Four men are called the Doctors of the Western Church: St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great. Of these the first three were contemporaries, while the fourth belonged to a later date. I shall, in this chapter, give some account of the life and times of the first three, reserving for a later chapter an account of the doctrines of St Augustine, who is, for us, the most important of the three.
Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine all flourished during the brief period between the victory of the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasion. All three were young during the reign of Julian the Apostate; Jerome lived ten years after the sack of Rome by the Goths under Alaric; Augustine lived till the irruption of the Vandals into Africa, and died while they were besieging Hippo, of which he was bishop. Immediately after their time, the masters of Italy, Spain, and Africa were not only barbarians, but Arian heretics. Civilization declined for centuries, and it was not until nearly a thousand years later that Christendom again produced men who were their equals in learning and culture. Throughout the dark ages and the medieval period, their authority was revered; they, more than any other men, fixed the mould into which the Church was shaped. Speaking broadly, St Ambrose determined the ecclesiastical conception of the relation of Church and State; St Jerome gave the Western Church its Latin Bible and a great part of the impetus to monasticism; while St Augustine fixed the theology of the Church until the Reformation, and, later, a great part of the doctrines of Luther and Calvin. Few men have surpassed these three in influence on the course of history. The independence of the Church in relation to the secular State, as successfully maintained by St Ambrose, was a new and revolutionary doctrine, which prevailed until the Reformation; when Hobbes combated it in the seventeenth century, it was against St Ambrose that he chiefly argued. St Augustine was in the forefront of theological controversy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestants and Jansenists being for him, and orthodox Catholics against him.
The capital of the Western Empire, at the end of the fourth century, was Milan, of which Ambrose was bishop. His duties brought him constantly into relations with the emperors, to whom he spoke habitually as an equal, sometimes as a superior. His dealings with the imperial court illustrate a general contrast characteristic of the times: while the State was feeble, incompetent, governed by unprincipled self-seekers, and totally without any policy beyond that of momentary expedients, the Church was vigorous, able, guided by men prepared to sacrifice everything personal in its interests, and with a policy so far-sighted that it brought victory for the next thousand years. It is true that these merits were offset by fanaticism and superstition, but without these no reforming movement could, at that time, have succeeded.
St Ambrose had every opportunity to seek success in the service of the State. His father, also named Ambrose, was a high official—prefect of the Gauls. The Saint was born, probably, at Treves, a frontier garrison town, where the Roman legions were stationed to keep the Germans at bay. At the age of thirteen he was taken to Rome, where he had a good education, including a thorough grounding in Greek. When he grew up he took to the law, in which he was very successful; and at the age of thirty he was made governor of Liguria and Æmilia. Nevertheless, four years later he turned his back on secular government, and by popular acclaim became bishop of Milan, in opposition to an Arian candidate. He gave all his worldly goods to the poor, and devoted the whole of the rest of his life to the service of the Church, sometimes at great personal risk. This choice was certaintly not dictated by worldly motives, but, if it had been, it would have been wise. In the State, even if he had become Emperor, he could at that time have found no such scope for his administrative statesmanship as he found in the discharge of his episcopal duties.
During the first nine years of Ambrose's episcopate, the Emperor of the West was Gratian, who was Catholic, virtuous, and careless. He was so devoted to the chase that he neglected the government, and in the end was assassinated. He was succeeded, throughout most of the Western Empire, by a usurper named Maximus; but in Italy the succession passed to Gratian's younger brother Valentinian II, who was still a boy. At first, the imperial power was exercised by his mother, Justina, widow of the Emperor Valentinian I; but as she was an Arian, conflicts between her and St Ambrose were inevitable.
All the three Saints with whom we are concerned in this chapter wrote innumerable letters, of which many are preserved; the consequence is that we know more about them than about any of the pagan philosophers, and more than about all but a few of the ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages. St Augustine wrote letters to all and sundry, mostly on doctrine or Church discipline; St Jerome's letters are mainly addressed to ladies, giving advice on how to preserve virginity; but St Ambrose's most important and interesting letters are to Emperors, telling them in what respects they have fallen short of their duty, or, on occasion, congratulating them on having performed it.
The first public question with which Ambrose had to deal was that of the altar and statue of Victory in Rome. Paganism lingered longer among the senatorial families of the capital than it did elsewhere; the official religion was in the hands of an aristocratic priesthood, and was bound up with the imperial pride of the conquerors of the world. The statue of Victory in the Senate House had been removed by Constantius, the son of Constantine, and restored by Julian the Apostate. The Emperor Gratian again removed the statue, whereupon a deputation of the Senate, headed by Symmachus, prefect of the City, asked for its renewed restoration.
Symmachus, who also played a part in the life of Augustine, was a distinguished member of a distinguished family—rich, aristocratic, cultivated, and pagan. He was banished from Rome by Gratian in 382 for his protest against the removal of the statue of Victory, but not for long, as he was prefect of the City in 384. He was the grandfather of the Symmachus who was the father-in-law of Boethius, and who was prominent in the reign of Theodoric.
The Christian senators objected, and by the help of Ambrose and the Pope (Damasus) their view was made to prevail with the Emperor. After the death of Gratian, Symmachus and the pagan senators petitioned the new Emperor, Valentinian II, in A.D. 384. In rebuttal of this renewed attempt, Ambrose wrote to the Emperor, setting forth the thesis that, as all Romans owed military service to their sovereign, so he (the Emperor) owed service to Almighty God.1 'Let no one,' he says, 'take advantage of your youth; if he be a heathen who demands this, it is not right that he should bind your mind with the bonds of his own superstition; but by his zeal he ought to teach and admonish you how to be zealous for the true faith, since he defends vain things with all the passion of truth.' To be compelled to swear at the altar of an idol, he says, is, to a Christian, persecution. 'If it were a civil cause the right of reply would be reserved for the opposing party; it is a religious cause, and I the bishop make a claim…. Certainly if anything else is decreed, we bishops cannot constantly suffer it and take no notice; you
indeed may come to the Church, but will find either no priest there, or one who will resist you.'2
The next epistle points out that the endowments of the Church serve purposes never served by the wealth of heathen temples. 'The possessions of the Church are the maintenance of the poor. Let them count up how many captives the temples have ransomed, what food they have contributed for the poor, to what exiles they have supplied the means of living.' This was a telling argument, and one which was quite justified by Christian practice.
St Ambrose won his point, but a subsequent usurper, Eugenius, who favoured the heathen, restored the altar and statue. It was only after the defeat of Eugenius by Theodosius in 394 that the question was finally decided in favour of the Christians.
The bishop was, at first, on very friendly terms with the imperial court, and was employed on a diplomatic mission to the usurper Maximus, who, it was feared, might invade Italy. But before long a grave matter of controversy arose. The Empress Justina, as an Arian, requested that one church in Milan might be ceded to the Arians, but Ambrose refused. The people sided with him, and thronged the basilica in great crowds. Gothic soldiers, who were Arians, were sent to take possession, but fraternized with the people. 'The Counts and Tribunes,' he says in a spirited letter to his sister,3 'came and urged me to cause the basilica to be quickly surrendered, saying that the Emperor was exercising his rights since everything was under his power. I answered that if he asked of me what was mine, that is, my land, my money, or whatever of this kind was my own, I would not refuse it, although all that I have belonged to the poor, but that those things which are God's are not subject to the imperial power. "If my patrimony is required, enter upon it; if my body, I will go at once. Do you wish to cast me into chains, or to give me to death? It will be a pleasure to me. I will not defend myself with throngs of people, nor will I cling to the altars and entreat for my life, but will more gladly be slain myself for the altars." I was indeed struck with horror when I learnt that armed men had been sent to take possession of the basilica, lest while the people were defending the basilica, there might be some slaughter which would tend to the injury of the whole city. I prayed that I might not survive the destruction of so great a city, or it might be of the whole of Italy.'
These fears were not exaggerated, as the Gothic soldiery were liable to break out into savagery, as they did twenty-five years later in the sack of Rome.
Ambrose's strength lay in the support of the people. He was accused of inciting them, but replied that 'it was in my power not to excite them, but in God's hands to quiet them'. None of the Arians, he says, dared to go forth, as
there was not one Arian among the citizens. He was formally commanded to surrender the basilica, and the soldiers were ordered to use violence if necessary. But in the end they refused to use violence, and the Emperor was compelled to give way. A great battle had been won in the contest for ecclesiastical independence; Ambrose had demonstrated that there were matters in which the State must yield to the Church, and had thereby established a new principle which retains its importance to the present day.
His next conflict was with the Emperor Theodosius. A synagogue had been burnt, and the Count of the East reported that this had been done at the instigation of the local bishop. The Emperor ordered that the actual incendiaries should be punished, and that the guilty bishop should rebuild the synagogue. St Ambrose neither admits nor denies the bishop's complicity, but is indignant that the Emperor should seem to side with Jews against Christians. Suppose the bishop refuses to obey? He will then have to become a martyr if he persists, or an apostate if he gives way. Suppose the Count decides to rebuild the synagogue himself at the expense of the Christians? In that case the Emperor will have an apostate Count, and Christian money will be taken to support unbelief. 'Shall, then, a place be made for the unbelief of the Jews out of the spoils of the Church, and shall the patrimony, which by the favour of Christ has been gained for Christians, be transferred to the treasuries of unbelievers?' He continues: 'But perhaps, the cause of discipline moves you, O Emperor. Which, then, is of greater importance, the show of discipline or the cause of religion? It is needful that judgment should yield to religion. Have you not heard, O Emperor, how, when Julian commanded that the Temple of Jerusalem should be restored, those who were clearing the rubbish were consumed by fire?'
It is clear that, in the Saint's opinion, the destruction of synagogues should not be punished in any way. This is an example of the manner in which, as soon as it acquired power, the Church began to stimulate anti-Semitism.
The next conflict between Emperor and Saint was more honourable to the latter. In A.D. 390, when Theodosius was in Milan, a mob in Thessalonica murdered the captain of the garrison. Theodosius, on receiving the news, was seized with ungovernable fury, and ordered an abominable revenge. When the people were assembled in the circus, the soldiers fell upon them, and massacred at least seven thousand of them in an indiscriminate slaughter. Hereupon Ambrose, who had endeavoured in advance to restrain the Emperor, but in vain, wrote him a letter full of splendid courage, on a purely moral issue, involving, for once, no question of theology or the power of the Church:
'There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it.'
David repeatedly sinned, and confessed his sin with penitence.4 Will Theodosius do likewise? Ambrose decides that 'I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.'
The Emperor repented, and, divested of the purple, did public penance in the cathedral of Milan. From that time until his death in 395, he had no friction with Ambrose.
Ambrose, while he was eminent as a statesman, was, in other respects, merely typical of his age. He wrote, like other ecclesiastical authors, a treatise in praise of virginity, and another deprecating the remarriage of widows. When he had decided on the site for his new cathedral, two skeletons (revealed in a vision, it was said) were conveniently discovered on the spot, were found to work miracles, and were declared by him to be those of two martyrs. Other miracles are related in his letters, with all the credulity characteristic of his times. He was inferior to Jerome as a scholar, and to Augustine as a philosopher. But as a statesman, who skilfully and courageously consolidated the power of the Church, he stands out as a man of the first rank.
Jerome is chiefly notable as the translator who produced the Vulgate, which remains to this day the official Catholic version of the Bible. Until his day the Western Church relied, as regards the Old Testament, chiefly on translations from the Septuagint, which, in important ways, differed from the Hebrew original. Christians, as we have seen, were given to maintaining that the Jews, since the rise of Christianity, had falsified the Hebrew text where it seemed to predict the Messiah. This was a view which sound scholarship showed to be untenable, and which Jerome firmly rejected. He accepted the help of rabbis, given secretly for fear of the Jews. In defending himself against Christian criticism he said: 'Let him who would challenge aught in this translation ask the Jews.' Because of his acceptance of the Hebrew text in the form which the Jews regarded as correct, his version had, at first, a largely hostile reception; but it won its way, partly because St Augustine on the whole supported it. It was a great achievement, involving considerable textual criticism.
Jerome was born in 345—five years after Ambrose—not far from Aquileia, at a town called Stridon, which was destroyed by the Goths in 377. His family were well-to-do, but not rich. In 363 he went to Rome, where he studied rhetoric and sinned. After travelling in Gaul, he settled in Aquileia,
and became an ascetic. The next five years he spent as a hermit in the Syrian wilderness. 'His life while in the desert was one of rigorous penance, of tears and groans alternating with spiritual ecstasy, and of temptations from haunting memories of Roman life; he lived in a cell or cavern; he earned his daily bread, and was clad in sackcloth.'5 After this period, he travelled to Constantinople, and lived in Rome for three years, where he became the friend and adviser of Pope Damasus, with whose encouragement he undertook his translation of the Bible.
St Jerome was a man of many quarrels. He quarrelled with St Augustine about the somewhat questionable behaviour of St Peter as related by St Paul in Galatians ii; he broke with his friend Rufinus over Origen; and he was so vehement against Pelagius that his monastery was attacked by a Pelagian mob. After the death of Damasus, he seems to have quarrelled with the new Pope; he had, while in Rome, become acquainted with various ladies who were both aristocratic and pious, some of whom he persuaded to adopt the ascetic life. The new Pope, in common with many other people in Rome, disliked this. For this reason among others, Jerome left Rome for Bethlehem, where he remained from 386 till his death in 420.
Among his distinguished female converts, two were especially notable: the widow Paula and her daughter Eustochium. Both these ladies accompanied him on his circuitous journey to Bethlehem. They were of the highest nobility, and one cannot but feel a flavour of snobbery in the Saint's attitude to them. When Paula died and was buried at Bethlehem, Jerome composed an epitaph for her tomb:
Within this tomb a child of Scipio lies,
A daughter of the far-famed Pauline house,
A scion of the Gracchi, of the stock
Of Agamemnon's self, illustrious:
Here rests the lady Paula, well-beloved
Of both her parents, with Eustochium
For daughter; she the first of Roman dames
Who hardship chose and Bethlehem for Christ.6
Some of Jerome's letters to Eustochium are curious. He gives her advice on the preservation of virginity, very detailed and frank; he explains the exact anatomical meaning of certain euphemisms in the Old Testament; and he employs a kind of erotic mysticism in praising the joys of conventual life. A nun is the Bride of Christ; this marriage is celebrated in the Song of Solomon.
In a long letter written at the time when she took the vows, he gives a remarkable message to her mother: 'Are you angry with her because she chooses to be a king's [Christ's] wife and not a soldier's? She has conferred on you a high privilege; you are now the mother-in-law of God.'7
To Eustochium herself, in the same letter (xxii), he says:
'Ever let the privacy of your chamber guard you; ever let the Bridegroom sport with you within. Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you. When sleep overtakes you He will come behind and put His hand through the hole of the door, and your heart shall be moved for Him; and you will awake and rise up and say: "I am sick of love." Then He will reply: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."'
In the same letter he relates how, after cutting himself off from relations and friends, 'and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed', he still could not bear to be parted from his library, and took it with him to the desert. 'And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero.' After days and nights of remorse, he would fall again, and read Plautus. After such indulgence, the style of the prophets seemed 'rude and repellent'. At last, during a fever, he dreamed that, at the Last Judgment, Christ asked him who he was, and he replied that he was a Christian. The answer came: 'Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.' Thereupon he was ordered to be scourged. At length Jerome, in his dream, cried out: 'Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.' This, he adds, 'was no sleep or idle dream'.8
After this, for some years, his letters contain few classical quotations. But after a certain time he lapses again into verses from Virgil, Horace, and even Ovid. They seem, however, to be from memory, particularly as some of them are repeated over and over again.
Jerome's letters express the feelings produced by the fall of the Roman Empire more vividly than any others known to me. In 396 he writes:9
'I shudder when I think of the catastrophes of our time. For twenty years and more the blood of Romans has been shed daily between Constantinople and the Julian Alps. Scythia, Thrace, Macedonia, Dacia, Thessaly, Achaia, Epirus, Dalmatia, the Pannonias—each and all of these have been sacked and pillaged and plundered by Goths and Sarmatians, Quadi and Alans, Huns
and Vandals and Marchmen…. The Roman world is falling: yet we hold up our heads instead of bowing them. What courage, think you, have the Corinthians now, or the Athenians or the Lacedaemonians or the Arcadians, or any of the Greeks over whom the barbarians bear sway? I have mentioned only a few cities, but these once the capitals of no mean States.'
He goes on to relate the ravages of the Huns in the East, and ends with the reflection: 'To treat such themes as they deserve, Thucydides and Sallust would be as good as dumb.'
Seventeen years later, three years after the sack of Rome, he writes:10
'The world sinks into ruin: yes! but shameful to say our sins still live and flourish. The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile. Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes; and yet we have our minds set on the desire of gain. We live as though we were going to die to-morrow; yet we build as though we were going to live always in this world. Our walls shine with gold, our ceilings also and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ dies before our doors naked and hungry in the person of His poor.'
This passage occurs incidentally in a letter to a friend who has decided to devote his daughter to perpetual virginity, and most of it is concerned with the rules to be observed in the education of girls so dedicated. It is strange that, with all Jerome's deep feeling about the fall of the ancient world, he thinks the preservation of virginity more important than victory over the Huns and Vandals and Goths. Never once do his thoughts turn to any possible measure of practical statesmanship; never once does he point out the evils of the fiscal system, or of reliance on an army composed of barbarians. The same is true of Ambrose and of Augustine; Ambrose, it is true, was a statesman, but only on behalf of the Church. It is no wonder that the Empire fell into ruin when all the best and most vigorous minds of the age were so completely remote from secular concerns. On the other hand, if ruin was inevitable, the Christian outlook was admirably fitted to give men fortitude, and to enable them to preserve their religious hopes when earthly hopes seemed vain. The expression of this point of view, in The City of God, was the supreme merit of St Augustine.
Of St Augustine I shall speak, in this chapter, only as a man; as a theologian and philosopher, I shall consider him in the next chapter.
He was born in 354, nine years after Jerome, and fourteen years after Ambrose; he was a native of Africa, where he passed much the greater part of his life. His mother was a Christian, but his father was not. After a period as a Manichæan, he became a Catholic, and was baptized by Ambrose in Milan.
He became bishop of Hippo, not far from Carthage, about the year 396. There he remained until his death in 430.
Of his early life we know much more than in the case of most ecclesiastics, because he has told of it in his Confessions. This book has had famous imitators, particularly Rousseau and Tolstoy, but I do not think it had any comparable predecessors. St Augustine is in some ways similar to Tolstoy, to whom, however, he is superior in intellect. He was a passionate man, in youth very far from a pattern of virtue, but driven by an inner impulse to search for truth and righteousness. Like Tolstoy, he was obsessed, in his later years, by a sense of sin, which made his life stern and his philosophy inhuman. He combated heresies vigorously, but some of his views, when repeated by Jansenius in the seventeenth century, were pronounced heretical. Until the Protestants took up his opinions, however, the Catholic Church had never impugned their orthodoxy.
One of the first incidents of his life related in the Confessions occurred in his boyhood, and did not, in itself, greatly distinguish him from other boys. It appears that, with some companions of his own age, he despoiled a neighbour's pear tree, although he was not hungry, and his parents had better pears at home. He continued throughout his life to consider this an act of almost incredible wickedness. It would not have been so bad if he had been hungry, or had had no other means of getting pears; but, as it was, the act was one of pure mischief, inspired by the love of wickedness for its own sake. It is this that makes it so unspeakably black. He beseeches God to forgive him:
'Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the abyss. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee, what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously wicked, having no temptation to that evil deed, but the evil deed itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for the sake of which I committed the fault, but my fault itself I loved. Foul soul, falling from the firmament to expulsion from Thy presence; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!'11
He goes on like this for seven chapters, and all about some pears plucked from a tree in a boyish prank. To a modern mind, this seems morbid;12 but in his own age it seemed right and a mark of holiness. The sense of sin, which was very strong in his day, came to the Jews as a way of reconciling self-importance with outward defeat. Yahweh was omnipotent, and Yahweh was specially interested in the Jews; why, then, did they not prosper? Because they were wicked: they were idolators, they married gentiles, they failed to
observe the Law. God's purposes were centred on the Jews, but, since righteousness is the greatest of goods, and is achieved through tribulation, they must first be chastised, and must recognize their chastisement as a mark of God's paternal love.
Christians put the Church in place of the Chosen People, but except in one respect this made little difference to the psychology of sin. The Church, like the Jews, suffered tribulation; the Church was troubled by heresies; individual Christians fell into apostasy under the stress of persecution. There was, however, one important development, already made, to a great extent, by the Jews, and that was the substitution of individual for communal sin. Originally, it was the Jewish nation that sinned, and that was collectively punished; but later sin became more personal, thus losing its political character. When the Church was substituted for the Jewish nation, this change became essential, since the Church, as a spiritual entity, could not sin, but the individual sinner could cease to be in communion with the Church. Sin, as we said just now, is connected with self-importance. Originally the importance was that of the Jewish nation, but subsequently it was that of the individual—not of the Church, because the Church never sinned. It thus came about that Christian theology had two parts, one concerned with the Church, and one with the individual soul. In later times, the first of these was most emphasized by Catholics, and the second by Protestants, but in St Augustine both exist equally, without his having any sense of disharmony. Those who are saved are those whom God has predestined to salvation; this is a direct relation of the soul to God. But no one will be saved unless he has been baptized, and thereby become a member of the Church; this makes the Church an intermediary between the soul and God.
Sin is what is essential to the direct relation, since it explains how a beneficent Deity can cause men to suffer, and how, in spite of this, individual souls can be what is of most importance in the created world. It is therefore not surprising that the theology upon which the Reformation relied should be due to a man whose sense of sin was abnormal.
So much for the pears. Let us now see what the Confessions have to say on some other subjects.
Augustine relates how he learnt Latin, painlessly, at his mother's knee, but hated Greek, which they tried to teach him at school, because he was 'urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments'. To the end of his life, his knowledge of Greek remained slight. One might have supposed that he would go on, from this contrast, to draw a moral in favour of gentle methods in education. What he says, however, is:
'It is quite clear, then, that a free curiosity has more power to make us learn these things than a terrifying obligation. Only this obligation restrains the waverings of that freedom by Thy laws, O my God, Thy laws, from the master's rod to the martyr's trials, for Thy laws have the effect of mingling for us certain wholesome bitters, which recall us to Thee away from that pernicious blithesomeness, by means of which we depart from Thee.'
The schoolmaster's blows, though they failed to make him know Greek, cured him of being perniciously blithesome, and were, on this ground, a desirable part of education. For those who make sin the most important of all human concerns, this view is logical. He goes on to point out that he sinned, not only as a school-boy, when he told lies and stole food, but even earlier; indeed he devotes a whole chapter (Book I, chap. vii) to proving that even infants at the breast are full of sin—gluttony, jealousy, and other horrible vices.
When he reached adolescence, the lusts of the flesh overcame him. 'Where was I, and how far was I exiled from the delights of Thy house, in that sixteenth year of the age of my flesh, when the madness of lust which hath licence through man's viciousness, though forbidden by Thy laws, took the rule over me, and I resigned myself wholly to it?'13
His father took no pains to prevent this evil, but confined himself to giving help in Augustine's studies. His mother, St Monica, on the contrary, exhorted him to chastity, but in vain. And even she did not, at that time, suggest marriage, 'lest my prospects might be embarrassed by the clog of a wife'.
At the age of sixteen he went to Carthage, 'where there seethed all around me a cauldron of lawless loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and I hated safety…. To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness.'14These words describe his relation to a mistress whom he loved faithfully for many years,15 and by whom he had a son, whom he also loved, and to whom, after his conversion, he gave much care in religious education.
The time came when he and his mother thought he ought to begin to think of marrying. He became engaged to a girl of whom she approved, and it was held necessary that he should break with his mistress. 'My mistress,' he says, 'being torn from my side as a hindrance to my marriage, my heart which clave unto her was torn and wounded and bleeding. And she returned to Africa [Augustine was at this time in Milan], vowing unto Thee never to know any other man, leaving with me my son by her.'16 As, however, the marriage could not take place for two years, owing to the girl's youth, he took meanwhile another mistress, less official and less acknowledged. His
conscience increasingly troubled him, and he used to pray: 'Give me chastity and continence, only not yet.'17 At last, before the time had come for his marriage, religion won a complete victory, and he dedicated the rest of his life to celibacy.
To return to an earlier time: in his nineteenth year, having achieved proficiency in rhetoric, he was recalled to philosophy by Cicero. He tried reading the Bible, but found it lacking in Ciceronian dignity. It was at this time that he became a Manichæan, which grieved his mother. By profession he was a teacher of rhetoric. He was addicted to astrology, to which, in later life, he was averse, because it teaches that 'the inevitable cause of thy sin is in the sky'.18 He read philosophy, so far as it could be read in Latin; he mentions particularly Aristotle's Ten Categories, which, he says, he understood without the help of a teacher. 'And what did it profit me, that I, the vilest slave of evil passions, read by myself all the books of so-called "liberal" arts, and understood whatever I could read? … For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face … itself was not enlightened.'19 At this time he believed that God was a vast and bright body, and he himself a part of that body. One could wish that he had told in detail the tenets of the Manichæans, instead of merely saying they were erroneous.
It is interesting that St Augustine's first reasons for rejecting the doctrines of Manichæus were scientific. He remembered—so he tells us20—what he had learned of astronomy from the writings of the best astronomers, 'and I compared them with the sayings of Manichæus, who in his crazy folly has written much and copiously upon these subjects; but none of his reasoning of the solstices, nor equinoxes, nor eclipses, nor whatever of this kind I had learned in books of secular philosophy, was satisfactory to me. But I was commanded to believe; and yet it corresponded not with reasonings obtained by calculations, and by my own observations, but was quite contrary.' He is careful to point out that scientific mistakes are not in themselves a sign of errors as to the faith, but only become so when delivered with an air of authority as known through divine inspiration. One wonders what he would have thought if he had lived in the time of Galileo.
In the hope of resolving his doubts, a Manichæan bishop named Faustus, reputed the most learned member of the sect, met him and reasoned with him. But 'I found him first utterly ignorant of liberal sciences, save grammar, and that but in an ordinary way. But because he had read some of Tully's Orations, a very few books of Seneca, some things of the poets, and such few
volumes of his own sect, as were written in Latin and in logical order, and was daily practised in speaking, he acquired a certain eloquence, which proved the more pleasing and seductive, because under the control of his good sense, and with a certain natural grace.'21
He found Faustus quite unable to solve his astronomical difficulties. The books of the Manichæans, he tells us, 'are full of lengthy fables, of the heaven, and stars, sun, and moon', which do not agree with what has been discovered by astronomers; but when he questioned Faustus on these matters, Faustus frankly confessed his ignorance. 'Even for this I liked him the better. For the modesty of a candid mind is even more attractive than the knowledge of those things which I desired; and such I found him, in all the more difficult and subtle questions.'22
This sentiment is surprisingly liberal; one would not have expected it in that age. Nor is it quite in harmony with St Augustine's later attitude towards heretics.
At this time he decided to go to Rome, not, he says, because there the income of a teacher was higher than at Carthage, but because he had heard that classes were more orderly. At Carthage, the disorders perpetrated by students were such that teaching was almost impossible; but at Rome, while there was less disorder, students fraudulently evaded payment.
In Rome, he still associated with the Manichæans, but with less conviction of their rightness. He began to think that the Academics were right in holding that men ought to doubt everything.23 He still, however, agreed with the Manichæans in thinking 'that it is not we ourselves that sin, but that some other nature (what, I know not) sins in us', and he believed Evil to be some kind of substance. This makes it clear that, before as after his conversion, the question of sin pre-occupied him.
After about a year in Rome, he was sent to Milan by the Prefect Symmachus, in response to a request from that city for a teacher of rhetoric. At Milan he became acquainted with Ambrose, 'known to the whole world as among the best of men'. He came to love Ambrose for his kindness, and to prefer the Catholic doctrine to that of the Manichæans; but for a while he was held back by the scepticism he had learnt from the Academics, 'to which philosophers notwithstanding, because they were without the saving name of Christ, I utterly refused to commit the care of my sick soul'.24
In Milan he was joined by his mother, who had a powerful influence in hastening the last steps of his conversion. She was a very earnest Catholic, and
he writes of her always in a tone of reverence. She was the more important to him at this time, because Ambrose was too busy to converse with him privately.
There is a very interesting chapter25 in which he compares the Platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. The Lord, he says, at this time provided him with 'certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in these words, but to the same purpose, enforced by many and diverse reasons, that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the same was in the beginning with God; all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it "bears witness to the light", yet itself "is not that light", but God, the Word of God, "is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world". And that "He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not." But that "He came unto His own, and His own received him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His Name": this I read not there.' He also did not read there that 'the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us'; nor that 'He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross'; nor that 'at the name of Jesus every knee should bow'.
Broadly speaking, he found in the Platonists the metaphysical doctrine of the Logos, but not the doctrine of the Incarnation and the consequent doctrine of human salvation. Something not unlike these doctrines existed in Orphism and the other mystery religions; but of this St Augustine appears to have been ignorant. In any case, none of these were connected with a comparatively recent historical event, as Christianity was.
As against the Manichæans, who were dualists, Augustine came to believe that evil originates not from some substance, but from perverseness of will.
He found especial comfort in the writings of St Paul.26
At length, after passionate inward struggles, he was converted (386); he gave up his professorship, his mistress, and his bride, and, after a brief period of meditation in retirement, was baptized by St Ambrose. His mother rejoiced, but died not long afterwards. In 388 he returned to Africa, where he remained for the rest of his life, fully occupied with his episcopal duties and with controversial writings against various heresies, Donatist, Manichæan, and Pelagian.