11 March, 2006

Augustine and the "mathematicians"

When wandering university halls, one is likely to find the following quote of St. Augustine posted on at least one office door:

The good Christian should beware the mathematician and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of hell.
I have inquired from such professors where Augustine wrote such a thing. They always reply with a smile and a shrug, Oh, I don't know; I just read it somewhere and thought it was funny.

Personally, I don't see why a professor should find such a quote funny. I especially don't understand why a professor should post such a quote without wondering about, let alone citing, the source. (What curious conceptions of scholarship these modern academics embrace.) Of course, I am at something of a disadvantage; considering myself a Catholic mathematician gives me a humorless quality in such circumstances. (As my mom would gladly point out, I take some things too seriously.) Even worse, I have the disadvantage of actually admiring St. Augustine's thought and writings, which, short of a source, would render my doubts of the quote unbelievable.

Nevertheless, I like to fancy at times that I prize truth above ideology; if Augustine really said such a colossally stupid thing, I really would be keen to learn where.

Mirabile dictu! today I was browsing Wikiquote and came across the very same statement — only this time, it was sourced to De Genesi ad Litteram, II, xvii.37. Excellent! Now I could look up the original and translate the quote for myself. Both the Latin original and an Italian translation can be found at this excellent website. (Some English translations are also present, but by no means all, and it wasn't immediately apparent to me that this one was present.) The Italian agrees substantially with my translation, which is a far cry from the garbage rendered above. Based on this, I corrected the Wikiquote entry and added the following notes:

De Genesi ad Litteram
  • Quapropter bono christiano, sive mathematici, sive quilibet impie divinantium, maxime dicentes vera, cavendi sunt, ne consortio daemoniorum animam deceptam, pacto quodam societatis irretiant. II, xvii, 37
    • Translation: For this reason, the good Christian should beware not only numerologists, but all those who make impious divinations, above all when they tell truth. Otherwise, they may deceive the soul, and ensnare her in a pact of friendship with demons.
    • Often misattributed as: The good Christian should beware the mathematician and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of hell.
    • Note: The English mistranslation (which was given here before) was obviously written by someone who either lacked even an amateur understanding of Latin, or intended from the start to smear Augustine. Not only are liberties taken in the translation, but Augustine's use of the Latin word mathematici does not refer to mathematicians. Transliteration is not translation. That Augustine is speaking of those who predict the future is evident even in the quote here, but becomes obvious when reading the surrounding passages, which deal the occult and with astrologers. Thus, a more proper translation would be numerologists.
See also this entry on mathematicus at the Perseus project at Tufts University — and note that even "numerologist" is stretching it. Augustine refers in the previous paragraph to those who look at the constellations:
Quid ergo vanius, quam ut illas constellationes intuens mathematicus, ad eumdem horoscopum, ad eamdem lunam, diceret unum eorum a matre dilectum, alterum non dilectum?
(What therefore is more vain, than that the mathematicus should guess from those constellations, from the very same horoscope, from the very same moon, to say that one of [those twins] is loved by the mother, and the other not loved?
However, these things were blurred during Augustine's time, so I will go to the midway point, which may be a crime against truth in itself, but hardly one comparable to the colossal smear that commonly passes for the quote. Indict me if you will; let the Latin experts come in and correct it to "astrologers" if they please — yet it is sad, positively shameful and an indictment against my profession, that virtually no one has been embarassed to pass this mistranslation about and snicker at it.

24 comments:

Elliot said...

Well, that makes a lot more sense! That Augustine, of all people, would attack mathematicians is a bizarre idea. But numerologists & astrologers, yes!

I guess a lot of people have their minds made up about "those obscurantist Catholics back there in the Dark Ages." It's appalling how stupid the prejudices of highly educated people can be.

You should check back every now and then to see if anyone nefariously re-edits your Wiki post.

jack perry said...

I guess a lot of people have their minds made up about "those obscurantist Catholics back there in the Dark Ages."

What's even more appalling is that Augustine predates the "Dark Ages" by at least a century :-) so the ignorance of such folks is laid even more bare.

You should check back every now and then to see if anyone nefariously re-edits your Wiki post.

As if I had the time... :-) I may, but I feel that I left a sufficiently thorough explanation not only on the webpage, but on the Discussion page as well, that any change made will probably be changed back.

I don't even check the webpages I edit on Wikipedia... you can imagine whether I'll check this one entry at Wikiquote :-)

Elliot said...

Yeah, I thought Augustine lived in the 'late classical' period. I was just making fun of imaginary straw men whose historical knowledge was minimal. :-)

Though judging from the number of people who want to have serious discussions with me about The Da Vinci Code maybe they're not so imaginary...
:-(

It seems to me that there's one popular understanding of history which I suppose stems somewhat from Gibbon:

"The Roman Empire was pretty great and enlightened. However, due to mismanagement and the rise of superstitious, sexually repressed, fundamentalist Christianity, it was stifled and fell. There followed a thousand years of 'Dark Ages,' during which the biggest innovation was The Black Death. Then came the Renaissance, when people celebrated their open-minded pagan roots and cast off the shackles of Christianity. From then on, everything was mostly happy, save for a continuing rear-guard action fought by those religious nuts, such as the Inquisition, the Galileo affair, or the Scopes Monkey Trial. Thankfully, science and sexual liberation has reigned triumphant, thanks to people like Voltaire, The Marquis De Sade, and Carl Sagan. The end."

;-) Ok, so I'm joking. Mostly.

Brandon said...

Augustine seems to be a continual victim of this sort of thing. This shows up in the fact that he is constantly accused of sexism, despite being one of the most explicitly pro-woman and egalitarian of all the Church Fathers. Fr. Edmund Hill (who made a really lovely English translation of De Trinitate) has a good essay on the subject. Augustine is certainly not perfect on the question, but given the society in which he lived he was absolutely amazing.

And these are not the only kind of cases. I wonder what it is about Augustine that attracts such things.

Clemens said...

The whole era, from Constantine to Charlemagne suffers from this kind of misinformation. I spend a lot of professional time trying to correct it!

an academic

(btw, Gibbon had it about right but his sense of humor wasn't understood!)

jack perry said...

Brandon: I wonder what it is about Augustine that attracts such things.

Authority? :-)

Clemens: (btw, Gibbon had it about right but his sense of humor wasn't understood!)

Wait, Gibbon had it about right? I've heard much differently, even along the lines of: how much would you trust an 18th century writer on any other matter? (especially historical)

See for example this webpage: Despite his errors, Gibbon's work has endured as few works of history have

Alessandra said...

It is really strange that the quote has been misquoted uncritically and just passed on like that. I mean, nowadays, I would think that few mathematicians manage (because of total lack of interest) to be fluent in Latin, but this wasn't the case a couple of generaltions back.

Good for you for setting the record straight.

jack perry said...

It is really strange that the quote has been misquoted uncritically and just passed on like that.

I don't find it strange at all. People pass along information uncritically all the time, especially if it fits in with their preconceived notion — and most people's preconceived notions of the Catholic Church would fit in quite well with that quote of St. Augustine's. Indeed, the only reason I bothered to look up the original, is that the quote and its use struck me as quite odd for St. Augustine. The only reason that is the case, is that I have read and admired much of St. Augustine. Had the quote been by William Jennings Bryan (say), I would probably not have bothered to look it up, in part because I'm mostly unfamiliar with his ideas; in part because it doesn't much offend my preconceived notions of the man; in part because I just don't care that much about him.

Passing along such information is not really a question of intelligence, but of character; despite Socrates' belief that people would do what is good if only they knew what is good, academics are in general no better than your average person — and many of them, drunk on delusions of intelligectual superiority, are substantially worse. It would be very easy for me to give in to temptations to mock my students (and I may even have done so, here for example).

You could also consider the recent stem cell forgery by the Korean scientist — he was a scientist who should have known better. The scientists working with him should also have known better. The scientists who are so gung-ho about embryo farms from which to cultivate embryonic stem-cells, and who created the atmosphere in which such unethical behavior and intellectual sloppiness could slip past what should have been a rigorous peer-review process, should also have known better. Intellectually, they do. And if I were to imagine that I'm any better than they are, that I would never do the same — that would be the first step towards doing something even worse. (See for example the first quote here.)

That's nothing, though; you should hear professors bad-mouth an administration sometimes... :-)

Alessandra said...

most people's preconceived notions of the Catholic Church would fit in quite well with that quote of St. Augustine's
=====================
And isn't it because nowadays practically no one reads St.Augustine? or much about that historic period anyways?

But this was less the case a few generations back. Along with the study of Latin.

I, for example, have no idea what St.Augustine (or the Church at that time) thought about mathematics or science and how they differed from other periods in Church history.

Regarding another topic, I would also be interested in knowing when European society changed the numeral system from Roman to Arabic. Do you know?

jack perry said...

And isn't it because nowadays practically no one reads St.Augustine? or much about that historic period anyways?

I don't think it's because no one reads it. I think it's a self-feeding cycle. No one reads St. Augustine, because no one thinks he would say something other than their preconceived notions. Their preconceived notions come from people who claim to know what St. Augustine would think — but they haven't read him either, or if they have, only a few parts and not the whole. Do you see the chain?

Even I haven't read the whole of St. Augustine; I haven't even read much more than a small part of his works. I've read enough of City of God, for example, to know that he criticized the pagans who claimed that Roman women raped by barbarians during a sack of Rome enjoyed the rape, or brought it on themselves. It may be hard to believe, but it took a Christian author to correct this (not uncommon) pagan opinion. Yet as Brandon pointed out, everything you read about Augustine in the popular press would suggest that he was anti-woman, that indeed Christians of that period were anti-woman, while pagans were quite enlightened. In some cases, the evidence for this is as ridiculous as arguing that pagans had women priestesses, but Christians only had male priests, therefore Christians were inherently anti-woman. One's opinion of rape, apparently, has no bearing on one's being sexist.

I, for example, have no idea what St.Augustine (or the Church at that time) thought about mathematics or science...

It should be noted first off that mathematics and science as they exist today simply did not exist at the time of Augustine. Mathematics such as Euclid had done was more or less dead by that time; the Romans and Greeks had lost interest well before the Christians came along.

That said, there were Christians who engaged in what science there was, so that John Philoponus, the head of Plato's Academy, could disprove Aristotle's assertions about dropping a heavy object and a light object from a tall building centuries before Galileo came into being.

St. Augustine was a philosopher of the Platonic school, which means that he believed in truth, and believed that it could be known and understood, that it was worth searching for, and that it could be found by dialogues in which different people gave their opinions. Augustine took Christianity and explaining it in Platonic terms, then turning around and creating new Christian ideas based on these Platonic terms. His notion of the creation of life has a few ideas in common with evolution, although one would not find his ideas consistent with Darwin's ideas. All of these facts suggest to me that Augustine would have been quite "pro-science", had he been alive today.

I would also be interested in knowing when European society changed the numeral system from Roman to Arabic. Do you know?

It was a slow process through the late middle ages, as people began to realize that the Hindu-Arabic numerals made arithmetic much easier. People had trouble accepting it, because they were used to working with the abacus and their work was based on the structure of Roman numerals. Fibonacci's book Liber Abaci was written in part to convince Europeans to use the Hindu-Arabic numerals, showing that one could still use them with the abacus. You can read a little more about it here and here

jack perry said...

I looked for some backup on my claim about Augustine and rape (it's been ten years since I read it). Look at this webpage to see what I meant to refer.

Alessandra said...

http://www.phy6.org/outreach/edu/roman.htm

this is interesting - I've always wondered about it.

Same with knowledge about architecture around that time.

Alessandra said...

No one reads St. Augustine, because no one thinks he would say something other than their preconceived notions. Their preconceived notions come from people who claim to know what St. Augustine would think — but they haven't read him either, or if they have, only a few parts and not the whole. Do you see the chain?
========================

It's not a question of not understanding this chain.

My experience is totally different. I don't know if I have come acroos across any summary of St. Augustine's thoughts before last year, but even if I had heard anything in the past, it did not become part of my current memory database.

Last year, in a philosophy course, we looked at how he thought about the question of divine and human will. Before that, as far as I remember, I had not come across any preconceived notions about him (aside from hearing his name mentioned and the fact that he is ancient and a Saint). I have to say that just that does not inspire me to read anyone.

And I can tell you that for many people nowadays, it's not a set of preconceived mistinterpretations, there is just a big blank of nothing re St.Augustine, he's fallen off many general school curricula.

St. Augustine will only figure in some kinds of curricula (obviously religious and philosophical ones), for many others, he is totally absent, even though he is one of the classic "big name" thinkers.

jack perry said...

I can tell you that for many people nowadays, it's not a set of preconceived mistinterpretations, there is just a big blank of nothing re St.Augustine, he's fallen off many general school curricula.

Of course. I am referring to people who could or would read Augustine otherwise. There are a great many educated people who have a vague notion of St. Augustine, and whose notions go no further than preconceptions. These people turn around and teach these preconceptions to other people. This is quite common. I, for example, received such misinformation and held a negative opinion for a long time; I have known Catholic seminarians (!) and priests (!!!) who weren't reticent about spreading such misinformation. This is what I'm referring to, not to the vast majority of people who have never heard of him, let alone have any sort of opinion of him.

Am I misunderstanding you?

Alessandra said...

Am I misunderstanding you?

Not now. You had given the impression you thought I hadn't understood your point about preconceptions, when, in fact, I was pointing to another reason other than distorted preconceptions that make people nowadays not read and therefore not know anything correct about St. Augustine.

These people turn around and teach these preconceptions to other people. This is quite common.

Yep, I know. Wasn't disputing that though.

Peter said...

The incorrect translation was published in "Mathematics in Western Culture" by Morris Kline in 1953. It was already in common use before that.

Here's a translation of the whole of that passage by someone who is neither anti-Augustine nor ignorant of Latin. It is quite similar to yours. The author is J.H.Taylor:

"Hence, we must admit that when astrologers speak the truth, they are speaking by a mysterious instinct that moves a man's mind without his knowing it. When this happens for the purpose of deceiving men, it is the work of evil spirits. To these spirits some knowledge of the truth about the temporal order has been granted, partly by reason of their keen and subtle senses, since they possess bodies of a much more subtle nature than ours, partly because of their shrewdness due to the experience they have had over the long ages they have lived, partly because the good angels reveal to them what they themselves have learnt from Almighty God, at the command of Him who distributes man's merits by the right principles of His hidden justice. But sometimes these wicked spirits also feign the power of divination and foretell what they themselves intend to do. Hence, a devout Christian must avoid astrologers and all impious soothsayers, especially when they tell the truth, for fear of leading his soul into error by consorting with demons and entangling himself with the bonds of such association."

The word "mathematicus" is usually translated as either "mathematician" or "astrologer". According to the OED it still meant astrologer in English until the early 18th century.

In St. Augustine's time astrology and numerolgy were chief branches of mathematics, just as statistics and computer science are today. The intent was the same, to gain advantage over others by predicting the future based on a small sample in the hope that it might be correct within 4%, 19 times out of 20.

Anonymous said...

It appears there was some deification of numbers during and after the lifetime of Pythagoras of Samos. Collusion with astrologers and fortune tellers would be inevitable. To be credible an astrologer would have to assume the credentials of a "Mathematician". If this was so, then the Good Saint was justified based on what he saw.

Today rigorous proofs prove superstitions out of existence. Some Catholic Priests are counted among famous mathematicians and scientists.

jack perry said...

Thank you, Peter and Anonymous, for the comments. Someone has apparently updated Wikiquote further (perhaps Peter?) with the unquestionably correct translation, and I am grateful for it.

Today rigorous proofs prove superstitions out of existence. Some Catholic Priests are counted among famous mathematicians and scientists.

Copernicus, Saccheri, and Mendel come to mind, although Copernicus was only a canon. (Still clergy.)

Anonymous said...

A 'Mathematicus' is often used in silver and Carolingian Latin to refer explicitly to the 'astrologer' who advocates for prognostication via the stars, and does not merely track the movements of heavenly bodies.

jack perry said...

I think it's safe to say that Augustine does not qualify as Carolingian Latin, and from what I read he doesn't qualify under the Silver Age either. On the other hand Augustine likes between those ages, them so what you say seems relevant. Thank you very much for the comment.

PS: This thread of comments will never end, will it? My one contribution to civilization :-)

couchpotato said...

The original mis-translated quote appears in Morris Kline's book "mathematics in western Culture" published in 1953. Hence its popularity on academic notice boards. Astrologer is probably as good a translation as any of the term rendered as mathematician in the quote.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the quote several times, and I never imagined that anyone would seriously believe Augustine, speaking in the fourth century, was talking about modern mathematics that wouldn't exist for over a thousand years.

Personally, it seems magnificently obvious that Augustine, living in the fourth century, was not talking about people who wouldn't exist for over a thousand years, but was talking about the mathematicians of his day: those who prognosticated future events based on the motions of the stars.

And I don't think this obvious fact makes the quote any less humorous. As a mathematician, I am of course interested in the history of how people used to think about mathematics and planetary motion (the early stages of modern mathematics) and number and etc. The Pythagorean cults, the church, and etc. And of course it's not any less ridiculous of Augustine to warn that Astrology is "convening with demons" than it is of him to warn of modern mathematics: of course Astrologists in the fourth century were not convening with demons: they were just making up a bunch of bollocks with good intentions, like Augustine himself.

jack perry said...

I've seen the quote several times, and I never imagined that anyone would seriously believe Augustine, speaking in the fourth century, was talking about modern mathematics that wouldn't exist for over a thousand years.

I would have believed it, back in my younger past, & lots of people certainly do. It fits into the religion v. science war very well.

I reckon Augustine would find it humorous today.

BTW, I thought I had written an update somewhere on this weblog, stating how embarrassed I was at the tone I took. Right now, I can't find it. So, in case it really isn't there:

I am embarrassed at the tone I adopted when writing this article.

Old Guy said...

I used to be a mathematician, a Catholic and a fluent reader of medieval latin.

I've seldom been at a catholic college math department where you can't see this.

I think it's funny, it can't apply to mathematics and I always translated it for them as "numerologist".

For me, no big deal.