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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


|I went to Carthage, where shameful loves bubbled round me like boiling oil.|

This cry of repentance, uttered by the converted Augustin twenty-five years later, does not altogether stifle his words of admiration for the old capital of his country. One can see this patriotic admiration stirring between the lines. Carthage made a very strong impression on him. He gave it his heart and remained faithful to the end. His enemies, the Donatists, called him |the Carthaginian arguer.| After he became Bishop of Hippo, he was continually going to Carthage to preach, or dispute, or consult his colleagues, or to ask something from men in office. When he is not there, he is ever speaking of it in his treatises and plain sermons. He takes comparisons from it: |You who have been to Carthage -- | he often says to his listeners. For the boy from little Thagaste to go to Carthage, was about the same as for our youths from the provinces to go to Paris. Veni Carthaginem -- in these simple words there is a touch of naive emphasis which reveals the bewilderment of the Numidian student just landed in the great city.

And, in fact, it was one of the five great capitals of the Empire: there were Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria -- Carthage. Carthage was the sea-port capital of the whole western Mediterranean. With its large new streets, its villas, its temples, its palaces, its docks, its variously dressed cosmopolitan population, it astonished and delighted the schoolboy from Madaura. Whatever local marks were left about him, or signs of the rustic simpleton, it brushed off. At first, Augustin must have felt himself as good as lost there.

There he was, his own master, with nobody to counsel and direct him. He does indeed mention his fellow-countryman, that Romanianus, the patron of his father and of other people in Thagaste, as a high and generous friend who invited him to his house when he, a poor youth, came to finish his studies in a strange city, and helped him, not only with his purse, but with his friendship. Unfortunately the allusion is not very clear. Still, it does seem to shew that Augustin, in the first days after his arrival at Carthage, stayed with Romanianus. It is not in the least improbable that Romanianus had a house at Carthage and spent the winter there: during the rest of the year he would be in his country houses round about Thagaste. This opulent benefactor might not have been satisfied with giving Augustin a good |tip| for his journey when he was leaving his native town, but may also have put him up in his own house at Carthage. Such was the atonement for those enormous fortunes of antiquity: the rich had to give freely and constantly. With the parcelling out of wealth we have become much more egoistical.

In any case, Romanianus, taken up with his pleasures and business, could not have been much of a guide for Monnica's son. Augustin was therefore without control, or very nearly. No doubt he came to Carthage with a strong desire to increase his knowledge and get renown, but still more athirst for love and the emotions of sentiment. The love-prelude was deliriously prolonged for him. He was at that time so overwhelmed by it, that it is the first thing he thinks of when he relates his years at Carthage. |To love and be loved| seems to him, as to his dear Alexandrine poets, the single object of life. Yet he was not in love, |but he loved the idea of love.| Nondum amabam, et amare amabam ... amare amans....

Truly, never a pagan poet had hitherto found such language to speak of love. These subtle phrases are not only the work of a marvellous word-smith: through their almost imperceptible shades of meaning may be descried an entirely new soul, the pleasure-loving soul of the old world awakening to spiritual life. Modern people have repeated the words more than enough, but by translating them too literally -- |I loved to love| -- they have perhaps distorted the sense. They have made Augustin a kind of Romantic like Alfred de Musset, a dilettante in love. Augustin is not so modern, although he often seems one of ourselves. When he wrote those words he was a bishop and a penitent. What strikes him above all in looking back upon his uneasy and feverish life as a youth and young man, is the great onrush of all his being which swept him towards love. Plainly, man is made for love, since he loves without object and without cause, since in itself alone the idea of love is already for him a beginning of love. Only he falls into error in giving to creatures a heart that the Creator alone can fill and satisfy. In this love for love's sake, Augustin discerned the sign of the predestined soul whose tenderness will find no rest but in God. That is why he repeats this word |Love| with a kind of intoxication. He knows that those who love like him cannot love long with a human love. Nor does he blush to acknowledge it: -- he loved -- he loved with all his soul -- he loved to the point of loving the coming of love. Happy intimation for the Christian! A heart so afire is pledged to the eternal marriage.

With this heat of passion, this lively sensibility, Augustin was a prey for Carthage. The voluptuous city took complete hold on him by its charm and its beauty, by all the seductions of mind and sense, by its promises of easy enjoyment.

First of all, it softened this young provincial, used to the harder country life of his home; it relaxed the Numidian contracted by the roughness of his climate; it cooled his eyes burned by the sun in the full-flowing of its waters and the suavity of its horizons. It was a city of laziness, and above all, of pleasure, as well for those plunged in business as for the idlers. They called it Carthago Veneris -- Carthage of Venus. And certainly the old Phoenician Tanit always reigned there. Since the rebuilding of her temple by the Romans, she had transformed herself into Virgo Coelestis. This Virgin of Heaven was the great Our Lady of unchastity, towards whom still mounted the adoration of the African land four hundred years after the birth of Christ. |Strange Virgin,| Augustin was to say later, |who can only be honoured by the loss of virginity.| Her dissolving influence seemed to overcome the whole region. There is no more feminine country than this Carthaginian peninsula, ravished on all sides by the caress of the waters. Stretched out between her lakes on the edge of the sea, Carthage lounged in the humid warmth of her mists, as if in the suffocating atmosphere of her vapour-baths.

She stole away the energies, but she was an enchantment for the eyes. From the top of the impressive flight of steps which led up to the temple of AEsculapius on the summit of the Acropolis, Augustin could see at his feet the huge, even-planned city, with its citadel walls which spread out indefinitely, its gardens, blue waters, flaxen plains, and the mountains. Did he pause on the steps at sunset, the two harbours, rounded cup-shape, shone, rimmed by the quays, like lenses of ruby. To the left, the Lake of Tunis, stirless, without a ripple, as rich in ethereal lights as a Venetian lagoon, radiated in ever-altering sheens, delicate and splendid. In front, across the bay, dotted with the sails of ships close-hauled to the wind, beyond the wind-swept and shimmering intervals, the mountains of Rhodes raised their aerial summit-lines against the sky. What an outlook on the world for a young man dreaming of fame! And what more exhilarating spot than this Mount Byrsa, where, in deep layers, so many heroic memories were gathered and superimposed. The great dusty plains which bury themselves far off in the sands of the desert, the mountains -- yes, and isles and headlands, all bowed before the Hill that Virgil sang and seemed to do her reverence. She held in awe the innumerable tribes of the barbaric continent; she was mistress of the sea. Rome herself, from the height of her Palatine, surged less imperial.

More than any other of the young men seated with him on the benches of the school of rhetoric, Augustin hearkened to the dumb appeals which came from the ancient ruins and new palaces of Carthage. But the supple and treacherous city knew the secret of enchaining the will. She tempted him by the open display of her amusements. Under this sun which touches to beauty the plaster of a hut, the grossest pleasures have an attraction which men of the North cannot understand. The overflowing of lust surrounds you. This prolific swarming, all these bodies, close-pressed and soft with sweat, give forth as it were a breath of fornication which melts the will. Augustin breathed in with delight the heavy burning air, loaded with human odours, which filled the streets and squares of Carthage. To all the bold soliciting, to all the hands stretched out to detain him as he walked, he yielded.

But for a mind like his Carthage had more subtle allurements in reserve. He was taken by her theatres, by the verses of her poets and the melodies of her musicians. He shed tears at the plays of Menander and Terence; he lamented upon the misfortunes of separated lovers; he shared their quarrels, rejoiced and despaired with them. And still he awaited the epiphany of Love -- that Love which the performance of the actors shewed him to be so touching and fine.

Such then was Augustin, given over to the irresponsibility of his eighteen years -- a heart spoiled by romantic literature, a mind impatient to try every sort of intellectual adventure in the most corrupting and bewitching city known to the pagan centuries, set amidst one of the most entrancing landscapes in the world.

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