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Fathers of the Church

Letter XIV


”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 discusses for his friend Nebridius the similarities and differences among human beings as compared with those among the heavenly bodies; he concludes with remarks about the relation of both human nature and individual humans to God’s creative Word.


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 389 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. I have preferred to reply to your last letter, not because I undervalued your earlier questions, or enjoyed them less, but because in answering you I undertake a greater task than you think. For although you enjoined me to send you a superlatively long letter, I have not so much leisure as you imagine, and as you know I have always wished to have, and do still wish. Ask not why it is so: for I could more easily enumerate the things by which I am hindered, than explain why I am hindered by them.

2. You ask why it is that you and I, though separate individuals, do many things which are the same, but the sun does not the same as the other heavenly bodies. Of this thing I must attempt to explain the cause. Now, if you and I do the same things, the sun also does many things which the other heavenly bodies do: if in some things it does not the same as the others, this is equally true of you and me. I walk, and you walk; it is moved, and they are moved: I keep awake, and you keep awake; it shines, and they shine: I discuss, and you discuss; it goes its round, and they go their rounds. And yet there is no fitness of comparison between mental acts and things visible. If, however, as is reasonable, you compare mind with mind, the heavenly bodies, if they have any mind, must be regarded as even more uniform than men in their thoughts or contemplations, or whatever term may more conveniently express such activity in them. Moreover, as to the movements of the body, you will find, if you reflect on this with your wonted attention, that it is impossible for precisely the same thing to be done by two persons. When we walk together, do you think that we both necessarily do the same thing? Far be such thought from one of your wisdom! For the one of us who walks on the side towards the north, must either, in taking the same step as the other, get in advance of him, or walk more slowly than he does. Neither of these things is perceptible by the senses; but you, if I am not mistaken, look to what we know by the understanding rather than to what we learn by the senses. If, however, we move from the pole towards the south, joined and clinging to each other as closely as possible, and treading on a sheet of marble or even ivory smooth and level, a perfect identity is as unattainable in our motions as in the throbbings of our pulses, or in our figures and faces. Put us aside, and place in our stead the sons of Glaucus, and you gain nothing by this substitution: for even in these twins so perfectly resembling each other, the necessity for the motions of each being peculiarly his own, is as great as the necessity for their birth as separate individuals.

3. You will perhaps say: "The difference in this case is one which only reason can discover; but the difference between the sun and the other heavenly bodies is to the senses also patent." If you insist upon my looking to their difference in magnitude, you know how many things may be said as to the distances by which they are removed from us, and into how great uncertainty that which you speak of as obvious may thus be brought back. I may, however, concede that the actual size corresponds with the apparent size of the heavenly bodies, for I myself believe this; and I ask you to show me any one whose senses were incapable of remarking the prodigious stature of Naevius, exceeding by a foot that of the tallest man. By the way, I think you have been just too eager to discover some man to match him; and when you did not succeed in the search, have resolved to make me stretch out my letter so as to rival his dimensions. If therefore even on earth such variety in size may be seen, I think that it need not surprise us to find the like in the heavens. If, however, the thing which moves your surprise is that the light of no other heavenly body than the sun fills the day, who, I ask you, has ever been manifested to men so great as that Man whom God took into union with Himself, in another way entirely than He has taken all other holy and wise men who ever lived? for if you compare Him with other men who were wise, He is separated from them by superiority greater far than that which the sun has above the other heavenly bodies. This comparison let me charge you by all means attentively to study; for it is not impossible that to your singularly gifted mind I may have suggested, by this cursory remark, the solution of a question which you once proposed to me concerning the humanity of Christ.

4. You also ask me whether that highest Truth and highest Wisdom and Form (or Archetype) of things, by whom all things were made, and whom our creeds confess to be the only-begotten Son of God, contains the idea of mankind in general, or also of each individual of our race. A great question. My opinion is, that in the creation of man there was in Him the idea only of man generally, and not of you or me as individuals; but that in the cycle of time the idea of each individual, with all the varieties distinguishing men from each other, lives in that pure Truth. This I grant is very obscure; yet I know not by what kind of illustration light may be shed upon it, unless perhaps we betake ourselves to those sciences which lie wholly within our minds. In geometry, the idea of an angle is one thing, the idea of a square is another. As often, therefore, as I please to describe an angle, the idea of the angle, and that alone, is present to my mind; but I can never describe a square unless I fix my attention upon the idea of four angles at the same time. In like manner, every man, considered as an individual man, has been made according to one idea proper to himself; but in the making of a nation, although the idea according to which it is made be also one, it is the idea not of one, but of many men collectively. If, therefore, Nebridius is a part of this universe, as he is, and the whole universe is made up of parts, the God who made the universe could not but have in His plan the idea of all the parts. Wherefore, since there is in this idea of a very great number of men, it does not belong to man himself as such; although, on the other hand, all the individuals are in wonderful ways reduced to one. But you will consider this at your convenience. I beg you meanwhile to be content with what I have written, although I have already outdone Naevius himself.

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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