Augustine, Letter to Firmus – English translation

An article by Lambot informs me of the existence of an interesting letter by St. Augustine, and a correspondent has let me know that an English translation exists in the Fathers of the Church volume of the City of God, to which the letter relates.[1]

While discoveries of sermons by St. Augustine have never ceased, his correspondence has remained pretty much where the Maurist fathers left it.  Only 5 letters have been discovered since the late 17th century; 2 in 1732 by G. Bessel, 1 in 1901 by Dom G. Morin, and finally 2 in 1898 and 1904 by A. Goldbacher, the CSEL editor of Augustine’s letters.

A further letter is found in two manuscripts of Augustine’s De civitate dei, and might reasonably have come to light earlier.  The mss. are the Reims 403 (12-13th c.) and Paris Saint-Genevieve 2757 (14-15th c.).

The letter is deeply interesting for what it tells us about the circulation of the works of a major author in his own time.

Here is the letter.  I have copied a few of the notes from the Fathers of the Church translation, which I have prefixed with FoC:

To Firmus,[2] My Distinguished and Deservedly Honored Lord, and My Cherished Son, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

The books on the City of God which you most eagerly requested I have sent you as I promised, having also reread them myself. That this, with God’s help, should be done has been urged by my son and your brother, Cyprian, who has furnished just that insistence I hoped would be forthcoming.

There are twenty-two sections.[3] To put all these into one whole would be cumbersome. If you wish that two volumes be made of them, they should be so apportioned that one volume contain ten books, the other twelve. For, in those ten, the empty teachings of the pagans have been refuted, and, in the remainder, our own religion has been demonstrated and defended—though, to be sure, in the former books the latter subject has been dealt with when it was more suitable to do so, and in the latter, the former.

If, however, you should prefer that there be more than two volumes, you should make as many as five. The first of these would contain the first five books, where argument has been advanced against those who contend that the worship, not indeed of gods, but of demons, is of profit for happiness in this present life. The second volume would contain the next five books, where [a stand has been taken against those] who think that, for the sake of the life which is to come after death, worship should be paid, through rites and sacrifices, whether to these divinities or to any plurality of gods what­ever. The next three volumes ought to embrace four books each; for this part of our work has been so divided that four books set forth the origin of that City, a second four its prog­ress—or, as we might choose to say, its development,—the final four its appointed ends.

If the diligence you have shown for procuring these books will be matched by diligence in reading them, it is rather from your testing than from my promises that you will learn how far they will help you. As for those books belonging to this work on the City of God which our brothers there in Carthage do not yet have, I ask that you graciously and will­ingly acceed to their requests to have copies made. You will not grant this favor to many, but to one or two at most, and they themselves will grant it to others. Among your friends, some, within the body of Christian folk, may desire instruc­tion; in the case of others, bound by some superstition, it may appear that this labor of ours can, through God’s grace, be used to liberate them. How you are to share it with them you must yourself decide.

For my part I shall take care to make frequent inquiry, God willing, what progress you are making in my writings as you read them. Surely, you cannot fail to know how much a man of education is helped toward understanding the written word by repeated reading. No difficulty in understanding occurs (or, if any, very little) where there is facility in reading, and this gains in scope with successive repetitions. Constant appli­cation [brings to fruition] what [through inattention] would have remained immature.

In earlier letters, my distinguished and deservedly honored lord and my son Firmus, you have shown acquaintance with the books on the Academics that I composed when my con­version was yet fresh.[4] Please write in reply how you came to this knowledge.

The range of subject matter comprised in the twenty-two books of my composition is shown in the epitome that I send you.

  1. [1]Lambot, Lettre inedite de S. Augustin relative au “De Civitate Dei“, Revue Benedictine 51, 1939, p.109-121.  The first couple of paragraphs I give below; and Augustine, City of God, Books I-VII (tr. Zema and Walsh), FotC (Washington, 1950) — appendix p. 399.
  2. [2]FoC: Lambot (113f.) collects the evidence identifying the African priest, Firmus. In Epist. 200, Augustine speaks of his intimate friendship with him. The closing paragraph of Epist. 82 (= Jerome, Epist. 116) is one of the texts which reveal Firmus as carrying letters between Augus­tine and Jerome. A certain Cyprian named there as performing similar service is probably the Cyprian mentioned early in the present letter; cf. Lambot 115 n. 3. From Epist. 184A, addressed to the monks Peter and Abraham, we learn that Firmus was to bring them a copy of the first thirteen books of The City of God.
  3. [3]FoC: Lat. ‘quaterniones.’ The word ‘quaternio’ normally signifies one of the 16-page quires or signatures commonly used in the physical com­position of an ancient codex. Here it may well be synonymous with the literary division ‘liber’ (‘book’)
  4. [4]FoC: The Contra Academicos, translated, under the title ‘Answer to Skeptics,’ by D. J. Kavanagh, OS.A., in the first volume of the Writings of Saint Augustine as found in this series. In discussing this passage, Lambot (114) reminds us that Augustine’s earliest writings were soon eclipsed by the greater works of his maturity. As we learn from Augustine’s Retractations (12), his own copy of the De beata vita showed gaps he could not fill. All but one of his treatises on the liberal arts had vanished from his shelves, though Augustine understood that copies were owned by others (Retract. 1.6). In the De Trinitate (15.xii.21) Augustine discusses the utility of his books on the Academics to any­one ‘who wishes to read them and can do so’ (‘qui potuerit et voluerit legere’)—language which suggests that it was hard to find a copy. Read in the light of this passage of the De Trinitate, Augustine’s request that Firmus write how he came to know the Contra Academicos gains point and, as Lambot remarks, is a guarantee of the authenticity of the letter.

6 thoughts on “Augustine, Letter to Firmus – English translation

  1. Don’t forget the twenty-eight letters discovered by Johannes Divjak in 1981.

    (The text is published in CSEL 88 and Bibliothèque Augustinienne 46B and there is a 1989 English translation by Robert B. Enos, S.S. in FOTC 81.)

  2. On Augustine’s letters: In 1969 Dr Johannes Divjak discovered 29 letters of Augustine in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Marseille. These letters were published in the Etudes Augustiniennes series (46A, Paris, 1987). The series ‘The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century’ offers a fine English translation.

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