The occasion of these four books was furnished by a young man named Vincentius Victor, a native of Mauritania Cæsariensis, a convert to the catholic Church from the Rogatian faction (which split off from the Donatist schism, and inhabited that part of Mauritania which lay around Cartenna). This Victor, they say, had previously so high an opinion of the Vincentius who succeeded Rogatus as the head of the before-mentioned faction, that he adopted his name as his own. Happening to meet with a certain work of Augustin's, in which the writer acknowledged himself to be incapable of saying whether all souls were propagated from Adam's soul simply, or whether every man severally had his soul given to him by God, even as Adam himself had, without propagation, although he declared, for all that, his conviction that the soul was in its nature spirit, not body, Victor was equally offended with both statements: he wondered that so great a man as Augustin did not unhesitatingly teach what one ought to hold concerning the origin of the soul, especially as he thought its propagation probable; and also that he did state with so great assurance the nature of the soul to be incorporeal. He accordingly published two books written to one Peter, a presbyter of Spain, against Augustin on this subject, containing some conceits of the Pelagian heretics, and other things even worse than these.
A monk called Renatus happened then to be at Cæsarea. It appears that this man had shown to Augustin, who was staying at the same place in the autumn of the year 418, a letter of the Bishop Optatus consulting him about the origin of the soul. This monk, of the order of laymen, but perfectly orthodox in the faith, induced by the circumstance, carefully copied the books of Victor, and forwarded them from Cæsarea to Hippo the next summer; Augustin, however, only received them at the end of autumn of the year 419, as is supposed. As soon as the holy doctor read them, he without delay wrote the first of the four following books to the good monk, and then the second, in the shape of a letter, to the presbyter Peter, and the two last books to Victor himself, but after a considerable interval, as it appears from the following words of the fourth chapter of the second book: |If, indeed, the Lord will that I should write to the young man, as I desire to do.| In the Retractations this little work of Augustin is placed immediately after the treatises of the year 419, i.e. in the fifth place after the Proceedings with Emeritus, which were completed in the month of September in the year 418. It belongs, therefore, to the termination of the year 419 or to the commencement of the year 420, having been written after |the condemnation of the Pelagians by the authority of catholic Councils and of the Apostolic See,| but |very soon after,| as that happy event had happened in the year of Christ 418.
In Book I., written to Renatus, he points out his own opinion about the nature of the soul, and his hesitation as to its origin, which had been unjustly blamed by Victor. He reproves the man's juvenile forwardness, shows him he had fallen into grave and unheard-of errors while venturing to take upon himself the solution of a question which exceeded his abilities, and points out that he adduced only doubtful passages of Scripture, and such as were not applicable to the subject, in his endeavour to prove that souls are not propagated, but that entirely new ones are breathed by God into every man at his separate birth.
In Book II., he advises Peter not to incur the imputation of having approved of the books which had been addressed to him by Victor On the Origin of the Soul by any use he might make of them, nor to take as catholic doctrines that person's rash utterances contrary to the Christian faith. Victor's various and very serious errors he points out and briefly confutes, and he concludes with advising Peter himself to try to persuade Victor to correct his errors.
In Book III., which was written to Victor himself, he points out the corrections which Victor ought to make in his books if he wished to be deemed a catholic; those opinions also and paradoxes of his, which had been already refuted in the preceding books to Renatus and Peter, the author briefly censures in this third book, and classifies under eleven heads of error.
In Book IV., addressed to the same Victor, he first shows that his hesitation on the subject of the origin of souls was undeservedly blamed, and that he was wrongly compared with cattle, because he had refrained from any bold conclusions on the subject. Then again, with regard to his own unhesitating statement, that the soul was spirit, not body, he points out how rashly Victor disapproved of this assertion, especially when he was vainly expending his efforts to prove that the soul was corporeal in its own nature, and that the spirit in man was distinct from the soul itself.