Augustine and sainthood

It is a commonplace of hagiography to extol the saint whom one is writing about to such an extent that the saint is turned into something almost but not quite human. There are, for example, various lives of saints which record the various miracles the saint performed while still an infant, including healings, preachings, and conversions performed while the saint before the average person would even be able to utter a meaningful sound or take a single step. There are the accounts of saints having conversations with animals, of saints transcending the laws of nature, and of saints evincing such love and courage in the face of dire circumstances that everyone for hundreds of miles around is converted to faith in Christ. And then there is St. Augustine and his Confessions.

As the most influential figure of the Western Church perhaps in all of history, Augustine would, no doubt, have been the victim of these mythologized and eulogized hagiographies to which so many other important saints have been subject. He, however, did the work himself of ensuring that we remember him as the deeply flawed and altogether normal human being that he was.

As Augustine traces his life, inner and outer, from infancy to adulthood to conversion to Christianity, the reader is allowed an insight into a man much like himself. What we see is a man driven by lust and tossed about by doubt. What we see, in short, is a man — a real, living human being like ourselves who shared in the same passions in which we share. And who, through the grace of God, conquered them all and became one of the greatest saints of the Christian Church.

If St. Augustine can be a saint, anyone can be saint. And that, in short, is what makes The Confessions one of the greatest of the Great Books.

Primary Source: From The Confessions of St. Augustine (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.4)

One of the first books Augustine wrote after becoming a Christian was his Confessions, the world’s first autobiography. In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his life all the way from his infancy to the time he became a Christian. In the selection below, Augustine discusses the education he received as a child.

 

But what was the cause of my dislike of Greek literature, which I studied from my boyhood, I cannot even now understand. For the Latin I loved exceedingly— not what our first masters, but what the grammarians teach; for those primary lessons of reading, writing, and ciphering, I considered no less of a burden and a punishment than Greek. Yet whence was this unless from the sin and vanity of this life? For I was but flesh, a wind that passes away and comes not again. For those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will; while in the others I was compelled to learn about the wanderings of a certain Æneas, oblivious of my own, and to weep for Biab dead, because she slew herself for love; while at the same time Ibrooked with dry eyes my wretched self dying far from You, in the midst of those things, O God, my life.

For what can be more wretched than the wretch who pities not himself shedding tears over the death of Dido for love of Æneas, but shedding no tears over his own death in not loving You, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, and the power that weddest my mind with my innermost thoughts? I did not love You, and committed fornication against You; and those around me thus sinning cried, Well done! Well done! For the friendship of this world is fornication against You; and Well done! Well done! is cried until one feels ashamed not to be such a man. And for this I shed no tears, though I wept for Dido, who sought death at the sword’s point, myself the while seeking the lowest of Your creatures— having forsaken You— earth tending to the earth; and if forbidden to read these things, how grieved would I feel that I was not permitted to read what grieved me. This sort of madness is considered a more honourable and more fruitful learning than that by which I learned to read and write.

But now, O my God, cry unto my soul; and let Your Truth say unto me, It is not so; it is not so; better much was that first teaching. For behold, I would rather forget the wanderings of Æneas, and all such things, than how to write and read. But it is true that over the entrance of the grammar school there hangs a veil; but this is not so much a sign of the majesty of the mystery, as of a covering for error. Let not them exclaim against me of whom I am no longer in fear, while I confess to You, my God, that which my soul desires, and acquiesce in reprehending my evil ways, that I may love Your good ways. Neither let those cry out against me who buy or sell grammar-learning. For if I ask them whether it be true, as the poet says, that Æneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know, the learned will deny it to be true. But if I ask with what letters the name Æneas is written, all who have learned this will answer truly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have arrived at as to these signs. Again, if I should ask which, if forgotten, would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what every one would answer who had not entirely forgotten himself? I erred, then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to those more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. One and one are two, two and two are four, this was then in truth a hateful song to me; while the wooden horse full of armed men, and the burning of Troy, and the spectral image of Creusa were a most pleasant spectacle of vanity.