The importance of the letters of eminent men, as illustrations of their life, character, and times, is too well understood to need remark. The Letters of Cicero and Pliny have given us a more vivid conception of Roman life than the most careful history could have given; the Letters of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin furnish us with the most trustworthy material for understanding the rapid movement and fierce conflict of their age; when we read the voluminous correspondence of Pope and his compeers, or the unstudied beauties of Cowpers letters of friendship, we seem to be in the company of living men; and modern history has in nothing more distinctly proved its sagacity, than by its diligence in publishing the Letters of Cromwell, of Washington, of Chatham, and of other historical personages.
For biography, familiar letters are the most important material. In a mans published writings we see the general character of his mind, and we ascertain his opinions in so far as he deemed it safe or advisable to lay these before a perhaps unsympathizing public; in his letters he reveals his whole character, his feelings as well as his judgments, his motives, his personal history, and the various ramifications of his interest. In his familiar correspondence we see the man as he is known to his intimate friends, in his times of relaxation and unstudied utterance. 1434 Few men, in writing for the public, can resist the tendency towards a constrained attitudinizing, or throw off the fixed expression of one sitting for his portrait; and it is only in conversation, spoken or written, that we get the whole man revealed in a series of constantly varying and unconstrained expressions. And even where, as in Augustins case, we have an autobiography, we derive from the letters many additional traits of character, much valuable illustration of opinions and progress. 1435
In their function of appendices to history they are equally valuable. It was a characteristic remark of Horace Walpoles, that “nothing gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal from them.” A still greater authority, Bacon, in his marvellous distribution of all knowledge, gives to letters the highest place among the “Appendices to History.” “Letters,” he says, “are, according to all the variety of occasions, advertisements, advices, directions, propositions, petitions commendatory, expostulatory, satisfactory; of compliment, of pleasure, of discourse, and all other passages of action. And such as are written from wise men are, of all the words of man, in my judgment, the best; for they are more natural than orations and public speeches, and more advised than conferences or present speeches. So, again, letters of affairs from such as manage them, or are privy to them, are of all others the best instructions for history, and to a diligent reader the best histories in themselves.” 1436 This is especially true of the Letters of Augustin. A large number of them are ecclesiastical and theological, and would in our day have appeared as pamphlets, or would have been delivered as lectures. There are none of his writings which do not receive some supplementary light from his letters. The subjects of his more elaborate writings are here handled in an easier manner, and their sources, p. 212 motives, and origin are disclosed. Difficulties which his published works had occasioned are here removed, new illustrations are noted, further developments and fresh complications of heresy are alluded to, and the whole theological movement of the time is here reflected in a vivid and interesting shape. No controversy of his age was settled without his voice, and it is in his letters we chiefly see the vastness of his empire, the variety of subjects on which appeal was made to him, and the deference with which his judgment was received. Inquiring philosophers, puzzled statesmen, angry heretics, pious ladies, all found their way to the Bishop of Hippo. And while he continually complains of want of leisure, of the multifarious business of his episcopate, of the unwarranted demands made upon him, he yet carefully answers all. Sometimes he writes with the courier who is to carry his letter impatiently chafing outside the door; sometimes a promptly written reply is carried round the whole known world by some faithless messenger before it reaches his anxious correspondent; but, amidst difficulties unthought of under a postal system, his indefatigable diligence succeeds in diffusing intelligence and counsel to the most distant inquirers.
In the present volume we have, as usual, followed the Benedictine edition. Among the many labours which the Benedictine Fathers encountered in editing the works of Augustin, they undertook the onerous task of rearranging the Epistles in chronological order. The manner in which this task has been executed is eminently characteristic of their unostentatious patience and skill. Their order has been universally adopted; it is to this order that reference is made when any writer cites a letter of Augustins; and therefore it matters less whether in each case the date assigned by the Benedictine editors can be accepted as accurate. It will be seen that we have not considered it desirable to translate all the letters. Of those addressed to Augustin we have omitted a few which were neither important in themselves nor indispensable for the understanding of his replies; and, when any of his own letters is a mere repetition of what he has previously written to another correspondent, we have contented ourselves, and, we hope, shall satisfy our readers, with a reference to the former letter in which the arguments and illustrations now repeated may be found.
No English translation of these Letters has previously appeared. The French have in this, as in other patristic studies, been before us. Two hundred years ago a translation into the French tongue was published, and this has lately been superseded by M. Poujoulats four readable and fairly accurate volumes.
Of the two hundred and seventy-two letters given in the Benedictine edition of Augustins works, one hundred and sixty are translated in this selection. In the former volume few were omitted, and the reason for each omission was given in its own place. As the proportion of untranslated letters is in this volume much larger, it may be more convenient to indicate briefly here the general reasons which have guided us in the selection.
I. Almost all the letters referring to the Donatist schism, as there is enough on this subject in the works on the Donatist controversy (vol. iii. of this series) and in numerous earlier letters. This excludes—105, 106, 107, 108, 128, 129, 134, 141, 142, and 204.
II. Almost all the letters relating to Pelagianism, as the series contains three volumes of Augustins anti-Pelagian writings (vols. iv. xii. xv.). This excludes—156, 157, 175, 176, 177, 178, 179, 181, 182, 183, 184, 184 bis, 186, 193, 194, 214, 215, 216, 217.
p. 213 III. Almost all the letters referring to the doctrine of the Trinity, as this has been already given, partly in earlier letters, and more fully in the volume on the Trinity (vol. vii. of this series). This excludes—119, 120, 170, 174, 238, 239, 240, 241, 242.
IV. Almost all those which in design, style, and prolixity, are exegetical or doctrinal treatises rather than letters. This excludes—140, 147, 149, 152, 153, 154, 155, 162, 187, 190, 196, 197, 198, 199, 202 bis, 205.
VI. A large number of miscellaneous smaller letters, as, in order to avoid going beyond the limits of one volume, it was necessary to select only the more interesting and important of these. This excludes—110, 112, 113, 114, 127, 161, 162, 171, 200, 206, 207, 221, 222, 223, 224, 233, 234, 235, 236, 243, 244, 247, 248, 249, 251, 252, 253, 255, 256, 257, 258, 259, 260, 261, 262, 264, 265, 266, 267, 268.
“Si, dans le vaste naufrage des temps, par un malheur que la Providence na pas permis, les ouvrages proprement dits de Saint Augustin eussent péri et quil ne fût resté que ses lettres, nous aurions encore toute sa doctrine, tout son génie: les Lettres de Saint Augustin, cest tout Saint Augustin.”—Poujoulat, Lettres de. S. Aug. vii.211:1436