The Confessions of Saint Augustine

[This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]

My copy of the Confessions is a dark little book, “a size uncumbersome to the nicest hand,” in the format of an Elzevir, bound in black morocco, and adorned with “blind-tooled,” that is ungilt, skulls and crossbones.  It has lost the title-page with the date, but retains the frontispiece, engraved by Huret.  Saint Augustine, in his mitre and other episcopal array, with a quill in his hand, sits under a flood of inspiring sunshine.  The dumpy book has been much read, was at some time the property of Mr. John Philips, and bears one touching manuscript note, of which more hereafter.  It is, I presume, a copy of the translation by Sir Toby Matthew.  The author of the Preface declares, with truth, that the translator “hath consulted so closely and earnestly with the saint that he seemeth to have lighted his torch att his fire, and to speak in the best and most significant English, what and how he would have done had he understood our language.”

There can be no better English version of this famous book, in which Saint Augustine tells the story of his eager and passionate youth—a youth tossed about by the contending tides of Love, human and divine.  Reading it to-day, with a mundane curiosity, we may half regret the space which he gives to theological metaphysics, and his brief tantalising glimpses of what most interests us now—the common life of men when the Church was becoming mistress of the world, when the old Religions were dying of allegory and moral interpretations and occult dreams.  But, even so, Saint Augustine’s interest in himself, in the very obscure origins of each human existence, in the psychology of infancy and youth, in school disputes, and magical pretensions; his ardent affections, his exultations, and his faults, make his memoirs immortal among the unveilings of the spirit.  He has studied babies, that he may know his dark beginnings, and the seeds of grace and of evil.  “Then, by degrees, I began to find where I was; and I had certain desires to declare my will to those by whom it might be executed.  But I could not do it, . . . therefore would I be tossing my arms, and sending out certain cryes, . . . and when they obeyed me not . . . I would fall into a rage, and that not against such as were my subjects or servants, but against my Elders and my betters, and I would revenge myself upon them by crying.”  He has observed that infants “begin to laugh, first sleeping, and then shortly waking;” a curious note, but he does not ask wherefore the sense of humour, or the expression of it, comes to children first in their slumber.  Of what do babies dream?  And what do the nested swallows chirrup to each other in their sleep?

“Such have I understood that such infants are as I could know, and such have I been told that I was by them who brought me up, though even they may rather be accounted not to know, than to know these things.”  One thing he knows, “that even infancy is subject to sin.”  From the womb we are touched with evil.  “Myselfe have seene and observed some little child, who could not speake; and yet he was all in an envious kind of wrath, looking pale with a bitter countenance upon his foster-brother.”  In an envious kind of wrath!  Is it not the motive of half our politics, and too much of our criticism?  Such is man’s inborn nature, not to be cured by laws or reforms, not to be washed out of his veins, though “blood be shed like rain, and tears like a mist.”  For “an infant cannot endure a companion to feed with him in a fountain of milk which is richly abounding and overflowing, although that companion be wholly destitute, and can take no other food but that.”  This is the Original Sin, inherited, innate, unacquired; for this are “babes span-long” to suffer, as the famous or infamous preacher declared.  “Where, or at what time, was I ever innocent?” he cries, and hears no answer from “the dark backward and abysm” of the pre-natal life.

Then the Saint describes a child’s learning to speak; how he amasses verbal tokens of things, “having tamed, and, as it were, broken my mouth to the pronouncing of them.”  “And so I began to launch out more deeply into the tempestuous traffique and society of mankind.”  Tempestuous enough he found or made it—this child of a Pagan father and a Christian saint, Monica, the saint of Motherhood.  The past generations had “chalked out certain laborious ways of learning,” and, perhaps, Saint Augustine never forgave the flogging pedagogue—the plagosus Orbilius of his boyhood.  Long before his day he had found out that the sorrows of children, and their joys, are no less serious than the sorrows of mature age.  “Is there, Lord, any man of so great a mind that he can think lightly of those racks, and hooks, and other torments, for the avoiding whereof men pray unto Thee with great fear from one end of the world to the other, as that he can make sport at such as doe most sharply inflict these things upon them, as our parents laughed at the torments which we children susteyned at our master’s hands?”  Can we suppose that Monica laughed, or was it only the heathen father who approved of “roughing it?”  “Being yet a childe, I began to beg Thy ayde and succour; and I did loosen the knots of my tongue in praying Thee; and I begged, being yet a little one, with no little devotion, that I might not be beaten at the schoole.”  One is reminded of Tom Tulliver, who gave up even praying that he might learn one part of his work: “Please make Mr. --- say that I am not to do mathematics.”

The Saint admits that he lacked neither memory nor wit, “but he took delight in playing.”  “The plays and toys of men are called business, yet, when children fall unto them, the same men punish them.”  Yet the schoolmaster was “more fed upon by rage,” if beaten in any little question of learning, than the boy; “if in any match at Ball I had been maistered by one of my playfellows.”  He “aspired proudly to be victorious in the matches which he made,” and I seriously regret to say that he would buy a match, and pay his opponent to lose when he could not win fairly.  He liked romances also, “to have myne eares scratched with lying fables”—a “lazy, idle boy,” like him who dallied with Rebecca and Rowena in the holidays of Charter House.

Saint Augustine, like Sir Walter Scott at the University of Edinburgh, was “The Greek Dunce.”  Both of these great men, to their sorrow and loss, absolutely and totally declined to learn Greek.  “But what the reason was why I hated the Greeke language, while I was taught it, being a child, I do not yet understand.”  The Saint was far from being alone in that distaste, and he who writes loathed Greek like poison—till he came to Homer.  Latin the Saint loved, except “when reading, writing, and casting of accounts was taught in Latin, which I held not for lesse paynefull or penal than the very Greeke.  I wept for Dido’s death, who made herselfe away with the sword,” he declares, “and even so, the saying that two and two makes foure was an ungrateful song in mine ears; whereas the wooden horse full of armed men, the burning of Troy, and the very Ghost of Creusa, was a most delightful spectacle of vanity.”

In short, the Saint was a regular Boy—a high-spirited, clever, sportive, and wilful creature.  He was as fond as most boys of the mythical tales, “and for that I was accounted to be a towardly boy.”  Meanwhile he does not record that Monica disliked his learning the foolish dear old heathen fables—“that flood of hell!”

Boyhood gave place to youth, and, allowing for the vanity of self-accusation, there can be little doubt that the youth of Saint Augustine was une jeunesse orageuse.  “And what was that wherein I took delight but to love and to be beloved.”  There was ever much sentiment and affection in his amours, but his soul “could not distinguish the beauty of chast love from the muddy darkness of lust.  Streams of them did confusedly boyl in me”—in his African veins.  “With a restless kind of weariness” he pursued that Other Self of the Platonic dream, neglecting the Love of God:

“Oh, how late art thou come, O my Joy!”

The course of his education—for the Bar, as we should say—carried him from home to Carthage, where he rapidly forgot the pure counsels of his mother “as old wife’s consailes.”  “And we delighted in doing ill, not only for the pleasure of the fact, but even for the affection of prayse.”  Even Monica, it seems, justified the saying:

“Every woman is at heart a Rake.”

Marriage would have been his making, Saint Augustine says, “but she desired not even that so very much, lest the cloggs of a wife might have hindered her hopes of me . . . In the meantime the reins were loosed to me beyond reason.”  Yet the sin which he regrets most bitterly was nothing more dreadful than the robbery of an orchard!  Pears he had in plenty, none the less he went, with a band of roisterers, and pillaged another man’s pear tree.  “I loved the sin, not that which I obtained by the same, but I loved the sin itself.”  There lay the sting of it!  They were not even unusually excellent pears.  “A Peare tree ther was, neere our vineyard, heavy loaden with fruite, which tempted not greatly either the sight or tast.  To the shaking and robbing thereof, certaine most wicked youthes (whereof I was one) went late at night.  We carried away huge burthens of fruit from thence, not for our owne eating, but to be cast before the hoggs.”

Oh, moonlit night of Africa, and orchard by these wild seabanks where once Dido stood; oh, laughter of boys among the shaken leaves, and sound of falling fruit; how do you live alone out of so many nights that no man remembers?  For Carthage is destroyed, indeed, and forsaken of the sea, yet that one hour of summer is to be unforgotten while man has memory of the story of his past.

Nothing of this, to be sure, is in the mind of the Saint, but a long remorse for this great sin, which he earnestly analyses.  Nor is he so penitent but that he is clear-sighted, and finds the spring of his mis-doing in the Sense of Humour!  “It was a delight and laughter which tickled us, even at the very hart, to find that we were upon the point of deceiving them who feared no such thing from us, and who, if they had known it, would earnestly have procured the contrary.”

Saint Augustine admits that he lived with a fast set, as people say now—“the Depravers” or “Destroyers”; though he loved them little, “whose actions I ever did abhor, that is, their Destruction of others, amongst whom I yet lived with a kind of shameless bashfulness.”  In short, the “Hell-Fire Club” of that day numbered a reluctant Saint among its members!  It was no Christian gospel, but the Hortensius of Cicero which won him from this perilous society.  “It altered my affection, and made me address my prayers to Thee, O Lord, and gave me other desires and purposes than I had before.  All vain hopes did instantly grow base in myne eyes, and I did, with an incredible heat of hart, aspire towards the Immortality of Wisdom.”  Thus it was really “Saint Tully,” and not the mystic call of Tolle! Lege! that “converted” Augustine, diverting the current of his life into the channel of Righteousness.  “How was I kindled then, oh, my God, with a desire to fly from earthly things towards Thee.”

There now remained only the choice of a Road.  Saint Augustine dates his own conversion from the day of his turning to the strait Christian orthodoxy.  Even the Platonic writings, had he known Greek, would not have satisfied his desire.  “For where was that Charity that buildeth upon the foundation of Humility, which is Christ Jesus? . . . These pages” (of the Platonists) “carried not in them this countenance of piety—the tears of confession, and that sacrifice of Thine which is an afflicted spirit, a contrite and humbled heart, the salvation of Thy people, the Spouse, the City, the pledge of Thy Holy Spirit, the Cup of our Redemption.  No man doth there thus express himself.  Shall not my soul be subject to God, for of Him is my salvation?  For He is my God, and my salvation, my protectour; I shall never be moved.  No man doth there once call and say to him: ‘Come unto me all you that labour.’”

The heathen doctors had not the grace which Saint Augustine instinctively knew he lacked—the grace of Humility, nor the Comfort that is not from within but from without.  To these he aspired; let us follow him on the path by which he came within their influence; but let us not forget that the guide on the way to the City was kind, clever, wordy, vain old Marcus Tullius Cicero.  It is to the City that all our faces should be set, if we knew what belongs to our peace; thither we cast fond, hopeless, backward glances, even if we be of those whom Tertullian calls “Saint Satan’s Penitents.”  Here, in Augustine, we meet a man who found the path—one of the few who have found it, of the few who have won that Love which is our only rest.  It may be worth while to follow him to the journey’s end.

The treatise of Cicero, then, inflamed Augustine “to the loving and seeking and finding and holding and inseparably embracing of wisdom itself, wheresoever it was.”  Yet, when he looked for wisdom in the Christian Scriptures, all the literary man, the rhetorician in him, was repelled by the simplicity of the style.  Without going further than Mr. Pater’s book, “Marius, the Epicurean,” and his account of Apuleius, an English reader may learn what kind of style a learned African of that date found not too simple.  But Cicero, rather than Apuleius, was Augustine’s ideal; that verbose and sonorous eloquence captivated him, as it did the early scholars when learning revived.  Augustine had dallied a little with the sect of the Manichees, which appears to have grieved his mother more than his wild life.

But she was comforted by a vision, when she found herself in a wood, and met “a glorious young man,” who informed her that “where she was there should her son be also.”  Curious it is to think that this very semblance of a glorious young man haunts the magical dreams of heathen Red Indians, advising them where they shall find game, and was beheld in such ecstasies by John Tanner, a white man who lived with the Indians, and adopted their religion.  The Greeks would have called this appearance Hermes, even in this guise Odysseus met him in the oak wood of Circe’s Isle.  But Augustine was not yet in his mother’s faith; he still taught and studied rhetoric, contending for its prizes, but declining to be aided by a certain wizard of his acquaintance.  He had entered as a competitor for a “Tragicall poeme,” but was too sportsmanlike to seek victory by art necromantic.  Yet he followed after Astrologers, because they used no sacrifices, and did not pretend to consult spirits.  Even the derision of his dear friend Nebridius could not then move him from those absurd speculations.  His friend died, and “his whole heart was darkened;” “mine eyes would be looking for him in all places, but they found him not, and I hated all things because they told me no news of him.”  He fell into an extreme weariness of life, and no less fear of death.  He lived but by halves; having lost dimidium animae suae, and yet dreaded death, “Lest he might chance to have wholy dyed whome I extremely loved.”  So he returned to Carthage for change, and sought pleasure in other friendships; but “Blessed is the man that loves Thee and his friend in Thee and his enemy for Thee.  For he only never loseth a dear friend to whom all men are dear, for His sake, who is never lost.”

Here, on the margin of the old book, beside these thoughts, so beautiful if so helpless, like all words, to console, some reader long dead has written:—

“Pray for your poor servant, J. M.”

And again,

“Pray for your poor friend.”

Doubtless, some Catholic reader, himself bereaved, is imploring the prayers of a dear friend dead; and sure we need their petitions more than they need ours, who have left this world of temptation, and are at peace.

After this loss Saint Augustine went to Rome, his ambition urging him, perhaps, but more his disgust with the violent and riotous life of students in Carthage.  To leave his mother was difficult, but “I lyed to my mother, yea, such a mother, and so escaped from her.”  And now he had a dangerous sickness, and afterwards betook himself to converse with the orthodox, for example at Milan with Saint Ambrose.  In Milan his mother would willingly have continued in the African ritual—a Pagan survival—carrying wine and food to the graves of the dead; but this Saint Ambrose forbade, and she obeyed him for him “she did extremely affect for the regard of my spirituall good.”

From Milan his friend Alipius preceded him to Rome, and there “was damnably delighted” with the gladiatorial combats, being “made drunk with a delight in blood.”  Augustine followed him to Rome, and there lost the girl of his heart, “so that my heart was wounded, as that the very blood did follow.”  The lady had made a vow of eternal chastity, “having left me with a son by her.”  But he fell to a new love as the old one was departed, and yet the ancient wound pained him still “after a more desperate and dogged manner.”

Haeret letalis arundo!

By these passions his conversion was delayed, the carnal and spiritual wills fighting against each other within him.  “Give me chastity and continency, O Lord,” he would pray, “but do not give it yet,” and perhaps this is the frankest of the confessions of Saint Augustine.  In the midst of this war of the spirit and the flesh, “Behold I heard a voyce, as if it had been of some boy or girl from some house not farre off, uttering and often repeating these words in a kind of singing voice,

Tolle, Lege; Tolle, Lege,
Take up and read, take up and read.”

So he took up a Testament, and, opening it at random, after the manner of his Virgilian lots, read:—

“Not in surfeiting and wantonness, not in causality and uncleanness,” with what follows.  “Neither would I read any further, neither was there any cause why I should.”  Saint Augustine does not, perhaps, mean us to understand (as his translator does), that he was “miraculously called.”  He knew what was right perfectly well before; the text only clinched a resolve which he has found it very hard to make.  Perhaps there was a trifle of superstition in the matter.  We never know how superstitious we are.  At all events, henceforth “I neither desired a wife, nor had I any ambitious care of any worldly thing.”  He told his mother, and Monica rejoiced, believing that now her prayers were answered.

Such is the story of the conversion of Saint Augustine.  It was the maturing of an old purpose, and long deferred.  Much stranger stories are told of Bunyan and Colonel Gardiner.  He gave up rhetoric; another man was engaged “to sell words” to the students of Milan.  Being now converted, the Saint becomes less interesting, except for his account of his mother’s death, and of that ecstatic converse they held “she and I alone, leaning against a window, which had a prospect upon the garden of our lodging at Ostia.”  They

“Came on that which is, and heard
The vast pulsations of the world.”

“And whilest we thus spake, and panted towards the divine, we grew able to take a little taste thereof, with the whole strife of our hearts, and we sighed profoundly, and left there, confined, the very top and flower of our souls and spirits; and we returned to the noyse of language again, where words are begun and ended.”

Then Monica fell sick to death, and though she had ever wished to lie beside her husband in Africa, she said: “Lay this Body where you will.  Let not any care of it disquiet you; only this I entreat, that you will remember me at the altar of the Lord, wheresoever you be.”  “But upon the ninth day of her sickness, in the six-and-fiftieth year of her age, and the three-and-thirtieth of mine, that religious and pious soul was discharged from the prison of her body.”

The grief of Augustine was not less keen, it seems, than it had been at the death of his friend.  But he could remember how “she related with great dearness of affection, how she never heard any harsh or unkind word to be darted out of my mouth against her.”  And to this consolation was added who knows what of confidence and tenderness of certain hope, or a kind of deadness, perhaps, that may lighten the pain of a heart very often tried and inured to every pain.  For it is certain that “this green wound” was green and grievous for a briefer time than the agony of his earlier sorrows.  He himself, so earnest in analysing his own emotions, is perplexed by the short date of his tears, and his sharpest grief: “Let him read it who will, and interpret it as it pleaseth him.”

So, with the death of Monica, we may leave Saint Augustine.  The most human of books, the “Confessions,” now strays into theology.  Of all books that which it most oddly resembles, to my fancy at least, is the poems of Catullus.  The passion and the tender heart they have in common, and in common the war of flesh and spirit; the shameful inappeasable love of Lesbia, or of the worldly life; so delightful and dear to the poet and to the saint, so despised in other moods conquered and victorious again, among the battles of the war in our members.  The very words in which the Veronese and the Bishop of Hippo described the pleasure and gaiety of an early friendship are almost the same, and we feel that, born four hundred years later, the lover of Lesbia, the singer of Sirmio might actually have found peace in religion, and exchanged the earthly for the heavenly love.





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