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Fathers of the Church

Letter CLXXX


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). Here he responds briefly to letters of Oceanus asking about the origin of souls and whether it is ever permissible to lie, referring also to his discussions with Jerome on these questions.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 124-231 span the period from the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411, and the rise of the Pelagian heresy, until Augustine’s death in 430.

by Augustine of Hippo in 416 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. I received two letters from you at the same time, in one of which you mention a third, and state that you had sent it before the others. This letter I do not remember having received, or, rather, I think I may say the testimony of my memory is, that I did not receive it; but in regard to those which I have received, I return you many thanks for your kindness to me. To these I would have returned an immediate answer, had I not been hurried away by a constant succession of other matters urgently demanding attention. Having now found a moment's leisure from these, I have chosen rather to send some reply, however imperfect, than continue towards a friend so true and kind a protracted silence, and become more annoying to you by saying nothing than by saying too much.

2. I already knew the opinion of the holy Jerome as to the origin of souls, and had read the words which in your letter you have quoted from his book. The difficulty which perplexes some in regard to this question, "How God can justly bestow souls on the offspring of persons guilty of adultery?" does not embarrass me, seeing that not even their own sins, much less the sins of their parents, can prove prejudicial to persons of virtuous lives, converted to God, and living in faith and piety. The really difficult question is, if it be true that a new soul created out of nothing is imparted to each child lot its birth, how can it be that the innumerable souls of those little ones, in regard to whom God knew with certainty that before attaining the age of reason, and before being able to know or understand what is right or wrong, they were to leave the body without being baptized, are justly given over to eternal death by Him with whom "there is no unrighteousness!" It is unnecessary to say more on this subject, since you know what I intend, or rather what I do not at present intend to say. I think what I have said is enough for a wise man. If, however, you have either read, or heard from the lips of Jerome, or received from the Lord when meditating on this difficult question, anything by which it can be solved, impart it to me, I beseech you, that I may acknowledge myself under yet greater obligation to you.

3. As to the question whether lying is in any case justifiable and expedient, it has appeared to you that it ought to be solved by the example of our Lord's saying, concerning the day and hour of the end of the world, "Neither doth the Son know it." When I read this, I was charmed with it as an effort of your ingenuity; but I am by no means of opinion that a figurative mode of expression can be rightly termed a falsehood. For it is no falsehood to call a day joyous because it renders men joyous, or a lupine harsh because by its bitter flavour it imparts harshness to the countenance of him who tastes it, or to say that God knows something when He makes man know it (an instance quoted by yourself in these words of God to Abraham, "Now I know that thou fearest God"). These are by no means false statements, as you yourself readily see. Accordingly, when the blessed Hilary explained this obscure statement of the Lord, by means of this obscure kind of figurative language, saying that we ought to understand Christ to affirm in these words that He knew not that day with no other meaning than that He, by concealing it, caused others not to know it, he did not by this explanation of the statement apologize for it as an excusable falsehood, but he showed that it was not a falsehood, as is proved by comparing it not only with these common figures of speech, but also with the metaphor, a mode of expression very familiar to all in daily conversation. For who will charge the man who says that harvest fields wave and children bloom with speaking falsely, because he sees not in these things the waves and the flowers to which these words are literally applied?

4. Moreover, a man of your talent and learning easily perceives how different from these metaphorical expressions is the statement of the apostle, "When I saw that they walked not uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" Here there is no obscurity of figurative language; these are literal words of a plain statement. Surely, in addressing persons "of whom he travailed in birth till Christ should be formed in them," and to whom, in solemnly calling God to confirm his words, he said: "The things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not," the great teacher of the Gentiles affirmed in the words above quoted either what was true or what was false; if he said what was false, which God forbid, you see the consequences which would follow; and Paul's own assertion of his veracity, together with the example of wondrous humility in the Apostle Peter, may warn you to recoil from such thoughts.

5. But why say more? This question the venerable Father Jerome and I have discussed fully in letters which we exchanged, and in his latest work, published under the name of Critobulus, against Pelagius, he has maintained the same opinion concerning that transaction and the words of the apostle which, in accordance with the views of the blessed Cyprian, I myself have held. In regard to the question as to the origin of souls, I think there is reasonable ground for inquiry, not as to the giving of souls to the offspring of adulterous parents, but as to the condemnation (which God forbid) of those who are innocent. If you have learned anything from a man of such character and eminence as Jerome which might form a satisfactory answer to those in perplexity on this subject, I pray you not to refuse to communicate it to me. In your correspondence, you have approved Yourself so learned and so affable that it is a privilege to hold intercourse with you by letter. I ask you not to delay to send a certain book by the same man of God, which the presbyter Orosius brought and gave to you to copy, in which the resurrection of the body is treated of by him in a manner said to merit distinguished praise. We have not asked it earlier, because we knew that you had both to copy and to revise it; but for both of these we think we have now given you ample time.

Live to God, and be mindful of us.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.