Demonic Cheese-Donkeys and Immortal Peacocks: Augustine Does Science

How a church father loved God with his rational mind.
Demonic Cheese-Donkeys and Immortal Peacocks: Augustine Does Science
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Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) loved God with all his mind—his rational mind, his scientific mind. Yes, that’s right: History remembers him as the revered church father, brilliant theologian, and ground-breaking philosopher, but what is perhaps not so well known is that he was, at times, a good scientist too.

Which makes it rather interesting that Andrew Dickson White (founding president of Cornell University), who crystallized the modern narrative that Christianity is anti-science, chose to single out Augustine as an example of the pathetically irrational early church. Augustine, he says, blindly accepted local folklore about magical cheeses and immortal peacocks, stories that White said “would now be laughed at by a schoolboy”:

St. Augustine was certainly one of the strongest minds in the early Church, and yet we find him mentioning, with much seriousness, a story that sundry innkeepers of his time put a drug into cheese which metamorphosed travelers into domestic animals, and asserting that the peacock is so favored by the Almighty that its flesh will not decay.

White wrote this in his mammoth 1896 work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom—an attempt to utterly demolish dogmatic theology by pointing out that it had always gotten in the way of science and rational thought.

Although White’s conflict thesis has been utterly debunked by modern historians of science—who have instead found a great deal of evidence that the church has generally benefited science—this message has not filtered down to the general public. It was in the process of researching for a new popular-level book on the topic that I stumbled across White’s bizarre claim about Augustine.

I was left with little choice but to look to the source itself. What was it that Augustine had actually written? How might I benefit (if at all) from his work? What could I, as a Christian living in the 21st century, learn from the theologians and leaders of the early church—positive or negative—about how to think in the way God wants me to today? I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Everlasting Peacock Meat: A Comparative Study

In The City of God, remarking on God displaying his power in creation, Augustine says:

For suitable properties will be communicated to the substance of the flesh by Him who has endowed the things we see with so marvellous and diverse properties that their very multitude prevents our wonder. For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property?

Uh-oh. This indeed could be rather embarrassing. So eager is he to exalt the God of the Bible that Augustine is prepared to educate his readers with ridiculous ideas that would indeed be, as White says, “laughed at by a schoolboy.” But then, immediately below, he writes:

This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.

Reading this, I was stopped in my tracks. Here, as clear as day, is a full-blown scientific experiment. Any scientist (I’m a physicist) would recognize this immediately. It is a long-term, comparative study which concludes that the unlikely claim actually appears to be true. It bears many of the hallmarks of the scientific method and does so more than a thousand years before the scientific method was supposedly invented by the likes of Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon in the 16th and 17th centuries. Augustine, the influential church father, was doing science a millennium before Science (with a capital S) was.

Cursed Cheese, Human Donkeys, and Phantasms

We’re not finished yet, though. What of the cheese and its ability to transform people into animals? Once again, the passage is found in The City of God:

Indeed we ourselves, when in Italy, heard such things about a certain region there where landladies of inns, imbued with these wicked arts, were said to be in the habit of giving to such travellers as they chose, or could manage, something in a piece of cheese by which they were changed on the spot into beasts of burden, and carried whatever was necessary, and were restored to their own form when the work was done.

Hmmm. Meat which doesn’t decay is one thing—after all, the idea that peacock flesh was immortal went way back before the life of Jesus to the ancients. This tale, though, of cursed cheese turning people into donkeys is bonkers. Augustine should have dismissed the whole thing as insane as soon as he heard it. Was White onto something here? Does Christian theology require people to be gullible idiots? Again, reading on a little might have changed his mind:

These things are either false, or so extraordinary as to be with good reason disbelieved.

Yes, that’s right—in the very next paragraph, Augustine says that he doesn’t believe the story! It is not enough, however, for him to simply state that these demonic cheese-donkeys don’t exist. After all, he has no evidence that they don’t. Instead, he decides to go on and analyze how, if it were true, there may be a possible explanation for it. Once again, this is good science.

Firstly, he declares that there does not appear to be any mechanism by which people might actually change into animals, so he thinks that highly unlikely:

I cannot therefore believe that even the body, much less the mind, can really be changed into bestial forms and lineaments by any reason, art, or power of the demons.

His conclusion is that these “transformations” must happen somehow within human consciousness rather than one’s physical form. He thinks it possible that people are seeing things which aren’t bodily there but are “phantasms”—visual representations of individuals (even altered somehow) who are asleep and dreaming. He attributes this (if it happens at all) to demonic forces which are at work to unsettle and deceive people.

We may well look back on this and disagree—but we do so with the benefit of more than 15 centuries of further thought and experiment. We should also remember that Augustine did not actually believe in the donkeys; he only continues to analyze the theory because he believes those who told him were worthy “of credit.”

Living Out a New Narrative

So, then, where does this leave us? White’s book had a huge impact and convinced many that science and Christianity were at war—creating wariness on both “sides.” In truth, however, Christianity has championed and led scientific thinking for much of its history.

The cheese-and-peacock story is another example of how we can move forward and embrace rational thought as Christians. Augustine shows an extraordinary ability to be a freethinker. His approach is surprisingly scientific when compared to the times he lived in. He is skeptical when he should be, but not so much that he refuses to investigate or think further. His science complements his theology.

The faithful Christian believes that God made our minds to be like his and that we are to use them. This is why the world has benefited in so many remarkable ways—science among them—from the thoughts and actions that flow from the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should follow Augustine, giving glory to God by thinking freely about our almighty Creator’s world. Our theology, our worship—our whole lives—should reflect the reasonable and rational God who made us.

We are, after all, to love him with all of our minds.

David Hutchings is a high school physics teacher at Pocklington School near York, England. He is the coauthor of Let There Be Science—Why God Loves Science and Science Needs God (LionHudson, 2017). A regular preacher and speaker at churches, universities, and youth events, David lives in York with his wife, Emma, and their two young daughters.

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