Before he traded blows with the Donatists and long before he entered the fray with the likes of Julian of Eclanum, Augustine of Hippo contended with the followers of the third-century Persian visionary, Mani. This debate plays a significant role in a number of Augustine’s most well-known and widely read works, such as On True Religion and The Confessions. The present volume, however, gathers together eight lesser-known writings directed explicitly against Manichee teachings. This includes three independent treatises (The Catholic Way of Life and the Manichean Way of Life; The Two Souls; The Nature of the Good), two responses to authoritative Manichee writings (Answer to Adimantus, a Disciple of Mani; Answer to the Letter known as the Foundation), two transcriptions of live debates (A Debate with Fortunatus, a Manichean; Answer to Felix, a Manichean), and Augustine’s own favourite anti-Manichee work, his Answer to Secundinus, a Manichean. The writings date from 387 to 404 CE, and three have never before been translated into English (Answer to Adimantus; Answer to Felix; Answer to Secundinus). Together with On Genesis against the Manichees, released in an earlier volume of this series (I/13) and the massive Answer to Faustus, just released in 2007 (I/20), these works represent Augustine’s definitive statement against this dualist Christian sect, which had claimed his own loyalty for the better part of nine years before his conversion to Catholicism.
In part, these works merit our attention due to Augustine’s distinctive articulation of themes also available in more familiar sources—above all, his lively refusal to allow the human experience of evil to obscure the inherent goodness of all created existence. “The whole difference between us,” he writes to Secundinus, “is surely that you say that evil is a kind of substance, while we say that evil is not a substance but a falling away from what exists in a higher degree to what exists in a lower degree” (p. 374). While this fundamental claim echoes throughout the collection, especially in The Nature of the Good, another familiar Augustinian theme claims pride of place in works such as The Catholic Way of Life and the Manichean Way of Life and the Answer to Adimantus: namely, the harmony of Old and New Testaments under the twofold law of love. Less familiar perhaps is the decisive importance of the debate with Fortunatus in 392 as one of the watershed moments in the great bishop’s developing understanding of free-will, bondage and the “sinful habit” inherited from Adam by all humankind. Though these ideas come into full flower only later in Augustine’s thought, their roots can be found in his early struggle with the Manichees over the proper interpretation of the apostle Paul. Similarly, in Augustine’s attack on the purported “apostleship” of Mani in the Answer to the Letter of Mani known as the Foundation and Answer to Felix, we encounter early arguments for church authority and the central importance of belief.
These are also important sources for understanding Manichaeism itself. Lost Manichee scriptures such as Mani’s Letter of the Foundation and the Treasury are quoted at some length, and Augustine devotes considerable space to describing Manichee practices from his own experience. Such descriptions serve a polemical purpose, of course, but one can still catch glimpses of a serious rival to Catholic claims. Though the submissive images of Fortunatus and Felix in the debates do not inspire awe, Secondinus offers a stronger witness. Surveying Augustine’s writings, for example, this Manichee Hearer writes that, “I found everywhere a consummate orator and a god of almost all eloquence. I never found a Christian, however, but a man armed against everything yet affirming nothing . . .” (p. 358). At the turn of the fifth century, these writings nicely illustrate, one person’s Catholic convert was another person’s Christian apostate.
The translations, prepared by Roland Teske, are rendered in clear prose, and each work has its own index. Explanatory material is kept to a bare minimum, with brief summaries of context and content in the introductions, few section headings and footnotes that rarely offer more than scriptural citations. Those readers who appreciate the rich commentaries and textual helps of Edmund Hill and Michael Fiedrowicz in other series volumes will no doubt miss them here. Nevertheless, The Manichean Debate gives English readers new access to a dimension of Augustine’s thought previously available mainly to specialists. No serious collection in Patristics should be without it.