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.
Quid ergo vanius, quam ut illas constellationes intuens mathematicus, ad eumdem horoscopum, ad eamdem lunam, diceret unum eorum a matre dilectum, alterum non dilectum?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.
(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?