BMCR 2023.09.38

Augustine’s soliloquies in Old English and in Latin

, Augustine's soliloquies in Old English and in Latin. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 76. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022. Pp. 448. ISBN 9780674278417

The Soliloquies of St. Augustine are a philosophical dialogue between Augustine’s mind and his faculty of reason concerning the nature of God and the immortality of the soul. The dialogue, which Augustine wrote during his philosophical retreat at Cassiciacum in 386-7 after his conversion to Christianity, is little read today, but it was an important teaching and devotional text in the Middle Ages.[1] Book 1 deals principally with the nature of wisdom and man’s ability to attain it; the prevailing metaphor is the sun (drawn from Plato’s Republic), which illuminates the corporeal world just as God illuminates the intelligible world. Book 2 begins with a long discussion of the nature of truth and falsehood before Reason concludes that the soul is immortal because truth resides there. The doctrine of reminiscence outlined in Plato’s Meno is central to the conclusions drawn at the end of the book, though Plato is not mentioned by name. The book ends with Augustine expressing concern over the possibility that an immortal soul might still exist in a state of complete forgetfulness.

The Soliloquies was translated into Old English in the late ninth century as part of King Alfred of Wessex’s (r. 871-899) program to revive learning and literacy in his kingdom. Alfred is traditionally credited with translating four works: Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, the first 50 Psalms, and the Soliloquies. The degree to which Alfred was personally involved in these translations remains an open question, but there is a general consensus that the same person translated both the Old English Boethius and the Soliloquies. The conclusion to Book 3 of the Old English Soliloquies states explicitly that Alfred personally selected the sayings (cwidas) collected there from a Latin liber manualis or enchiridion. The deviations of the Old English Soliloquies from the Latin source text thus take on additional interest insofar as they may reflect the personal interests and idiosyncrasies of King Alfred, and certainly reflect the interests of the scholars he assembled at his court.

This volume contains complete texts of the Latin and Old English Soliloquies, as well as original, facing-page translations of both. The complete Old English version of the Soliloquies survives in a single twelfth-century manuscript (London, BL, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, part one), although part of the prayer from the beginning of Book 1 survives in a slightly different version in another manuscript (London, BL, Cotton Tiberius A.iii). This volume prints the Old English text together with a tenth-century Latin text of the Soliloquies copied in England, which is thought to be similar to the exemplar (no longer extant) from the which the English translation was made. The Old English version is more of an adaptation than a translation: it excises considerable sections of the Latin Soliloquies and adds other material not found in the source text. For example, the OE Soliloquies begins with an original prologue in which the unnamed author describes gathering timbers in a forest and advises the reader to do the same, ‘so that he can…build a beautiful homestead, and there live contentedly and peacefully with a wife, both winters and summers, as I have never yet done.’ Even more strikingly, the Old English adaptation contains a short third book containing a series of opinions from patristic sources, some of which deviate from Augustine’s actual teachings. The topics treated here – such as whether departed souls retain memory of their friends and kinsmen on earth, and whether they can assist them in the afterworld – presumably were of particular interest to Alfred and his court.

The ‘Augustine’ of the Old English version differs in certain respects from the historical Augustine. He is not a catechumen preparing for baptism (as was Augustine when he wrote the work) who rejects worldly concupiscence out of his aspiration to live like a philosopher, but the powerful bishop of Carthage (sic) who is bound by his worldly responsibilities and who perceives the Ten Commandments to be ‘burdensome and very numerous’ (hefige and swithe manifealde). Many of the Old English deviations from the source text appear designed to contextualize the Soliloquies for a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon audience. Thus, in the OE Soliloquies (but not in the Latin original) we find metaphors comparing obedience to God to service to a temporal lord, the attempt to perceive God with the mind to an anchor cable holding a ship, and the variable paths leading to wisdom to the different sorts of roads by which petitioners might approach a king.  The fact that the Augustine of the OE Soliloquies is a bishop, and therefore a secular lord in ninth-century terms, results in equally striking adaptations to the original. Whereas the Augustine of the Latin Soliloquies claims to think of material possessions only insofar as they are necessary to afford him the liberty to pursue a life of philosophy, the OE Augustine must use his wealth to ‘entertain and feed the people’ beholden to him and ‘to meet the needs of the people whom [he] oversee[s].’ The Latin Augustine renounces marriage because it ‘casts down a virile mind from its citadel,’ while the OE bishop disclaims interest in a wife because it is better for priests not to marry.

The Latin Soliloquies has been translated into English several times, and Gerard Watson published a dual-language edition and translation of the Latin text for Aris & Phillips in 1990.[2] Leslie Lockett’s elegant, readable, and accurate translation of the Latin text compares favorably to these previous editions. Moreover, her clear rendition of the Old English will assist non-experts in that language to work their way through the original text, whose difficulty is amplified by the fact that it contains features characteristic of early Middle English that were introduced by the scribe. Lockett’s skill as a translator in both languages is impressive indeed, and I could not find any scope for improvement. Having the Latin and Old English versions (accompanied by accurate and idiomatic translations) together in the same volume makes cross comparison possible in a way that has not previously been the case, and this work will prove a boon both to scholars and students of Old English literature.



[1] Rather of Verona, for example, encouraged teachers to read the Soliloquies in order better to understand and instruct their students (Praeloquia 1.31).

[2] Saint Augustine: Soliloquies and Immortality of the Soul (Warminster, 1990).