“Select Letters” (1953) contains a fourth of the letters that St Augustine wrote from 386 to 429, from the time he became a Christian to his last days when he was old and sick and the Vandal army stood at the gates of his city.
Augustine was bishop of Hippo Regius, the second largest city of Roman Africa. He is best known for his “Confessions” (398). These letters pick up where the “Confessions” leave off.
Augustine wrote to everyone – not just generals and bishops, but heretics, parishioners, old friends and even a woman who was screwing up her marriage by dressing like a widow! It is a window onto the times, onto early Western Christians and onto Augustine himself.
Back then the Christian faith was the wave of the future – and seemed like it too. Asceticism, controlling one’s passions, was big. Sometimes even married couples would give up sex on purpose. Young people of wealth became monks and nuns, giving up not just their wealth, but even frequent baths (considered a luxury). It helped that the Roman Empire was weakening, making the vanities of the world seem less certain.
Augustine believed Christ was the way, the truth and the light and tried to persuade people of that. But he was not above having the government make laws about religion, even though sometimes it went too far, like killing heretics whose souls could have been saved.
In one letter he lists the books of his to read after the “Confessions”:
- “On Faith in Things Unseen”
- “On Patience”
- “On Providence”
- “On Faith, Hope and Charity”
“Select Letters” is part of the Loeb Classical Library, so as you read, you see the original Latin on the left, the English translation on the right. I noticed that whenever Augustine quoted the Bible, they did not translate his words. Instead, James Houston Baxter, who did the translation, put the words of the King James Bible in his mouth. It makes the Bible seem more old-timey than it does in the Latin. It also leads to mistranslation.
For example, when Augustine quotes 1 Timothy 2:2, Baxter has him saying:
“that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”
That comes from the King James Bible, not from Augustine’s Latin. Augustine did not say “honesty”, he said caritate – love, charity.
It gets worse: “honesty” has not been a good translation of the Greek the King James Bible is based on since about 1650. That was when “honesty” lost the meaning of “respectability”, a sense you still see in the phrase “to make an honest woman” of someone.
Baxter is hardly the only one who makes Augustine quote the King James Bible. It leads not just to mistranslation, it makes it seem like the Bible is unchanging, the same in all times and all places. The truth is messier than that. But that window onto Augustine’s times has been boarded over in the English.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Roman Africa
- Pompeii – another window onto Roman times.