Is Augustin of Hippo Right? ... Or Not?

Posted by Maritimus 6 years, 3 months ago to Philosophy
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Credibilium tria sunt genera. Alia sunt quae semper creduntur et numquam intelliguntur: sicut est omnis historia, temporalia et humana gesta precurrens. Alia quae mox, ut credentur, intelligentur: sicut sunt omnes rationes humanae, vel de numeris, vel de quibuslibet disciplinis. Tertium, quae primo credentur, et postea intelligentur: qualia sunt ea, quae de divinis rebus non possunt intelligi, nisi ab his qui mundo sunt corde.
There are three kinds of credible things: those that are always believed and never understood: such is all history, such are all temporal things and human actions. Those that are understood as soon as they are believed: such are all human reasonings, concerning numbers or any other discipline. Third, those that are believed first and understood afterword: such are those concerning divine things, which can only be comprehended by the clean of heart.
- St. Augustine, Of Various Questions, LXXXIII, 48
I stumbled on this quote on the front page of a book. I do not remember which book. My first reaction was one of questioning the truthfulness of all three statements. I believe now that my original reading of them remains correct.
At first, with only faint remainder of my knowledge of Latin, I doubted the accuracy of the translation from Latin to English. Both of my doubts turned out to be nitpicker’s quibbles.
Why translate the verb intelligo with to understand the first three times it occurs in the Latin original and with to comprehend in the fourth? I looked them up and discovered that I did not know that, in English, those two verbs have identical meanings. I think that I was led astray by distinguishing the “underlying imagery”. I think though that in translating something like this, consistency can become important. The translator is not a poet.
The second quibble was the translation of a part of the third statement. I think that the translation would be a bit more faithful to the original if it read: “… such are those concerning divine things impossible to understand, except by the clean of heart.” Nitpicking.
I question whether these are truly three different kinds of credible things. Let me talk about Augustine’s examples later.
The way Augustine has it, they are:
1. Those that are always believed and never understood.
2. Those that are understood as soon as they are believed.
3. Those that are believed first and understood afterword.
The distinction between the first and the third, I think, comes from the use of the words “always” and “never”. Note that the whole piece is about credible things. So, what is credible? The dictionary says:
Belief = state of mind in which trust, confidence or reliance is placed on someone or something; trust; confidence; faith.
To believe = to be persuaded of the truth of something by reasoning
I took the meaning of “to grasp” and of “to apprehend” to be the same as “to understand”. The dictionary confirms that.
So, I conclude that, by reasoning, one can understand something and, as a consequence, be persuaded of its truth. I.e. one first understands and then believes. For them, then, whatever is not understandable is incredible.
Augustine has it exactly the opposite way. In two of the three statements, one understands after one believes. In one case instantly and in the other only if clean of heart. In the first statement, regarding certain things, one never understands and always believes. As I said, he turns it exactly the other way around.
I am hard pressed not to call his first example pure rubbish. Most of history is written by the victors and virtually all of it is taught in an attempt at brainwashing, from ancient Egypt up to now. I love reading histories and biographies … with a mountain of salt handy.
The second one is not much better. The apple hit Sir Isaac Newton’s noble head. He began to understand, developed calculus and described the force of gravity. We were persuaded and still believe in existence of gravity, particularly when being able to send a huge projectile from one battleship to hit another one, 10 miles away. Did he believe and then quickly understood? That is not how I would describe it. In the end, I have to understand the numbers before I can believe the results of a calculation.
In the third one, I think, there is a deep philosophical contradiction. I think that one of the principal tenants of Augustine’s philosophy is that all humans are sinners (original sin etc. etc.). It all depends on what being clean of heart means. If it means being without sin, than nobody could ever understand things divine, because, remember, we are all sinners. An alternative would be that, for a fee, Augustine could forgive me all my sins and declare me clean of heart. In gratitude, I understand that I believe, and promise to leave a sizeable chunk of my earthly possessions to Augustine’s temple, firm in my belief that I am headed for paradise.
As I said, if I cannot understand something, I cannot believe it to be true. At best, if I am honest, I declare my ignorance.
Augustine says that only if I believe something to be true, I will be able to understand it, in some cases.
Who is right?
I rest my case.


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  • Posted by fivedollargold 6 years, 3 months ago
    $5Au doesn't understand gravity, but believes it to exist.
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    • Posted by Robbie53024 6 years, 3 months ago
      I understand gravity, but cannot see, touch, smell, or taste it. My only way to "know" that gravity exists is observational of 2nd hand effects. Seems to me that "knowing" God is the same.
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      • Posted by 6 years, 3 months ago
        Hello R,
        It would seem that we need to establish first what "knowing" means. In my limited understanding of AR philosophy, all we have are concepts based on perceptions. There are very many concepts of existents which we cannot see, touch, smell or taste. Gravity is measurable and directly perceivable.
        If you have the time, I would bring to your attention "Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus" by John M. Cooper. It is dense reading, but fascinating. Toward the end it shows how much Christian doctrines owe to those earlier philosophies.
        Curiosity question: are you an Objectivist?
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  • Posted by Robbie53024 6 years, 3 months ago
    Being "clean of heart" doesn't necessarily mean being without sin (at least in my opinion, and understanding of my religious doctrine). One must be repentant of one's transgressions and truly seeking to improve one's self.
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    • Posted by 6 years, 3 months ago
      Hello R,
      Thank you. Do you know how Augustine defined "clean of heart"? I don't.
      It seems to me that mistakes of all kinds happen all the time because "nobody is perfect". I just noticed my typo in the title (missing the e). In a more philosophical sense, I think that it is part of life and of our human nature to continuously strive to improve our performance. To put it in Objectivist terms, to do better in satisfying our rational self-interests. By the way, I call it a good day when I make less than 100 mistakes (transgressions?).
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      • Posted by Robbie53024 6 years, 3 months ago
        I'm not theologian, and I'm not sure if Augustine himself defined such. But here's one scholarly description - "The meaning of purity of heart lies in the possession of faith, and faith “proves” the
        reality of that final vision through the reality of what is gained now through faith." At least for Christians, you can still be a person of faith and be a sinner at the same time (in fact, it is impossible not to be, though I for one have issues with the concept of "original sin.").
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