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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 13

Letter 13 (A.D. 389)

To Nebridius Augustine Sends Greeting.

1. I do not feel pleasure in writing of the subjects which I was wont to discuss; I am not at liberty to write of new themes. I see that the one would not suit you, and that for the other I have no leisure. For, since I left you, neither opportunity nor leisure has been given me for taking up and revolving the things which we are accustomed to investigate together. The winter nights are indeed too long, and they are not entirely spent in sleep by me; but when I have leisure, other subjects [than those which we used to discuss] present themselves as having a prior claim on my consideration. What, then, am I to do? Am I to be to you as one dumb, who cannot speak, or as one silent, who will not speak? Neither of these things is desired, either by you or by me. Come, then, and bear what the end of the night succeeded in eliciting from me during the time in which it was devoted to following out the subject of this letter.

2. You cannot but remember that a question often agitated between us, and which kept us agitated, breathless, and excited, was one concerning a body or kind of body, which belongs perpetually to the soul, and which, as you recollect, is called by some its vehicle. It is manifest that this thing, if it moves from place to place, is not cognisable by the understanding. But whatever is not cognisable by the understanding cannot be understood. It is not, however, utterly impossible to form an opinion approximating to the truth concerning a thing which is outside the province of the intellect, if it lies within the province of the senses. But when a thing is beyond the province of the intellect and of the senses, the speculations to which it gives rise are too baseless and trifling; and the thing of which we treat now is of this nature, if indeed it exists. Why, then, I ask, do we not finally dismiss this unimportant question, and with prayer to God raise ourselves to the supreme serenity of the Highest existing nature?

3. Perhaps you may here reply: Although bodies cannot be perceived by the understanding, we can perceive with the understanding many things concerning material objects; e.g. we know that matter exists. For who will deny this, or affirm that in this we have to do with the probable rather than the true? Thus, though matter itself lies among things probable, it is a most indisputable truth that something like it exists in nature. Matter itself is therefore pronounced to be an object cognisable by the senses; but the assertion of its existence is pronounced to be a truth cognisable by the intellect, for it cannot be perceived otherwise. And so this unknown body, about which we inquire, upon which the soul depends for its power to move from place to place, may possibly be cognisable by senses more powerful than we possess, though not by ours; and at all events, the question whether it exists is one which may be solved by our understandings.

4. If you intend to say this, let me remind you that the mental act we call understanding is done by us in two ways: either by the mind and reason within itself, as when we understand that the intellect itself exists; or by occasion of suggestion from the senses, as in the case above mentioned, when we understand that matter exists. In the first of these two kinds of acts we understand through ourselves, i.e. by asking instruction of God concerning that which is within us; but in the second we understand by asking instruction of God regarding that of which intimation is given to us by the body and the senses. If these things be found true, no one can by his understanding discover whether that body of which you speak exists or not, but the person to whom his senses have given some intimation concerning it. If there be any living creature to which the senses give such intimation, since we at least see plainly that we are not among the number, I regard the conclusion established which I began to state a little ago, that the question [about the vehicle of the soul] is one which does not concern us. I wish you would consider this over and over again, and take care to let me know the product of your consideration.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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