Alexander Atkins

Sep 11, 2020

6 min read

How Long Is Eternity?

Enduring the coronavirus seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? That recent impression certainly invites the question: how long is eternity? That is to say, if you could measure it using current concepts of time as we know it, how long would eternity be? While philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Boethius have addressed eternity, it turns out several authors have also provided answers to this fascinating question.

The first to address the length of eternity were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (better known as the Brothers Grimm), German cultural researchers, philologists, and lexicographers, who collected traditional folktales written by other writers or passed down through oral tradition and published them as Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812; a second volume was published in 1815. All 200 or so stories are found in a collection we recognize today as The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. You are probably familiar with the stories of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few (all of which have been translated into more than 100 languages and have been adapted countless times in literature and cinema — imagine the royalties the Grimm family could have collected!). But what interests us today, in discerning the length of eternity, is a lesser known story — the insightful, charming tale of the Shepherd Boy, originally written by Ludwig Aurbacher (1784–1847), a German teacher and writer, in 1819 titled Das Hirtenbüblein. In this timeless tale, a king summons a precocious shepherd and challenges him to answer three difficult questions. The third question is: “how many seconds of time are there in eternity?” He answers: “In Lower Pomerania [northern Poland, at the southern tip of the Baltic Sea] is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” Brilliant answer! Here is the complete story:

There was once on a time a shepherd boy whose fame spread far and wide because of the wise answers which he gave to every question. The King of the country heard of it likewise, but did not believe it, and sent for the boy. Then he said to him: “If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shall dwell with me in my royal palace.” The boy said: “What are the three questions?” The King said: “The first is, how many drops of water are there in the ocean?” The shepherd boy answered: “Lord King, if you will have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted it, I will tell you how many drops there are in the sea.” The King said: “The next question is, how many stars are there in the sky?” The shepherd boy said: “Give me a great sheet of white paper,” and then he made so many fine points on it with a pen that they could scarcely be seen, and it was all but impossible to count them; any one who looked at them would have lost his sight. Then he said: “There are as many stars in the sky as there are points on the paper; just count them.” But no one was able to do it. The King said: “The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity.” Then said the shepherd boy: “In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” The King said: “Thou hast answered the three questions like a wise man, and shalt henceforth dwell with me in my royal palace, and I will regard thee as my own child.”

A century later, Irish writer James Joyce tackles the same question in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, published in serialized form in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine, The Egoist, in 1914 and 1915. In the novel, we meet the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive, reflective young man, raised as a Catholic in Dublin, Ireland and, naturally, attends Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school. Dedalus begins to question long-established Catholic beliefs and eventually rebels against them. Early in the novel, soon after his first sexual encounter, Dedalus feels guilt over this “first violent sin.” Consequently, he attends a three day spiritual retreat hoping to cleanse his soul. On the second day of the retreat, Fr. Arnall delivers one of his well-known fire-and-brimstone sermons on the consequences of sinning. If you grew up in Catholic schools in the mid-20th century, you know the drill: you will burn in the inferno of Hell — for an eternity. It is here, that speaking through Fr. Arnall, Joyce presents his metaphor, also employing a bird, to describe how long eternity is (you can imagine the impact this searing sermon had on impressionable, insecure young lads):

“What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell forever? Forever! For all eternity! Not for a year or an age but forever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air. And imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been carried all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals — at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not even one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.”

Nearly a century later, American author Lois Duncan, best known for her young adult novels, returns to this the metaphor of the bird in describing eternity in her horror novel titled Stranger with My Face, published in 1981. Duncan writes:

“If there were a mile-high mountain of granite, and once every ten thousand years a bird flew past and brushed it with a feather, by the time that the mountain was worn away, a fraction of a second would have passed on the context of Eternity.”

So the next time you look up in the sky, and see a bird flying by with a feather in its beak, realize that right now you are living an infinitesimal sliver of eternity. Tempus fugit…


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