Aion (αἰών) (Ancient Greek)
Eternity, lifetime, age, generation. The concept of eternity in ancient Greek is signified by the noun aion (αἰών) and the adjective aidios (ἀίδιος). Aion (αἰών) is commonly associated in early Greek literature with ‘life’, while aidios (ἀίδιος) is usually related to ‘everlastingness’. Other terms such as aenaos (ἀέναος- ever-flowing) and aeizoos (ἀείζωος - ever-living) underline the early Greek concept of eternity and the long duration of lifetime in regards to the cosmos, spirits, or gods. (LSJ)
A religious personification or cult of αἰών appears in the Hellenistic age and the first century BCE as it is indicated by the statue of Aion dedicated at Eleusis. Epiphanius testifies in Adversus Haereses 51.22-3 a festival in Alexandria where an image Aion was brought of the Koreion. Suda (522.6-7) also refers to a statue of Aion, and there are indications of the divine Aion in relation to the lion-head time-god of Mithraism or the primordial time-god Iran Zurvan.
In Homer, αἰών is usually related to the ‘vital substance’ or the ‘vital force’ that keeps the human soul alive and leaves the body at death (Iliad 16.453; 19.27; 22.58, Odyssey 7.224). The Homeric term seems to have a temporal (Iliad 17.302; 9.415; 24.725) and emotional context (Odyssey 5.152; 5.160; 18.204) but not the sense of ‘lifetime’ found in later traditions. Hippocrates (Epid. 7) and Pindar (fr. 111) defined αἰών as the life-fluid of spinal marrow, while αἰών has been used to denote a long period of life or the length of life for gods and mortals in Aeschylus (Suppliants 574) and the Hymn to Hephaestus (6-7).
There is an etymology of αἰών deriving from ἀεί (‘always’) and ὄν (‘being’), which seems to be followed by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. In early Greek philosophy, Heraclitus' ever-living fire (πῦρ ἀείζωον) can be interpreted as an echo of the philosophical interpretation of αἰών (ἀεί - ὄν / ἀεί - ζωον) and the everlastingness of the cosmos as an “ever-living fire” (fr. 30). Moreover, Empedocles' concept of eternal life is signified by the term αἰών; and the everlasting life of the four elements and the forces of the cosmos (frs. 16, 17, 110). In the Timaeus, Plato relates eternity to the world of being, while time to the world of becoming. Plato conceives the cosmos as ever-living animal (37d), which leads to Aristotle's etymology of αἰών in De Caelo 279a25-28 as ‘always being’. Plotinus is aware of this definition in his Ennead III.7 On Eternity and Time - the first systematic treatment of the concepts of eternity and time in ancient philosophy- and defines αἰών as an atemporal and timeless ‘true being’ associated with the unchanging and non-durational eternal life of Intellect (the second hypostasis of being) (III.7.1-6)
Literature and Further Readings
Benveniste, E. (1932) ‘Grec ψυχή’, in Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 33: 165-168.
Claus, D. (1981) Towards the Soul. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
Mohr, R. D. (1986) “Plato on Time and Eternity,” Ancient Philosophy 6: 39-46.
Onians, R. B. (1954) The Origins of European Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Stamatellos, G. (2007) Plotinus and the Presocratics. Albany: SUNY Press.
Stamatellos, G. (2013) “Eternity in Plotinus,” Czech and Slovak Journal of Humanities: Philosophica II: 84-95.
Stamatellos, G. (2013) “Plotinus on Transmigration: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Ancient Philosophy 7 (1): 49-64.
Tarán, L. (1979) “Perpetual duration and atemporal eternity in Parmenides and Plato,” The Monist 62: 43-53.
Whittaker, J. (1968) “The Eternity of the Platonic forms,” Phronesis 13: 131-144.
Wright, M. R. (1995) Cosmology in Antiquity. London/New York: Routledge.
Wright, M. R. (2009) Introducing Greek Philosophy. Durham: Acumen.
Author Citation Information
Stamatellos, Giannis, “Aion,” ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2020), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = <Odiphilosophy.com/aion>.