Imagine Augustine as an old man in the year 426. At the age of seventy-two years he has probably lived for double the average life expectancy of persons of his time. He is seated at his writing table, knowing that his death cannot be far off. (Indeed, he died four years later.) He is re-reading his works, going over them one last time, and commenting on them. This was not a new or spontaneous decision when he began this activity in the year 426 or 427, for he had already written about the possibility in his Letter 143 about fourteen years previously.
He persists with this lengthy task, in spite of the knowledge that his manuscripts might all soon be destroyed by the Vandals who had Hippo under siege. He stayed with his task, and with the routine of his life. He conversed with his brothers in monastic life, continued his writing, and prayed to his God. In his tumultuous period, Augustine wrote his Retractions (in Latin, Retractationes), a title that might be translated as his "reconsiderations." The Retractions is an invaluable book. In it Augustine offers a retrospective re-reading and review of all of his written works, one at a time. He re-read his words so as to see what progress he had made in the truth, and to correct whatever he though required changing so as to be of better clarity and use for his many readers - present and future.
It is a revision of his works in chronological order, and explains the occasion and dominant idea of each. Even had there not been the circumstances of his great age and the threat of Vandal attack, this revision by Augustine was unique among Classical authors up to his era. As also a guide of inestimable worth for seeing the progress of his thought, it has been called "the history of the mind of Augustine." He gave details about the date and circumstances of the work, noting places where he had changed his mind, pointing out passages where he had made an error, for example where he had cited a biblical text from memory and had done so incorrectly.
In each instance, whatever he wanted to revise (in Latin, reprehensiones) or explain further (in Latin, defensiones) was included, as also were the opening words of each work. From the point of view of providing a chronology of Augustine's writings, the Retractationes is only a general guide. For example it is not always known whether he dated these works according to the time he began them or the time that he completed them. As well, he was often writing a number of works simultaneously, and in some instances there were years between a work's beginning and its completion Augustine intended to compile a similar set of "retractions" regarding his letters and sermons, but in 428 there arrived in Hippo eight books of a Pelagian bishop in Italy, Julian of Eclanum. Augustine realised that the books by Julian had to be challenged, and he proved to be the most vigorous theological opponent during the final years of Augustine on this earth.
He therefore he lay aside the task of reading his letters and turned again with resignation to the task thrust upon him. He died before he could return to publishing a list of all of his letters. As a consequence we do not have a certain list of his letters and sermons. Via Augustine’s Retractions, scholars know they still have copies of over ninety-five percent of the writings of Augustine is greatly helpful. It is even more wonderful to know to have this list of these works which are verified as authentic on the testimony of Augustine himself. There is still a problem, however, that in the Retractions Augustine lists 93 titles that contain a total of 232 books (i.e., "books" here means what today would be called chapters).
The actual number of books should be 252, but the error could lay in the fact that, because of their length, scholars today count some of his writings as too lengthy to be a letter or a sermon (which was how Augustine intended them and apparently always continued to regard them). This discrepancy concerns the classification of his writings into the category of being a book, a letter or a sermon; it has nothing to do with the authenticity of the works in question. It is an issue of classification, about which Augustine most probably would not have been concerned. There are, however, four works listed by Augustine in the Retractions that are no longer extant: Contra epistulam Donati heretici, Contra partem Donati, Contra Hilarum, and Expositio Jacobi as duodecim tribus.
By their titles, none would appear to be major works, and possibly were lost because not copied sufficiently often during the so-called Dark Ages so that no copy managed to survive somewhere in the world. With the existence of the Retractions, it would possibly be presumed that pseudo works attributed to Augustine would not have stood a great chance of being accepted. Yet this was not so in a number of pseudo-Augustinian publications, possibly they said what some readers were hoping Augustine would say, i.e., they were pseudo “words of Augustine” (especially sermons, which the Retractions did not cover) that substantiated some theological or historical thesis being promoted at the time in question. The most famous pseudo-Augustinian work was published in Basel, Switzerland by Johannes Amerbach in 1494, the Sermones ad fraters in eremo (“Sermons to the brothers of the hermitage”), which falsely indicated that Augustine commenced a desert hermitage in Africa.
It is probably the work of an anonymous Belgian author; because the number of these sermons vary in different ancient manuscripts, it is now thought that the more lengthy compilations may well contain the work of more than one author. The Retractions offers another bonus. It provides the changes that Augustine himself desired to the texts because of the development of his thoughts in the light of subsequent knowledge and experience. Somewhat in the way that there are television "special events" that show how some famous movie was filmed, Augustine in his Retractions also commented on how and why he originally wrote some of these works.
In his Retractions, for example, Augustine revealed a plan he had at the time of his baptism in Milan to write a series of books on what today are called the liberal arts. In this way, he desired to show that the beauty of creation could lead people to the beauty of the Creator. (Retractions, 1, 6) Of this intention, he wrote only De Ordine ("On Order"), in which he strongly professed that the liberal arts were a means of pursuing Eternal Truth. The older Augustine writing his Retractions, however, was no longer as confident in the matter as had been the younger Augustine when writing De Ordine so many decades previously. As a famous bishop of the Church in his own time, Augustine was a man whose opinion was sought from all over the Christian world, and he wanted to make certain that future generations had a reliable list of his works. He also wanted to be the first interpreter of his writings.
Professor James O'Donnell in Washington D.C., also suggested that in his Retractations Augustine was offering future biographers the best possible image of his scholarly stances. Augustine thus made it difficult for them not to be clear about what he stood for at the end of his life - even if he did not stand as clearly for all of it during the previous seventy years while his thoughts were developing. Professor O'Donnell also remarked, "Another effect of the book is to imprint even more deeply on readers the view of Augustine himself on his own life. There is very little in the work that is false or inaccurate, but the shaping and presentation make it a work of propaganda. The Augustine who emerges has been faithful, consistent, and unwavering in his doctrine and life. Many who knew him would have seen instead either progress or outright tergiversation, depending on their point of view."
In the Augustinian Encyclopedia that he edited, Allan Fitzgerald O.S.A. proposes that it is possible to regard the Retractions as a natural successor to the Confessions; in each of these books, Augustine's personal search for truth is advanced, with the corresponding benefits for others clearly in his mind.
The Works of Saint Augustine: A translation for the Twentieth First Century. In 1990, New City Press, in conjunction with the Augustinian Heritage Institute, began translating Saint Augustine's entire corpus into English. At that time, English was the only major Western language into which the Complete Works had not yet been attempted. Existing translations were often archaic or faulty, and the scholarship was outdated. Augustine's writings are useful to anyone interested in patristics, church history, and theology. New City Press is proud to offer the best modern translations available. St. Augustine's complete works will be translated into 49 volumes. To date, over 40 of a projected 49 volumes in the series have been translated and published by NCP.http://www.newcitypress.com/the-works-of-saint-augustine-1.html