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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

III THE CARTHAGE STUDENT

However strong were the attractions of the great city, Augustin well knew that he had not been sent there to amuse himself, or to trifle as an amateur with philosophy. He was poor, and he had to secure his future -- make his fortune. His family counted on him. Neither was he ignorant of the difficult position of his parents and by what sacrifices they had supplied him with the means to finish his studies. Necessarily he was obliged to be a student who worked.

With his extraordinary facility, he stood out at once among his fellow-students. In the rhetoric school, where he attended lectures, he was, he tells us, not only at the top, but he was the leader of his companions. He led in everything. At that time, rhetoric was extremely far-reaching: it had come to take in all the divisions of education, including science and philosophy. Augustin claims to have learned all that the masters of his time had to teach: rhetoric, dialectic, geometry, music, mathematics. Having gone through the whole scholastic system, he thought of studying law, and aided by his gift of words, to become a barrister. For a gifted young man it was the shortest and surest road to money and honours.

Unhappily for him, hardly was he settled down at Carthage than his father died. This made his future again problematical. How was he to keep up his studies without the sums coming from his father? The affairs of Patricius must have been left in the most parlous condition. But Monnica, clinging to her ambitious plans for her son, knew how to triumph over all difficulties, and she continued to send Augustin money. Romanianus, the Maecenas of Thagaste, who was doubtless applied to by her, came once more to the rescue of the hard-up student. The young man, set at ease about his expenses, resumed light-heartedly his studious and dissipated life.

As a matter of fact, this family bereavement does not seem to have caused him much grief. In the Confessions he mentions the death of his father in a few words, and, so to speak, in parenthesis, as an event long foreseen without much importance. And yet he owed him a great deal. Patricius was hard pressed, and he took immense trouble to provide the means for his son's education. But with the fine egotism of youth, Augustin perhaps thought it enough to have profited by his father's sacrifices, and dispensed himself from gratitude. In any case, his affection for his father must have been rather lukewarm; the natural differences between them ran too deep. In these years, Monnica filled all the heart of Augustin.

But the influence of Monnica herself was very slight upon this grown-up youth, eighteen years old. He had forgotten her lessons, and it did not trouble him much if his conduct added to the worries of the widow, who was now struggling with her husband's creditors. At heart he was a good son and he deeply loved his mother, but inevitably the pressure of the life around him swept him along.

He has pictured his companions for us, after his conversion, as terrible blackguards. No doubt he is too severe. Those young men were neither better nor worse than elsewhere. They were rowdy, as they were in the other cities of the Empire, and as one always is at that age. Imperial regulations enjoined the police to have an eye on the students, to note their conduct and what company they kept. They were not to become members of prohibited societies, not to go too often to the theatre, nor to waste their time in raking and feastings. If their conduct became too outrageous, they were to be beaten with rods and sent back to their parents. At Carthage there was a hard-living set of men who called themselves |The Wreckers.| Their great pleasure was to go and make a row at a professor's lecture; they would burst noisily into the classroom and smash up anything they could lay hold of. They amused themselves also by |ragging| the freshmen, jeering at their simplicity, and playing them a thousand tricks. Things haven't much changed since then. The fellow-students of Augustin were so like students of to-day that the most modern terms suggest themselves to describe their performances.

Augustin, who was on the whole well conducted, and, as behoved a future professor, had a respect for discipline, disapproved of |The Wreckers| and their violence. This did not prevent him from enjoying himself in their society. He was overcome with shame because he could not keep pace with them -- we must believe it at least, since he tells us so himself. With a certain lack of assurance, blended however with much juvenile vanity, he joined the band. He listened to that counsel of vulgar wisdom which is disastrous to souls like his: |Do as others do.| He accordingly did do as the others; he knew all their debauchery, or he imagined he did, for however low he went, he was never able to do anything mean. He was then so far from the faith that he arranged love-trysts in the churches. |I was not afraid to think of my lust, and plan a scheme for securing the deadly fruit of sin, even within the walls of Thy church during the celebration of Thy mysteries.| We might be reading the confession of a sensualist of to-day. One grows astonished at these morals, at once so old and so modern. What, already! These young Christian basilicas, but newly sprung out of the earth, where the men were strictly separated from the women -- were they already become places of assignation, where love-letters were slipped into hands, and procuresses sold their furtive services!...

At length the great happiness for which Augustin had so long been sighing was granted him: he loved and he was loved.

He loved as he indeed was able to love, with all the impetuosity of his nature and all the fire of his temperament, with all his heart and all his senses. |I plunged headlong into love, whose fetters I longed to wear.| But as he went at once to extremes, as he meant to give himself altogether, and expected all in return, he grew irritated at not receiving this same kind of love. It was never enough love for him. Yet he was loved, and the very certainty of this love, always too poor to his mind, exasperated the violence and pertinacity of his desire. |Because I was loved, I proudly riveted round myself the chain of woe, to be soon scourged with the red-hot iron rods of jealousy, torn by suspicions, fears, anger, and quarrels.| This was passion with chorus and orchestra, a little theatrical, with its violences, its alternations between fury and ecstasy, such as an African, steeped in romantic literature, would conceive it. Deceived, he flung himself in desperate pursuit of the ever-flitting love. He had certainly more than one passion. Each one left him more hungry than the last.

He was sensual, and he felt each time how brief is pleasure, in what a limited circle all enjoyment turns. He was tender, eager to give himself; and he saw plainly that one never gives oneself quite altogether, that even in the maddest hours of surrender one always reserves oneself in secret, keeping for oneself something of oneself; and he felt that most of the time his tenderness got no answer. When the joyous heart brings the offering of its love, the heart of her he loves is absent. And when it is there, on the edge of the lips, decked and smiling to meet the loved one, it is the other who is absent. Almost never do they join together, and they never join together altogether. And so this Love, which claims to be constant and even eternal, ought to be, if it would prolong itself, a continual act of faith, and hope, and charity. To believe in it in spite of its darkening and falling away; to hope its return, often against all evidence; to pardon its injustices and sometimes its foul actions -- how many are capable of such abnegation? Augustin went through all that. He was in despair about it. And then, the nostalgia of predestined souls took hold of him. He had an indistinct feeling that these human loves were unworthy of him, and that if he must have a master, he was born to serve another Master. He had a desire to shake off the platitude of here below, the melancholy fen where stagnated what he calls |the marsh of the flesh|; to escape, in a word, from the wretched huts wherein for a little he had sheltered his heart; to burn all behind him, and so prevent the weakness of a return; and to go and pitch his tent further, higher, he knew not where -- upon some unapproachable mountain where the air is icy, but before the eyes, the vasty stretches of light and space....

These first loves of Augustin were really too fierce to last. They burned up themselves. Augustin did not keep them up long. There was in him, besides, an instinct which counteracted his exuberant, amorous sentimentality -- the sense of beauty. That in itself was enough to make him pause on the downhill of riot. The anarchy and commotion of passion was repellent to a mind devoted to clearness and order. But there was still another thing -- the son of the Thagaste freeholder had any amount of common sense. That at least was left to him of the paternal heritage. A youth of what we call the lower middle class, strictly brought up in the hard and frugal discipline of the provinces, he felt the effects of his training. The bohemianism in which his friends revelled could not hold him indefinitely. Besides this, the career he desired, that of a barrister or professor, had a preliminary obligation to maintain a certain outward decorum. He himself tells us so; in the midst of his most disreputable performances he aspired to be known for his fashion and wit -- elegans atque urbanus. Politeness of speech and manners, the courteous mutual deference of the best society -- such, was the ideal of this budding professor of rhetoric.

Anxiety about his future, joined to his rapid disenchantments, ere long sobered the student: he just took his fling and then settled down. Love turned for him into sensual habit. His head became clear for study and meditation. The apprentice to rhetoric liked his business. Up to his last breath, despite his efforts to change, he continued, like all his contemporaries, to love rhetoric. He handled words like a worker in verbals who is aware of their price and knows all their resources. Even after his conversion, if he condemns profane literature as a poisoner of souls, he absolves the beauty of language. |I accuse not words,| he says. |Words are choice and precious vessels. I accuse the wine of error that drunken doctors pour out for us into these fair goblets.| At the Rhetoric School he took extreme pleasure in declaiming. He was applauded; the professor gave him as an example to the others. These scholastic triumphs foretold others more celebrated and reverberating. And so, in his heart, literary vanity and ambition disputed the ever-lively illusions of love. And then, above all! he had to live; Monnica's remittances were necessarily small; the generosity of Romanianus had its limit. So he beat about to enlarge his small student's purse. He wrote verses for poetic competitions. Perhaps already he was able to act as tutor to certain of his fellow-students, less advanced.

If the need of loving tormented his sentimental heart, he tried to assuage it in friendship. He loved friendship as he loved love. He was a passionate and faithful friend up to his death. At this time of his life, he was riveting friendships which were never to be broken. He had beside him his fellow-countryman, Alypius, the future Bishop of Thagaste, who had followed him to Carthage and would, later on, follow him to Milan; Nebridius, a not less dear companion, fated to die early; Honoratus, whom he drew into his errors and later did his best to enlighten; and, finally, that mysterious young man, whose name he does not tell us, and whose loss he mourned as never any one has mourned the death of a friend.

They lived in daily and hourly intimacy, in continual fervour and enthusiasm. They were great theatre-goers, where Augustin was able to satisfy his desire for tender emotions and romantic adventures. They had musical parties; they tried over again the popular airs heard at the Odeum or some other of the innumerable theatres at Carthage. All the Carthaginians, even the populace, were mad about music. The Bishop of Hippo, in his sermons, recalls a mason upon his scaffolding, or a shoemaker in his stall, singing away the tunes of well-known musicians. Then our students strolled on the quays or in the Harbour Square, contemplating the many-coloured sea, this splendour of waters at the setting sun, which Augustin will extol one day with an inspiration unknown to the ancient poets. Above all, they fell into discussions, commented what they had lately read, or built up astonishing plans for the future. So flowed by a happy and charming life, abruptly interpolated with superb anticipations. With what a full heart the Christian penitent calls it back for us! -- |What delighted me in the intercourse of my friends, was the talk, the laughter, the good turns we did each other, the common study of the masters of eloquence, the comradeship, now grave now gay, the differences that left no sting, as of a man differing with himself, the spice of disagreement which seasoned the monotony of consent. Each by turns would instruct or listen; impatiently we missed the absent friend, and savoured the joy of his return. We loved each other with all our hearts, and such tokens of friendship springing from the heart and displayed by a word, a glance, an expression, by a thousand pretty complaisances, supply the heat which welds souls together, and of many make one.|

It is easily understood that such ties as these had given Augustin a permanent disgust for his rowdy comrades of a former time: he went no more with |The Wreckers.| The small circle he took pleasure in was quiet and cheerful. Its merriment was controlled by the African gravity. He and his friends come before my eyes, a little like those students of theology, or those cultivated young Arabs, who discuss poetry, lolling indolently upon the cushions of a divan, while they roll between their fingers the amber beads of their rosary, or walking slowly under the arcades of a mosque, draped in their white-silk simars, with a serious and meditative air, gestures elegant and measured, courteous and harmonious speech, and something discreet, polite, and already clerical in their tone and manners.

In fact, the life which Augustin was at that time relishing was the pagan life on its best and gentlest side. The subtle network of habits and daily occupations enveloped him little by little. There was some risk of his growing torpid in this soft kind of life, when suddenly a rude shock roused him.... It was a chance, but in his eyes a providential chance, which put the Hortensius of Cicero between his hands. Augustin was about nineteen, still a student; according to the order which prevailed in the schools, the time had come for him to read and explain this philosophical dialogue. He had no curiosity about the book. He took it from his sense of duty as a student, because it figured on the schedule. He unrolled the book, and began it, doubtless with calm indifference. All of a sudden, a great unexpected light shone between the lines. His heart throbbed. His whole soul sprang towards these phrases, so dazzling and revealing. He awoke from his long drowsiness. Before him shone a marvellous vision.... As this dialogue is lost, we can hardly to-day account for such enthusiasm, and we hold that the Roman orator was a very middling philosopher. We know, however, through Augustin himself, that the book contained an eloquent praise of wisdom. And then, words are naught without the soul of the reader; all this, falling into Augustin's soul, rendered a prolonged and magnificent sound. It is evident, too, that just at the moment when he unrolled the book he was in a condition to receive this uplifting summons. In such minutes, when the heart, ignorant of itself, swells like the sea before a storm, when all the inner riches of the being overflow, the slightest glimmer is enough to reveal all these imprisoned forces, and the least shock to set them free.

He has at least preserved for us, in pious and faithful gratitude, some phrases of this dialogue which moved him so deeply. Especially does he admire this passage, wherein the author, after a long discussion, ends in these terms: |If, as pretend the philosophers of old time, who are also the greatest and most illustrious, we have a soul immortal and divine, it behoves us to think, that the more it has persevered in its way, that is to say, in reason, love, and the pursuit of truth, and the less it has been intermingled and stained in human error and passion, the easier will it be for it to raise itself and soar again to the skies.|

Such phrases, read in a certain state of mind, might well overwhelm this young man, who was ere long to yearn for the cloister and was destined to be the founder of African monasticism. To give his whole life to the study of wisdom, to compel himself towards the contemplation of God, to live here below an almost divine life -- this ideal, impossible to pagan wisdom, Augustin was called to realize in the name of Christ. That had dawned on him, all at once, while he was reading the Hortensius. And this ideal appeared to him so beautiful, so well worth the sacrifice of all he had hitherto loved, that nothing else counted for him any more. He despised rhetoric, the vain studies it compelled him to pursue, the honour and glory it promised him. What was all that to the prize of wisdom? For wisdom he felt himself ready to give up the world.... But these heroic outbursts do not, as a rule, keep up very long in natures so changeable and impressionable as Augustin's. Yet they are not entirely thrown away. Thus, in early youth, come dim revelations of the future. There comes a presentiment of the port to which one will some day be sailing; a glimpse of the task to fulfil, the work to build up; and all this rises before the eyes in an entrancement of the whole being. Though the bright image be eclipsed, perhaps for years, the remembrance of it persists amid the worst degradations or the worst mediocrities. He who one single time has seen it pass, can never afterwards live quite like other people.

This fever calmed, Augustin set himself to reflect. The ancient philosophers promised him wisdom. But Christ also promised it! Was it not possible to reconcile them? And was not the Gospel ideal essentially more human than that of the pagan philosophers? Suppose he tried to submit to that, to bring the faith of his childhood into line with his ambitions as a young man of intellect? To be good after the manner of his mother, of his grandparents, of the good Thagaste servants, of all the humble Christian souls whose virtues he had been taught to respect, and at the same time to rival a Plato by the strength of thought -- what a dream! Was it possible?... He tells us himself that the illusion was brief, and that he grew cool about the Hortensius because he did not find the name of Christ in it. He deceives himself, probably. At this time he was not so Christian. He yields to the temptation of a fine phrase: when he wrote his Confessions he had not yet entirely lost this habit.

But what remains true is, that feeling the inadequateness of pagan philosophy, he returned for a moment towards Christianity. The Ciceronian dialogue, by disappointing his thirst for the truth, gave him the idea of knocking at the door of the Church and trying to find out if on that side there might not be a practicable road for him. This is why the reading of Hortensius is in Augustin's eyes one of the great dates of his life. Although he fell back in his errors, he takes credit for his effort. He recognizes in it the first sign, and, as it were, a promise of his conversion. |Thenceforth, my God, began my upward way, and my return towards Thee.|

He began then to study the Holy Scriptures with a more or less serious intention to instruct himself in them. But to go to the Bible by way of Cicero was to take the worst road. Augustin got lost there. This direct popular style, which only cares about saying things, and not about how they are said, could only repel the pupil of Carthage rhetoricians, the imitator of the harmonious Ciceronian sentences. Not only had he much too spoiled a taste in literature, but there was also too much literature in this pose of a young man who starts off one fine morning to conquer wisdom. He was punished for his lack of sincerity, and especially of humility. He understood nothing of the Scripture, and |I found it,| he says, |a thing not known to the proud, nor yet laid open to children, but poor in appearance, lofty in operation, and veiled in mysteries. At that time, I was not the man to bow my head so as to pass in at its door.|...

He grew tired very quickly. He turned his back on the Bible, as he had thrown aside Hortensius, and he went to find pasture elsewhere. Nevertheless, his mind had been set in motion. Nevermore was he to know repose, till he had found truth. He demanded this truth from all the sects and all the churches. So it was, that in despair he flung himself into Manicheeism.

Some have professed amazement that this honest and practical mind should have stuck fast in a doctrine so tortuous, so equivocal, contaminated by fancies so grossly absurd. But perhaps it is forgotten that there was everything in Manicheeism. The leaders of the sect did not deliver the bulk of the doctrine all at once to their catechumens; the entire initiation was a matter of several degrees. Now Augustin never went higher than a simple auditor in the Manichean Church. What attracted specially fine minds to the Manichees, was that they began by declaring themselves rationalists. To reconcile faith with natural science and philosophy has been the fad of heresiarchs and free-thinkers in all ages. The Manicheans bragged that they had succeeded. They went everywhere, crying out: |Truth, Truth!| That suited Augustin very well: it was just what he was looking for. He hastened to the preachings of these humbugs, impatient to receive at last this |truth,| so noisily announced. From what they said, it was contained in several large books written by their prophet under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. There was quite a library of them. By way of bamboozling the crowd, they produced some of them which looked very important, ponderous as Tables of the Law, richly bound in vellum, and embellished with striking illuminations. How was it possible to doubt that the entire revelation was contained in such beautiful books? One felt at once full of respect for a religion which was able to produce in its favour the testimony of such a mass of writings.

However, the priests did not open them. To allay the impatience of their hearers, they amused them by criticizing the books and dogmas of the Catholics. This preliminary criticism was the first lesson of their instruction. They pointed out any number of incoherences, absurdities, and interpolations in the Bible: according to them, a great part of the Scriptures had been foisted on the world by the Jews. But they triumphed especially in detecting the contradictions of the Gospel narratives. They sapped them with syllogisms. It is easy to understand that these exercises in logic should have at once attracted the youthful Augustin. With his extraordinary dialectical subtilty, he soon became very good at it himself -- much better even than his masters. He made speeches in their assemblies, fenced against a text, peremptorily refuted it, and reduced his adversaries to silence. He was applauded, covered with praise. A religion which brought him such successes must be the true one.

After he became a bishop, he tried to explain to himself how it was that he fell into Manicheeism, and could find only two reasons. |The first,| he says, |was a friendship which took hold of me under I know not what appearance of kindness, and was like a cord about my neck.... The second was those unhappy victories that I almost always won in our disputes.|

But there is still another which he mentions elsewhere, and it had perhaps the most weight. This was the loose moral code which Manicheeism authorized. This doctrine taught that we are not responsible for the evil we do. Our sins and vices are the work of the evil Principle -- the God of Darkness, enemy of the God of Light. Now at the moment when Augustin was received as auditor by the Manichees, he had a special need of excusing his conduct by a moral system so convenient and indulgent. He had just formed his connection with her who was to become the mother of his child.

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