My worn and heavily marked copy of the original hardback edition of Peter Brown’s biography of St. Augustine, its binding held together by sturdy book tape, sits on a bookshelf close to my desk as it has since it first appeared in 1967. On the inside cover I have a little note, “Reviewed in Christian Century 1968,” and at the rear a list of words and phrases with page numbers that caught my attention when I first read it. Now there sits beside it a shiny new edition, this one a classy paperback with a reproduction of the Vision of St. Augustine by Vittorio Carpaccio (1460–1523) on its cover. The man who wrote the original work was a promising young scholar in his early thirties at All Soul’s College at Oxford; the person who issues the new edition is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton, the most renowned student of Augustine in the world, and one of the most respected historians of the religious history of the later Roman Empire.
The text of the biography remains the same, but Brown has added two lengthy epilogues, the first entitled “New Evidences,” the second “New Directions.” Like the book itself they are wise, engaging, and perceptive, written in the sparkling and graceful prose that Brown seems to produce so effortlessly.
Several years before he died in 430, Augustine began to read through all his writings and wrote what we know today as the Retractiones, a title that might be translated as “reconsiderations.” In this work he commented one by one on all his writings, giving details about the date and circumstances of the work, noting places where he had changed his mind, pointing out passages where he got things wrong, for example where he had cited a biblical text from memory and not gotten it correct. He was in his early seventies (he was born in 354), a famous bishop of the Church, 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.
Augustine intended to do the same for his letters and sermons, but in 428 eight books of Julian Eclanum, Augustine’s most vigorous theological opponent in his later years, arrived in Hippo and Augustine realized they had to be answered. So he put aside the task of reading his letters and turned again with weariness and resignation to the task thrust upon him. He died before he could return to the letters. As a consequence we do not have a certain list of his letters and sermons. It had, however, been assumed by scholars that the standard editions included all the sermons and letters that were preserved.
In 1969 the Austrian Academy of Sciences began to catalogue the Augustine manuscripts in the libraries of Europe (some fifteen thousand in all) and in 1969 Johannes Divjak, a scholar from Vienna, came to France to work on the project. In the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles, to the astonishment of Augustine scholars, he discovered a manuscript of Augustine’s letters that included twenty–nine letters that were wholly unknown. The manuscript in which they were found is relatively late, fifteenth century, but Augustine scholars are certain they are genuine. Many come from late in Augustine’s life and shed light on events in North Africa in which he was intimately involved. The letters are now available in an English translation by Robert Eno in the series Fathers of the Church published by Catholic University of America Press in 1989.
But there is more. In 1990, Francois Dolbeau, a French scholar, discovered that a manuscript in the Stadtsbibliothek of Mainz contained a group of twenty–six sermons, some quite lengthy, most unknown, and some giving the full text of sermons that were known only from excerpts made in the Middle Ages. In contrast to the letters that come from the end of Augustine’s life, some of these sermons were preached in a.d. 397 in Carthage shortly after Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo, others a few years later when Augustine was contending with the Donatists.
What makes the letters and sermons so interesting to us, observes Brown, is “their unremitting circumstantiality,” which is one reason why they were excerpted by the medievals and not copied in their entirety, or were simply ignored. When later scholars read Augustine they sought writings that dealt with theological topics or the spiritual life, singling out passages that were particularly applicable to their own lives and times. For the historian today, however, these sermons allow us to hear “the living voice of Augustine the bishop, caught, in turns, at its most intimate and at its most routine.” The new sermons are available in a lively translation by Edmund Hill, O.P., in the New City translation of Augustine’s writings, The Works of Saint Augustine III/11, published in 1997.
The letters and sermons have prompted Brown to look again at his youthful book and to rethink his portrait of Augustine, at least at certain points. He now finds the older Augustine to be more attractive, less stern and authoritarian, than he did thirty years ago. No doubt this is in part because Brown is now older, but the examples he brings in the first epilogue are illuminating. Augustine’s sermons now appear more as “dialogues with the crowd” than authoritative utterances from the bishop’s cathedra, and his tone often reveals that he had little authority over his hearers. On one occasion in Carthage the congregation shouted him down and forced him to stop preaching on the festival of a major saint.
On another, recounted in a letter written in 420, we learn that when Atticus, the Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote to Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, he did not address a similar letter to Augustine. It may be that he thought Augustine had died, but it is more likely that as head of the premier Christian city in the East it was beneath his dignity to send greetings to the bishop of a small African town. Theological learning did not count for much in the world of ecclesiastical diplomacy. Augustine sent Atticus a witty response, the kind of comment, says Brown, “that makes one forgive so much in the old man.” Augustine wrote: “For what is easier to believe than that a man, born to die, should, in fact, have died.”
The second epilogue is no less interesting. It is concerned with the extraordinary energy and vitality of scholarship on the later Roman Empire over the last generation and its significance for understanding the world Augustine inhabited. By contrast to what we previously knew of the Church in Roman Africa, today we are able to envision “an immensely wider landscape,” writes Brown. “We can take in all of Christian Africa, and not only those parts of it revealed to us by Augustine’s participation in the Donatist controversy. It is a landscape against which the figure of Augustine is all but dwarfed. His clear, insistent voice did not always carry throughout that wide land.”
Just as there were letters and sermons that were not known until a few years ago, archaeological excavations have uncovered towns and churches that were wholly unknown to us until recently. A huge church dedicated at the shrine of St. Crispina, for example, was discovered at Theveste (Tebessa in Algeria), having been erected by a fellow Catholic bishop with an eye for superb craftsmanship. Nothing is said of the bishop or the church in Augustine’s writings. Inscriptions and piles of wine amphorae give us a vivid picture of feasting at tombs of the dead, a practice Augustine tried in vain to discourage. We know a great deal more about the social world of the later Roman empire; through prosopographical studies we are able to identify particular persons with much greater exactitude; and we have a keener sense of the continuing attraction of paganism, a fact that helps us understand why Augustine’s great work The City of God was an “apology” in defense of Christianity and not a work of political theology.
As for Augustine’s intellectual life, Brown sees more unity in Augustine’s thinking than he did earlier. His thought is “less riven by fateful discontinuities than I had thought.” Brown is impressed at Augustine’s patience and unusual capacity to take enormous effort to address issues that might trouble the faithful. Again and again, in what Brown calls “quiet acts of self–sacrifice,” he took up his pen in defense of the Church. And Brown reminds modern interpreters, particularly on the matter of sexuality, that Augustine was the defender of marriage against the extreme asceticism of his contemporaries. “We must never read Augustine as if he were contemporary with ourselves.” He was the contemporary of Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, and Christian tradition would have taken a quite different direction, I am sure, if Augustine did not stand between us and them. His is a voice of moderation. As Brown notes, “He wished for a greater recognition of the physical, sexual components of human nature, and was prepared to defend their legitimate expression (if in a disciplined manner) in marriage.”
There is much more packed into these two epilogues (as well as extensive bibliographical notes of recent books and articles), but these few examples give a sampling of the pleasures to be found in this new edition of Augustine of Hippo. Even if one has the original, the new edition is a must. After reading the epilogues one is drawn back to the text itself, and I have found it inviting to be greeted by a clean page (without my old markings) as I read it now, a different person than I was thirty years ago.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.