Imagine Augustine as an old man in the year 426. At the age of seventy-two years he has probably lived for double the average life expectancy of persons of his time.
He is seated at his writing table, knowing that his death cannot be far off. (Indeed, he died four years later.)
He is re-reading his works, going over them one last time, and commenting on them. This was not a new or spontaneous decision when he began this activity in the year 426 or 427, for he had already written about the possibility in his Letter 143 about fourteen years previously.
He persists with this lengthy task, in spite of the knowledge that his manuscripts might all soon be destroyed by the Vandals who had Hippo under siege.
He stayed with his task, and with the routine of his life. He conversed with his brothers in monastic life, continued his writing, and prayed to his God.
In his tumultuous period, Augustine wrote his Retractions (in Latin, Retractationes), a title that might be translated as his "reconsiderations."
The Retractions is an invaluable book. In it Augustine offers a retrospective re-reading and review of all of his written works, one at a time. He re-read his words so as to see what progress he had made in the truth, and to correct whatever he though required changing so as to be of better clarity and use for his many readers - present and future.
It is a revision of his works in chronological order, and explains the occasion and dominant idea of each. Even had there not been the circumstances of his great age and the threat of Vandal attack, this revision by Augustine was unique among Classical authors up to his era.
As also a guide of inestimable worth for seeing the progress of his thought, it has been called "the history of the mind of Augustine."
He gave details about the date and circumstances of the work, noting places where he had changed his mind, pointing out passages where he had made an error, for example where he had cited a biblical text from memory and had done so incorrectly.
In each instance, whatever he wanted to revise (in Latin, reprehensiones) or explain further (in Latin, defensiones) was included, as also were the opening words of each work.
From the point of view of providing a chronology of Augustine's writings, the Retractationes is only a general guide. For example it is not always known whether he dated these works according to the time he began them or the time that he completed them.
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