A discreet epistle

Augustine's epistula 151

by James J. O'Donnell

Augustine's letters are not commonly treated as literary texts but as sources: they are empowered to speak on matters of biography, history, or doctrine, but in so doing often lose their own identity as texts. The practice of modern editorship has created this status, by taking the letters out of their medieval corpora and arranging them in chronological order. The two editions of Augustine's letters still in use, the Maurist (from the seventeenth century, reprinted in Patrologia Latina) and the CSEL (by Goldbacher, spread over four volumes (34, 44, 57, 58) and 28 years [1895-1923]), have essentially the same chronological arrangement, itself a creation of the Maurist text. Such an arrangement creates an allusion of stability, order, and transparency -- though some letters must perforce be inserted in sequence more or less arbitrarily when they are less securely dated, and other letters are depreciated by falling outside the chronological order in a relatively undifferentiated mass at the end of the collection. It has been shown how this process of turning letters into chronologically-arranged source materials is a humanist innovation.

This study seeks to reawaken the letters from their dormant and compliant slumber by taking a single text for study and commentary. The hypertextual arrangement permits a hybrid of "article" and "commentary" not economically feasible in print, and allows us to place the text itself, cult object par excellence of the humanist tribe, at the center of our attention.

After this brief introduction, the reader will be led to the Latin text itself (any kind reader wishing to supply an English translation is welcome to contribute), which is accompanied by hyperlinked running commentary designed to elucidate the main points of interest.

The addressee is Caecilianus, a Roman grandee on service in Africa in the year 414. He was in Carthage a few months earlier, in September 413, when his senior colleague Marinus was charged to restore order to a province lately unsettled by rebellion. Heraclian, the murderer of Stilicho, served in the wake of that signal service to the throne as imperial commander in Africa (comes Africae); advanced to the empty but proud dignity of consul in 413, he rebelled and seems to have set himself up as emperor. He invaded Italy with a fleet, but was beaten by Marinus, who pursued him back to Africa, hunted him down, and put him to death. Remaining in Africa, Marinus hounded those found in complicity with Heraclian.

Among Marinus' victims were two brothers, Apringius and Marcellinus. The older brother, Apringius, was the senior official, serving as proconsul (civil governor) in Africa in 411, but the younger brother attracts our attention more firmly. Marcellinus held the high rank of tribunus et notarius and had been sent to Africa in the same year in which his brother was proconsul on an important commission. He was charged with investigating and settling the long-seething Donatist controversy. He called and presided over a lengthy conference at Carthage in June 411, at which hundreds of bishops representing each side in the controversy appeared and, through a handful of designated spokesmen on each side, debated their cases. Marcellinus, as the emperor's representative, found for the orthodox (this was scarcely a surprise) and undertook the genteel brutality of imperial repression of the schismatics.

Marcellinus and his brother remained in Africa. Marcellinus in particular fell into a close friendship with Augustine. This friendship takes the form of a remarkable set of Augustinian texts. The backbone of the collection is a series of letters in which Marcellinus was involved:

Now comes the three-way exchange with Marcellinus and Volusianus. The five letters in this set formed a unit that regularly led off medieval collections of Augustine's letters and that nearly always appear in MSS together and in the same order, first three letters from and to Volusianus, then two from and to Marcellinus.

With that exchange, the brace of letters that traveled together, apparently in Augustine's time and certainly in the middle ages, comes to a close. From shortly aftewards, two more letters to Marcellinus survive that had a much more limited circulation.

The exchange of letters with Volusianus was, morever (as noted), the preliminary round of "pagan"/Christian discussion that culminated in the writing of City of God. The opening paragraph of that work is a dedicatory epistle to Marcellinus. Books 1-3 seem to have been written together and presented to Marcellinus before his death; the rest of that work was written over the next ten to fifteen years, carrying out the plan undertaken in the face of the impulse provided by Marcellinus and his acquaintances.

But Marcellinus was also instrumental beyond ep. 143 in the making of the anti-Pelagian Augustine's textual posture. Both the de peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum and the de spiritu et littera were written in response to specific questions that Marcellinus raised. The last we see of Marcellinus carries this theological interest forwards. In what is printed as Augustine's letter number 165, we have a letter of Jerome to Marcellinus and his wife Anapsychia, written unwittingly after the executions, replying to an inquiry from Marcellinus. It is one of the famous places in which Jerome exclaims over the disasters of barbarian invasions, both at Rome and in his part of the empire; the irony is that Jerome wrote this to the recipient of Augustine's massive dismissal of those invasions as irrelevant to a true Christian's concerns! In another way the letter runs at cross-purposes with Augustine, though unintentionally. Marcellinus has pressed the question on the origin of the soul, a question that Augustine himself evaded fiercely all his life, and in this letter Jerome both refers Marcellinus to his own books against Rufinus (in which Jerome holds that souls are created afresh for each new child born) and to the magisterial authority of Augustine. (Augustine himself responds to this letter to Marcellinus with two long letters to Jerome, the first, Aug.'s ep. 166, inquiring on the question of the origin of the soul.) As a matter of evidence for textual practices, it is significant that this letter from Jerome in Bethlehem to an imperial commissioner in Africa who happened already to have been executed, did reach Augustine in Hippo and have sufficiently public status to be the object of Augustine's inquiry in response.

Proceed to the text of epistula 151.

L. Jardine, Erasmus: Man of Letters (Princeton 1993).

There is a complete English translation of A.'s letters in the series "Fathers of the Church" in numerous volumes, mainly by the hand of Sister Wilfrid Parsons.

See S.I. Oost, "The revolt of Heraclian", Classical Philology 61(1966), 236-42.

It is hard to write this phrase about a missing letter without seeming to use the traditional regretful rhetoric of the historian noting the absence of a source from a notionally perfect record of correspondence. What I would suggest we should be thinking of when we detect such lacunae is not the missing letters but the ones we have. Why were these preserved and circulated? That is surely the primary fact attested by their existence and the non-existence of the others.

The most accessible and satisfactory English language study is still W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Movement (Oxford, 1952 and later editions).

The study of this collection by M. Moreau, Le Dossier Marcellinus dans la Correspondance de saint Augustin (Paris 1973), is excellent in treating these documents as transparent sources for history and doctrine, but pays little attention to their independent textual status. For ep. 151, see her pp. 93-102.

I say cautiously "A.'s presentation of V." because even V.'s one letter back to A. is clearly transmitted by and among A.'s own writings, and we have no way of knowing whether it fully and faithfully presents everything V. said in writing to A. The correspondence was in circulation not long after this exchange, as witness a quotation from it by Evodius (Aug. ep. 161.1, with reply by Aug. at ep. 162.6-7: dated probably to 414/5.) Similarly, P. Courcelle showed ("Date, source et genèse des 'Consultationes Zacchaei et Apollonii'," Revue de l'histoire des religions 146[1954] 174-93) that an anonymous cleric in Africa, at some date between 411 and 484, drew upon letters 137 and 138 to construct his own refutation of "paganism".

ep. 137.3, ". . . non quo ad ea, quae necessaria sunt saluti, tanta in eis perueniatur difficultate, sed, cum quisque ibi fidem tenuerit, sine qua pie recteque non uiuitur, tam multa tamque multiplicibus mysteriorum umbraculis opacata intellegenda proficientibus restant tantaque non solum in uerbis, quibus ita dicta sunt, uerum etiam in rebus, quae intellegendae sunt, latet altitudo sapientiae, ut annosissimis, acutissimis, flagrantissimis cupiditate discendi hoc contingat, quod eadem scriptura quodam loco habet: 'cum consummauerit homo, tunc incipit' (Sirach 18.6)."

The quotation marks are necessary to remind the reader that "paganism" is a Christian construction of non- Christian behavior and is a category that would make no sense to the people of whom it was used. Further, it is far from clear how "pagan" it is fair to say a Volusianus was, for he ended his life with baptism, after all. For a contrarian study of "paganism" in this period, see my "Demise of Paganism".

I have discussed de peccatorum meritis elsewhere.

I have discussed de spiritu et littera elsewhere as well.

From my commentary on Conf. 1.6.7: At every stage of A.'s life, he refused to take a definite position on the origin of the soul, an ambivalence he later compared to the canniness of the sailor avoiding Scylla and Charybdis: nat. et or. an. 2.13.18. The fundamental doubt is expressed early: lib. arb. 3.21.59, 'harum autem quatuor de anima sententiarum, (1) utrum de propagine veniant, (2) an in singulis quibusque nascentibus novae fiant, an in corpora nascentium iam alicubi existentes (3) vel mittantur divinitus, (4) vel sua sponte labantur, nullam temere adfirmare oportebit. aut enim nondum ista quaestio a divinorum librorum catholicis tractatoribus pro merito suae obscuritatis et perplexitatis evoluta atque inlustrata est, aut si iam factum est, nondum in manus nostras huiuscemodi litterae pervenerunt.' For his late insistence on his ignorance, retr. 1.1.3, 'nam quod attinet ad eius originem, qua fit ut sit in corpore, utrum de illo uno sit qui primum creatus est, quando "factus est homo in animam vivam," an similiter fiant singulis singuli, nec tunc sciebam nec adhuc scio.' For the best statement of what he was willing to affirm, dating from not too long after conf., see Gn. litt. 7.28.43; see generally Gn. litt. books 7 and 10 (with note at BA 49.53-79 on the significance of the problem for infant baptism) and the later (anti-Pelagian) nat. et or. an. For the most authoritative presentation and interpretation of the evidence (including the nuances that emerged in A.'s later works), see O'Daly 1520 and 199203. For the minority position of R.J. O'Connell, who holds that at Cassiciacum, and for some time after, A. inclined to the third or fourth of these views (which on that reading he owed mainly to Plotinus), see his St. Augustine's Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386-391 (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 148-52; the thesis is revised, expanded, and defended with vigor if not circumspection in his The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine's Later Works (New York, 1987). O'Connell's position refuses to acknowledge A.'s willingness to leave such a significant question radically open and not feel a philosopher's qualm that his system is thus undermined. A. had no system, despite what we try to make of him, but found himself following the teachings of a God who did not always make everything perfectly clear. A. managed, with great difficulty, to make his peace with the uncertainties of that condition: not all his students since have been so successful. A.'s agnosticism gave him both advantage and disadvantage in polemical situations. To be noncommittal on an essential issue left him open to one kind of criticism, but to have asserted any form of transmission of souls from Adam would have given Pelagians more grounds for attacking A. as a crypto-Manichee (cf. c. Iul. imp. 2.178), and he was also eager himself to avoid taking a position the Manichees could attack (c. Fort. 11, 'si quaeris utrum a deo descenderit anima, magna quidem quaestio est; sed sive a deo descendit sive non, illud de anima respondeo non esse deum').

My commentary was taken to task for its dismissal of O'Connell's views by J. Patout Burns of Washington University, St. Louis, and in the spring of 1995, Burns and I discussed O'Connell's work at length in an on-line seminar (look at files 9501 and subsequent for the heading AUG- SOUL). Burns's palmary summary and analysis of O'Connell's 1987 book will be posted to the site as a single document early in 1996.

Volusianus' father, Rufius Albinus, is also cited by Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine 174n5, for having doubts about the virgin birth; Brown cites Photius, cod. 230 ed. Becker, p. 271, B.29.