Posted by: HAT | December 10, 2014

What We Don’t Know Hurts Us

Painting of St. Augustine wearing bishops miter and carrying staff

Not one to conflate “unavoidable” with “acceptable”

Hi, Gang!

There are some things that people have known for a long time. Here’s one – from Chapter 6, Book XIX of The City of God:

… it is not to him an unthinkable horror that innocent witnesses should be tortured in cases which are no concern of theirs; or that the accused are frequently overcome by the anguish of their pain and so make false confessions and are punished despite their innocence; or that, even if not suffering capital punishment, they very often die under torture or as a result of torture; or that the prosecutors, whose motive may be a desire to benefit human society by ensuring that crimes do not go unpunished, are at times themselves condemned. The witnesses may give false evidence, the defendant himself may hold out under torture with savage resistance and refuse to confess, and the accusers may be incapable of proving the truth of their charges, however true those charges may be; and the judge, in his ignorance, may condemn them. All these serious evils our philosopher does not reckon as sins; for the wise judge does not act in this way through a will to do harm, but because ignorance is unavoidable – and yet the exigences of human society make judgement also unavoidable. Here we have what I call the wretchedness of man’s situation, at any rate, even if it is not to be called the wickedness of the wise man, in his judicial capacity.

Augustine himself accepts that torture is “necessary” – unavoidable – and that it is not “wrong” – that is, not exactly “a sin.” But that does not make it compatible with something we can call “good” human life. It’s not. If we deem it “necessary,” it proves to any thinking person that our normal human lives and our normal human way of life, with what they “necessitate,” are not good. If goodness is what you want, state security with its “necessities” is no way to get it.


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