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Fathers of the Church

Letter III


”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 reflects for his friend Nebridius, in the tradition of Platonic philosophy, on the relations among happiness, wisdom, the visible world and the world of the mind or soul.


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 387 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. Whether I am to regard it as the effect of what I may call your flattering language, or whether the thing be really so, is a point which I am unable to decide. For the impression was sudden, and I am not yet resolved how far it deserves to be believed. You wonder what this can be. What do you think? You have almost made me believe, not indeed that I am happy—for that is the heritage of the wise alone — but that I am at least in a sense happy: as we apply the designation man to beings who deserve the name only in a sense if compared with Plato's ideal man, or speak of things which we see as round or square, although they differ widely from the perfect figure which is discerned by the mind of a few. I read your letter beside my lamp after supper: immediately after which I lay down, but not at once to sleep; for on my bed I meditated long, and talked thus with myself — Augustin addressing and answering Augustin: "Is it not true, as Nebridius affirms, that I am happy?" "Absolutely true it cannot be, for that I am still far from wise he himself would not deny." "But may not a happy life be the lot even of those who are not wise ?" "That is scarcely possible; because, in that case, lack of wisdom would be a small misfortune, and not, as it actually is, the one and only source of unhappiness." "How, then, did Nebridius come to esteem me happy? Was it that, after reading these little books of mine, he ventured to pronounce me wise? Surely the vehemence of joy could not make him so rash, especially seeing that he is a man to whose judgment I well know so much weight is to be attached. I have it now: he wrote what he thought would be most gratifying to me, because he had been gratified by what I had written in those treatises; and he wrote in a joyful mood, without accurately weighing the sentiments entrusted to his joyous pen. What, then, would he have said if he had read my Soliloquies? He would have rejoiced with much more exultation, and yet could find no loftier name to bestow on me than this which he has already given in calling me happy. All at once, then, he has lavished on me the highest possible name, and has not reserved a single word to add to my praises, if at any time he were made by me more joyful than he is now. See what joy does."

2. But where is that truly happy life? where? ay, where? Oh! if it were attained, one would spurn the atomic theory of Epicurus. Oh! if it were attained, one would know that there is nothing here below but the visible world. Oh! if it were attained, one would know that in the rotation of a globe on its axis, the motion of points near the poles is less rapid than of those which lie half way between them, —and other such like things which we likewise know. But now, how or in what sense can I be called happy, who know not why the world is such in size as it is, when the proportions of the figures according to which it is framed do in no way hinder its being enlarged to any extent desired? Or how might it not be said to me—nay, might we not be compelled to admit that matter is infinitely divisible; so that, starting from any given base (so to speak), a definite number of corpuscles must rise to a definite and ascertainable quantity? Wherefore, seeing that we do not admit that any particle is so small as to be insusceptible of further diminution, what compels us to admit that any assemblage of parts is so great that it cannot possibly be increased? Is there perchance some important truth in what I once suggested confidentially to Alypius, that since number, as cognisable by the understanding, is susceptible of infinite augmentation, but not of infinite diminution, because we cannot reduce it lower than to the units, number, as cognisable by the senses (and this, of course, just means quantity of material parts or bodies), is on the contrary susceptible of infinite diminution, but has a limit to its augmentation? This may perhaps be the reason why philosophers justly pronounce riches to be found in the things about which the understanding is exercised, and poverty in those things with which the senses have to do. For what is poorer than to be susceptible of endless diminution? and what more truly rich than to increase as much as you will, to go whither you will, to return when you will and as far as you will, and to have as the object of your love that which is large and cannot be made less? For whoever understands these numbers loves nothing so much as the unit; and no wonder, seeing that it is through it that all the other numbers can be loved by him. But to return: Why is the world the size that it is, seeing that it might have been greater or less? I do not know: its dimensions are what they are, and I can go no further. Again: Why is the world in the place it now occupies rather than in another? Here, too, it is better not to put the question; for whatever the answer might be, other questions would still remain. This one thing' greatly perplexed me, that bodies could be infinitely subdivided. To this perhaps an answer has been given, by setting over against it the converse property of abstract number [viz. its susceptibility of infinite multiplication].

3. But stay: let us see what is that indefinable object which is suggested to the mind. This world with which our senses acquaint us is surely the image of some world which the understanding apprehends Now it is a strange phenomenon which we observe in the images which mirrors reflect to us, — that however great the mirrors be, they do not make the images larger than the objects placed before them, be they ever so small; but in small mirrors, such as the pupil of the eye, although a large surface be placed over against them, a very small image is formed, proportioned to the size of the mirror. Therefore if the mirrors be reduced in size, the images reflected in them are also reduced; but it is not possible for the images to be enlarged by enlarging the mirrors. Surely there is in this something which might reward further investigation; but meanwhile, I must sleep. Moreover, if I seem to Nebridius to be happy, it is not because I seek, but because perchance I have found something. What, then, is that something? Is it that chain of reasoning which I am wont so to caress as if it were my sole treasure, and in which perhaps I take too much delight ?

4. "Of what parts do we consist?" "Of soul and body " "Which of these is the nobler ?" "Doubtless the soul." "What do men praise in the body?" "Nothing that I see but comeliness." "And what is comeliness of body?" "Harmony of parts in the form, together with a certain agreeableness of colour." "is this comeliness better where it is true or where it is illusive?" "Unquestionably it is better where it is true." "And where is it found true? In the soul." "The soul, therefore, is to be loved more than the body; but in what part of the soul does this truth reside ?" "In the mind and understanding." "With what has the understanding to contend?" "With the senses " "Must we then resist the senses with all our might ?" "Certainly." "What, then, if the things with which the senses acquaint us give us pleasure?" "We must prevent them from doing so." "How?" "By acquiring the habit of doing without them, and desiring better things." "But if the soul die, what then?" "Why, then truth dies, or intelligence is not truth, or intelligence is not a part of the soul, Or that which has some part immortal is liable to die: conclusions all of which I demonstrated long ago in my Soliloquies to be absurd because impossible; and I am firmly persuaded that this is the case, but somehow through the influence of custom in the experience of evils we are terrified, and hesitate. But even granting, finally, that the soul dies, which I do not see to be in any way possible, it remains nevertheless true that a happy life does not consist in the evanescent joy which sensible objects can yield: this I have pondered deliberately, and proved."

Perhaps it is on account of reasonings such as these that I have been judged by my own Nebridius to be, if not absolutely happy, at least in a sense happy. I,et me also judge myself to be happy: for what do I lose thereby, or why should I grudge to think well of my own estate? Thus I talked with myself, then prayed according to my custom, and fell asleep.

5. These things I have thought good to write to you. For it gratifies me that you should thank me when I write freely to you whatever crosses my mind; and to whom can I more willingly write nonsense than to one whom I cannot displease? But if it depends upon fortune whether one: man love another or not, look to it, I pray you, how can I be justly called happy when I am I so elated with joy by fortune's favours, and avowedly desire that my store of such good things may be largely increased? For those who are most truly wise, and whom alone it is right to pronounce happy, have maintained that fortune's favours ought not to be the objects of either fear or desire.

Now here I used the word "cupi:" will you tell me whether it should be "cupi" or "cupiri?" And I am glad this has come in the way, for I wish you to instruct me in the inflexion of this verb "cupio," since, when I compare similar verbs with it, my uncertainty as to the proper inflexion increases. For "curio" is like "fugio," "sapio," "jacio," "capio;" but whether the infinitive mood is "fugiri" or "fugi," "sapiri" or "sapi," I do not know. I might regard "jaci" and "capi" as parallel instances answering my question as to the others, were I not afraid lest some grammarian should "catch" and "throw" me like a ball in sport wherever he pleased, by reminding me that the form of the supines "jactum" and "captum" is different from that found in the other verbs "fugitum," "cupitum" and "sapitum." As to these three words, moreover, I am likewise ignorant whether the penultimate is to be pronounced long and with circumflex accent, or without accent and short. I would like to provoke you to write a reasonably long letter. I beg you to let me have what it will take some time to read. For it is far beyond my power to express the pleasure which I find in reading what you write.

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.

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