St. Augustine is Annoyed: Or, Don’t Wrestle With a Pig

There are a number of things that draw people to St. Augustine: the power of his prose, the clarity of his faith, his humanizing struggles, and his centrality to Christian doctrine. No other saint (or, indeed, any single figure of the ancient world) left us so many words, and in these words we find an immensely appealing and brilliant man.

Spend a significant amount of time with him, however, and there’s one delightful sideline of his prose: his frequent eruptions of irritation. One of his quips seems ready-made for the combox troll, but there’s also the opening of City of God Book 2, which includes this extended diatribe against answering endless question from people determined not to believe [emphasis added]:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure! In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussion in order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.

But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible. Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see. The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand  In fact, the Bible says “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly.” [Ps 94.4] You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments. [from City of God, 2.1]

That’s some eloquent irritation right there, and I thought of it today after reading the patient and charitable explanations from some of the Patheos writers to the latest face-palm post from a blogger on the atheist channel. Augustine is addressing what writer Daniel J. Flynn called Intellectual Morons, and the kind of people brilliantly lampooned by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: people who may well be intelligent, but are so blinded by their own bias that they sometimes fail to grasp basic logic. They refuse to understand simple points because it disrupts a carefully constructed worldview.

It’s a good approach to take. We need to engage the faith and evangelize, but we also need to know when our efforts are wasted on people who are so intransigent in their disbelief that they insist on repeating the same errors even when corrected. It’s still worthwhile to give witness, but we need to also recognize “how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer.” Some fields will never be fertile, and you just need to move on and work the ground the Lord has prepared for you: good ground that will produce a crop thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

Or, as the old quote (sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw) goes: Don’t wrestle with a pig. You both end up dirty, and the pig likes it.

This post is continued here.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    Or as my ex-mother in law once said, “We wouldn’t fight so much if he would just agree with me.”

  • TeaPot562

    Based on a milk delivery left in the pantry for several hours on a warm August afternoon, with showers and occasional lightning as the weather, my soon to be mother-in-law explained that “Thunder sours milk.” No amount of explanation of physics or chemistry sufficed to change her mind; to retain some peace in the family, I gave up the attempt.
    In later years, whenever my BW and I encountered someone with an irrational but fixed belief, the first one of us to correctly determine that the belief was fixed in concrete would remark “Thunder sours milk.” as a cue to abandon a fruitless discussion. Those who refuse to recognize God in either the beauty of the created universe or other signs of His existence seem to be in this category.
    Agnostics are a different variety. Some find great difficulty in trying to reconcile a loving God with the great evil allowed by His permitting us to exercise free will, such as the Nazi death camps or the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Prayer for people in this category seems appropriate.

  • Brian Killian

    What atheist post? What am I missing?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I don’t have the link at hand and I’m on mobile. It’s someone named Bob something on the atheist channel, and the posts I’ve read are all very dimwitted attempts at debunking Christianity and theism. The latest was some stupid atheist prayer experiment, which amounted to a few minutes of prayer each day to a God he not only doesn’t believe in, but routinely mocks. Yeah, that oughta work. He Constantly gets corrected in the private Patheos writer group, yet goes right on making the same flat footed errors. Dumb as a sack of stones.

  • Kohkis

    I think that when it comes to blogs/the internet, getting your opponent to understand your message is not always the main goal, since sometimes it’s obvious that he will refuse to understand. The focus then shifts to the audience: when the discussion is public, many people observe it silently and there is hope that some of them will learn something from it. :)

  • Steve

    Thanks for this & the follow up post. Just what my intellectual ego didn’t want to hear…

  • Darren

    Thank you for the post, I find the quote from Augustine very interesting. It is challenging, to me personally, and that is a good thing.

    I am curious about the version that you have quoted. The phrasing is different than the versions that I have been able to find on my own, in some cases sufficiently different to yield a different meaning.

    Thank you.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Most likely, you’re reading a Marcus Dods interpretation, since that’s the most ubiquitous online and in reprints. It’s over a hundred years old, done by a Calvinist, and not a great choice. I’m using Bettenson (Penguin), which is more accurate.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    For example, in the opening passage above, Dods appears to translate “adiutorio” as “grace” whereas it’s more properly rendered as “assistance.” (“Gratia” is grace.) Now, divine assistance is understood as a kind of grace, but Augustine had a perfectly good word for grace and a specific understanding of it, and if he meant grace in that sense, he would have said so. (In fact, later in the chapter, he uses “divina gratia”.) We see here Dods nudging the translation a bit to satisfy Calvinist bias about the meaning of grace. It’s not a huge mistake (hardly a mistake at all), but it’s a telling one that amplifies over time.

    Also, he’s wooden as hell.

  • Darren

    Thank you, this makes perfect sense. Yes, I believe Dods was the name on the versions I found.

    I will try and find a copy of the Bettenson, it certainly reads easier, though I appreciate your explanation as to how it could be viewed as more accurate as well.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Here’s one of the Latin texts. I could never do it for the entire book, but it’s useful for troublesome passages.

  • Darren


    You _do_ have a sense of humor. I will track down and read City of God, even if I have to spend the $10 on Amazon to do so, but I am _not_ learning Latin! My curiosity does, apparently, know bounds.