Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fathers of the Church

Letter CCXX


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). In this letter to Count Boniface he laments the recipient’s fall from a desire to serve God to a worldly life, and urges him to return to his former resolutions.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 124-231 span the period from the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411, and the rise of the Pelagian heresy, until Augustine’s death in 430.

by Augustine of Hippo in 427 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. Never could I have found a more trustworthy man, nor one who could have more ready access to your ear when bearing a letter from me, than this servant and minister of Christ, the deacon Paulus, a man very dear to both of us, whom the Lord has now brought to me in order that I may have the opportunity of addressing you, not in reference to your power and the honour which you hold in this evil world, nor in reference to the preservation of your corruptible and mortal body, — because this also is destined to pass away, and how soon no one can tell, — but in reference to that salvation which has been promised to us by Christ, who was here on earth despised and crucified in order that He might teach us rather to despise than to desire the good things of this world, and to set our affections and our hope on that world which He has revealed by His resurrection. For He has risen from the dead, and now "dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over Him."

2. I know that you have no lack of friends, who love you so far as life in this world is concerned, and who in regard to it give you counsels, sometimes useful, sometimes the reverse; for they are men, and therefore, though they use their wisdom to the best of their ability in regard to what is present, they know not what may happen on the morrow. But it is not easy for any one to give you counsel in reference to God, to prevent the perdition of your soul, not because you lack friends who would do this, but because it is difficult for them to find an opportunity of speaking with you on these subjects. For I myself have often longed for this, and never found place or time in which I might deal with you as I ought to deal with a man whom I ardently love in Christ. You know besides in what state you found me at Hippo, when you did me the honor to come to visit me, — how I was scarcely able to speak, being prostrated by bodily weakness. Now, then, my son, hear me when I have this opportunity of addressing you at least by a letter, — a rare opportunity, for it was not in my power to send such communication to you in the midst of your dangers, both because I apprehended danger to the bearer, and because I was afraid lest my letter should reach persons into whose hands I was unwilling that it should fall. Wherefore I beg you to forgive me if you think that I have been more afraid than I should have been; however this may be, I have stated what I feared.

3. Hear me, therefore; nay, rather hear the Lord our God snaking by me, His feeble servant. Call to remembrance what manner of man you were while your former wife, of hallowed memory, still lived, and how under the stroke of her death, while that event was yet recent, the vanity of this world made you recoil from it, and how you earnestly desired to enter the service of God. We know and we can testify what you said as to your state of mind and your desires when you conversed with us at Tubunae. My brother Alypius and I were alone with you. [I beseech you, then, to call to remembrance that conversation], for I do not think that the worldly cares with which you are now engrossed can have such power over you as to have effaced this wholly from your memory. You were then desirous to abandon all the public business in which you were engaged, and to withdraw into sacred retirement, and live like the servants of God who have embraced a monastic life. And what was it that prevented you from acting according to these desires? Was it not that you were influenced by considering, on our representation of the matter, how much service the work which then occupied you might render to the churches of Christ if you pursued it with this single aim, that they, protected from all disturbance by barbarian hordes, might live "a quiet and peaceable life," as the apostle says, "in all godliness and honesty;" resolving at the same time for your own part to seek no more from this world than would suffice for the support of yourself and those dependent on you, wearing as your girdle the cincture of a perfectly chaste self-restraint, and having underneath the accoutrements of the soldier the surer and stronger defence of spiritual armour.

4. At the very time when we were full of joy that you had formed this resolution, you embarked on a voyage and you married a second wife. Your embarkation was an act of the obedience due, as the apostle has taught us, to the "higher powers;" but you would not have married again had you not, abandoning the continence to which you had devoted yourself, been overcome by concupiscence. When I learned this, I was, I must confess it, dumb with amazement; but, in my sorrow, I was in some degree comforted by hearing that you refused to marry her unless she became a Catholic before the marriage, and yet the heresy of those who refuse to believe in the true Son of God has so prevailed in your house, that by these heretics your daughter was baptized. Now, if the report be true (would to God that it were false!) that even some who were dedicated to God as His handmaids have been by these heretics re-baptized, with what floods of tears ought this great calamity to be bewailed by us! Men are saying, moreover, perhaps it is an unfounded slander, — that one wife does not satisfy your passions, and that you have been defiled by consorting with some other women as concubines.

5. What shall I say regarding these evils — so patent to all, and so great in magnitude as well as number — of which you have been, directly or indirectly, the cause since the time of your being married? You are a Christian, you have a conscience, you fear God; consider, then, for yourself some things which I prefer to leave unsaid, and you will find for how great evils you ought to do penance; and I believe that it is to afford you an opportunity of doing this in the way in which it ought to be done, that the Lord is now sparing you and delivering you from all dangers. But if you will listen to the counsel of Scripture, I pray you, "make no tarrying to turn to the Lord, and put not off from day to day." You allege, indeed, that you have good reason for what you have done, and that I cannot be a judge of the sufficiency of that reason, because I cannot hear both sides of the question; but, whatever be your reason, the nature of which it is not necessary at present either to investigate or to discuss, can you, in the presence of God, affirm that you would ever have come into the embarrassments of your present position had you not loved the good things of this world, which, being a servant of God, such as we knew you to be formerly, it was your duty to have utterly despised and esteemed as of no value, — accepting, indeed, what was offered to you, that you might devote it to pious uses, but not so coveting that which was denied to you, or was entrusted to your care, as to be brought on its account into the difficulties of your present position, in which, while good is loved, evil things are perpetrated, — few, indeed, by you, but many because of you, and while things are dreaded which, if hurtful, are so only for a short time, things are done which are really hurtful for eternity?

6. To mention one of these things, — who can help seeing that many persons follow you for the purpose of defending your power or safety, who, although they may be all faithful to you, and no treachery is to be apprehended from any of them, are desirous of obtaining through you certain advantages which they also covet, not with a godly desire, but from worldly motives? And in this way you, whose duty it is to curb and check your own passions, are forced to satisfy those of others. To accomplish this, many things which are displeasing to God must be done; and yet, after all, these passions are not thus satisfied, for they are more easily mortified finally in those who love God, than satisfied even for a time in those who love the world. Therefore the Divine Scripture says: "Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever, as God abideth for ever." Associated, therefore, as you are with such multitudes of armed men, whose passions must be humoured, and whose cruelty is dreaded, how can the desires of these men who love the world ever be, I do not say satiated, but even partially gratified by you, in your anxiety to prevent still greater widespread evils, unless you do that which God forbids, and in so doing become obnoxious to threatened judgment? So complete has been the havoc wrought in order to indulge their passions, that it would be difficult now to find anything for the plunderer to carry away.

7. But what shall I say of the devastation of Africa at this hour by hordes of African barbarians, to whom no resistance is offered, while you are engrossed with such embarrassments in your own circumstances, and are taking no measures for averting this calamity? Who would ever have believed, who would have feared, after Boniface had become a Count of the Empire and of Africa, and had been placed in command in Africa with so large an army and so great authority, that the same man who formerly, as Tribune, kept all these barbarous tribes in peace, by storming their strongholds, and menacing them with his small band of brave confederates, should now have suffered the barbarians to be so bold, to encroach so far, to destroy and plunder so much, and to turn into deserts such vast regions once densely peopled? Where were any found that did not predict that, as soon as you obtained the authority of Count, the African hordes would be not only checked, but made tributaries to the Roman Empire? And now, how completely the event has disappointed men's hopes you yourself perceive; in fact, I need say nothing more on this subject, because your own reflection must suggest much more than I can put in words.

8. Perhaps you defend yourself by replying that the blame here ought rather to rest on persons who have injured you, and, instead of justly requiting the services rendered by you in your office, have returned evil for good. These matters I am not able to examine and judge. I beseech you rather to contemplate and inquire into the matter, in which you know that you have to do not with men at all, but with God; living in Christ as a believer, you are bound to fear lest you offend Him. For my attention is more engaged by higher causes, believing that men ought to ascribe Africa's great calamities to their own sins. Nevertheless, I would not wish you to belong to the number of those wicked and unjust men whom God uses as instruments in inflicting temporal punishments on whom He pleases; for He who justly employs their malice to inflict temporal judgments on others, reserves eternal punishments for the unjust themselves if they be not reformed. Be it yours to fix your thoughts on God, and to look to Christ, who has conferred on you so great blessings and endured for you so great sufferings. Those who desire to belong to His kingdom, and to live for ever happily with! Him and under Him, love even their enemies do good to them that hate them, and pray for those from whom they suffer persecution; and if, at any time, in the way of discipline they use irksome severity, yet they never lay aside the sincerest love. If these benefits, though earthly and transitory, are conferred on you by the Roman Empire, — for that empire itself is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot bestow what it has not in its power, — if, I say, benefits are conferred on you, return not evil for good; and if evil be inflicted on you, return not evil for evil. Which of these two has happened in your case I am unwilling to discuss, I am unable to judge. I speak to a Christian return not either evil for good, nor evil for evil.

9. You say to me, perhaps: In circumstances so difficult, what do you wish me to do? If you ask counsel of me in a worldly point of view how your safety in this transitory life may be secured, and the power and wealth belonging to you at present may be preserved or even increased, I know not what to answer you, for any counsel regarding things so uncertain as these must partake of the uncertainty inherent in them. But if you consult me regarding your relation to God and the salvation of your soul, and if you fear the word of truth which says: "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" I have a plain answer to give. I am prepared with advice to which you may well give heed. But what need is there for my saying anything else than what I have already said. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, he love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever." Here is counsel! Seize it and act on it. Show that you are a brave man. Vanquish the desires with which the world is loved. Do penance for the evils of your past life, when, vanquished by your passions, you were drawn away by sinful desires. If you receive this counsel, and hold it fast, and act on it, you will both attain to those blessings which are certain, and occupy yourself in the midst of these uncertain things without forfeiting the salvation of your soul.

10. But perhaps you again ask of me how you can do these things, entangled as you are with so great worldly difficulties. Pray earnestly, and say to God, in the words of the Psalm: "Bring Thou me out of my distresses," for these distresses terminate when the passions in which they originate are vanquished. He who has heard your prayer and ours on your behalf, that you might be delivered from the numerous and great dangers of visible wars in which the body is exposed to the danger of losing the life which sooner or later must end, but in which the soul perishes not unless it be held captive by evil passions, — He, I say, will hear your prayer that you may, in an invisible and spiritual conflict, overcome your inward and invisible enemies, that is to say, your passions themselves, and may so use the world, as not abusing it, so that with its good things you may do good, not become bad through possessing them. Because these things are in themselves good, and are not given to men except by Him who has power over all things in heaven and earth. Lest these gifts of His should be reckoned bad, they are given also to the good; at the same time, lest they should be reckoned great, or the supreme good, they are given also to the bad. Further, these things are taken away from the good for their trial, and from the bad for their punishment.

11. For who is so ignorant, who so foolish, as not to see that the health of this mortal body, and the strength of its corruptible members, and victory over men who are our enemies, and temporal honours and power, and all other mere earthly advantages are given both to the good and to the bad, and are taken away both from the good and from the bad alike? But the salvation of the soul, along with immortality of the body, and the power of righteousness, and victory over hostile passions, and glory, and honour, and everlasting peace, are not given except to the good. Therefore love these things, covet these things, and seek them by every means in your power. With a view to acquire and retain these things, give alms, pour forth prayers, practise fasting as far as you can without injury to your body. But do not love these earthly goods, how much soever they may abound to you. So use them as to do many good things by them, but not one evil thing for their sake. For all such things will perish; but good works, yea, even those good works which are performed by means of the perishable good things of this world, shall never perish.

12. If you had not now a wife, I would say to you what we said at Tubunae, that you should live in the holy state of continence, and would add that you should now do what we prevented you from doing at that time, namely, withdraw yourself so far as might be possible without: prejudice to the public welfare from the labours of military service, and take to yourself the leisure which you then desired for that life in the society of the saints in which the soldiers of Christ fight in silence, not to kill men, but to "wrestle against principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness," that is, the devil and his angels. For the saints gain their victories over enemies whom they cannot see, and yet they gain the victory over these unseen enemies by gaining the victory over things which are the objects of sense. I am, however, prevented from exhorting you to that mode of life by your having a wife, since without her consent it is not lawful for you to live under a vow of continence; because, although you did wrong in marrying again after the declaration which you made at Tubunae, she, being not aware of this became your wife innocently and without restrictions. Would that you could persuade her to agree to a vow of continence, that you might without hindrance render to God what you know to be due to Him! If, however, you cannot make this agreement with her, guard carefully by all means conjugal chastity, and pray to God, who will deliver you out of difficulties, that you may at some future time be able to do what is meanwhile impossible. This, however, does not affect your obligation to love God and not to love the world, to hold the faith stedfastly even in the cares of war, if you must still be engaged in them, and to seek peace; to make the good things of this world serviceable in good works, and not to do what is evil in labouring to obtain these earthly good things, — in all these duties your wife is not, or, if she is, ought not to be, a hindrance to you.

These things I have written, my dearly beloved son, at the bidding of the love with which I love you with regard not to this world, but to God; and because, mindful of the words of Scripture, "Reprove a wise man, and he will love thee; reprove a fool, and he will hate thee more," I was bound to think of you as certainly not a fool but a wise man.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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