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Saint Augustine: Notable Figure

The Confessions of St. Augustine are the first autobiography, and they have this to distinguish them from all other autobiographies, that they are addressed directly to God. Rousseau's unburdening of himself is the last, most effectual manifestation of that nervous, defiant consciousness of other people which haunted him all his life. He felt that all the men and women whom he passed on his way through the world were at watch upon him, and mostly with no very favourable intentions. The exasperation of all those eyes fixed upon him, the absorbing, the protesting self-consciousness which they called forth in him, drove him, in spite of himself, to set about explaining himself to other people, to the world in general. His anxiety to explain, not to justify, himself was after all a kind of cowardice before his own conscience. He[Pg 2] felt the silent voices within him too acutely to keep silence. Cellini wrote his autobiography because he heard within him such trumpeting voices of praise, exultation, and the supreme satisfaction of a violent man who has conceived himself to be always in the right, that it shocked him to think of going down into his grave without having made the whole world hear those voices. He hurls at you this book of his own deeds that it may smite you into acquiescent admiration. Casanova, at the end of a long life in which he had tasted all the forbidden fruits of the earth, with a simplicity of pleasure in which the sense of their being forbidden was only the least of their abounding flavours, looked back upon his past self with a slightly pathetic admiration, and set himself to go all over those successful adventures, in love and in other arts, firstly, in order that he might be amused by recalling them, and then because he thought the record would do him credit. He neither intrudes himself as a model, nor acknowledges that he was very often in the wrong. Always passionate after sensations, and for their own sake, the writing of an [Pg 3]autobiography was the last, almost active, sensation that was left to him, and he accepted it energetically.

Probably St. Augustine first conceived of the writing of an autobiography as a kind of penance, which might be fruitful also to others. By its form it challenges the slight difficulty that it appears to be telling God what God knew already. But that is the difficulty which every prayer also challenges. To those we love, are we not fond of telling many things about ourselves which they know already? A prayer, such confessions as these, are addressed to God by one of those subterfuges by which it is necessary to approach the unseen and infinite, under at least a disguise of mortality. And the whole book, as no other such book has ever been, is lyrical. This prose, so simple, so familiar, has in it the exaltation of poetry. It can pass, without a change of tone, from the boy's stealing of pears: 'If aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin'; to a tender human affection: 'And now he lives in Abraham's bosom: whatever that be which is signified by that bosom, there lives my[Pg 4] Nebridius, my sweet friend'; and from that to the saint's rare, last ecstasy: 'And sometimes Thou admittedst me to an affection, very unusual, in my inmost soul, rising to a strange sweetness, which if it were perfected in me, I know not what in it would not belong to the life to come.' And even self-analysis, of which there is so much, becoming at times a kind of mathematics, even those metaphysical subtleties which seem, to sharpen thought upon thought to an almost invisible fineness of edge, become also lyrical, inter-penetrated as they are with this sense of the divine.

To St. Augustine all life is seen only in its relation to the divine; looked at from any other side, it has no meaning, and, looked at even with this light upon it, is but for the most part seen as a blundering in the dark, a wandering from the right path. In so far as it is natural, it is evil. In so far as it is corrected by divine grace, it leaves the human actors in it without merit; since all virtue is God's, though all vice is man's.

This conception of life is certainly valuable in giving harmony to the book, [Pg 5]presenting as it does a sort of background. It brings with it a very impressive kind of symbolism into its record of actual facts, to all of which it gives a value, not in themselves, if you please to put it so, or, perhaps more properly, their essential value. When nothing which happens, happens except under God's direct responsibility, when nothing is said which is not one of your 'lines' in the drama which is being played, not so much by as through you, there can be no exteriorities, nothing can be trivial, in a record of life so conceived. And this point of view also helps the writer to keep all his details in proportion; the autobiographer's usual fault, artistically at least, being an inordinate valuation of small concerns, because they happened to him. To St. Augustine, while not the smallest human event is without significance, in its relation to eternity, not the greatest human event is of importance, in its relation to time; and his own share in it would but induce a special, it may seem an exaggerated, humility on his part. Thus, speaking of his early studies, his triumphs in them, not without a certain naïveté: 'Whatever was[Pg 6] written, either in rhetoric or logic, geometry, music, and arithmetic, by myself without much difficulty or any instruction, I understood, Thou knowest, O Lord my God; because both quickness and understanding and acuteness in discerning is Thy gift.' Or, again, speaking of the youthful excellences ('excellently hadst Thou made him') of that son who was the son of his beloved mistress: 'I had no part in that boy, but the sin.'

Intellectual pride, one sees in him indeed, at all times, by the very force with which it is repressed into humility; and, in all that relates to that mistress, in the famous cry: 'Give me chastity, but not yet!' in all those insurgent memories of 'these various and shadowy loves,' we see the force of the flesh, in one who lived always with so passionate a life, alike of the spirit and the senses. Now, recalling what was sinful in him, in his confessions to God, he is reluctant to allow any value to the most honourable of human sentiments, to so much as forgive the most estimable of human weaknesses. 'And now, Lord, in writing I confess it unto Thee. Read it who will,[Pg 7] and interpret it how he will: and if any finds sin therein, that I wept my mother for a small portion of an hour (the mother who for the time was dead to mine eyes, who had for many years wept for me that I might live in Thine eyes), let him not deride me; but rather, if he be one of large charity, let him weep for himself for my sins unto Thee, the Father of all the brethren of Thy Christ.' And yet it is of this mother that he writes his most tender, his most beautiful pages. 'The day was now approaching whereon she was to depart this life (which day Thou well knewest, we knew not), it came to pass, Thyself, as I believe, by Thy secret ways so ordering it, that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, which looked into the garden of the house where we now lay, at Ostia....' It is not often that memory, in him, is so careful of 'the images of earth, and water, and air,' as to call up these delicate pictures. They too had become for him among the desirable things which are to be renounced for a more desirable thing.

That sense of the divine in life, and specially of the miracles which happen a[Pg 8] certain number of times in every existence, the moments which alone count in the soul's summing-up of itself, St. Augustine has rendered with such significance, with such an absolute wiping out from the memory of everything else, just because he has come to that, it might seem, somewhat arid point of spiritual ascent. That famous moment of the Tolle, lege: 'I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears ... when lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read, take up and read"'; the Bishop's word to Monnica ('as if it had sounded from heaven'), 'It is not possible that the son of those tears should perish'; the beggar-man, 'joking and joyous,' in the streets of Milan: it is by these, apparently trifling, these all-significant moments that his narrative moves, with a more reticent and effective symbolism than any other narrative known to me. They are the moments in which the soul has really lived, or has really seen; and the rest of life may well be a blindness and a troubled coming and going.

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I said that the height from which St. Augustine apprehends these truths may seem a somewhat arid one. That is perhaps only because it is nearer the sky, more directly bathed in what he calls, beautifully, 'this queen of colours, the light.' There is a passage in the tenth book which may almost be called a kind of æsthetics. They are æsthetics indeed of renunciation, but a renunciation of the many beauties for the one Beauty, which shall contain as well as eclipse them; 'because those beautiful patterns which through men's souls are conveyed into their cunning hands, come from that Beauty, which is above our souls.' And it is not a renunciation by one who had never enjoyed what he renounces, or who feels himself, even now, quite safe from certain forms of its seduction. He is troubled especially by the fear that 'those melodies which Thy words breathe soul into, when sung with a sweet and attuned voice,' may come to move him 'more with the voice than with the words sung.' Yet how graciously he speaks of music, allowing 'that the several affections of our spirit, by a sweet variety, have their own proper measures in[Pg 10] the voice and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith they are stirred up.' It is precisely because he feels so intimately the beauty of all things human, though it were but 'a dog coursing in the field, a lizard catching flies,' that he desires to pass through these to that passionate contemplation which is the desire of all seekers after the absolute, and which for him is God. He asks of all the powers of the earth: 'My questioning them, was my thoughts on them; and their form of beauty gave the answer.' And by how concrete a series of images does he strive to express the inexpressible, in that passage of pure poetry on the love of God! 'But what do I love, when I love thee? not beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracements of flesh. None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement, when I love my God, the light,[Pg 11] melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God.'

Mentioning in his confessions only such things as he conceives to be of import to God, it happens, naturally, that St. Augustine leaves unsaid many things that would have interested most men, perhaps more. 'What, then, have I to do with men, that they should hear my confessions—as if they could heal my infirmities,—a race curious to know the lives of others, slothful to amend their own?' Finding, indeed, many significant mentions of things and books and persons, Faustus the Manichee, the 'Hortensius' of Cicero, the theatre, we shall find little pasture here for our antiquarian, our purely curious, researches. We shall not even find all that we might care to know, in St. Augustine himself, of the surface of the mind's action, which we call character, or[Pg 12] the surface emotions, which we call temperament. Here is a soul, one of the supreme souls of humanity, speaking directly to that supreme soul which it has apprehended outside humanity. Be sure that, if it forgets many things which you, who overhear, would like it to have remembered, it will remember everything which it is important to remember, everything which the recording angel, who is the soul's finer criticism of itself, has already inscribed in the book of the last judgment.


Book: Reflection on the Important Things