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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Augustin was going to live nine years at Carthage -- nine years that he squandered in obscure tasks, in disputes sterile or unfortunate for himself and others -- briefly, in an utter forgetfulness of his true vocation. |And during this time Thou wert silent, O my God!| he cries, in recalling only the faults of his early youth. Now, the silence of God lay heavy. And yet even in those years his tormented soul had not ceased to appeal. |Where wert Thou then, O my God, while I looked for Thee? Thou wert before me. But I had drawn away from myself and I could not find myself. How much less, then, could I find Thee.|

This was certainly the most uneasy, and, at moments, the most painful time of his life. Hardly was he got back to Carthage than he had to struggle against ever-increasing money difficulties. Not only had he to get his own living, but the living of others -- possibly his mother's and that of his brother and sister -- at all events, he had to support his mistress and the child. It is possible that the infant was born before its father left Thagaste; if not, the birth must have occurred shortly after.

The child was called Adeodatus. There is a kind of irony in this name, which was then usual, of Adeodatus -- |Gift of God.| This son of his sin, as Augustin calls him, this son whom he did not want, and the news of whose birth must have been a painful shock -- this poor child was a gift of Heaven which the father could have well done without. And then, when he saw him, he was filled with joy, and he cherished him as a real gift from God.

He accepted his fatherhood courageously, and, as it happens in such cases, he was drawn closer to his mistress, their association taking on something of conjugal dignity. Did the mother of Adeodatus justify such attachment -- an attachment which was to last more than ten years? The mystery in which Augustin intended that the woman he had loved the most should remain enveloped for all time, is nearly impenetrable to us. No doubt she was of a very humble, not to say low class, since Monnica judged it impossible to bring about a marriage between the ill-assorted pair. There must have been an extreme inequality between the birth and education of the lovers. This did not prevent Augustin from loving his mistress passionately, for her beauty perhaps, or perhaps for her goodness of heart, or both. Nevertheless, it is surprising, that in view of his changing humour, and his prompt and impressionable soul, he remained faithful to her so long. What was to prevent his taking his son and going off? Ancient custom authorized such an act. But Augustin was tender-hearted. He was afraid to cause pain; he dreaded for others the wounds that caused him so much suffering himself. So he stayed on from kindness, from pity, habit too, and also because, in spite of everything, he loved the mother of his child. Up to the time of his conversion, they lived like husband and wife.

So now, to keep his family, he really turns |a dealer in words.| In spite of his youth (he was barely twenty) the terms he had kept at Thagaste as a teacher of grammar allowed him to take his place among the rhetoricians at Carthage. Thanks to Romanianus, he got pupils at once. His protector at Thagaste sent his son, that young Licentius whose education Augustin had already begun, with one of his brothers, doubtless younger. It seems likely that the two youths lived in Augustin's house. A small fact which their master has preserved, looks like a proof of this. A spoon having been lost in the house, Augustin, to find out where it was, told Licentius to go and consult a wizard, one Albicerius, who had, just then, a great name in Carthage. This message is scarcely to be explained unless we suppose the lad was lodging in his professor's house. Another of the pupils is known to us. This is Eulogius, who was later on a rhetorician at Carthage, and of whom Augustin relates an extraordinary dream. Finally, there was Alypius, a little younger than himself, his friend -- |the brother of his heart,| as he calls him. Alypius had been attending his lessons at Thagaste. When the schoolmaster abruptly threw up his employment, the father of the pupil was angry, and in sending his son to Carthage, he forbade him to go near Augustin's class. But it was difficult to keep such eager friends apart. Little by little, Alypius overcame his father's objections, and became a pupil of his friend.

Augustin's knowledge, when he began to lecture, could not have been very deep, for he had only lately quitted the student's bench himself. His duties forced him to learn what he did not know. In teaching he taught himself. It was at this time that he did most of the reading which afterwards added substance to his polemics and treatises. He tells us himself that he read in those days all that he could lay hands on. He is very proud of having read by himself and understood without any assistance from a master, the Ten Categories of Aristotle, which was considered one of the most abstruse works of the Stagirite. In an age when instruction was principally by word of mouth, and books comparatively rare, it is obvious that Augustin was not what we call an |all-devouring reader.| We do not know if Carthage had many libraries, or what the libraries were worth. It is no less true that the author of The City of God is the last of the Latin writers who had a really all-round knowledge. It is he who is the link between modern times and pagan antiquity. The Middle Age hardly knew classical literature, save by the allusions and quotations of Augustin.

So in spite of family and professional cares, he did not lose his intellectual proclivities. The conquest of truth remained always his great ambition. He still hoped to find it in Manicheeism, but he began to think that it was a long time coming. The leaders of the sect could not have trusted him thoroughly. They feared his acute and subtle mind, so quick to detect the flaw in a thesis or argument. That is why they postponed his initiation into their secret doctrines. Augustin remained a simple auditor in their Church. By way of appeasing the enormous activity of his intelligence, they turned him on to controversy, and the critical discussion of the Scriptures. Giving themselves out for Christians, they adopted a part of them, and flung aside as interpolated or forged all that was not in tune with their theology. Augustin, as we know, triumphed in disputes of this kind, and was vain because he excelled in them.

And when he grew tired of this negative criticism and asked his evangelists to give him more substantial food, they put him on some exoteric doctrine calculated to appeal to a young imagination by its poetic or philosophical colouring. The catechumen was not satisfied, but he put up with it for lack of anything better. Very prettily he compares these enemies of the Scriptures to the snarers of birds, who defile or fill with earth all the water-places where the birds use to drink, save one mere; and about this they set their snares. The birds all fly there, not because the water is better, but because there is no other water, and they know not where else to go and drink. So Augustin, not knowing where to quench his thirst for truth, was fain to make the best of the confused pantheism of the Manichees.

What remains noteworthy is, that however unstable his own convictions were, he yet converted everybody about him. It was through him that his friends became Manichees: Alypius one of the first; then Nebridius, the son of a great landowner near Carthage; Honoratius, Marcianus; perhaps, too, the youngest of his pupils, Licentius and his brother -- all victims of his persuasive tongue, which he exerted later on to draw them back from their errors. So great was his charm -- so deep, especially, was public credulity!

This fourth century was no longer a century of strong Christian faith. On the other hand, the last agony of paganism was marked by a new attack of the lowest credulity and superstition. As the Church energetically combated both one and the other, it is not surprising that it was chiefly the pagans who were contaminated. The old religion was to end by foundering in magic. The greatest minds of the period, the neo-Platonists, the Emperor Julian himself, were miracle-workers, or at any rate, adepts in the occult sciences. Augustin, who was then separated from Christianity, followed the general impulse, together with the young men he knew. Just now we saw him sending to consult the soothsayer, Albicerius, about the loss of a spoon. And this man of intellect believed also in astrologers and nigromancers.

Strips of lead have been found at Carthage upon which are written magic spells against horses entered for races in the circus. Just like the Carthaginian jockeys, Augustin had recourse to these hidden and fraudulent practices, to make sure of success. On the eve of a verse competition in the theatre, he fell in with a wizard who offered, if they could agree about the price, to sacrifice a certain number of animals to buy the victory. Upon this, Augustin, very much annoyed, declared that if the prize were a crown of immortal gold, not a fly should be sacrificed to help him win it. Really, magic was repellent to the honesty of his mind, as well as to his nerves, by reason of the suspicious and brutal part of its operations. As a rule, it was involved with haruspicy, and had a side of sacred anatomy and the kitchen which revolted the sensitive -- dissection of flesh, inspection of entrails, not to mention the slaughtering and strangling of victims. Fanatics, such as Julian, gave themselves up with delight to these disgusting manipulations. What we know of Augustin's soul makes it quite clear why he recoiled with horror.

Astrology, on the contrary, attracted him by its apparent science. Its adepts called themselves |mathematicians,| and thus seemed to borrow from the exact sciences something of their solidity. Augustin often discussed astrology with a Carthage physician, Vindicianus, a man of great sense and wide learning, who even reached Proconsular honours. In vain did he point out to the young rhetorician that the pretended prophecies of the mathematicians were the effect of chance; in vain did Nebridius, less credulous than his friend, join his arguments to those of the crafty physician; Augustin clung obstinately to his chimera. His dialectical mind discovered ingenious justifications for what the astrologers claimed.

Thus, dazzled by all the intellectual phantasms, he strayed from one science to another, repeating meanwhile in his heart the motto of his Manichean masters: |The Truth, the Truth!|. But whatever might be the attractions of the speculative life, he had first to face the needs of actual life. The sight of his child called him back to a sense of his position. To get money, and for that purpose to push himself forward, put himself in evidence, increase his reputation -- Augustin worked at that as hard as he could. It led him to enter for the prize of dramatic poetry. He was declared the winner. His old friend, the physician Vindicianus, who was then Proconsul, placed the crown, as he says, upon his |disordered head.| The future Father of the Church writing for the theatre -- and what a theatre it was then! -- is not the least extraordinary thing in this life so disturbed and, at first sight, so contradictory.

It was also from literary ambition that about the same time he wrote a book on aesthetics called Upon the Beautiful and the Fit, which he dedicated to a famous colleague, the Syrian Hierius, |orator to the City of Rome,| one of the professors of the official education appointed either by the Roman municipality or the Imperial treasury. This Levantine rhetorician had an immense success in the capital of the Empire. His renown had got beyond academical and fashionable circles and crossed the sea. Augustin admired him on trust, like everybody else. It is clear that, at this time he could not imagine a more glorious fortune for himself than to become, like Hierius, orator to the City of Rome. Later in life, the Bishop of Hippo, while condemning the vanity of his youthful ambitions, must have made some extremely ironical reflections as to their modesty. How mistaken he was about himself! An Augustin had dreamed of equalling one day this obscure pedagogue, of whom nobody, save for him, would ever have spoken again. Men of instinct, like Augustin, continually go wrong in this way about their object and the means to employ. But their mistakes are only in appearance. A will stronger than their own leads them, by mysterious ways, whither they ought to go.

This first book of Augustin's is lost, and we are unable to say whether there be any reason to regret it. He himself recalls it to us in a very indifferent tone and rather vague terms. It would seem, however, that his aesthetic had a basis of Manichean metaphysics. But what is significant for us, in this youthful essay, is that the first time Augustin wrote as an author it was to define and to praise Beauty. He did not yet know, at least not directly from the text, the dialogues of Plato, and he is already inclined to Platonism. He was this by nature. His Christianity will be a religion all of light and beauty. For him, the supreme Beauty is identical with the supreme Love. |Do we love anything,| he used to say to his friends, |except what is beautiful?| Num amamus aliquid, nisi pulchrum? Again, at the end of his life, when he strives in The City of God to make clear for us the dogma of the resurrection of the body, he thinks our bodies shall rise free from all earthly flaws, in all the splendour of the perfect human type. Nothing of the body will be lost. It will keep all its limbs and all its organs because they are beautiful. One recognizes in this passage, not only the Platonist, but the traveller and art-lover, who had gazed upon some of the finest specimens of ancient statuary.

This first book had hardly any success. Augustin does not even say whether the celebrated Hierius paid him a compliment about it, and he has an air of giving us to understand that he had no other admirer but himself. New disappointments, more serious mortifications, changed little by little his state of mind and his plans for the future. He was obliged to acknowledge that after years of effort he was scarcely more advanced than at the start. There was no chance to delude himself with vain pretences: it was quite plain to everybody that the rhetorician Augustin was not a success. Now, why was this? Was it that he lacked the gift of teaching? Perhaps he had not the knack of keeping order, which is the most indispensable of all for a schoolmaster. What suited him best no doubt was a small and select audience which he charmed rather than ruled. Large and noisy classes he could not manage. At Carthage, these rhetoric classes were particularly difficult to keep in order, because the students were more rowdy than elsewhere. At any moment |The Wreckers| might burst in and make a row. Augustin, who had not joined in these |rags| when he was a student, saw himself obliged to endure them as a professor. He had nothing worse to complain of than his fellow-professors, in whose classes the same kind of disturbance took place. That was the custom and, in a manner of speaking, the rule in the Carthage schools. For all that, a little more authoritative bearing would not have harmed him in the eyes of these disorderly boys. But he had still graver defects for a professor who wants to get on: he was not a schemer, and he could not make the most of himself.

It is quite possible that he did not possess the qualities which just then pleased the pagan public in a rhetorician. The importance that the ancients attached to physical advantages in an orator is well known. Now, according to an old tradition, Augustin was a little man and not strong: till the end of his life he complained of his health. He had a weak voice, a delicate chest, and was often hoarse. Surely this injured him before audiences used to all the outward emphasis and all the studied graces of Roman eloquence. Finally, his written and spoken language had none of those brilliant and ingenious curiosities of phrase which pleased in literary and fashionable circles. This inexhaustibly prolific writer is not in the least a stylist. In this respect he is inferior to Apuleius, or Tertullian, though he leaves them far behind in the qualities of sincere and deep sentiment, poetic flow, colour, the vividness of metaphor, and, besides, the emotion, the suavity of the tone. With all that, no matter how hard he tried, he could never grasp what the rhetoricians of his time understood by style. This is why his writings, as well as his addresses, were not very much liked.

Nevertheless, good judges recognized his value, and guessed the powers, lying still unformed within him, which he was misusing ere they were mature. He was received at the house of the Proconsul Vindicianus, who liked to talk with him, and treated him with quite fatherly kindness. Augustin knew people in the best society. He did all his life. His charm and captivating manners made him welcome in the most exclusive circles. But just because he was valued by fashionable society, it came home to him more painfully that he had not the position he deserved with the public at large. Little by little his humour grew bitter. In this angry state of mind he was no longer able to consider things with the same confidence and serenity. His mental disquietudes took hold of him again.

His ideas were affected, first of all. He began to have doubts, more and more definite, about Manicheeism. He began by suspecting the rather theatrical austerity which the initiated of the sect made such a great parade of. Among other turpitudes, he saw one day in one of the busiest parts of Carthage |three of the Elect whinny after some women or other who were passing, and begin making such obscene signs that they surpassed the coarsest people for impudence and shamelessness.| He was scandalized at that; but, after all, it was a small thing. He himself was not so very virtuous then. Generally your intellectual worries very little about squaring his conduct with his principles, and does not bother about the practical part. No; what was much worse in his eyes is that the Manichean physical science, a congeries of fables more or less symbolical, suddenly struck him as ruinous. He had just been studying astronomy, and he found that the cosmology of the Manichees -- of these men who called themselves materialists -- did not agree with scientific facts. Therefore Manicheeism must be wrong universally, since it ran counter to reason confirmed by experience.

Augustin spoke about his doubts, not only to his friends, but to the priests of his sect. These got out of the difficulty by evasions and the most dazzling promises. A Manichee bishop, a certain Faustus, was coming to Carthage. He was a man of immense learning. Most certainly he would refute every objection without the least trouble. He would confirm the young auditors in their faith.... So Augustin and his friends waited for Faustus as for a Messiah. Their disappointment was immense. The supposed doctor turned out to be an ignorant man, who possessed no tincture of science or philosophy, and whose intellectual baggage consisted of nothing but a little grammar. A delightful talker and a wit, the most he could do was to discourse pleasantly on literature.

This disappointment, joined to the set-backs in his profession, brought about a crisis of soul and conscience in Augustin. So this Truth which he had sighed after so long, which had been so much promised to him, was only a decoy! One must be content not to know!... Then what was left to do since truth was unapproachable? Possibly fortune and honours would console him for it. But he was far enough from them too. He felt that he was on the wrong road, that he was getting into a rut at Carthage, as he had got into a rut at Thagaste. He must succeed, whatever the cost!... And then he gave way to one of those moments of weariness, when a man has no further hope of saving himself save by some desperate step. He was sick of where he was and of those about him. His friends, whom he knew too well, had nothing more to teach him, and could not help him in the only search which passionately interested him. And his entanglement became irksome. Here was nine years that this sharing of bed and board had lasted. His son was at that unattractive age which rather bores a young father than it revives an affection already old. No doubt he did not want to abandon him. He did not intend to break altogether with his mistress. But he felt the need of a change of air, to take himself off somewhere else, where he could breathe more freely and get fresh courage for his task.

Then it dawned on him to try his fortune at Rome. It was there that literary reputations were made. He would find there, no doubt, better judges than at Carthage. He would very likely end by getting a post in the public instruction, with a steady salary -- this would relieve him of present worries, at all events. Probably he had already this plan in his head when he sent his treatise On the Beautiful to Hierius, orator to the City of Rome; he thought that by this politeness he might depend, later, on the backing of the well-known rhetorician. Lastly, his friends, Honoratius, Marcianus, and the others, earnestly persuaded him to go and find a stage worthy of him at Rome. Alypius, who was at this time finishing his law studies there, and must have felt their separation, pressed him to come to Rome and promised him success.

Once more, Augustin was ready to go away. He was not long in making up his mind. He was going to leave all belonging to him, his mistress, his child, till the time when his new position would enable him to send for them. He himself tells us that the chief motive which led him to decide on this journey was that the Roman students were said to be better disciplined and less noisy than the students at Carthage. Evidently, that is a reason which would weigh with a professor who objected to act the policeman in his class. But besides the reasons we have given, there were others which must have influenced his decision. Theodosius had lately ordered very heavy penalties against the Manichees. Not only did he condemn them to death, but he had instituted a perfect Inquisition, with the special duty of spying upon and prosecuting these heretics. Did it occur to Augustin that he might hide better in Rome, where he was unknown, than in a city where he was a marked man on account of his proselytizing zeal? In any case, his departure gave rise to calumnies which his adversaries, the Donatists, did not fail many years later to bring up again and make worse. They accused him of having run away from prosecution; he fled the country, so they said, on account of a judgment which was out against him, pronounced by the Proconsul Messianus. Augustin had no trouble in refuting these false insinuations. But all these facts seem to prove that the most ordinary prudence warned him to cross the sea as soon as possible.

Accordingly, he prepared to set sail. Let us hope that in spite of his lofty indifference to material things, he made some provision for the existence of the woman and child he left behind. As for her, she appeared to agree without over-many violent scenes to this parting, which, he said, was temporary. It was not the same with his mother. The very idea of Rome, which seemed to her another Babylon, terrified this austere African woman. What spiritual dangers lay in wait for her son there! She wanted to keep him near her, both to bring him to the faith and also to love him -- this Augustin who had been her only human love. And then he was doubtless the chief support of the widow. Without him, what was going to become of her?

The fugitive was forced to put a trick on Monnica so as to carry out his plan. She would not leave him a moment, folded him in her arms, implored him with tears not to go. The night he was to sail she followed him down to the dock, although Augustin, to allay her suspicions, had told her a lie. He pretended that he was only going down to the ship with a friend to see him off. But Monnica, only half believing, followed. Night fell. Meanwhile, the ship, anchored in a little bay to the north of the city, did not move. The sailors were waiting till a wind rose to slip their moorings. The weather was moist and oppressive, as it usually is in the Mediterranean in August and September. There was not a breath of air. The hours passed on. Monnica, overcome by heat and fatigue, could hardly stand. Then Augustin cunningly persuaded her to go and pass the night in a chapel hard by, since it was plain that the ship would not weigh anchor till dawn. After many remonstrances, she at length agreed to rest in this chapel -- a memoria consecrated to St. Cyprian, the great martyr and patron of Carthage.

Like most of the African sanctuaries of those days, and the marabouts of to-day, this one must have been either surrounded, or approached, by a court with a portico in arcades, where it was possible to sleep. Monnica sat down on the ground under her heap of veils among other poor people and travellers, who were come like her to try to find a little cool air on this stifling night near the relics of the blessed Cyprian. She prayed for her child, offering to God |the blood of her heart,| begging God not to let him go, |for she loved to keep me with her| says Augustin, |as mothers are wont, yes, far more than most mothers.| And like a true daughter of Eve, |weeping and crying, she sought again with groans the son she had brought forth with groans.| She prayed for a long time; then, worn out with sorrow, she slept. The porter of the chapel, without knowing it, watched that night not only the mother of the rhetorician Augustin, but the ancestor of an innumerable line of souls; this humble woman, who slept there on the ground, on the flags of the courtyard, carried in her heart all the yearning of all the mothers of the future.

While she slept, Augustin went stealthily on board. The silence and the tempered splendour of the night weighed him down. Sometimes the cry of the sailors on watch took a strange note in the lustrous vaporous spaces. The Gulf of Carthage gleamed far off under the scintillation of the stars, under the palpitating of a milky way all white like the flowers of the garden of Heaven. But Augustin's heart was heavy, heavier than the air weighted by the heat and sea-damp -- heavy from the lie and the cruelty he had just committed. He saw already the awakening and sorrow of his mother. His conscience was troubled, overcome by remorse and forebodings.... Meanwhile, his friends tried to cheer him, and urged him to have courage and hope. Marcianus, while embracing him, reminded him of the verses of Terence:

|This day which brings to thee another life
Demands that thou another man shalt be.|

Augustin smiled sadly. At last the ship began to move. The wind had risen, the wind of the grand voyage which was bearing him to the unknown.... Suddenly, at the keen freshness of the open sea, he thrilled. His strength and confidence rushed back. To go away! What enchantment for all those who cannot fasten themselves to a corner of the earth, who know by instinct that they belong elsewhere, who always pass |as strangers and as pilgrims,| and who go away with relief, as if they cast a burthen behind them. Augustin was of those people -- of those who, among the fairest attractions of the Road, never cease to think of the Return. But he knew not where God was leading him. Marcianus was right: a new life was really beginning for him; only it was not the life that either of them hoped for.

He who departed as a rhetorician, to sell words, was to come back as an apostle, to conquer souls.

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