Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Augustine's Letter to Firmus

I have recently been reading through Augustine's "City of God" again. It is a fascinating work. In reading a few secondary sources I rediscovered a letter written by Augistine to a man named Firmus. One can find a nice English translation on Roger Pearse's blog and from which I quote in full here. One can glean some interesting insights with regard to the late antique publication and distribution of a Christian writing.

"To Firmus, 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. 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. 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." (Augustine, ep. 1A)

In response to Pearse's blog post, Dirk Jongkind of Tyndale house had made some observations over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog (I made a  couple of comments there myself referring to Gamble). There he notes that Augustine is likely referring to unbound loose leaves of an already written book that could then be assembled in the various orders as Augustine instructs Firmus.

It is of course impossible to know how common this practice was, but Augustine's letter may be evidence that authors (at least late antique authors) had some input over the paratextual features of a work. Not just the titles, but even the physical format of it's publication.

Also, what we have here is another, very common example of books being distributed through private networks. In this case the author is giving advice as to what form the book should take. Notice also that Firmus is to be sending out copies of the book to those in Firmus's network.

"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."

It is note worthy that Augustine does not want many copies to be made by Firmus, "only one or two at most." Any other copies should be made by those who receive the books from Firmus. Those in Carthage should then distribute copies as they see fit. 

One can see in this description the ever widening and broadening circles of distribution for the "City of God" as people in Carthage and beyond request and circulate copies.

Of course, this same network would inadvertently provide a means by which textual alteration of the work would be made known. Notice how Augustine had been informed that there were those who had already received and read portions of the "City of God." In a similar way, he could be made known if readers misunderstood his work, misrepresenting it, or even if they were plagiarizing or altering it.