It is important to note that what is termed as a “letter” of St Augustine is at times much more than simply one or two pages in length. Before the advent of the printing press and the production of books, the difference between terms such as “letter” and “manuscript” was neither standardized nor necessarily determined solely by the number of pages involved.
If, as in this case, Augustine was writing personally to one recipient, his work was called a letter more because of its preparation for and transmission to a nominated sole recipient; on the other hand, if the very same document had been intended to be copied and available for many general readers, it could well be termed a manuscript. Indeed, some of Augustine’s “letters” are lengthier than some of his “books. In fact, if Augustine’s letters had been his only writings to have survived, (i.e., if no copies of his “books” or sermons existed), the world would nevertheless know more about the person and theology of Augustine that is equivalently known about some Christian theologians who lived many centuries after him.
What are these letters?
The word "letters" has been used very broadly by scholars to include all writing by Saint Augustine that is neither a sermon nor a "book". Some letters were simply a hasty reply to one just received; the person who brought the incoming letter was prevailed upon to wait a while so that he could carry the written reply back with him. On the other hand, some of his "letters" are of such a length that today they would be called a pamphlet, tract or a lecture.
Why did Augustine spend so much time in writing letters?
Augustine often described his letters as conversations with persons from whom he was separated by geographical distance. Sending and receiving letters was of great importance to Augustine because friendship was essential to him. Through letters "which fly afar" he desired to know the mind and heart of persons who had their own insights about the Truth. For example, in one of his letters to St Jerome in Bethlehem (whom he never met in person) he wrote, "If I could have my way, I would have you with me daily so that I could discuss whatever I wish with you." (Letter 166, 1)
Correspondence was, indeed, an imperfect means of communication, yet better than having no "conversation" at all. Letters sometimes never reached their destination, or letters coming from both persons crossed in transit.
Why did Augustine keep copies of the letters that he wrote?
A number of reasons come into force. On a practical level, because Augustine wrote so many books and preached so much, it often happened that his letters contained preliminary thoughts that he later developed into a book or repeated in a sermon, or else contained refinements of what he had previously written. For Augustine, therefore, making copies of his letters assisted his having an external data bank of his thoughts. For the same reason Augustine he kept copies of all of his books and of many of his sermons.
Copies of his letters to and from a correspondent were all that he ever “possessed” of some correspondents. This was true of some persons with whom he corresponded but never met (e.g., Saint Jerome in Jerusalem, and Bishop Paulinus of Nola). Keeping both their letters and a copy of his replies to them assisted the long-distance friendship and enhanced the possibility (not always achieved!) of an orderly pattern of communication and sequence of thought. The not-impossible chance of a letter's not arriving was another reason for its writer to take the precaution of keeping a copy in case he had to re-transmit its contents a second time (or, slightly modified, to send similar content to a different recipient).
Augustine purposely published some of his letters by giving them to others to make copies - the earliest known example is Augustine's series of letters to his friend, Nebridius. Possibly the letters to Jerome and Paulinus were treated likewise; these letters were generally theological or catechetical in nature, and were thus of broader interest than had they simply carried the communication of personal news and friendship.
What topics do his letters cover?
They touch upon all the topics that his books cover, and more. There are none of Augustine's longer writings that do not receive some additional explanation in his letters. The subjects of his more elaborate writings are here handled in an easier manner, and their sources, motives, and origin are often disclosed.
The letters of Augustine show an astonishing breadth of interests. Some are learned treatises on points of Christian doctrine and conduct, others are full of practical counsel. For example, in his letter to Ecdicia he explains the duties of a wife, telling her she ought not wear black clothes, since her husband disliked them; she might be humble in spirit while rich and pleasant in how she dressed. In all things reasonable, he tells her, she should agree with her husband as to the method of educating their son, and leave the chief care of it to him. Augustine reproves her for having given goods and money to the poor without his consent, and tells her to ask his pardon for it. In like manner, he always impressed on husbands the respect, tender affection, and consideration which they owed their wives.
What chance is there that these letters are authentic?
An excellent chance. Just as Augustine at the end of his life wrote his Retractationes, in which he listed and made alterations and additions to all the books he had written during his long life, he intended a similar exercise regarding his letters. Julian of Eclanum was the most vigorous theological opponent of Augustine in his later years. In 428 eight books by Julian written in defence of Pelagianism and directly against Augustine arrived in Hippo. Augustine realized they had to take the time to write in defence of the Church and of himself. He thus put aside the task of reading and listing his letters, and turned again with weariness and resignation to the task of writing that had been thrust upon him. He died before he could return to the letters. As a consequence, he left no list of his letters.
What early listing is there of Augustine's letters?
There is a list from the year of Augustine's death, which is accurate but unfortunately incomplete. Possidius, the friend of Augustine and a fellow bishop, was with Augustine during his last months. In the terrible months of the siege by Vandals that preceded and followed the death of Augustine, Possidius, bishop of Calama, worked briskly to ensure that the literary legacy of Augustine would survive intact for future ages. Possidius worked his way through the library of Augustine. He wrote a complete list of the writings of Augustine, an Indiculum. This Indiculum recorded not only the titles of the formal works by Augustine (as Augustine himself had done, when he wrote his Rectractationes in 427). It also included brief titles of the sermons and letters that lay, partly sorted into little piles, on the library shelves. Possidius eventually attached this list to the end of his own small book called Life of Augustine.
Not all the letters listed in the Indiculum by Possidius have survived to this day. All may have been taken out of Hippo, a town attacked by Vandals as Augustine died and invaded by them soon afterwards, but not all of them were copied regularly enough for at least one copy to have survived the ravages of time and European warfare. Some of the letters of Augustine exist only in part, and this only because by good fortune a passage from them happened to be quoted in some medieval manuscript that still exists. Furthermore, scholars accept that there would have been vastly more letters than the number of which Augustine himself had kept copies and which were thus originally listed in the Indiculum of Possidius.
Why number the letters of Augustine?
Consider the contemporary practice of "officially" numbering the musical works of individual composers. This assists in protecting the authenticity of these works, and also allows scholars to refer to a set work and be sure that everyone knows exactly which manuscript is being referred to. Many centuries ago the Benedictine monks who copied manuscripts helpfully numbered the letters of Augustine in the same way and for the same reasons as classical musical works were numbered. They numbered the letters of Augustine in an estimated chronological order. This has helped scholars greatly when referring to a particular letter, because unlike books, letters do not have a title by which they can be identified.
Who numbered them, and how many letters are there?
The Benedictines numbered 270 letters, with 53 of them being incoming letters to Augustine from various correspondents.
How could it be that some of his letters were only "found" within the past forty years?
The invention of the computer helped to make this possible. Using computers, in 1969 the Austrian Academy of Sciences began to catalogue the Augustine manuscripts in the libraries of Europe (some fifteen thousand volumes in all). In 1969 Johannes Divjak, a scholar from Vienna, came to France to work on the project. In the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles. To the delight of Augustine scholars, Divjak discovered a manuscript of letters that included twenty-nine letters of Augustine that were wholly unknown.
The manuscript in question had been produced about the year 1440 for King René of Anjou, a rich but minor monarch. This manuscript had been known, but it had never been closely examined. It was assumed that an elegant late medieval manuscript could hardly contain any new work of an author as ancient and as frequently copied as was Augustine. Hence the surprise of Johannes Divjak when he found that in a standard collection of Augustine’s letters there were twenty-nine other letters, of which twenty-seven (many of them very long) were utterly unknown. These "lost" letters that come from the end of life of Augustine. Scholars of Augustine are satisfied that they are genuine. (In 1990, in a similar way Francois Dolbeau, a French scholar, discovered that a manuscript in the Stadtsbibliothek of Mainz contained a group of twenty-six of the sermons of Augustine whose continued existence had been unknown. For the page in Augnet on this topic, click here.)
Do the letters of Augustine add anything to our knowledge of Augustine? Why are they important and valuable?
Had not a hundred (approx) books by Augustine survived, his letters would have received greater prominence and attention. Because Augustine wrote so much in his books at greater length, his letters cannot be expected to break very much new ground. In his letters, however, is seen the vastness of his intellectual empire, the variety of subjects on which appeal was made to him, and the deference with which his judgment was sought.
Inquiring philosophers, puzzled officials of the state, pious ladies, all found their way to this intellectual giant who was the leader of the church in Hippo. In some of these letters, difficulties which his published works had met are here removed, new illustrations are noted, further developments and fresh complications of theological error are alluded to, and the whole theological movement of the time is here reflected in a vivid and interesting shape. In summary, Augustine’s letters are a treasure of the greatest value, for the knowledge of his life, influence and even his doctrine.
Were Augustine's letters appreciated?
There is evidence that they were appreciated. Because Augustine's collection contains some letters he received, it is possible to read there the appreciation of his correspondents. For example, his friend Nebridius wrote to Augustine that his letters "speak to me of Christ, of Plato, of Plotinus. To me they will always be sweet to hear because of their eloquence, easy to read because of their brevity, and safe to understand because of their wisdom." (Letter 6.1)
THE LOST LETTERS
How could it be that some of the letters of Augustine were only "found" within the past forty years?
The invention of the computer helped to make this possible. Using computers, in 1969 the Austrian Academy of Sciences began to catalogue the Augustine manuscripts in the libraries of Europe (some fifteen thousand in all). As this was happening, in 1969 Johannes Divjak discovered in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles, a manuscript of letters that included twenty nine letters by Augustine that were wholly unknown. These letters that come from the end of the life of Augustine. Scholars are satisfied that these letters are genuine.
How could these letters have been "lost"?
To call these twenty-nine letters "lost" is not quite correct. More likely they were carefully put aside about 600 years ago as irrelevant, and this in an age when the teaching of the Church on social justice was not so well developed as has been the case for the last 150 years. The content of letters generally did not fit nicely into the image of Augustine, his thought and his priorities that the medieval church was wanting the authority of the name and credibility of Augustine to support.
How are these "new" letters now regarded as significant?
They tend to show "another" Augustine to the one who was an authoritative scholar of the Christian faith. In these letters is an Augustine deeply concerned in a paternal way about slaves, refugees, immigrants, abandoned children, the abuses of power, absentee landowners and the many other injustices of his day. Clerical scandals - financial, political and sexual - also have a prominent role in this correspondence. These new - or previously "lost" - letters give much information about social questions. In Letter 10, for example, he is not only pleading for a new law against various practices of the sellers of slaves, but he is also very worried about the sale of children, which is also the case in Letter 24.
In Letter 22 (another of his "lost letters") he shows clearly the powerlessness of the weak towards the juridical and administrative machine. He added that he too felt himself without power when attempting defend poor people from the neglect and corruption of the civic bureaucracy.