St. Augustine: Despair, Presumption

Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.–Attr. St. Augustine.

Apparently this quotation opens the movie Calvary, and it also seems to have influenced Samuel Beckett in writing Waiting for Godot. But did St. Augustine actually say it?

  1. It sounds plausibly but not convincingly Augustinian. St. Augustine was really not much given to aphorisms.
  2. Wikiquote has it under the “Disputed” section of St. Augustine’s page, noting: “Attributed to St. Augustine in The Repentance of Robert Greene, Master of Arts (1592) by Robert Greene.” You can find a PDF of that document here, but it gives no source. It does, however, give the saying in a less aphoristic form that sounds more authentically Augustinian: “There was (saith he) one thief saved and no more, therefore presume not, and there was one saved, and therefore despair not.
  3. Here’s a Google Books link to a book on Godot/Beckett that flatly affirms it’s not in Augustine and that it comes from Greene. Here’s another book on Beckett mentioning that searches for the saying in Augustine failed. This makes me think that Beckett is the source for most modern-day usage of the saying.
  4. I searched the works on Augustine in English at CCEL for “thief” and didn’t find the passage in question nor anything looking much like it.
  5. Most of the works of St. Augustine are online in Latin at The word used for “thief” in the Vulgate accounts of the Passion is “latro.” Latin has another word for thief, “fur,” so when Our Lord speaks of “thieves and robbers” it’s “fures et latrones,” but the thieves at Calvary are always “latrones.” I searched for “latro” (which also happily returned inflected forms of the word) and looked at the 85 results. Eight of them seemed possible from the excerpts shown in the search results, but none of them contained the saying or anything that looked like it could be the source of it.

My theory is therefore that Robert Greene misremembered his source and that Samuel Beckett is responsible for putting it into modern-day circulation.

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