Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume III/Doctrinal Treatises of St. Augustin/On the Profit of Believing/Section 25
25. Wherefore it now remains to consider, in what manner we ought not to follow these, who profess that they will lead by reason. For how we may without fault follow those who bid us to believe, hath been already said: but unto these who make promises of reason certain think that they come, not only without blame, but also with some praise: but it is not so. For there are two (classes of) persons, praiseworthy in religion; one of those who have already found, whom also we must needs judge most blessed; another of those who are seeking with all earnestness and in the right way. The first, therefore, are already in very possession, the other on the way, yet on that way whereby they are most sure to arrive. There are three other kinds of men altogether to be disapproved of and detested. One is of those who hold an opinion, that is, of those who think that they know what they know not. Another is of those who are indeed aware that they know not, but do not so seek as to be able to find. A third is of those who neither think that they know, nor wish to seek. There are also three things, as it were bordering upon one another, in the minds of men well worth distinguishing; understanding, belief, opinion. And, if these be considered by themselves, the first is always without fault, the second sometimes with fault, the third never without fault. For the understanding of matters great, and honorable, and even divine, is most blessed. But the understanding of things unnecessary is no injury; but perhaps the learning was an injury, in that it took up the time of necessary matters. But on the matters themselves that are injurious, it is not the understanding, but the doing or suffering them, that is wretched. For not, in case any understand how an enemy may be slain without danger to himself, is he guilty from the mere understanding, not the wish; and, if the wish be absent, what can be called more innocent? But belief is then worthy of blame, when either any thing is believed of God which is unworthy of Him, or any thing is over easily believed of man. But in all other matters if any believe aught, provided he understand that he knows it not, there is no fault. For I believe that very wicked conspirators were formerly put to death by the virtue of Cicero; but this I not only know not, but also I know for certain that I can by no means know. But opinion is on two accounts very base; in that both he who hath persuaded himself that he already knows, cannot learn; provided only it may be learnt; and in itself rashness is a sign of a mind not well disposed. For even if any suppose that he know what I said of Cicero, (although it be no hindrance to him from learning, in that the matter itself is incapable of being grasped by any knowledge;) yet, (in that he understands not that there is a great difference, whether any thing be grasped by sure reason of mind, which we call understanding, or whether for practical purposes it be entrusted to common fame or writing, for posterity to believe it,) he assuredly errs, and no error is without what is base. What then we understand, we owe to reason; what we believe, to authority; what we have an opinion on, to error. But every one who understands also believes, and also every one who has an opinion believes; not every one who believes understands, no one who has an opinion understands. Therefore if these three things be referred unto the five kinds of men, which we mentioned a little above; that is, two kinds to be approved, which we set first, and three that remain faulty; we find that the first kind, that of the blessed, believe the truth itself; but the second kind, that of such as are earnest after, and lovers of, the truth, believe authority. In which kinds, of the two, the act of belief is praiseworthy. But in the first of the faulty kinds, that is, of those who have an opinion that they know what they know not, there is an altogether faulty credulity. The other two kinds that are to be disapproved believe nothing, both they who seek the truth despairing of finding it, and they who seek it not at all. And this only in matters which pertain unto any system of teaching. For in the other business of life, I am utterly ignorant by what means a man can believe nothing. Although in the case of those also they who say that in practical matters they follow probabilities, would seem rather to be unable to know than unable to believe. For who believes not what he approves? or how is what they follow probable, if it be not approved? Wherefore there may be two kinds of such as oppose the truth: one of those who assail knowledge alone, not faith; the other of those who condemn both: and yet again, I am ignorant whether these can be found in matters of human life. These things have been said, in order that we might understand, that, in retaining faith, even of those things which as yet we comprehend not, we are set free from the rashness of such as have an opinion. For they, who say that we are to believe nothing but what we know, are on their guard against that one name “opining,” which must be confessed to be base and very wretched, but, if they consider carefully that there is a very great difference, whether one think that he knows, or moved by some authority believe that which he understands that he knows not, surely he will escape the charge of error, and inhumanity, and pride.
- cf. Retract. b. i. ch. xiv. 2. “I also said, ‘For there are two &c.’ In these words of mine if ‘those who have already found’ whom we have said to be ‘now in possession,’ are in such sort understood to be ‘most happy,’ as that they are so not in this life, but in that we hope for, and aim at by the path of faith, the meaning is free from error: for they are to be judged to have found that which is to be sought, who are now there, whither we by seeking and believing, that is by keeping the path of faith, do seek to come. But if they are thought to be or to have been such in this life that seems to me not to be true: not that in this life no truth at all can be found that can be discerned by the mind, not believed on faith; but because it is but so much, what there is of it, as not to make men ‘most blessed.’ For neither is that which the Apostle says, We see now through a glass in a riddle and now I know in part (1 Cor. xiii. 12), incapable of being discerned by the mind. It is discerned, clearly, but does not yet make us most blessed. For that makes men most blessed which he saith, but then face to face, and, then I shall know even as I am known. They that have found this, they are to be said to stand in possession of bliss, to which leads that path of faith which we keep, and whither we desire to arrive at by believing. But who are those most blessed, who are already in that possession whither this path leads, is a great question. And for the holy Angels indeed, there is no question but they be there. But of holy men already departed, whether so much may yet be said of them as that they stand already in that possession, is fairly made a question. For they are already freed from the corruptible body that weigheth down the soul (Wisd. 9.), but they still wait for the redemption of their body (Rom. 8.), and their flesh resteth in hope, nor is yet glorified in the incorruption that is to come. (Ps. 16.) But whether for all that they are none the less qualified to contemplate the truth with the eyes of the heart, as it is said, Face to face, there is not space to discuss here.”
- cf. Retract. b. i. ch. 14. 2. “Also what I said, ‘for to know great and noble and even divine things,’ we should refer to the same blessedness. For in this life whatsoever there be of it known amounts not to perfect bliss, because that part of it which remains unknown is far more without all comparison.”
- cf. Retract. b. i. ch. xiv. 3. “And what I said ‘that there is a great difference whether anything be grasped by sure reason of mind, which we call knowing, or whether for practical purposes it be entrusted to common fame or writing, for posterity to believe it,’ and presently after, ‘what therefore we know, we owe to reason; what we believe to authority;’ is not to be so taken as that in conversation we should fear to say we ‘know’ what we believe of suitable witnesses. For when we speak strictly we are said to know that only which by the mind’s own firm reason we comprehend. But when we speak in words more suited to common use, as also Divine Scripture speaketh, we should not hesitate to say we know both what we have perceived with our bodily senses, and what we believe of trustworthy witnesses, whilst however between one and the other we are aware what difference exists.”