and eternity was reconfigured.
How that “perhaps,” which had been barely audible for centuries, became louder and more persistent is the subject of this chapter.
As we have seen, eternity was much more than an abstract concept back then, before Rabelais, and before the Western world became modern. Yes, without a doubt, there were those who did approach eternity as a philosophical and theological puzzle: the scholastic theologians. Eternity was precisely the kind of intellectual challenge they loved. This is also true of modern scholars. Pick up almost any book on eternity written in the twentieth century, and chances are that if it deals with the Middle Ages at all, its focus will be on scholastic disputes about eternity.2 Fine distinctions and elaborations on prior definitions flowed copiously from their quill pens and lecterns, and heated debates were never scarce. While the Augustinian take on eternity remained very much in play— eternity as a realm that transcends time wholly and is separate from it—this did not stop the scholastics from debating other definitions, especially concerning sempiternity, that is, eternity as a boundless continuum, without beginning or