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In Augustine's Enchiridion, §112, he writes:

Frustra itaque nonnulli, immo quam plurimi, aeternam damnatorum poenam et cruciatus sine intermissione perpetuos humano miserantur affectu, atque ita futurum esse non credunt

It is quite in vain, then, that some—indeed very many—yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. (translation source)

Within Christianity, there is ongoing debate over whether hell is eternal or not, and this text of Augustine's is often brought into the fray. For example, a popular blog cites a noted opponent of the eternality of hell this way:

When Augustine described the Universalists as “indeed very many” (immo quam plurimi), what he meant is that they were a “vast majority” (Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11). That is what the Latin word plurimi, from the adjective plurimus, implies.

Whitaker's Words and Lewis & Short seem to suggest that both "many" and "most" are viable translations, but these sources are limited in that they don't focus on Late Latin in general or Augustine in particular. So I'm still left wondering – can we conclusively state plurimi here is best rendered "vast majority," or is the traditional translation "very many" defensible?

  • I'm also a bit puzzled by quam: what does it mean here? Normally quam + superlative is used to express "as [adjective] as possible". But "as many as possible" wouldn't seem to fit here. – Cerberus Oct 22 '18 at 16:57
  • @Cerberus I've also seen quam as intensifier of superlatives (especially plurimi, I think), so I would read quam plurimi as "very many" as in the quoted translation. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 22 '18 at 19:36
  • @JoonasIlmavirta♦: Hmm you don't happen to have a quotation (except this one) or source for that? I've quickly looked at what L&S have to say about it, but they mention no such use. Glancing at your HP link, I didn't immediately see it either. But wait! I shall ask a Question. – Cerberus Oct 22 '18 at 20:53
  • @Cerberus Hmm... It seems that where I would have translated "very many", the sources I see choose "as many as possible". Perhaps I'm not used to such use of quam and superlative. Regarding your question, I think there's a difference between o quam + superlative and quam + superlative, but it might just be my being misguided. However, reading quam literally as "how" does make sense, although it's not how I would put it in English. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 23 '18 at 5:37
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One can use quam as an intensifier of plurimi, so that quam plurimi is most naturally translated as "very many" as in the translation you cite, or perhaps "quite many". There are several classical attestations of quam plurim-. Looking at those examples, I think reading quam plurimi as necessarily meaning "vast majority" is an over-analysis. In this case I find quam idiomatic with the contrasting structure.

So, at least in classical Latin it would be perfectly normal to use quam plurimi without meaning "vast majority". I find it hard to believe that the phrase would have gotten that much more restricted meaning later on, but my knowledge of post-classical nuances is limited.

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