Action Alert!

Fathers of the Church

Letter XVII


”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 Augustine responds sharply to Maximus of Madaura’s attacks of Christianity and to Maximus’s own theological position, criticizing him also for inappropriate levity.


The correspondence of St. Augustine that has been preserved includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 1-30 span the period between his conversion and his episcopal ordination.

by Augustine of Hippo in 390 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. Are we engaged in serious debate with each other, or is it your desire that we merely amuse ourselves? For, from the language of your letter, I am at a loss to know whether it is due to the weakness of your cause, or through the courteousness of your manners, that you have preferred to show yourself more witty than weighty in argument. For, in the first place, a comparison was drawn by you between Mount Olympus and your market-place, the reason for which I cannot divine, unless it was in order to remind me that on the said mountain Jupiter pitched his camp when he was at war with his father, as we are taught by history, which your religionists call sacred; and that in the said market-place Mars is represented in two images, the one unarmed, the other armed, and that a statue of a man placed over against these restrains with three extended fingers the fury of their demonship from the injuries which he would willingly inflict on the citizens. Could I then ever believe that by mentioning that market-place you intended to revive my recollection of such divinities, unless you wished that we should pursue the discussion in a jocular spirit rather than in earnest? But in regard to the sentence in which you said that such gods as these are members, so to speak, of the one great God, I admonish you by all means, since you vouchsafe such an opinion, to abstain very carefully from profane jestings of this kind. For if you speak of the One God, concerning whom learned and unlearned are, as the ancients have said, agreed, do you affirm that those whose savage fury—or, if you prefer it, whose power—the image of a dead man keeps in check are members of Him? I might say more on this point, and your own judgment may show you how wide a door for the refutation of your views is here thrown open. But I restrain myself, lest I should be thought by you to act more as a rhetorician than as one earnestly defending truth.

2. As to your collecting of certain Carthaginian names of deceased persons, by which you think reproach may be cast, in what seems to you a witty manner, against our religion, I do not know whether I ought to answer this taunt, or to pass it by in silence. For if to your good sense these things appear as trifling as they really are, I have not time to spare for such pleasantry. If, however, they seem to you important, I am surprised that it did not occur to you, who are apt to be disturbed by absurdly sounding names, that your religionists have among their priests Eucaddires, and among their deities, Abaddires. I do not suppose that these were absent from your mind when you were writing, but that, with your courtesy and genial humour, you wished for the unbending of our minds, to recall to our recollection what ludicrous things are in your superstition. For surely, considering that you are an African, and that we are both settled in Africa, you could not have so forgotten yourself when writing to Africans as to think that Punic names were a fit theme for censure. For if we interpret the signification of these words, what else does Namphanio mean than "man of the good foot," i.e. whose coming brings with it some good fortune, as we are wont to say of one whose coming to us has been followed by some prosperous event, that he came with a lucky foot? And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men, that many things have been wisely preserved from oblivion in books written in the Punic tongue. Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm, i.e. in which this language was originally, and until very recently, the language of the people. If, however, it is not reasonable to take offence at the mere sound of names, and you admit that I have given correctly the meaning of the one in question, you have reason for being dissatisfied with your friend Virgil, who gives to your god Hercules an invitation to the sacred rites celebrated by Evander in his honour, in these terms, "Come to us, and to these rites in thine honour, with auspicious foot." He wishes him to come "with auspicious foot;" that is to say, he wishes Hercules to come as a Namphanio, the name about which you are pleased to make much mirth at our expense. But if you have a penchant for ridicule, you have among yourselves ample material for witticisms —the god Stercutius, the goddess Cloacina, the Bald Venus, the gods Fear and Pallor, and the goddess Fever, and others of the same kind without number, to whom the ancient Roman idolaters erected temples, and judged it right to offer worship; which if you neglect, you are neglecting Roman gods, thereby making it manifest that you are not thoroughly versed in the sacred rites of Rome; and yet you despise and pour contempt on Punic names, as if you were a devotee at the altars of Roman deities.

3. In truth however, I believe that perhaps you do not value these sacred rites any more than we do, but only take from them some unaccountable pleasure in your time of passing through this world: for you have no hesitation about taking refuge under Virgil's wing, and de-fending yourself with a line of his:

"Each one is drawn by that which pleases himself best."

If, then, the authority of Maro pleases you, as you indicate that it does, you will be pleased with such lines as these: "First Saturn came from lofty Olympus, fleeing before the arms of Jupiter, an exile bereft of his realms,"—and other such statements, by which he aims at making it understood that Saturn and your other gods like him were men. For he had read much history, confirmed by ancient authority, which Cicero also had read, who makes the same statement in his dialogues, in terms more explicit than we would venture to insist upon, and labours to bring it to the knowledge of men so far as the times in which he lived permitted.

4. As to your statement, that your religious services are to be preferred to ours because you worship the gods in public, but we use more retired places of meeting, let me first ask you how you could have forgotten your Bacchus, whom you consider it right to exhibit only to the eyes of the few who are initiated. You, however, think that, in making mention of the public celebration of your sacred rites, you intended. only to make sure that we would place before our eyes the spectacle presented by your magistrates and the chief men of the city when intoxicated and raging along your streets; in which solemnity, if you are possessed by a god, you surely see of what nature he must be who deprives men of their reason. If, however, this madness is only feigned, what say you to this keeping of things hidden in a service which you boast of as public, or what good purpose is served by so base an imposition? Moreover, why do you not foretell future events in your songs, if you are endowed with the prophetic gift? or why do you rob the bystanders, if you are in your sound mind?

5. Since, then, you have recalled to our remembrance by your letter these and other things which I think it better to pass over meanwhile, why may not we make sport of your gods, which, as every one who knows your mind, and has read your letters, is well aware, are made sport of abundantly by yourself? Therefore, if you wish us to discuss these subjects in a way becoming your years and wisdom, and, in fact, as may be justly required of us, in connection with our purpose, by our dearest friends, seek some topic worthy of being debated between us; and be careful to say on behalf of your gods such things as may prevent us from supposing that you are intentionally betraying your own cause, when we find you rather bringing to our remembrance things which may be said against them' than alleging anything in their defence. In conclusion, however, lest this should be unknown to you, and you might thus be brought unwittingly into jestings which are profane, let me assure you that by the Christian Catholics (by whom a church has been set up in your own town also) no deceased person is worshipped, and that nothing, in short, which has been made and fashioned by God is worshipped as a divine power. This worship is rendered by them only to God Himself, who framed and fashioned all things.

These things shall be more fully treated of, with the help of the one true God, whenever I learn that you are disposed to discuss them seriously.

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.