A daydream of mine is to go back in time to see Augustine’s library. Not only do I love his books, he was one of the top thinkers in the Latin West not long before the fall of Rome. When the Vandals burned down his town his books somehow escaped and were put on a ship bound for Italy. What became of them after that I do not know.
It would be amazing just to spend two hours in his library! Someone like him, I imagined, would have a wonderful library with all the best books of his age, many of them now lost forever to time.
Well, that is not quite how it would go according to Augustine scholar James J. O’Donnell. Probably all his library had, apart from his own works, were books of the Bible, Bible reference books and maybe some not-particularly-deep Christian writers!
He did not read as widely as you would expect – unlike, say, Ambrose, Jerome and other top minds of the age. In his later years he pretty much just stuck to the Bible. And even there he mainly just read and studied the Psalms, Genesis, Paul and the Gospel of John. He carried his book of Psalms with him on his travels and read it again and again. (Get an Eastern Orthodox Bible to read the Psalms as he knew them.)
There were three things going on:
- He did not generally hang on to books. For example, at 19 he loved Cicero more than anything, yet at age 54 he had no Cicero! In most cases he would read a book, get what he could out of it and then throw it over his shoulder, sotospeak.
- Master texts: Throughout his life he moved from one set of master texts to another, studying each in turn for years, reading other books mostly just to understand the master texts better:
- Cicero and Virgil in his teens
- Manichaean writings in his 20s
- Plotinus and Porphyry in his early 30s
- The Bible from his 30s onwards
- He was bad at Greek: He learned Greek at school but hated it. That was unfortunate since all the best stuff, even the New Testament itself, was written in Greek. That limited him to poor Latin translations.
So at any one time his library was not amazing. What was amazing is that it did not hold him back.
Since I do not know how to build a time machine I did the next best thing: I wrote a computer program that made it easy for me to tell which authors and books Augustine most often brings up or quotes from. That hit the high points – the Bible, Cicero, Virgil, Mani, Plotinus, etc – but missed the fact that he did not have them all at the same time. It also missed some of the lesser known Christian writers that he read:
- Hilary of Poitiers
Source: James J. O’Donnell, “Augustine: A New Biography” (2005).