Retractions and Re-considerations

The meaning of the word retraction is well known. It is the withdrawing of a statement now recognized as false. The latest issue of the Atlantic (January/February 2021) provides an example. Noting that the magazine has retracted a previously published article, the editor explains: “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the piece in its entirety.” Out of respect for veracity and the trust of its readers, the journal retracts what it can no longer vouch for. It formally withdraws that which it previously put forth as true, but which has since been shown, or at least suspected, to be false.

But this common use of retraction in English has become a source of confusion, whenever it is used to translate the title of a work by St. Augustine of Hippo. Writing near the end of his life, Augustine called that work, in Latin, Retractationes. In English the work goes by different names: Retractions, Retractations, and Reconsiderations. Well, which is best?

First, we should consider what Augustine himself says of his purpose for the work.

iam diu est ut facere cogito atque dispono, quod nunc adiuvante domino adgredior, quia differendum esse non arbitror, ut opuscula mea, sive in libris sive in epistulis sive in tractatibus, cum quadam iudiciaria severitate recenseam, et quod me offendit velut censorio stilo denotem. neque enim quisquam nisi imprudens ideo quia mea errata reprehendo, me reprehendere audebit. sed si dicit non ea debuisse a me dici, quae postea mihi etiam displicerent, verum dicit et mecum facit. Eorum quippe reprehensor est, quorum et ego sum. neque enim ea reprehendere deberem, si dicere debuissem.

I have long been considering and arranging how to do that which now, with the Lord’s help, I undertake, because I judge that it must not be postponed—namely, to re-examine my little works, whether in books or in letters or in treatises, with a certain courtroom severity, and to mark out as with the censor’s stylus what offends me. For no one unless a fool will dare to criticize me only because I criticize my own mistakes. But if he says those things ought not to have been said by me which afterwards might also displease me, he speaks and deals with me truly. For he criticizes the very things I myself also criticize. For I would not be obliged to critize them, had it been right to say them.

Retractationes, prol. 1.1

It may appear from this that Augustine’s work will be a series of retractions in the same sense as indicated above. But we should note that Augustine’s retractationes occur in two distinct steps: Augustine will first re-examine (recenseam) his works, and then he will mark out (denotem) whatever offends him now because he sees it was written in error (mea errata). It is the verb recenseam—“re-examine”—that indicates the truest sense of the title Augustine gives the work, Retractationes. Each retractatio is not so much a retraction, in the sense of a withdrawal or drawing back, but rather a re-consideration—a considering again of what was previously considered, written, and recorded. This is the true meaning of the Latin word retractatio. It is formed from the prefix re– —which means “again”—and the noun tractatio, which is literally a “taking in hand” or “handling” and so a “treatment” or “dicsussion” of a subject.

Thus, in his Retractationes—in his Re-considerations—Augustine returns again to all those subjects he considered throughout his long life, not to withdraw what he thought and wrote before, but to give it fresh consideration from a perspective of greater experience and wisdom.

Retractions are obviously right and necessary whenever we recognize a previous assertion to be false. The example of Augustine suggests we shouldn’t neglect the value of re-considerations.

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