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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 103

Letter 103 (A.D. 409)

To My Lord and Brother, Augustine, Rightly and Justly Worthy of Esteem and of All Possible Honour, Nectarius Sends Greeting in the Lord.

1. In reading the letter of your Excellency, in which you have overthrown the worship of idols and the ritual of their temples, I seemed to myself to hear the voice of a philosopher, not of such a philosopher as the academician of whom they say, that having neither new doctrine to propound nor earlier statements of his own to defend, he was wont to sit in gloomy corners on the ground absorbed in some deep reverie, with his knees drawn back to his forehead, and his head buried between them, contriving how he might as a detractor assail the discoveries or cavil at the statements by which others had earned renown; nay, the form which rose under the spell of your eloquence and stood before my eyes was rather that of the great statesman Cicero, who, having been crowned with laurels for saving the lives of many of his countrymen, carried the trophies won in his forensic victories into the wondering schools of Greek philosophy, when, as one pausing for breath, he laid down the trumpet of sonorous voice and language which he had blown with blast of just indignation against those who had broken the laws and conspired against the life of the republic, and, adopting the fashion of the Grecian mantle, unfastened and threw back over his shoulders the toga's ample folds.

2. I therefore listened with pleasure when you urged us to the worship and religion of the only supreme God; and when you counselled us to look to our heavenly fatherland, I received the exhortation with joy. For you were obviously speaking to me not of any city confined by encircling ramparts, nor of that commonwealth on this earth which the writings of philosophers have mentioned and declared to have all mankind as its citizens, but of that City which is inhabited and possessed by the great God, and by the spirits which have earned this recompense from Him, to which, by diverse roads and pathways, all religions aspire,— the City which we are not able in language to describe, but which perhaps we might by thinking apprehend. But while this City ought therefore to be, above all others, desired and loved, I am nevertheless of opinion that we are bound not to prove unfaithful to our own native land—the land which first imparted to us the enjoyment of the light of day, in which we were nursed and educated, and (to pass to what is specially relevant in this case) the land by rendering services to which men obtain a home prepared for them in heaven after the death of the body; for, in the opinion of the most learned, promotion to that celestial City is granted to those men who have deserved well of the cities which gave them birth, and a higher experience of fellowship with God is the portion of those who are proved to have contributed by their counsels or by their labours to the welfare of their native land.

As to the remark which you were pleased wittily to make regarding our town, that it has been made conspicuous not so much by the achievements of warriors as by the conflagrations of incendiaries, and that it has produced thorns rather than flowers, this is not the severest reproof that might have been given, for we know that flowers are for the most part borne on thorny bushes. For who does not know that even roses grow on briars, and that in the bearded heads of grain the ears are guarded by spikes, and that, in general, pleasant and painful things are found blended together?

3. The last statement in your Excellency's letter was, that neither capital punishment nor bloodshed is demanded in order to compensate for the wrong done to the Church, but that the offenders must be deprived of the possessions which they most fear to lose. But in my deliberate judgment, though, of course, I may be mistaken, it is a more grievous thing to be deprived of one's property than to be deprived of life. For, as you know, it is an observation frequently recurring in the whole range of literature, that death terminates the experience of all evils, but that a life of indigence only confers upon us an eternity of wretchedness; for it is worse to live miserably than to put an end to our miseries by death. This fact, also, is declared by the whole nature and method of your work, in which you support the poor, minister healing to the diseased, and apply remedies to the bodies of those who are in pain, and, in short, make it your business to prevent the afflicted from feeling the protracted continuance of their sufferings.

Again, as to the degree of demerit in the faults of some as compared with others, it is of no importance what the quality of the fault may seem to be in a case in which forgiveness is craved. For, in the first place, if penitence procures forgiveness and expiates the crime— and surely he is penitent who begs pardon and humbly embraces the feet of the party whom he has offended— and if, moreover, as is the opinion of some philosophers, all faults are alike, pardon ought to be bestowed upon all without distinction. One of our citizens may have spoken somewhat rudely: this was a fault; another may have perpetrated an insult or an injury: this was equally a fault; another may have violently taken what was not his own: this is reckoned a crime; another may have attacked buildings devoted to secular or to sacred purposes: he ought not to be for this crime placed beyond the reach of pardon. Finally, there would be no occasion for pardon if there were no foregoing faults.

4. Having now replied to your letter, not as the letter deserved, but to the best of my ability, such as it is, I beg and implore you (oh that I were in your presence, that you might also see my tears!) to consider again and again who you are, what is your professed character, and what is the business to which your life is devoted. Reflect upon the appearance presented by a town from which men doomed to torture are dragged forth; think of the lamentations of mothers and wives, of sons and of fathers; think of the shame felt by those who may return, set at liberty indeed, but having undergone the torture; think what sorrow and groaning the sight of their wounds and scars must renew. And when you have pondered all these things, first think of God, and think of your good name among men; or rather think of what friendly charity and the bonds of common humanity require at your hands, and seek to be praised not by punishing but by pardoning the offenders. And such things may indeed be said regarding your treatment of those whom actual guilt condemns on their own confession: to these persons you have, out of regard to your religion, granted pardon; and for this I shall always praise you. But now it is scarcely possible to express the greatness of that cruelty which pursues the innocent, and summons those to stand trial on a capital charge of whom it is certain that they had no share in the crimes alleged. If it so happen that they are acquitted, consider, I beseech you, with what ill-will their acquittal must be regarded by their accusers who of their own accord dismissed the guilty from the bar, but let the innocent go only when they were defeated in their attempts against them.

May the supreme God be your keeper, and preserve you as a bulwark of His religion and an ornament to our country.

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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. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102103.htm>.

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