What are these letters?
The word "letters" has been used very broadly by scholars to include all writing by Saint Augustine that is neither a sermon nor a "book".
Some letters were simply a hasty reply to one just received; the person who brought the incoming letter was prevailed upon to wait a while so that he could carry the written reply back with him.
On the other hand, some of his "letters" are of such a length that today they would be called a pamphlet, tract or a lecture.
Why did Augustine spend so much time in writing letters?
Augustine often described his letters as conversations with persons from whom he was separated by geographical distance. Sending and receiving letters was of great importance to Augustine because friendship was essential to him.
Through letters "which fly afar" he desired to know the mind and heart of persons who had their own insights about the Truth. For example, in one of his letters to St Jerome in Bethlehem (whom he never met in person) he wrote, "If I could have my way, I would have you with me daily so that I could discuss whatever I wish with you." (Letter 166, 1)
Correspondence was, indeed, an imperfect means of communication, yet better than having no "conversation" at all. Letters sometimes never reached their destination, or letters coming from both persons crossed in transit.
Why did keep copies of the letters that he wrote?
In answering this question, a number of reasons come into force. On a practical level, because Augustine wrote so many books and preached so much, it often happened that his letters contained preliminary thoughts that he later developed into a book or repeated in a sermon, or else contained refinements of what he had previously written.
For Augustine, therefore, making copies of his letters assisted his having an external data bank of his thoughts. (For the same reason Augustine he kept copies of all of his books and of many of his sermons.)
Copies of his letters to and from a correspondent were all that he ever “possessed” of some correspondents. This was true of some persons with whom he corresponded but never met (e.g., Saint Jerome in
Jerusalem, and Bishop Paulinus of Nola).
Keeping both their letters and a copy of his replies to them assisted the long-distance friendship and enhanced the possibility (not always achieved!) of an orderly pattern of communication and sequence of thought.
The not-impossible chance of a letter's not arriving was another reason for its writer to take the precaution of keeping a copy in case he had to re-transmit its contents a second time (or, slightly modified, to send similar content to a different recipient).
Augustine purposely published some of his letters by giving them to others to make copies - the earliest known example is Augustine's series of letters to his friend, Nebridius. Possibly the letters to Jerome and Paulinus were treated likewise; these letters were generally theological or catechetical in nature, and were thus of broader interest than had they simply carried the communication of personal news and friendship.
(Continued on the next page.)