Confessions, I, i.
Saint Augustin is now little more than a celebrated name. Outside of learned or theological circles people no longer read him. Such is true renown: we admire the saints, as we do great men, on trust. Even his Confessions are generally spoken of only from hearsay. By this neglect, is he atoning for the renewal of glory in which he shone during the seventeenth century, when the Jansenists, in their inveterate obstinacy, identified him with the defence of their cause? The reputation of sour austerity and of argumentative and tiresome prolixity which attaches to the remembrance of all the writers of Port-Royal, save Pascal -- has that affected too the work of Augustin, enlisted in spite of himself in the ranks of these pious schismatics? And yet, if there have ever been any beings who do not resemble Augustin, and whom probably he would have attacked with all his eloquence and all the force of his dialectic, they are the Jansenists. Doubtless he would have said with contempt: "The party of Jansen," even as in his own day, with his devotion to Catholic unity, he said: "The party of Donatus."
It must be acknowledged also that the very sight of his works is terrifying, whether we take the enormous folios in two columns of the Benedictine edition, or the volumes, almost as compact, and much more numerous, of recent editions. Behind such a rampart of printed matter he is well defended against profane curiosity. It needs courage and perseverance to penetrate into this labyrinth of text, all bristling with theology and exegesis and metaphysics. But only cross the threshold of the repellent enclosure, grow used to the order and shape of the building, and it will not be long ere you are overcome by a warm sympathy, and then by a steadily increasing admiration for the host who dwells there. The hieratic face of the old bishop lights up, becomes strangely living, almost modern, in expression. You discover under the text one of the most passionate lives, most busy and richest in instruction, that history has to shew. What it teaches is applicable to ourselves, answers to our interests of yesterday and to-day. This existence, and the century in which it was passed, recall our own century and ourselves. The return of similar circumstances has brought similar situations and characters; it is almost our portrait. And we feel half ready to conclude that at the present moment there is no subject more actual than St. Augustin.
At least he is one of the most interesting. What, indeed, is more romantic than this wandering life of rhetorician and student that the youthful Augustin led, from Thagaste to Carthage, from Carthage to Milan and to Rome -- begun in the pleasures and tumult of great cities, and ending in the penitence, the silence, and recollection of a monastery? And again, what drama is more full of colour and more profitable to consider than that last agony of the Empire, of which Augustin was a spectator, and, with all his heart faithful to Rome, would have prevented if he could? And then, what tragedy more stirring and painful than the crisis of soul and conscience which tore his life? Well may it be said that, regarded as a whole, the life of Augustin was but a continual spiritual struggle, a battle of the soul. It is the battle of every moment, the never-ceasing combat of body and spirit, which the poets of that time dramatized, and which is the history of the Christian of all times. The stake of the battle is a soul. The upshot is the final triumph, the redemption of a soul.
What makes the life of Augustin so complete and so truly typical is that he fought the good fight, not only against himself, but against all the enemies of the Church and the Empire. If he was a doctor and a saint, so was he too the type of the man of action in one of the most disheartened periods. That he triumphed over his passions -- this, in truth, concerns only God and himself. That he preached, wrote, shook crowds, disturbed minds, may seem without importance to those who reject his doctrine. But that across the centuries his soul, afire with charity, continues to warm our own; that without our knowledge he still shapes us; and that, in a way more or less remote, he is still the master of our hearts, and, in certain aspects, of our minds -- there is what touches each and all of us, without distinction. Not only has Augustin always his great place in the living communion of all christened people, but the Western soul is marked with the stamp of his soul.
First of all, his fate is confused with that of the dying Empire. He witnessed, if not the utter disappearance, at least the gradual swooning away of that admirable thing called the Roman Empire, image of Catholic unity. Well, we are the wreckage of the Empire. Usually, we turn away with contempt from those wretched centuries which underwent the descents of the Barbarians. For us, that is the Lower-Empire, a time of shameful decadence which deserves nothing but our scorn. However, it is out of this chaos and this degradation that we have arisen. The wars of the Roman republic concern us less than the outlawry of the Barbarian chiefs who separated our Gaul from the Empire, and without knowing it, prepared the dawn of France. After all, what are the rivalries of Marius and Sylla to us? The victory of Aetius over the Huns in the plains of Chalons concerns us a good deal more. Further, it is unfair to the Lower-Empire to view it only as a time of feebleness and cowardice and corruption. It was also an epoch of immense activity, prolific of daring and high-flying adventurers, some of them heroic. Even the most degenerate of the last Emperors never lost the conviction of Roman majesty and grandeur. Unto the very end, they employed all the ruses of their diplomacy to prevent the Barbarian chiefs from imagining themselves anything else but vassals of the Empire. Honorius, at bay in Ravenna, persisted in refusing Alaric the title of commander of the Cohortes Urbanae, even though his refusal were to lead to the sack of Rome and imperil his own life.
Simply by his fidelity to the Empire, Augustin shews himself one like ourselves -- a Latin of Occitania. But still closer resemblances draw him near to us. His time was very like our own time. Upon even a slight familiarity with his books we recognize in him a brother-soul who has suffered, felt, thought, pretty nearly like us. He came into an ending world, on the eve of the great cataclysm which was going to carry away an entire civilization -- a tragic turning-point of history, a time troubled and often very grievous, which was hard to live in for all, and to even the most determined minds must have appeared desperate. The peace of the Church was not yet settled; consciences were divided. People hesitated between the belief of yesterday and the belief of to-morrow. Augustin was among those who had the courage to choose, and who, having once chosen their faith, proclaimed it without weakening. The belief of a thousand years was dying out, quenched by a young belief to which was promised an eternal duration. How many delicate souls must have suffered from this division, which cut them off from their traditions and obliged them, as they thought, to be false to their dead along with the religion of their ancestors! All the irritations which the fanatics of to-day inflict upon believing souls, many must have had to suffer then. The sceptics were infused by the intolerance of the others. But the worst (even as it is to-day) was to watch the torrent of foolishness which, under cover of religion, philosophy, or miracle-working, pretended to the conquest of mind and will. Amid this mass of wildest doctrines and heresies, in this orgy of vapid intellectualism, they had indeed solid heads who were able to resist the general intoxication. And among all these people talking nonsense, Augustin appears admirable with his good sense.
This "intellectual," this mystic, was not only a man of prayer and meditation. The prudence of the man of action and the administrator balanced his outbursts of dialectical subtility, often carried too far. He had that sense of realities such as we flatter ourselves that we have; he had a knowledge of life and passion. Compared to the experience of, say, Bossuet, how much wider was Augustin's! And with all that, a quivering sensitiveness which is again like our own -- the sensitiveness of times of intense culture, wherein the abuse of thought has multiplied the ways of suffering in exasperating the desire for pleasure. "The soul of antiquity was rude and vain." It was, above all, limited. The soul of Augustin is tender and serious, eager for certainties and those enjoyments which do not betray. It is vast and sonorous; let it be stirred ever so little, and from it go forth deep vibrations which render the sound of the infinite. Augustin, before his conversion, had the apprehensions of our Romantics, the causeless melancholy and sadness, the immense yearnings for "anywhere but here," which overwhelmed our fathers. He is really very close to us.
He has broadened our Latin souls by reconciling us with the Barbarian. The Latin, like the Greek, only understood himself. The Barbarian had not the right to express himself in the language of the Empire. The world was split into two parts which endeavoured to ignore each other, Augustin has made us conscious of the nameless regions, the vague countries of the soul, which hitherto had lain shrouded in the darkness of barbarism. By him the union of the Semitic and the Occidental genius is consummated. He has acted as our interpreter for the Bible. The harsh Hebraic words become soft to our ears by their passage through the cultivated mouth of the rhetorician. He has subjugated us with the word of God. He is a Latin who speaks to us of Jehovah.
Others, no doubt, had done it before him. But none had found a similar emotion, a note of tenderness so moving. The gentle violence of his charity wins the adherence of hearts. He breathes only charity. After St. John, it is he who is the Apostle of Love.
His tireless voice dominated the whole of the West. The Middle Ages still heard it. For centuries his sermons and treatises were copied over and over again; they were repeated in cathedrals, commented in abstracts of theology. People came to accept even his theory of the fine arts. All that we have inherited from the ancients reaches us through Augustin. He is the great teacher. In his hands the doctrinal demonstration of the Catholic religion takes firm shape. To indicate the three great stages of the onward march of the truth, one may say: Jesus Christ, St. Paul, St. Augustin. Nearest to our weakness is the last. He is truly our spiritual father. He has taught us the language of prayer. The words of Augustin's prayers are still upon the lips of the devout.
This universal genius, who during forty years was the speaking-trumpet of Christendom, was also the man of one special century and country. Augustin of Thagaste is the great African.
Well may we be proud of him and adopt him as one of our glories -- we who have kept up, for now almost a century, a struggle like to that which he maintained for the unity of the Roman Empire, we who consider Africa as an extension of France. More than any other writer, he has expressed the temperament and the genius of his country. This motley Africa, with its eternal mixture of races at odds with one another, its jealous sectarianism, the variety of its scenery and climate, the violence of its sensations and passions, its seriousness of character and its quick-changing humour, its mind at once practical and frivolous, its materialism and its mysticism, its austerity and its luxury, its resignation to servitude and its instincts of independence, its hunger to rule -- all that comes out with singularly vivid touches in the work of Augustin. Not only was he his country's voice, but, as far as he could, he realized its old dream of dominion. The supremacy in spiritual matters that Carthage disputed so long and bitterly with Rome, it ended by obtaining, thanks to Augustin. As long as he lived, the African Church was the mistress of the Churches of the West.
As for me -- if I may venture to refer to myself in such a matter -- I have had the joy to recognize in him, besides the Saint and Teacher whom I revere, the ideal type of the Latin of Africa. The image of which I descried the outline long ago through the mirages of the South in following the waggons of my rugged heroes, I have seen at last become definite, grow clear, wax noble and increase to the very heaven, in following the traces of Augustin.
And even supposing that the life of this child of Thagaste, the son of Monnica, were not intermingled so deeply with ours, though he were for us only a foreigner born in a far-off land, nevertheless he would still remain one of the most fascinating and luminous souls who have shone amid our darkness and warmed our sadness -- one of the most human and most divine creatures who have trod our highways.