Augustine of Hippo, Part 2: Reading and Hearing Augustine in English

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts on the life, writings, and legacy of Augustine of Hippo. In this post I discuss two sources of Augustine’s work in English translation, and how the volumes of Augustine’s sermons and letters in the New City Press series expands our view of Augustine’s life and accomplishments.  

Augustine has been well served by the efforts of translators of his works into English. Some works, such as the Confessions, have numerous translations, and some of these are available in different editions. I’ll do a separate post on these translations of the Confessions in the near future; here I’ll address the best one-volume introduction to the writings of Augustine and the ongoing series by New City Press dedicated to translating all of his works.

William Harmless, S.J., in his Augustine in His Own Words, has given us one of the best one-volume readers of any author I’ve seen. At just under 500 pages, Harmless takes the reader through all the major works and periods of Augustine’s life, and provides clear and helpful introductions. Get this book, along with The Nietzsche Reader by Pearson and Large, equally outstanding as a guide to its subject, and you’ll have two handy volumes guiding you through influential and contrasting visions of the human good. Harmless provides his own translations of Augustine’s texts, and is a sure guide to the wide range of topics Augustine addresses. Undergraduate and graduate courses, small reading groups, and individuals wanting to enter into Augustine or refresh themselves will all benefit from this attractive, reasonably-priced volume. The bibliography is excellent, containing a listing of all available (at the time of publication) critical editions and English translations, along with a thorough listing of the secondary literature, grouped according to Harmless’s chapter divisions. I dare say every serious student of theology should own this volume.

New English translations of the complete works of Augustine are available from New City Press under the series title “The Works of Saint Augustine: A New Translation for the 21st Century.” The series, with forty volumes already in print and ten volumes yet remaining, is sponsored by the Augustinian Heritage Institute, and will contain the standard English translations of many of Augustine’s works. Sr. Maria Boulding’s translation of the Confessions has received high praise from many scholars, while many readers, this one included, are thrilled to have new translations and editions of the entire corpus of letters and sermons of Augustine. These are essential for any understanding of Augustine, who is unfortunately often seen only in terms of larger, “more important” works like the City of God, On the Trinity, the Confessions, and his treatises on grace and free will. This turns Augustine into something other than what he was, a bishop serving the needs of his people. He was not a systematic or dogmatic theologian, a philosopher, a political theorist, or, heaven forbid, a “spiritual writer.” Most of his writings, and all those that have so captivated and influenced the Church and others, were conceived and written in the midst of daily pastoral work and problems. Here is F. Van Der Meer, in Augustine the Bishop, published in 1961 and still a key secondary source, describing this reality:

“His was no key position in the Church, yet as he wrote at his desk or spoke from the cathedra in the third-rate place which was his home wave upon wave went out over the world. What many readers of Augustine’s writings do not realize is that his simple cathedra was more important to him than his pen. It was the needs and cares of ordinary Christian folk that supplied both the matter and manner of his loftiest writings, so that the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls. It is not altogether wrong to say that we owe Augustine the saint to the strange and surprising fact that Augustine the genius was little more than a parish priest.”

. . .the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls”: Dockworkers, retired soldiers, servants, and slaves were among those Augustine regularly preached to, and his pastoral responsibilities, including settling tiresome lawsuits throughout the day, countering false understandings of the Church and her faith, and teaching through the Church’s liturgical calendar dominated his life. His writings bear witness not to what we consider academic concerns, but to the daily life of faith of those under his charge. His sermons are thus as important a source for his faith and theology as anything else he published.

These sermons also reveal a very different style of worship than we see today. There were no pews in his basilica, and Augustine would preach seated in his cathedra. There was often some interesting give-and-take between him and those in attendance, with shouts of approval greeting some of his statements, and notes of disapproval accompanying others. Sometimes disruptions occurred. Sometimes his sermons would approach two hours in length, with people likely coming and going, and Augustine weaving in and out of his main points. Augustine never read from a prepared sermon, as stenographers would take down his words, for immediate copying and for posterity. In an Africa that had over 500 bishops, Augustine hardly held a position similar to what a modern bishop does, making Van Der Meer’s description of Augustine as “little more than a parish priest” not much of an exaggeration. And all the paintings showing him with a mitre and an elaborately-decorated robe portray medieval habits, not those of late antiquity in Roman Africa. A simple, gray monk’s robe is what Augustine wore, and his preaching “style” reflects the simplicity of his garb. Yet these sermons are one of the Church’s richest theological treasures.

His letters also broaden our view of his life and work. In these he addressed all the pressing issues of his day, and several are minor theological treatises in their own right. Together with the sermons they are more than a miscellany of secondary concerns for Augustine, or for his readers today. Thanks are due to the translators and publishers who have given us updated versions of these works.

Note on the New City Press editions:  There are eight volumes that have been designed especially with students in mind. These include a single volume of Augustine’s sermons, which give the reader a sample of his larger output (19 volumes are currently available, with one volume yet to appear), and a single volume of Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, culled from the four volumes in the full series.

Here’s a link to a pdf to what’s currently available in this series: Complete_Works_Saint_Augustine

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