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Confessions: Thoughtless Credulity

“This is a small thing, but the person faithful in a small thing will be faithful in a big thing, too, and what issued from the mouth of your truth will in no way prove meaningless” Saint Augustine, Confessions 6.16

When Alypius was a student, he was falsely accused of a crime that he had not committed. One day as he was in the town square thinking out a speech he was going to recite, he saw a student of rhetoric (who he had not seen enter the forum) leave in a haste. Unbeknownst to Alypius, the young man had used an axe to hack at the lead bars to steal from the silversmith’s workshop.

Watching him exit quickly he wanted to know why; so, he went in to take a look. When he arrived at the spot, he found an axe. When the guards happened upon him, he was holding the axe in his hands, and he was accused of the crime. The denizens said they had caught him red-handed, so he was seized and dragged away to the judicial authorities.

In the Roman Empire stealing had four possible outcomes. Prison, reimbursement (often four or five times the value of the stolen goods), physical punishment, or death. If a thief was not killed when caught in the act, he would be condemned to fight in the gladiatorial games to be killed for entertainment.

Alypius' main source of entertainment had now become his nightmare. As his punishment drew closer, he realized how little investigation goes into proving a person’s guilt. How many innocent men and women had died in the sands while he cheered in the stands? The mob, without any evidence, was ready to condemn him.

However, as providence would have it, Alypius was recognized by a master builder who had seen him in the homes of a certain senator. Trusting Alypius, he took him from the crowd, asked him what happened and the matter was quickly resolved. Alypius identified who he saw, and the axe was confirmed to be his own by the testimony of the thief’s slave.

Augustine believed that God allowed the scare to happen to “start early with a lesson in the caution needed in judicial investigations, to keep one person from being found guilty on the evidence of another because of an official’s thoughtless credulity” (6.14.2). Justice cannot happen when we are thoughtlessly quick to believe guilt or innocence without first investigating.

“Thoughtless credulity” is what Alypius would avoid in weighing matters of justice, and eventually Scripture, and the church. When he was an assessor[1] Augustine tells us that his character was put to the test by the lure of greed and fear (6.16.3). When he was in Rome, an extremely influential senator wanted permission to do something illegal. The senator was accustomed to getting his way by putting people under the heavy obligation of his favors and threats. However, when the senator bribed him Alypius stood up to him.

“Threats were made; he stamped them into the dirt, while everyone marveled over this extraordinary soul, that didn’t want such a powerful man as a friend or fear him as an enemy, though he was renowned far and wide for his innumerable means of helping and hurting” (6.16.3).

The judge for whom Alypius was an advisor didn’t want to give the senator an exemption but he did not have the courage to turn him down so he differed the verdict to Alypius whom he knew would not compromise his integrity.

The only temptation he had to do wrong was to order copies of books at the reduced prices available to Imperial Administration. Giving thought to equity he judged that “the sense of fairness that held him back was more serviceable to him than the power that allowed him to go ahead” (6.16.5).

While I believe his refusal to get books at reduced prices was unnecessary, there is a reason why Augustine tells us this detail about Alypius right after his stint with the corrupt senator. Alypius’ experience made him realize how dangerous “thoughtless credulity” is in all aspects of life. Not just in justice and matters of life and death, but even in personal integrity and private life. Nothing in life should be thoughtless and we should not be too ready to believe that something is real, true, or right.

Alypius gave thought and investigation to the small things and the large things which is why he was a man of strong integrity. Augustine goes on to say “This is a small thing, but the person faithful in a small thing will be faithful in a big thing, too, and what issued from the mouth of your truth will in no way prove meaningless” (6.16.6):

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?— Luke 16:10-12

Lord, remove from me thoughtless credulity, that nothing in my professional and private life may be thoughtless and uninvestigated. Amen.

[1] In the late imperial system, a sort of apprentice judge.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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