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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 91

Letter 91 (A.D. 408)

To My Noble Lord and Justly Honoured Brother Nectarius, Augustine Sends Greeting.

1. I do not wonder that, though your limbs are chilled by age, your heart still glows with patriotic fire. I admire this, and, instead of grieving, I rejoice to learn that you not only remember, but by your life and practice illustrate, the maxim that there is no limit either in measure or in time to the claims which their country has upon the care and service of right-hearted men. Wherefore we long to have you enrolled in the service of a higher and nobler country, through holy love, to which (up to the measure of our capacity) we are sustained amid the perils and toils which we meet with among those whose welfare we seek in urging them to make that country their own. Oh that we had you such a citizen of that country, that you would think that there ought to be no limit either in measure or in time to your efforts for the good of that small portion of her citizens who are on this earth pilgrims! This would be a better loyalty, because you would be responding to the claims of a better country; and if you resolved that in your time on earth your labours for her welfare should have no end, you would in her eternal peace be recompensed with joy that shall have no end.

2. But till this be done—and it is not beyond hope that you should be able to gain, or should even now be most wisely considering that you ought to gain, that country to which your father has gone before you—till this be done, I say, you must excuse us if, for the sake of that country which we desire never to leave, we cause some distress to that country which you desire to leave in the full bloom of honour and prosperity. As to the flowers which thus bloom in your country, if we were discussing this subject with one of your wisdom, we have no doubt that you would be easily convinced, or rather, would yourself readily perceive, in what way a commonwealth should flourish. The foremost of your poets has sung of certain flowers of Italy; but in your own country we have been taught by experience, not how it has blossomed with heroes, so much as how it has gleamed with weapons of war: nay, I ought to write how it has burned rather than how it has gleamed; and instead of the weapons of war, I should write the fires of incendiaries. If so great a crime were to remain unpunished, without any rebuke such as the miscreants have deserved, do you think that you would leave your country in the full bloom of honour and prosperity? O blooming flowers, yielding not fruit, but thorns! Consider now whether you would prefer to see your country flourish by the piety of its inhabitants, or by their escaping the punishment of their crimes; by the correction of their manners, or by outrages to which impunity emboldens them. Compare these things, I say, and judge whether or not you love your country more than we do; whether its prosperity and honour are more truly and earnestly sought by you or by us.

3. Consider for a little those books, De Republica, from which you imbibed that sentiment of a most loyal citizen, that there is no limit either in measure or in time to the claims which their country has upon the care and service of right-hearted men. Consider them, I beseech you, and observe how great are the praises there bestowed upon frugality, self-control, conjugal fidelity, and those chaste, honourable, and upright manners, the prevalence of which in any city entitles it to be spoken of as flourishing. Now the Churches which are multiplying throughout the world are, as it were, sacred seminaries of public instruction, in which this sound morality is inculcated and learned, and in which, above all, men are taught the worship due to the true and faithful God, who not only commands men to attempt, but also gives grace to perform, all those things by which the soul of man is furnished and fitted for fellowship with God, and for dwelling in the eternal heavenly kingdom. For this reason He has both foretold and commanded the casting down of the images of the many false gods which are in the world. For nothing so effectually renders men depraved in practice, and unfit to be good members of society, as the imitation of such deities as are described and extolled in pagan writings.

4. In fact, those most learned men (whose beau ideal of a republic or commonwealth in this world was, by the way, rather investigated or described by them in private discussions, than established and realized by them in public measures) were accustomed to set forth as models for the education of youth the examples of men whom they esteemed eminent and praiseworthy, rather than the example given by their gods. And there is no question that the young man in Terence, who, beholding a picture upon the wall in which was portrayed the licentious conduct of the king of the gods, fanned the flame of the passion which mastered him, by the encouragement which such high authority gave to wickedness, would not have fallen into the desire, nor have plunged into the commission, of such a shameful deed if he had chosen to imitate Cato instead of Jupiter; but how could he make such a choice, when he was compelled in the temples to worship Jupiter rather than Cato? Perhaps it may be said that we should not bring forward from a comedy arguments to put to shame the wantonness and the impious superstition of profane men. But read or recall to mind how wisely it is argued in the books above referred to, that the style and the plots of comedies would never be approved by the public voice if they did not harmonize with the manners of those who approved them; wherefore, by the authority of men most illustrious and eminent in the commonwealth to which they belonged, and engaged in debating as to the conditions of a perfect commonwealth, our position is established, that the most degraded of men may be made yet worse if they imitate their gods—gods, of course, which are not true, but false and invented.

5. You will perhaps reply, that all those things which were written long ago concerning the life and manners of the gods are to be far otherwise than literally understood and interpreted by the wise. Nay, we have heard within the last few days that such wholesome interpretations are now read to the people when assembled in the temples. Tell me, is the human race so blind to truth as not to perceive things so plain and palpable as these? When, by the art of painters, founders, hammermen, sculptors, authors, players, singers, and dancers, Jupiter is in so many places exhibited in flagrant acts of lewdness, how important it was that in his own Capitol at least his worshippers might have read a decree from himself prohibiting such crimes! If, through the absence of such prohibition, these monsters, in which shame and profanity culminate, are regarded with enthusiasm by the people, worshipped in their temples, and laughed at in their theatres; if, in order to provide sacrifices for them, even the poor must be despoiled of their flocks; if, in order to provide actors who shall by gesture and dance represent their infamous achievements, the rich squander their estates, can it be said of the communities in which these things are done, that they flourish? The flowers with which they bloom owe their birth not to a fertile soil, nor to a wealthy and bounteous virtue; for them a worthy parent is found in that goddess Flora, whose dramatic games are celebrated with a profligacy so utterly dissolute and shameless, that any one may infer from them what kind of demon that must be which cannot be appeased unless— not birds, nor quadrupeds, nor even human life— but (oh, greater villany!) human modesty and virtue, perish as sacrifices on her altars.

6. These things I have said, because of your having written that the nearer you come to the end of life, the greater is your desire to leave your country in a safe and flourishing condition. Away with all these vanities and follies, and let men be converted to the true worship of God, and to chaste and pious manners: then will you see your country flourishing, not in the vain opinion of fools, but in the sound judgment of the wise; when your fatherland here on earth shall have become a portion of that Fatherland into which we are born not by the flesh, but by faith, and in which all the holy and faithful servants of God shall bloom in the eternal summer, when their labours in the winter of time are done. We are therefore resolved, neither on the one hand to lay aside Christian gentleness, nor on the other to leave in your city that which would be a most pernicious example for all others to follow. For success in this dealing we trust to the help of God, if His indignation against the evil-doers be not so great as to make Him withhold His blessing. For certainly both the gentleness which we desire to maintain, and the discipline which we shall endeavour without passion to administer, may be hindered, if God in His hidden counsels order it otherwise, and either appoint that this so great wickedness be punished with a more severe chastisement, or in yet greater displeasure leave the sin without punishment in this world, its guilty authors being neither reproved nor reformed.

7. You have, in the exercise of your judgment, laid down the principles by which a bishop should be influenced; and after saying that your town has fallen disastrously by a grievous misdemeanour on the part of your citizens, which must be punished with great severity if they are dealt with according to the rigour of the civil law, you add: But a bishop is guided by another law; his duty is to promote the welfare of men, to interest himself in any case only with a view to the benefit of the parties, and to obtain for other men the pardon of their sins at the hand of the Almighty God. This we by all means labour to secure, that no one be visited with undue severity of punishment, either by us or by any other who is influenced by our interposition; and we seek to promote the true welfare of men, which consists in the blessedness of well-doing, not in the assurance of impunity in evil-doing. We do also seek earnestly, not for ourselves alone, but on behalf of others, the pardon of sin: but this we cannot obtain, except for those who have been turned by correction from the practice of sin. You add, moreover: I beseech you with all possible urgency to secure that if the matter is to be made the subject of a prosecution, the guiltless be protected, and a distinction drawn between the innocent and those who did the wrong.

8. Listen to a brief account of what was done, and let the distinction between innocent and guilty be drawn by yourself. In defiance of the most recent laws, certain impious rites were celebrated on the Pagan feast-day, the calends of June, no one interfering to forbid them, and with such unbounded effrontery that a most insolent multitude passed along the street in which the church is situated, and went on dancing in front of the building—an outrage which was never committed even in the time of Julian. When the clergy endeavoured to stop this most illegal and insulting procedure, the church was assailed with stones. About eight days after that, when the bishop had called the attention of the authorities to the well-known laws on the subject, and they were preparing to carry out that which the law prescribed, the church was a second time assailed with stones. When, on the following day, our people wished to make such complaint as they deemed necessary in open court, in order to make these villains afraid, their rights as citizens were denied them. On the same day there was a storm of hailstones, that they might be made afraid, if not by men, at least by the divine power, thus requiting them for their showers of stones against the church; but as soon as this was over they renewed the attack for the third time with stones, and at last endeavoured to destroy both the buildings and the men in them by fire: one servant of God who lost his way and met them they killed on the spot, all the rest escaping or concealing themselves as they best could; while the bishop hid himself in some crevice into which he forced himself with difficulty, and in which he lay folded double while he heard the voices of the ruffians seeking him to kill him, and expressing their mortification that through his escaping them their principal design in this grievous outrage had been frustrated. These things went on from about the tenth hour until the night was far advanced. No attempt at resistance or rescue was made by those whose authority might have had influence on the mob. The only one who interfered was a stranger, through whose exertions a number of the servants of God were delivered from the hands of those who were trying to kill them, and a great deal of property was recovered from the plunderers by force: whereby it was shown how easily these riotous proceedings might have been either prevented wholly or arrested, if the citizens, and especially the leading men, had forbidden them, either from the first or after they had begun.

9. Accordingly you cannot in that community draw a distinction between innocent and guilty persons, for all are guilty; but perhaps you may distinguish degrees of guilt. Those are in a comparatively small fault, who, being kept back by fear, especially by fear of offending those whom they knew to have leading influence in the community and to be hostile to the Church, did not dare to render assistance to the Christians; but all are guilty who consented to these outrages, though they neither perpetrated them nor instigated others to the crime: more guilty are those who perpetrated the wrong, and most guilty are those who instigated them to it. Let us, however, suppose that the instigation of others to these crimes is a matter of suspicion rather than of certain knowledge, and let us not investigate those things which can be found out in no other way than by subjecting witnesses to torture. Let us also forgive those who through fear thought it better for them to plead secretly with God for the bishop and His other servants, than openly to displease the powerful enemies of the Church. What reason can you give for holding that those who remain should be subjected to no correction and restraint? Do you really think that a case of such cruel rage should be held up to the world as passing unpunished? We do not desire to gratify our anger by vindictive retribution for the past, but we are concerned to make provision in a truly merciful spirit for the future. Now, wicked men have something in respect to which they may be punished, and that by Christians, in a merciful way, and so as to promote their own profit and well-being. For they have these three things: the life and health of the body, the means of supporting that life, and the means and opportunities of living a wicked life. Let the two former remain untouched in the possession of those who repent of their crime: this we desire, and this we spare no pains to secure. But as to the third, upon it God will, if it please Him, inflict punishment in His great compassion, dealing with it as a decaying or diseased part, which must be removed with the pruning-knife. If, however, He be pleased either to go beyond this, or not to permit the punishment to go so far, the reason for this higher and doubtless more righteous counsel remains with Him: our duty is to devote pains and use our influence according to the light which is granted to us, beseeching His approval of our endeavours to do that which shall be most for the good of all, and praying Him not to permit us to do anything which He who knows all things much better than we do sees to be inexpedient both for ourselves and for His Church.

10. When I went recently to Calama, that under so grievous sorrow I might either comfort the downcast or soothe the indignant among our people, I used all my influence with the Christians to persuade them to do what I judged to be their duty at that time. I then at their own request admitted to an audience the Pagans also, the source and cause of all this mischief, in order that I might admonish them what they should do if they were wise, not only for the removal of present anxiety, but also for the obtaining of everlasting salvation. They listened to many things which I said, and they preferred many requests to me; but far be it from me to be such a servant as to find pleasure in being petitioned by those who do not humble themselves before my Lord to ask from Him. With your quick intelligence, you will readily perceive that our aim must be, while preserving Christian gentleness and moderation, to act so that we may either make others afraid of imitating their perversity, or have cause to desire others to imitate their profiling by correction. As for the loss sustained, this is either borne by the Christians or remedied by the help of their brethren. What concerns us is the gaining of souls, which even at the risk of life we are impatient to secure; and our desire is, that in your district we may have larger success, and that in other districts we may not be hindered by the influence of your example. May God in His mercy grant to us to rejoice in your salvation!

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102091.htm>.

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