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from issue no. 11 - 2006


The Doctor gratiae and knowledge of the perceptual world

An interview with Father Nello Cipriani, professor at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute: «In Augustine, the idea that we can have certain knowledge of the outside world does not remain an abstract claim. He also validates it when establishing the relationship between the teaching of Scripture and the results of natural science»

Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti

With Father Nello Cipriani, an Augustinian, consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, professor at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute founded in Rome by Paul VI, who several times from the ’nineties has written in the pages of 30Days on the relevance of Saint Augustine’s thinking, we resume a conversation in truth never interrupted if not on paper. We do so urged, on the one hand, by a debate on the relationship between faith and science that recently seems to have become more embittered, and on the other by Father Cipriani’s new research that may offer clarification and a calming note precisely in this area.

A fragment of the Zodiac with the image of Aquarius. This detail, like all those reproduced , comes from the cycle of frescoes recently uncovered in the cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati Basilica, in Rome

A fragment of the Zodiac with the image of Aquarius. This detail, like all those reproduced , comes from the cycle of frescoes recently uncovered in the cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati Basilica, in Rome

What is the subject of your most recent research?
NELLO CIPRIANI: Recently I’ve been busy with the epistemology of Saint Augustine, I’ve been aiming, that is, to go into what he meant by the word scientia. I have realized that in the first years after his conversion he still meant the term in the sense that it had in the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition. He meant scientia as the rational knowledge of eternal and immutable intelligible realities, the object of metaphysical and mathematical speculation, in the first place God. From this very intellectual concept of scientia, knowledge of contingent things, those that happen in time, were therefore excluded as also knowledge of the perceptual world. But in the period of his presbyterate, Saint Augustine made a true and proper epistemological shift, because he discovered a second scientia: the study of the Scriptures, an indispensable step for arriving at the scientia of eternal things. That discovery was the outcome of reading Saint Paul who speaks of the gift of knowledge distinct from the gift of wisdom. Thus scientia in the De doctrina christiana knowledge becomes above all the thorough study of the Scriptures conducted with a method that follows scholarly criteria. That was already a great epistemological novelty. But then in the De Trinitate (above all in books XII and XIII) Saint Augustine came to distinguish knowledge from wisdom in an even deeper way. Knowledge is no longer only the knowledge of what has happened in time, that is of the history of salvation and Christian morality both contained in the Scriptures, but includes the temporal, historical faith, of the Church in God and in eternal reward. In this concept of knowledge the object becomes still more vast: everything that is temporal and that concerns faith. The task of such scientia, that not everyone must necessarily take on, is to support the faith of believers through defense against heresy.
What might be the interest of your research into the epistemological path of Saint Augustine?
CIPRIANI: The thing is interesting because the great Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, did not include in the episteme, that is in scientia, what happens in time, while for Augustine, as I’ve said, scientia is concerned with res temporales, historical facts, and also with all natural phenomena. Now, when people speak about Augustine, very often they add the attribute “platonic”, Augustine is supposed to have adopted Platonism entirely. In fact Plato did not have much respect for knowledge derived from the senses, he thought it a doxa, an opinion, he did not allow it the possibility of providing certain knowledge. Whereas Augustine, already in the De vera religione, says explicitly that the senses do not deceive, and later on, in the De Trinitate, equally explicitly: far be it from us to claim that the things that we know through the senses are not true. Quite the opposite of Plato. Moreover, in Saint Augustine, the idea that we can have sure knowledge of the outside world does not remain an abstract affirmation. He also validates it in establishing the relationship between the teaching of the Scriptures and the results of natural science. This occurs especially in the De Genesi ad litteram, in which Saint Augustine describes as reckless the Christian who takes a Biblical expression literally, so going against the results reached with certainty by the scientists of the time. He claims in fact that the Scriptures do not aim to teach us how the world is made, do not aim that is to give a scientific explanation of natural phenomena, instead they aim to teach us the way of salvation. Moreover Saint Augustine in the De Genesi ad litteram not only recognizes that the sacred writers do intend to pronounce on how the world is made, but even claims that scientists can, through calculation and experiment, reach absolutely certain results, that a follower of Christ must accept without opposing them to the Scriptures. Always on condition that the scientific results are indeed certain, arrived at by a serious method.
If Augustine had been listened to at the time the famous Galileo case would not have arisen.
CIPRIANI: That’s for sure. Galileo himself, in a letter of 1615, quotes Saint Augustine for as many as fifteen times in order to assert, on the one hand, his faith and, on the other, his freedom as a scientist. It was a most serious mistake to have made the Scriptures say what they absolutely don’t say. It wasn’t the Scriptures that were against science. Rather it was a way of interpreting the Scriptures prey to the culture of the period that prevented the Church of the time from going back to Augustine’s teaching. The possibility of avoiding the clash between Galileo and the Inquisition did exist, if only they had kept in mind the teaching of Augustine who had already recognized the autonomy of science many centuries before.
Very interesting this Augustinian Galileo.
CIPRIANI: The thinking developed by Saint Augustine on the concept of scientia, something that runs through all his philosophical and theological thought, led him to heights that were to be recovered only many centuries later: first by Saint Thomas, in the field of theology (in order to define the object and purpose of theology, Saint Thomas, at the start of the Summa, takes up Augustine’s concept of scientia). Then by Galileo, in the field of the natural sciences.
Saint Augustine on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of True Religion

Saint Augustine on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of True Religion

From what you say it seems that Saint Augustine, with his exclusion of an opposition between science and the Scriptures, anticipated what we usually consider a contribution of modern exegesis. How did Augustine make such a startling advance?
CIPRIANI: Saint Augustine reached his conclusions certainly through constant careful scrutiny of the teachings of the Scriptures. But there was also an important element that came from his personal experience. Saint Augustine was Manichaean for nine years. Then he progressively moved away (as he writes in book V of the Confessions) because of his disappointment at realizing that the Manichaean doctrine, that boasted to provide a certain and true explanation of everything, including natural phenomena, was in fact in contradiction of the teachings of the physicists, above all with their explanations of the eclipses of the moon and the sun. The Manichees, in fact, interpreted these phenomena in the light of the mythical struggle between good and evil, that was at the core of their religion. But Augustine had realized (he says that he had read all the books he could find on the arguments) that the completely different explanations given by the physicists had been confirmed by the facts. The physicists were able in fact to predict eclipses of the moon and sun many years in advance. It was his realization of the Manichees’ mistake in wanting to explain natural phenomena through a religious myth that put him on his guard against the same thing happening to the Christians. So, when he reads the Scriptures, Saint Augustine wants to safeguard them from this lapse in credibility, taking pains to distinguish what Scripture aims to teach from what it doesn’t.
The development of natural sciences has been encouraged by this critique of the mythical attitude, by this demythicization ante litteram, to use the famous expression of Bultmann?
CIPRIANI: Saint Augustine recognizes the effective capacity of scientists to reach certain results in the knowledge of the world, but, given that in his time that knowledge was very limited, he always remains somewhat cautious towards the study of nature. He many times repeats that this study not only is not of great help towards the eternal salvation of the faithful but does not even bring many benefits on the human level. He was referring above all to certain sciences, such as medical science, that in his time had achieved little result. He recognized that medicine, in principle, would be useful for the health of man, but in practice thought it of little utility. In short, Augustine was convinced of the effective possibility of being able to reach certain results in knowledge of the external world; on the other hand, however, he was somewhat sceptical about the utility of such knowledge.
Once however that the natural sciences, as happened in the modern and contemporary age, have made real progress, not only in cognitive terms but also in their applications, can Augustine’s conception embrace such progress without reluctance?
CIPRIANI: I believe that we can learn from Saint Augustine to have more confidence in human reason and therefore also in the capacity to know our world better. It’s true, he intended to deal – he says so from the time of the Soliloquia – with God and the soul, but there was from the beginning, and then ever more in the mature Augustine, a confidence in knowledge of the external world, knowledge that can even help to understand the Scriptures better. Saint Augustine points out various times in the De Genesi ad litteram that science could teach us not to take certain Biblical expressions literally. And, vice-versa, not to allegorize where the literal sense must prevail.
Going back to the topic of the alleged rationality of the Manichees, what reply did they make to Saint Augustine?
CIPRIANI: As I’ve said, Saint Augustine tells us that he became aware of the difference between the teaching of the scientists and the Manichaean books in regard to celestial phenomena such as the movement of the stars, eclipses of the sun, of the moon and so on. So he presented these difficulties to his Manichaean friends and asked an explanation, but they dodged saying that their bishop Faustus would answer all his difficulties. When finally Faustus reached Carthage in 383, Augustine presented his doubts, but Faustus humbly acknowledged his ignorance on the matters. Augustine liked him for various reasons. He appreciated his modesty and also his oratory, his good rhetorical style, but lost his faith in Manichaeism when even the most authoritative figures were unable to respond “to his hunger”, he writes.
Saint Augustine on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of True Religion, detail

Saint Augustine on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of True Religion, detail

Where does he say that?
CIPRIANI: In book V of the Confessions, in chapter six. The disappointment the young Augustine felt with the Manichees, when they gave explanations of natural phenomena contrary to science, is perhaps felt by many young people today who, both because of their ignorance of religion and because of the imprudence of certain Christian know-alls, may be exposed to the danger of considering the teaching of the Scriptures in contrast with the findings of modern sciences and hence feed distrust of the Scriptures and the Christian faith itself. Saint Augustine is always relevant. Listen to this passage from the De Genesi ad litteram I, 19, 39 which I mentioned earlier, quoted in its entirety by Galileo in his letter of 1615 to Cristina grand duchess of Tuscany:
«It very often happens that even those who are not Christian, in regard to the earth, to the sky, to the other elements of this world, to motion and the revolution or even to the size and distance of the stars, about eclipses of the sun and the moon, the cycle of the years and the seasons, the nature of the animals, the plants, stones and all the other things of this kind, have such knowledge to be able to support them by force of reasons or unquestionable experiments. Hence, it is shameful indeed, harmful and absolutely to be avoided that these should hear a Christian speak about these things on the basis of the Christian texts and utter such foolishness that, seeing him take fireflies for lanterns, as they say, hardly manage to hold back their laughter. And it is painful not so much that one who mistakes should be derided, but the fact that those on the outside can think that our authors have maintained such opinions and are censured and rejected as ignorant, to the great harm of those people for whose salvation we are concerned. When in fact those outside come upon a Christian making mistakes in things that they know very well and defending his erroneous opinion on the basis of our Scriptures, in what way will they be able to lend faith to those Scriptures in regard to the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, inasmuch as they see those Scriptures to contain errors relating to things they have been able to experiment or to know through certain calculation? It is difficult to express what pain and bitterness they bring to their prudent brethren these reckless people full of presumption when, should they be criticized and convinced of the perverse falsity of their opinions by those who are not bound by the authority of our Scriptures, they try to adduce the same sacred Scriptures in defense of what they have maintained with altogether reckless flippancy and with all too patent falsity. And they even manage to quote from memory many words they think to be valid as evidence, “without understanding either what they are saying or what import it has”».
Let us add as a coda to this interview the significant comment that Saint John Damascene made on the concluding phrase that Saint Augustine drew from the First Epistle to Timothy (1, 7) and that could have relevance for many things today: «it is the craving for mastery that drives them to arrogate the role of Teachers».

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