Augustine and Antipodes

Hi. I tried posting this yesterday, after signing up, but it just disappeared. I figured it was either not accepted by moderators or I tried posting it in the wrong place. (I was viewing the initial welcome message and maybe directed it there by accident?) Anyway, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try again in case it was the latter.

This particular post has to do with how Augustine’s reasoning is characterized on page 122. Dr. Swamidass writes,

“If the earth was a globe, did people live on the other side? In City of God, from about AD 420, St. Augustine concluded no, because antipodeans would not descend from Adam.”

If we were to map this, we would end up with something like the following:

Call this argument A. However, here is the exact quote from Augustine, which I think is being referred to:

“But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. … For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man” (The City of God, trans. Schaff. Book 16, chapter 9).

Here is how I think we would map Augustine’s argument:

Call this argument B. Now it might seem like Dr. Swamidass is simply giving a more concise version of the same argument (that was probably his intention and it’s possible to rearrange some things to make this fit–see below), but these seem to be different arguments with different strengths and weaknesses.

I say that because if we posit that antipodes exist for both arguments different conclusions follow. For A it follows that some humans did not descend from Adam. For B it only follows that they sailed to “that” side of the world from “this” side of the world.

Another way of seeing how the arguments are different but also that B could be rearranged to draw out an extra premise that we find in A might be to pose a Martian argument that makes some Augustine-like assumptions clearer:

Argument C:

Why does this matter? One important difference is that for arguments B and C, it’s easier (or at least more obvious how) to resist the falsification of some premises that may be important.

But maybe I’m overlooking something and this doesn’t matter? After all, it is possible to derive a premise like A1 from Augustine’s premises:

Still, it doesn’t seem to me that Augustine uses premises like these to arrive at a claim like “If antipodes exist, then some humans did not descend from Adam.” The weight of his argument doesn’t hang on a premise like that because his beliefs and statements on universal adamic descent seem to be in the background set of assumptions–like the part of the iceberg under the water. An analogy might be if I said “I’ve heard there are humans at the center of the earth.” One’s immediate thought wouldn’t be “If there are, then they aren’t humans!” but, rather, “How would they have gotten there?!”

Or maybe Dr. Swamidass has some other quote in mind from Augustine?


Thanks for posting @JohnB. And welcome.

You did correctly identify the referent quote. It will take some time to process your post and diagram. If you can clarify your primary point or question, that would help me give you a quicker answer.

As to this:

That’s exactly the point. His claim “implicates” the belief that all humans to the ends of the earth must descend from AE. That is precisely my point.

He was wrong about antipodeans because he did not know what we know now about geography and universal descent, not because he was wrong about monogenesis.

That’s precisely my point.

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Thanks for the response. I suppose my question would be whether a sentence such as

“In City of God, from about AD 420, St. Augustine concluded no [people don’t live on the other side of the globe], because antipodeans would not descend from Adam.”

correctly captures Augustine’s line of thought in that section? Augustine’s more direct reply would seem to be this: “No, because people couldn’t have gotten there?” Obviously wrapped up in this answer is his idea of universal descent from Adam, which is a recurring idea throughout book 16.

So is the difference material? Well, it does make a difference insofar as argument B, above, is spread over more premises. While in many cases this makes an argument more vulnerable, it also makes it easier to preserve certain premises (like B1b) when the conclusion is shown to be false prior to considering the premises. This matters when some of those premises play a more fundamental role in one’s worldview. Perhaps this gets at some of the unease I feel with argument A over B: If I were placing myself in Augustine’s shoes and debating an Antipodean, I would want to focus on B.

He was wrong about antipodeans because he did not know what we know now about geography and universal descent, not because he was wrong about monogenesis

Perhaps this gets at a bigger issue, if the above seems pedantic. Augustine’s idea of monogenesis couldn’t be the same as yours (if I’ve understood you both correctly), since he defines a human as a rational, mortal animal:

“whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast.” (City of God 16.8.1)

(More modern translations translate it as “original, first-created man” rather than the misleading “protoplast”.) Thus, it seems you would have to say that Augustine was wrong about his definition of monogenesis. And, if in Augustine’s day, we could somehow show him an antipodean he would sooner forfeit his claim that men could not have gotten to the other side of the world by sailing than he would give up what, to my knowledge, was a very common definition of human (obv. going back to Aristotle, with roots in Plato) or his belief that all humans came from Adam and Eve (since he has just spent a good bit of effort defending it against counter-examples).


Well no, I would not say he was wrong. It all comes down to the meaning of “man.” If you closely read the “human” part of the book, that should be clear.

I agree, and that is my point.

It seems you have accurately deduced my meaning. If I were to write more precisely, I’d add another sentence:

In City of God, from about AD 420, St. Augustine concluded no [people don’t live on the other side of the globe], because antipodeans would not descend from Adam. This conclusion, of course, was predicated on an incorrect understanding of geography and migration at the time, but it implicates his belief in monogenesis, that all humans to the ends of the earth needed to descend from Adam and Eve.

In context, of course, this is just a lead in background to the later thinkers. Perhaps in a second edition I might add that line for clarity, but I don’t think its possible to add it as a correction now (because it is too long).


@JohnB, I only now have had the time to carefully read your posts. I agree that your option B is a more complete representation of Augustine’s argument, for it conveys the relative importance of the premises in the argument. Even if antipodeans were found, Augustine would conclude that they had to have come from this side of the Earth to obtain descent from Adam. But if they had not been found, his default belief would be that it is also impossible for them to sail to the other part of the world.

I’m more interested, however, in why Augustine held to the belief of descent from Adam so strongly (which has indelibly influenced all of Christian theology since). I’m just speculating here, since I haven’t read Augustine closely on this.

First, I think of his belief on how original sin propagated, namely that we sinned in Adam (based on Jerome’s Latin translation of Romans 5:12, which modern exegetes almost unanimously think is a mistranslation). The seed of all of humanity was thought to be present in Adam’s sexual organs at the moment when he sinned, so when he sinned, we participated in it, similar to how Adam’s hand participated in the act of eating the forbidden fruit. That is also how the corruption propagated to everyone else. Augustine’s view heavily influenced the orthodox Roman Catholic view. If there were people who were not descended from Adam, then they might not have original sin, which is bad for the relevance of the gospel. However, the untenability of Augustine’s exegesis and the outdated biology strains this view of original sin.

Second, and related to this, is general Augustinian metaphysics. Augustine, like many church fathers before and after him, held being human to be synonymous with having a rational soul. I think Augustine would say that rational souls can only be produced either by generation from another rational soul or from a direct creative act by God. There is no such thing as rational souls being produced by just putting together a bits of physical pieces together until they form the same physical configuration as a man. Thus, if rational souls were found in the antipodes, they must have come somewhere, either from Adam or by a separate, de novo creation of God. I guess the second option is unpalatable for other reasons, so he would go with the first one.

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Original sin, right? It wasn’t rational souls.

Hi all, I do not know if people every check old conversations (or get alerted) but it seems to me that Augustine’s point is sensible and just the kind of reasoning that goes on in biology.

Augustine knew the earth was a sphere but stated, correctly, that it does not follow that there is dry land on the other side, and even if there is, it does not follow that there are people there. In Augustine’s time this was just a fable.

Later it became a practical question when Europeans discovered the Americas and, later still, Australia. It was not obvious when they got there there would be people but in both cases they found other people had got their first. Even when the first Europeans came across the archipelago of Hawaii, as far as you can get from any continental land mass, there were already people there. And how did they get there? As absurd as Augustine thought, his answer seems correct, on boats.

Some scientists, influenced by theories that exaggerate differences of race, imagined that different peoples might have evolved independently in different places, but in this case they would not really be the same species (as leopards and jaguars are not the same species). A species evolves, at least initially as a single contiguous interbreeding group. Are there squirrels on Australia? Well if they are, they got there somehow.

It is not clear how monogenism could be compatible with the general biological account of the evolution of species as populations, or whether some account of the fall is possible that retains an Adamic character and others aspects of the text but is interpreted differently, but Augustine’s argument about the antipodes is more modest and remains valid. If members of the human species (or indeed any other species that is native to Africa/Europe) exists in the antipodes it can only be because they migrated there.


Hello @Jonesy , and Welcome! :slight_smile:

Old threads like this do occasionally jump back to life. I expect some interested parties will show up soon. :slight_smile:

Have you read my book yet? GAE

It sounds like St. Augustine thought that gravity pulled people down, rather than towards the center of the Earth. No divine inspiration on that point.

What gives you that impression? Augustine clearly thought that people on the other side of the earth would “walk with their feet opposite ours” - i.e., he understood that people on the other side of the earth would have their up-down direction inverted relative to his. What do you think he thought would keep them on the ground to be able to walk in that way?


Oops. I misunderstood the phrase “that is on no ground credible” as meaning that people in the Antipodes stood “on no ground”. My argument was thus far from divinely inspired! Thanks for the correction.