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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

II THE FINAL DISILLUSION

'The new professor had managed to secure a certain number of pupils whom he gathered together in his rooms. He could make enough to live at Rome by himself, if he could not support there the woman and child he had left behind at Carthage. In this matter of finding work, his host and his Manichee friends had done him some very good turns. Although forced to conceal their beliefs since the edict of Theodosius, there were a good many Manichees in the city. They formed an occult Church, strongly organized, and its adepts had relations with all classes of Roman society. Possibly Augustin presented himself as one driven out of Africa by the persecution. Some compensation would be owing to this young man who had suffered for the good cause.

It was his friend Alypius, |the brother of his heart,| who, having preceded him to Rome to study law at his parents' wishes, now was the most useful in helping Augustin to make himself known and find pupils. Himself a Manichee, converted by Augustin, and a member of one of the leading families in Thagaste, he had not long to wait for an important appointment in the Imperial administration. He was assessor to the Treasurer-General, or |Count of the Italian Bounty Office,| and decided fiscal questions. Thanks to his influence, as well as to his acquaintances among the Manichees, he was a valuable friend for the new arrival, a friend who could aid him, not only with his purse, but with advice. Without much capacity for theorizing, this Alypius was a practical spirit, a straight and essentially honest soul, whose influence was excellent for his impetuous friend. Of very chaste habits, he urged Augustin to restraint. And even in abstract studies, the religious controversies which Augustin dragged him into, his strong good sense moderated the imaginative dashes, the overmuch subtilty which sometimes led the other beyond healthy reason.

Unhappily they were both very busy -- the judge and the rhetorician -- and although their friendship became still greater during this stay in Rome, they were not able to see each other as much as they desired. Their pleasures, too, were perhaps not the same. Augustin did not in the least care about being chaste, and Alypius had a passion for the amphitheatre -- a passion which his friend disapproved of. Some time earlier, at Carthage, Augustin had filled him with disgust of the circus. But hardly was Alypius arrived in Rome, than he became mad about the gladiatorial shows. Some fellow-students took him to the amphitheatre, almost by force. Thereupon, he said that he would stay, since they had dragged him there; but he bet that he would keep his eyes shut all through the fight, and that nothing could make him open them. He sat down on the benches with those who had brought him, his eyelids pressed down, refusing to look. Suddenly there was a roar of shouting, the shout of the crowd hailing the fall of the first wounded. His lids parted of themselves; he saw the flow of blood. |At the sight of the blood| says Augustin, |he drank in ruthlessness; no longer did he turn away, but fixed his gaze, and he became mad -- and he knew no more.... He was fascinated by the criminal atrocity of this battle, and drunk with the pleasure of blood.|

These breathless phrases of the Confessions seem to throb still with the wild frenzy of the crowd. They convey to us directly the kind of Sadic excitement which people went to find about the arena. Really, a wholesome sight for future Christians, for all the souls that the brutality of pagan customs revolted! The very year that Augustin was at Rome, certain prisoners of war, Sarmatian soldiers, condemned to kill each other in the amphitheatre, chose suicide rather than this shameful death. There was in this something to make him reflect -- him and his friends. The fundamental injustices whereon the ancient world rested -- the crushing of the slave and the conquered, the contempt for human life -- these things they touched with the finger when they looked on at the butcheries in the amphitheatre. All those whose hearts sickened with disgust and horror before these slaughter-house scenes, all those who longed for a little more mildness, a little more justice, were all recruits marked out for the peaceful army of the Christ.

For Alypius, especially, it was not a bad thing to have known this blood-drunkenness at first hand: he shall be only the more ashamed when he falls at the feet of the merciful God. Equally useful was it for him to have personal experience of the harshness of men's justice; and in the fulfilment of his duties as a judge to observe its errors and flaws. While he was a student at Carthage he just escaped being condemned to death upon a false accusation of theft -- the theft of a piece of lead! Already they were dragging him, if not to the place of capital punishment, at least to prison, when a chance meeting with a friend of his who was a senator saved him from the threatening mob. At Rome, while Assessor to the Count of the Italian Bounty Office, he had to resist an attempt to bribe him, and by doing so risked losing his appointment, and, no doubt, something worse too. Official venality and dishonesty were evils so deeply rooted, that he himself nearly succumbed. He wanted some books copied, and he had the temptation to get this done at the charge of the Treasury. This peculation had, in his eyes, a good enough excuse, and it was certain to go undetected. Nevertheless, when he thought it over he changed his mind, and virtuously refrained from giving himself a library at the expense of the State.

Augustin, who relates these anecdotes, draws the same moral from them as we do, to wit -- that for a man who was going to be a bishop and, as such, administrator and judge, this time spent in the Government service was a good preparatory school. Most of the other great leaders of this generation of Christians had also been officials; before ordination, they had been mixed up in business and politics, and had lived freely the life of their century. So it was with St. Ambrose, with St. Paulinus of Nola, with Augustin himself, and Evodius and Alypius, his friends.

And yet, however absorbed in their work the two Africans might be, it is pretty near certain that intellectual questions took the lead of all others. This is manifest in Augustin's case at least. He must have astonished the good Alypius when he got to Rome by acknowledging that he hardly believed in Manicheeism any longer. And he set forth his doubts about their masters' cosmogony and physical science, his suspicions touching the hidden immorality of the sect. As for himself, the controversies, which were the Manichees' strong point, did not dazzle him any longer. At Carthage, but lately, he had heard a Catholic, a certain Helpidius, oppose to them arguments from Scripture, which they were unable to refute. To make matters worse, the Manichee Bishop of Rome made a bad impression on him from the very outset. This man, he tells us, was of rough appearance, without culture or polite manners. Doubtless this unmannerly peasant, in his reception of the young professor, had not shewn himself sufficiently alive to his merits, and the professor felt aggrieved.

From then, his keen dialectic and his satirical spirit (Augustin had formidable powers of ridicule all through his life) were exercised upon the backs of his fellow-religionists. Provisionally, he had admitted as indisputable the basic principles of Manicheeism: first of all, the primordial antagonism of the two substances, the God of Light and the God of Darkness; then, this other dogma, that particles of that Divine Light, which had been carried away in a temporary victory of the army of Darkness, were immersed in certain plants and liquors. Hence, the distinction they made between clean and unclean food. All those foods were pure which contained some part of the Divine Light; impure, those which did not. The purity of food became evident by certain qualities of taste, smell, and appearance. But now Augustin found a good deal of arbitrariness in these distinctions, and a good deal of simplicity in the belief that the Divine Light dwelt in a vegetable. |Are they not ashamed,| he said, |to search God with their palates or with their nose? And if His presence is revealed by a special brilliancy, by the goodness of the taste or the smell, why allow that dish and condemn this, which is of equal savour, light, and perfume?

|Yea, why do they look upon the golden melon as come out of God's treasure-house, and yet will have none of the golden fat of the ham or the yellow of an egg? Why does the whiteness of lettuce proclaim to them the Divinity, and the whiteness of cream nothing at all? And why this horror of meat? For, look you, roast sucking-pig offers us a brilliant colour, an agreeable smell, and an appetizing taste -- sure signs, according to them, of the Divine Presence.|... Once started on this topic, Augustin's vivacity has no limits. He even drops into jokes which would offend modern shamefacedness by their Aristophanic breadth.

These arguments, to say the truth, did not shake the foundations of the doctrine, and if a doctrine must be judged according to its works, the Manichees might entrench themselves behind their rigid moral rules, and their conduct. Contrary to the more accommodating Catholicism, they paraded a puritan intolerance. But Augustin had found out at Carthage that this austerity was for the most part hypocrisy. At Rome he was thoroughly enlightened.

The Elect of the religion made a great impression by their fasts and their abstinence from meat. Now it became clear that these devout personages, under pious pretexts, literally destroyed themselves by over-eating and indigestion. They held, in fact, that the chief work of piety consisted in setting free particles of the Divine Light, imprisoned in matter by the wiles of the God of Darkness. They being the Pure, they purified matter by absorbing it into their bodies. The faithful brought them stores of fruit and vegetables, served them with real feasts, so that by eating these things they might liberate a little of the Divine Substance. Of course, they abstained from all flesh, flesh being the dwelling-place of the Dark God, and also from fermented wine, which they called |the devil's gall.| But how they made up for it over the rest! Augustin makes great fun of these people who would think it a sin if they took as a full meal a small bit of bacon and cabbage, with two or three mouthfuls of undiluted wine, and yet ordered to be served up, from three o'clock in the afternoon, all kinds of fruit and vegetables, the most exquisite too, rendered piquant by spices, the Manichees holding that spices were very full of fiery and luminous principles. Then, their palates titillating from pepper, they swallowed large draughts of mulled wine or wine and honey, and the juice of oranges, lemons, and grapes. And these junketings began over again at nightfall. They had a preference for certain cakes, and especially for truffles and mushrooms -- vegetables more particularly mystic.

Such a diet put human gluttony to a heavy test. Many a scandal came to light in the Roman community. The Elect made themselves sick by devouring the prodigious quantity of good cheer brought to them with a view to purification. As it was a sacrilege to let any be lost, the unhappy people forced themselves to get down the lot. There were even victims: children, gorged with delicacies, died of stuffing. For children, being innocent things, were deemed to have quite special purifying virtues.

Augustin was beginning to get indignant at all this nonsense. Still, except for these extravagances, he continued to believe in the asceticism of the Elect -- asceticism of such severity that the main part of the faithful found it impossible to practise. And see! just at this moment, whom should he discover very strange things about but Bishop Faustus, that Faustus whom he had looked for at Carthage as a Messiah. The holy man, while he preached renunciation, granted himself a good many indulgences: he lay, for one thing, on feathers, or upon soft goatskin rugs. And these puritans were not even honest. The Manichee Bishop of Rome, that man of rough manners who had so offended Augustin, was on the point of being convicted of stealing the general cash-box. Lastly, there were rumours in the air, accusing the Elect of giving themselves over to reprehensible practices in their private meetings. They condemned marriage and child-bearing as works of the devil, but they authorized fornication, and even, it is said, certain acts against nature. That, for Augustin, was the final disillusion.

In spite of it, he did not separate openly from the sect. He kept his rank of auditor in the Manichee Church. What held him to it, were some plausible considerations on the intellectual side. Manicheeism, with its distinction of two Principles, accounted conveniently for the problem of evil and human responsibility. Neither God nor man was answerable for sin and pain, since it was the other, the Dark Principle, who distributed them through the world among men. Augustin, who continued to sin, continued likewise to be very comfortable with such a system of morals and metaphysics. Besides, he was not one of those convinced, downright minds who feel the need to quarrel noisily with what they take to be error. No one has opposed heresies more powerfully, and with a more tireless patience, than he has. But he always put some consideration into the business. He knew by experience how easy it is to fall into error, and he said this charitably to those whom he wished to persuade. There was nothing about him like St. Jerome.

Personal reasons, moreover, obliged him not to break with his fellow-religionists who had supported him, nursed him even, on his arrival at Rome, and who, as we shall see in a moment, might still do him services. Augustin was not, like his friend Alypius, a practical mind, but he had tact, and in spite of all the impulsiveness and mettle of his nature, a certain suppleness which enabled him to manoeuvre without too many collisions in the midst of the most embarrassing conjunctures. Through instinctive prudence he prolonged his indecision. Little by little, he who had formerly flung himself so enthusiastically in pursuit of Truth, glided into scepticism -- the scepticism of the Academics in its usual form.

And at the same time that he lost his taste for speculative thinking, new annoyances in his profession put the finishing touch on his discouragement. If the Roman students were less noisy than those of Carthage, they had a deplorable habit of walking off and leaving their masters unpaid. Augustin was ere long victimized in this way: he lost his time and his words. As at Carthage, so at Rome, he had to face the fact that he could not live by his profession. What was he to do? Would he have to go back home? He had fallen into despair, when an unforeseen chance turned up for him.

The town council of Milan threw open a professorship of Rhetoric to public competition. It would be salvation for him if he could get appointed. For a long time he had wanted a post in the State education. In receipt of a fixed salary, he would no longer have to worry about beating up a class, or to guard against the dishonesty of his pupils. He put his name down immediately among the candidates. But no more in those days than in ours was simple merit by itself enough. It was necessary to pull strings. His friends the Manichees undertook to do this for him. They urged his claims warmly on the Prefect Symmachus, who doubtless presided at the competitive trials. By an amusing irony of fate, Augustin owed his place to people he was getting ready to separate from, whom even he was soon going to attack, and also to a man who was in a way the official enemy of Christianity. The pagan Symmachus appointing to an important post a future Catholic bishop -- there is matter for surprise in that! But Symmachus, who had been Proconsul at Carthage, protected the Africans in Rome. Furthermore, it is likely that the Manichees represented their candidate to him as a man hostile to Catholics. Now in this year, A.D.384, the Prefect had just begun an open struggle with the Catholics. He believed, therefore, that he made a good choice in appointing Augustin.

So a chain of events, with which his will had hardly anything to do, was going to draw the young rhetorician to Milan -- yes, and how much farther! -- to where he did not want to go, to where the prayers of Monnica summoned him unceasingly: |Where I am, there shall you be also.| When he was leaving Rome, he did not much expect that. What he chiefly thought of was that he had at last won an independent financial position, and that he was become an official of some importance. He had a flattering evidence of this at once: It was at the expense of the city of Milan and in the Imperial carriages that he travelled through Italy to take up his new post.

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