This treatise, and the following, were written against somewhat that still remained of the heresy of Jovinian. S. Aug. mentions this error in b. ii. c. 23, de Nuptiis et Conc. “Jovinianus,” he says, “who a few years since tried to found a new heresy, said that the Catholics favored the Manichæans, because in opposition to him they preferred holy Virginity to Marriage.” And in his book on Heresies, c. 82. “That heresy took its rise from one Jovinianus, a Monk, in our own time, when we were yet young.” And he adds that it was soon overborne and extinguished, say about A.D. 390, having been condemned first at Rome, then at Milan. There are letters of Pope Siricius on the subject to the Church of Milan, and the answer sent him by the Synod of Milan, at which St. Ambrose presided. Jerome had refuted Jovinian, but was said to have attempted the defense of the excellency of the virgin state, at the expense of condemning marriage. That Augustin might not be subject to any such complaint or calumny, before speaking of the superiority of Virginity, he thought it well to write on the Good of Marriage.
This work we learn to have been finished about the year 401, not only from the order of his Retractations, but also from his books on Genesis after the Letter, begun about that year. For in b. ix. on Genesis, c. 7, where he commends the Good of Marriage, he says: “Now this is threefold, faithfulness, offspring, and the Sacrament. For faithfulness, it is observed, that there be no lying with other man or woman, out of the bond of wedlock: for the offspring, that it be lovingly welcomed, kindly nourished, religiously brought up: for the Sacrament, that marriage be not severed, and that man or woman divorced be not joined to another even for the sake of offspring. This is as it were the rule of Marriages by which rule either fruitfulness is made seemly, or the perverseness of incontinence is brought to order. Upon which since we have sufficiently discoursed in that book, which we lately published, on the Good of Marriage, where we have also distinguished the Widows continence and the Virgins excellency, according to the worthiness of their degrees, our pen is not to be now longer occupied.” This very work is referred to in Book I. on the Deserts and Remission of Sins, c. 29.—Bened. Ed.
The Editors are, of course, aware of the danger there is in reading a treatise like the following in a spirit of idle curiosity, and they beg any reader who has not well assured p. 398 himself that his aim is right and holy to abstain from perusing it. At the same time it must not be forgotten, that something far other than a mere shrinking from subjects offensive to modern delicacy is needed, in order to purify the thoughts with respect to the holy estate of Matrimony. The mind that will but seriously attend to it in that light, will certainly be strengthened against evil suggestions by seeing in the whole subject a field of Christian duty.
It seemed further requisite to bring forward a work calculated to remove the imputation so falsely cast on the holy Fathers, that they regarded Matrimony as unholy, and almost agreed with the Manichean view of it, as a defilement and degradation to the Christian. They did, it is true, prefer Virginity to Marriage, but as St. Augustin expressly states, as the “better of two good things,” not as though one were good, and the other evil.
In estimating the work and the writer, the age in which it was written must be kept in view, and what that age required must not be imputed as a fault to him or to his religion. And perhaps what was written for another age may serve the more safely towards our improvement and guidance from the very circumstance that the style and manner of antiquity has become a kind of veil, which takes off somewhat from the strength and vividness of first impressions, and leaves the mind more at liberty to use what is laid before it as it will, than a more modern way of speaking would be likely to do. Let that liberty be used rightly and conscientiously, and the effect of reading will be good.—Eds. of the Oxford Library.