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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


A new world opened before Augustin. It was perhaps the first time he had ever gone away from Thagaste.

Of course, Madaura is not very far off; there are about thirty miles at most between the two towns. But there are no short journeys for children. This one lay along the military road which ran from Hippo to Theveste -- a great Roman causeway paved with large flags on the outskirts of towns, and carefully pebbled over all the rest of the distance. Erect upon the high saddle of his horse, Augustin, who was to become a tireless traveller and move about ceaselessly over African roads during all his episcopal life -- Augustin got his first glimpse of the poetry of the open road, a poetry which we have lost for ever.

How amusing they were, the African roads of those days, how full of sights! Pauses were made at inns with walls thick as the ramparts of citadels, their interiors bordered by stables built in arcades, heaped up with travellers' packs and harness. In the centre were the trough and cistern; and to the little rooms opening in a circle on to the balcony, drifted up a smell of oil and fodder, and the noise of men and of beasts of burthen, and of the camels as they entered majestically, curving their long necks under the lintel of the door. Then there was talk with the merchants, just arrived from the south, who brought news of the nomad countries, and had stories to tell. And then, without hurrying, a start was made again for the next stage. Long files of chariots were encountered carrying provisions to soldiers garrisoned on the frontier, or the State-distributed corn of the Roman people to the sea-ports; or again, from time to time, the lectica, brought along by slaves or mules, of a bishop on a visitation; and then the litter, with close-drawn curtains, of a matron or some great personage. Of a sudden all pulled sharp to one side; the vehicles lined up on the edge of the road; and there passed at full speed, in a cloud of dust, a messenger of the Imperial Post....

Certainly this road from Hippo to Theveste was one of the busiest and most picturesque in the province: it was one of its main arteries.

At first the look of the country is rather like the neighbourhood of Thagaste. The wooded and mountainous landscape still spreads out its little breast-shaped hills and its sheets of verdure. Here and there the road skirts the deeply-ravined valley of the Medjerda. At the foot of the precipitous slopes, the river can be heard brawling in a torrent over its stony bed, and there are sharp descents among thickets of juniper and the fringed roots of the dwarf-pines. Then, as the descent continues, the land becomes thinner and spaces bare of vegetation appear oftener. At last, upon a piece of tableland, Madaura comes into view, all white in the midst of the vast tawny plain, where to-day nothing is to be seen but a mausoleum in ruins, the remains of a Byzantine fortress, and vague traces vanishing away.

This is the first rise of the great plain which declines towards Theveste and the group of the Aures Mountains. Coming from the woodland country of Thagaste, the nakedness of it is startling. Here and there, thin cows crop starveling shrubs which have grown on the bank of some oued run dry. Little asses, turned loose, save themselves at a gallop towards the tents of the nomads, spread out, black and hairy, like immense bats on the whiteness of the land. Nearer, a woman's red haick interposes, the single stain of bright colour breaking the indefinite brown and grey of the plain. Here is felt the harshness of Numidia; it is almost the stark spaces of the desert world. But on the side towards the east, the architecture of mountains, wildly sculptured, stands against the level reaches of the horizon. Upon the clear background of the sky, shew, distinctly, lateral spurs and a cone like to the mystic representation of Tanit. Towards the south, crumbling isolated crags appear, scattered about like gigantic pedestals uncrowned of their statues, or like the pipes of an organ raised there to capture and attune the cry of the great winds of the steppe.

This country is characterized by a different kind of energy from Thagaste. There is more air and light and space. If the plantation is sparse, the beautiful shape of the land may be observed all the better. Nothing breaks or lessens the grand effects of the light.... And let no one say that Augustin's eyes cared not for all that, he who wrote after his conversion, and in all the austerity of his repentance: |If sentient things had not a soul, we should not love them so much.|

It is here, between Madaura and Thagaste, during the eager years of youth, that he gathered together the seeds of sensations and images which, later on, were to burst forth into fiery and boiling metaphors in the Confessions, and in his homilies and paraphrases of Holy Scripture. Later on, he will not have the time to observe, or he will have lost the power. Rhetoric will stretch its commonplace veil between him and the unceasing springtide of the earth. Ambition will turn him away from those sights which reveal themselves only to hearts unselfish and indifferent. Then, later on, Faith will seize hold of him to the exclusion of all else. He will no longer perceive the creation save at odd moments in a kind of metaphysical dream, and, so to speak, across the glory of the Creator. But in these youthful years all things burst upon him with extraordinary violence and ecstasy. His undulled senses swallowed greedily the whole banquet offered by this wide world to his hunger for pleasure. The fugitive beauty of things and beings, with all their charms, revealed itself to him in its newness: novissimarum rerum fugaces pulchritudines, earumque suavitates. This craving for sensation will still exist in the great Christian teacher, and betray itself in the warm and coloured figures of his style. Of course, he was not as a worldly describer, who studies to produce phrases which present an image, or arranges glittering pictures -- all such endeavours he knew nothing about. But by instinct, and thanks to his warm African temperament, he was a kind of impressionist and metaphysical poet.

If the rural landscape of Thagaste is reflected in certain passages -- the pleasantest and most well known -- of the Confessions, all the intellectual part of Augustin's work finds its symbolical commentary here in this arid and light-splashed plain of Madaura. Like it, the thought of Augustin has no shadows. Like it too, it is lightened by strange and splendid tints which seem to come from far off, from a focal fire invisible to human eyes. No modern writer has better praised the light -- not only the immortal light of the blessed, but that light which rests on the African fields, and is on land and sea; and nobody has spoken of it with more amplitude and wonder. The truth is, that in no country in the world, not even in Egypt, in the rose-coloured lands of Karnak and Luxor, is the light more pure and admirable than in these great bare plains of Numidia and the region of the Sahara. Is there not enchantment for the eyes of the metaphysician in this play of light, these nameless interfulgent colours which appear flimsy as the play of thought? For the glowing floating haze is made of nothing -- of lines, of gleam, of unregulated splendour. And all this triumph of fluctuating light and elusive colour is quenched with the sun, smoulders into darkness, even as ideas in the obscure depths of the intelligence which reposes....

Not less than this land, stern even to sadness, but hot and sumptuous, the town of Madaura must have impressed Augustin.

It was an old Numidian city, proud of its antiquity. Long before the Roman conquest, it had been a fortress of King Syphax. Afterwards, the conquerors settled there, and in the second century of our era, Apuleius, the most famous of its children, could state before a proconsul, not without pride, that Madaura was a very prosperous colony. It is probable that this old town was not so much Romanized as its neighbours, Thimgad and Lambesa, which were of recent foundation and had been built all at once by decree of the Government. But it may well have been as Roman as Theveste, a no less ancient city, where the population was probably just as mixed. Madaura, like Theveste, had its temples with pillars and Corinthian porticoes, its triumphal arches (these were run up everywhere), its forum surrounded by a covered gallery and peopled with statues. Statues also were very liberally distributed in those days. We know of at least three at Madaura which Augustin mentions in one of his letters: A god Mars in his heroic nakedness, and another Mars armed from head to foot; opposite, the statue of a man, in realistic style, stretching out three fingers to neutralize the evil eye. These familiar figures remained very clear in the recollection of Augustin. In the evening, or at the hour of the siesta, he had stretched himself under their pedestals and played at dice or bones in the cool shade of the god Mars, or of the Man with outstretched fingers. The slabs of marble of the portico made a good place to play or sleep.

Among these statues, there was one perhaps which interested the lad and stimulated all his early ambitions -- that of Apuleius, the great man of Madaura, the orator, philosopher, sorcerer, who was spoken of from one end to the other of Africa. By dint of gazing at this, and listening to the praises of the great local author, did the young scholar become aware of his vocation? Did he have from this time a confused sort of wish to become one day another Apuleius, a Christian Apuleius -- to surpass the reputation of this celebrated pagan? These impressions and admirations of youth have always a more or less direct influence upon what use a boy makes of his talents.

Be that as it will, Augustin could not take a step in Madaura without running against the legend of Apuleius, who was become almost a divinity for his fellow-countrymen. He was looked upon not only as a sage, but as a most wily nigromancer. The pagans compared him to Christ -- nay, put him higher than Christ. In their view he had worked much more astonishing miracles than those of Jesus or of Apollonius of Tyana. And people told the extravagant stories out of his Metamorphoses as real, as having actually happened. Nothing was seen on all sides but wizards, men changed into animals, animals, or men and women, under some spell. In the inns, a man watched with a suspicious look the ways of the maidservant who poured out his drink or handed him a dish. Perhaps some magic potion was mingled with the cheese or bread that she was laying on the table. It was an atmosphere of feverish and delirious credulity. The pagan madness got the better of the Christians themselves. Augustin, who had lived in this atmosphere, will later find considerable trouble in maintaining his strong common sense amid such an overflow of marvels.

For the moment, the fantasy of tales filled him with at least as much enthusiasm as the supernatural. At Madaura he lived in a miraculous world, where everything charmed his senses and his mind, and everything stimulated his precocious instinct for Beauty.

More than Thagaste, no doubt, Madaura bore the marks of the building genius of the Romans. Even to-day their descendants, the Italians, are the masons of the world, after having been the architects. The Romans were the building nation above all others. They it was who raised and established towns upon the same model and according to the same ideal as an oration or a poem. They really invented the house, mansio, not only the shelter where one lives, but the building which itself lives, which triumphs over years and centuries, a huge construction ornamental and sightly, existing as much -- and perhaps more -- for the delight of the eyes as for usefulness. The house, the Town-with-deep-streets, perfectly ordered, were a great matter of amazement for the African nomad -- he who passes and never settles down anywhere. He hated them, doubtless, as the haunts of the soldier and the publican, his oppressors, but he also regarded them with admiration mixed with jealousy as the true expression of a race which, when it entered a country, planted itself for eternity, and claimed to join magnificence and beauty to the manifestation of its strength. The Roman ruins which are scattered over modern Algeria humiliate ourselves by their pomp -- us who flatter ourselves that we are resuming the work of the Empire and continuing its tradition. They are a permanent reproach to our mediocrity, a continual incitement to grandeur and beauty. Of course, the Roman architecture could not have had on Augustin, this still unformed young African, the same effect as it has to-day on a Frenchman or a man from Northern Europe. But it is certain that it formed, without his knowledge, his thought and his power of sensation, and extended for him the lessons of the Latin rhetoricians and grammarians.

All that was not exactly very Christian. But from these early school years Augustin got further and further away from Christianity, and the examples he had under his eyes, at Madaura were hardly likely to strengthen him in his faith. It was hardly an edifying atmosphere there for a Catholic youth who had a lively imagination, a pleasure-loving temperament, and who liked pagan literature. The greatest part of the population were pagans, especially among the aristocrats. The Decurions continued to preside at festivals in honour of the old idols.

These festivals were frequent. The least excuse was taken to engarland piously the doors of houses with branches, to bleed the sacrificial pig, or slaughter the lamb. In the evening, squares and street corners were illuminated. Little candles burned on all the thresholds. During the mysteries of Bacchus, the town councillors themselves headed the popular rejoicings. It was an African carnival, brutal and full of colour. People got tipsy, pretended they were mad. For the sport of the thing, they assaulted the passers and robbed them. The dull blows on tambourines, the hysterical and nasal preludes of the flutes, excited an immense elation, at once sensual and mystic. And all quieted down among the cups and leather flagons of wine, the grease and meats of banquets in the open air. Even in a country as sober as Africa, the pagan feasts were never much else than excuses for gorging and orgies. Augustin, who after his conversion had only sarcasms for the carnival of Madaura, doubtless went with the crowd, like many other Christians. Rich and influential people gave the example. There was danger of annoying them by making a group apart. And then, there was no resisting the agreeableness of such festivals.

Perhaps he was even brought to these love-feasts by those in whose charge he was. For, in fact, to whom had he been entrusted? Doubtless to some host of Patricius, a pagan like himself. Or did he lodge with his master, a grammarian, who kept a boarding-house for the boys? Almost all these schoolmasters were pagan too. Is it wonderful that the Christian lessons of Monnica and the nurses at Thagaste became more and more blurred in Augustin's mind? Many years after, an old Madaura grammarian, called Maximus, wrote to him in a tone of loving reproach: |Thou hast drawn away from us| -- a secta nostra deviasti. Did he wish to hint that at this time Augustin had glided into paganism? Nothing is more unlikely. He himself assures us that the name of Christ remained always |graven on his heart.| But while he was at Madaura he lived indifferently with pagans and Christians.

Besides that, the teaching he got was altogether pagan in tone. No doubt he picked out, as he always did, the subjects which suited him. Minds such as his fling themselves upon that which is likely to nourish them: they throw aside all the rest, or suffer it very unwillingly. Thus Augustin never wavered in his dislike for Greek: he was a poor Greek scholar. He detested the Greeks by instinct. According to Western prejudice, these men of the East were all rascals or amusers. Augustin, as a practical African, always regarded the Greeks as vain, discoursing wits. In a word, they were not sincere people whom it would be safe to trust. The entirely local patriotism of the classical Greek authors further annoyed this Roman citizen who was used to regard the world as his country: he thought them very narrow-minded to take so much interest in the history of some little town. As for him, he looked higher and farther. It must be remembered that in the second half of the fourth century the Greek attitude, broadened and fully conscious of itself, set itself more and more against Latinism, above all, politically. There it lay, a hostile and impenetrable block before the Western peoples. And here was a stronger reason for a Romanized African to dislike the Greeks.

So he painfully construed the Iliad and Odyssey, very cross at the difficulties of a foreign language which prevented him from grasping the plots of the fine, fabulous narratives. There were, however, abridgments used in the schools, a kind of summaries of the Trojan War, written by Latin grammarians under the odd pseudonyms of Dares the Phrygian and Dictys of Crete. But these abridgments were very dry for an imagination like Augustin's. He much preferred the AEneid, the poem admired above all by the Africans, on account of the episode devoted to the foundation of Carthage. Virgil was his passion. He read and re-read him continually; he knew him by heart. To the end of his life, in his severest writings, he quoted verses or whole passages out of his much-loved poet. Dido's adventure moved him to tears. They had to pluck the book out of his hands.

Now the reason is that there was a secret harmony between Virgil's soul and the soul of Augustin. Both were gracious and serious. One, the great poet, and one, the humble schoolboy, they both had pity on the Queen of Carthage, they would have liked to save her, or at any rate to mitigate her sadness, to alter a little the callousness of AEneas and the harshness of the Fates. But think of it! Love is a divine sickness, a chastisement sent by the gods. It is just, when all's said, that the guilty one should endure her agony to the very end. And then, such very great things are going to arise out of this poor love! Upon it depends the lot of two Empires. What counts a woman before Rome and Carthage? Besides, she was bound to perish: the gods had decreed it.... There was in all that a concentrated emotion, a depth of sentiment, a religious appeal which stirred Augustin's heart, still unaware of itself. This obedience of the Virgilian hero to the heavenly will, was already an adumbration of the humility of the future Christian.

Certainly, Augustin did not perceive very plainly in these turbid years of his youth the full religious significance of Virgil's poem. Carried away by his headstrong nature, he yielded to the heart-rending charm of the romantic story: he lived it, literally, with the heroine. When his schoolmasters desired him to elaborate the lament of the dying Queen Dido in Latin prose, what he wrote had a veritable quiver of anguish. Without the least defence against lust and the delusions of the heart, he spent intellectually and in a single outburst all the strength of passion.

He absorbed every love-poem with the eagerness of a participating soul. If he took pleasure in the licentiousness of Plautus and Terence, if he read delightfully those comedies wherein the worst weaknesses are excused and glorified, I believe that he took still more pleasure in the Latin Elegiacs who present without any shame the romantic madness of Alexandrine love. For what sing these poets even to weariness, unless it be that no one can resist the Cyprian goddess, that life has no other end but love? Love for itself, to love for the sake of loving -- there is the constant subject of these sensualists, of Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid. After the story of Dido, the youthful reader was ravished by the story of Ariadne, even more disturbing, because no remorse modifies the frenzy of it. He read:

Now while the careless hero flees, beating the wave with his and casting to the gales of the open sea his idle promises, -- there, standing among the shingle of the beach, the daughter of Minos follows him, alas! with her beautiful sad eyes: she stares, astonied, like to a Bacchante changed into a statue. She looks forth, and her heart floats upon the great waves of her grief. She lets slip from her head her fine-spun coif, she tears away the thin veils which cover her bosom, and the smooth cincture which supports her quivering breasts. All that slips from her body into the salt foam which ripples round her feet. But little she cares for her coif or for her apparel carried away by the tide! Lost, bewildered, with all her heart and all her soul, she is clinging to thee, O Theseus.

And if Augustin, when he had read these burning verses of Catullus, looked through the Anthologies which were popular in the African schools, he would come upon |The Vigil of Venus,| that eclogue which ends with such a passionate cry:

O my springtime, when wilt thou come? When shall I be as the swallow? When shall I cease to be silent?... May he love to-morrow, he has not loved yet. And he who has already loved, may he love again to-morrow.

Imagine the effect of such exhortations on a youth of fifteen! Truly, this springtide of love, which the poet cries for in his distress, the son of Monnica knew well was come for him. How he must have listened to the musical and melancholy counsellor who told his pain to the leaves of the book! What stimulant and what food for his boyish longings and dreams! And what a divine chorus of beauties the great love-heroines of ancient epic and elegy, Helen, Medea, Ariadne, Phaedra, formed and re-formed continually in his dazzled memory! When we of to-day read such verses at Augustin's age, some bitterness is mixed with our delight. These heroes and heroines are too far from us. These almost chimerical beings withdraw from us into outlying lands, to a vanished world which will never come again. But for Augustin, this was the world he was born into -- it was his pagan Africa where pleasure was the whole of life, and one lived only for the lusts of the flesh. And the race of fabulous princesses -- they were not dead, those ladies: they were ever waiting for the well-beloved in the palaces at Carthage. Yes, the scholar of Madaura lived wonderful hours, dreaming thus of love between the pages of the poets. These young dreams before love comes are more bewitching than love itself: a whole unknown world suddenly discovered and entered with a quivering joy of discovery at each step. The unused strength of illusion appears inexhaustible, space becomes deeper and the heart more strong....

A long time afterwards, when, recovered from all that, Augustin speaks to us of the Divine love, he will know fully the infinite value of it from having gone through all the painful entrancements of the other. And he will say to us, with the sureness of experience: |The pleasure of the human heart in the light of truth and the abundance of wisdom -- yea, the pleasure of the human heart, of the faithful heart, and of the heart which is holy, stands alone. You will find nothing in any voluptuousness fit to be compared to it. I say not that this other pleasure is less, for that which is called less hath only to increase to become equal. No, I shall not say that all other pleasure is less. No comparison can be made. It is another kind, it is another reality.|

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