‘Augustine was a highly credulous thinker’: a tale of monsters and portents

I was reading today a book by Josie P. Campbell titled ‘Popular Culture in the Middle Ages’. Here’s what the author wrote about Augustine (p. 19):

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According to Campbell, ‘Augustine was a highly credulous thinker’, not just credulous, but highly so. I felt rather favourable towards an exposition in support of this adventurous claim. Augustine wrote vigorously against Apuleius in book 8 of the City of God; in regards to Pliny’s creatures, he concluded “cautiously and guardedly”, that “either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam.” (City of God, XVI, 8). This skepticism does not ring of credulity. As for Aristotle’s ‘rationalism’, the author is making too simplistic a claim: neither was Aristotle a rationalist, nor Augustine a credulous writer. Both thinkers approached the miraculous within their divergent theories of providence. That Augustine allowed God – on metaphysical and scriptural grounds – to intervene in human affairs does not mean that he was ipso facto gullible, or more so than Aristotle who had espoused a more mechanistic worldview. I would be more inclined to accept that Augustine may seem ‘credulous’ according to a modern naturalistic view of things which a medievalist should refrain from applying to his subject matter.

Nevertheless, Campbell is guilty of a greater sin than simply allowing his modern prejudice to blur his historical lens. In the last part of his cursory attack on Augustine, he references Augustine’s supposed view of monstrous births. Let’s have a look at what Augustine really wrote on the subject in book 10, chapter 16 of the cited City of God:

“As for those miracles which history ascribes to the gods of the heathen—I do not refer to those prodigies which at intervals happen from some unknown physical causes, and which are arranged and appointed by Divine Providence, such as monstrous births, and unusual meteorological phenomena, whether startling only, or also injurious, and which are said to be brought about and removed by communication with demons, and by their most deceitful craft”

One can see that, for Augustine, the ‘freakish births of animals’ are not seen as portentous, but only as ‘arranged and appointed’ by Divine Providence. That God chose them to occur does not imply that they carry a significance about future events, in other words, that they are portentous and communicative. This appears to be a crass misreading of Augustine which coupled with the other arguments in this paragraph, makes one doubt Campbell’s academic honesty.

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2 thoughts on “‘Augustine was a highly credulous thinker’: a tale of monsters and portents”

  1. Everything else aside, including Augustine in a book about ‘Popular Culture in the Middle Ages’ (as opposed to his reception in same) seems a little odd. He was certainly a lot of things…but medieval, he was not.

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    1. I’m not sure anyone claimed Augustine was ‘medieval’. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong to mention Augustin when discussing popular belief – so much of it was shaped by his ideas. In any case, Augustine was (wrongfully) invoked for his ideas of the monstrous, just like Tacitus and Eusebius, who are not ‘medieval figures’ either.

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