Chapter 6 follows Augustine through a period of his life when he was particularly depressed. His faith in Manichaeism had unraveled, and he was beginning to doubt that he would ever find answers. The chapter does a great job of conveying the sense of despair that hung around him and his companions during this time. This is Augustine’s dark night of the soul; soon to be swept away by his conversion.
A significant event here is that Augustine meets Ambrose, who is to become his mentor and spiritual father. Importantly for Augustine, Ambrose introduces him to the concept of interpreting scripture allegorically:
First of all, his ideas had already begun to appear to me defensible; and the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.
A particular turning point comes with Augustine’s revisit of the passage in Genesis where God makes man “in His own image.” Previously, Augustine had assumed that this must mean that Christians believe God is trapped inside a human body of His own; now he realized that this was more commonly understood to refer to a spiritual image, even though he wasn’t entirely clear on what this meant. He began to suspect that other “knotty” passages in scripture may hide deeper meanings as well.
The Laughing Beggar
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” -John Stuart Mill
The story of the laughing beggar (page 102) plunged Augustine even further into depression. I don’t think I can add anything to the text itself, so here it is:
While walking along one of the streets of Milan, I saw a poor beggar — with what I believe was a full belly — joking and hilarious. And I sighed and spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from our madness, because in spite of all our exertions — such as those I was then laboring in, dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time — still and all we aimed only to attain that very happiness which this beggar had reached before us; and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins, got by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and tortuous turning — namely, the joy of a passing felicity. He had not, indeed, gained true joy, but, at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one still more untrue.
If the beggar had asked me whether I would prefer to be in his merry state or my own fearful one, I would have answered that I would rather be merry. On the other hand, if he asked whether I would rather be a beggar like him, I should say that I would choose to be myself, even though worn out with cares and fears. But was that poor judgment and was it the truth? Shouldn’t I prefer to be like him? I had more knowledge than he, but no joy in all my pursuits. I was robbed of my joy because I sought to please men by impressive deeds.
The joy of a faithful hope lies very far from a scholar’s egotism. That was why the beggar had moved beyond where I was. He was happier because he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, while I wasn’t because I was hollow inside with cares. He had gotten precisely what he wanted in the wine. I listened to lies and sought empty, head-swelling praise.
Do you like gladiator movies?
“What make resisting temptation difficult for most people is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.” -Franklin P. Jones
This chapter also digresses into some stories of those close to Augustine, and there is a parallel theme in both Monica and Alypius’s stories. Both had a bad habit, and both give it up after correction. Monica makes offerings at the tombs of martyrs (Page 98); Alypius is addicted to gladiatorial games. Alypius’s story is especially interesting, because it serves to illustrate how he tries (and fails) to overcome his sinful ways on his own power, but is able to do so instantly once God intervenes. Monica, who has already submitted herself to God’s will, has no such struggle.
Alypius’s method of dealing with temptation will no doubt be familiar to all of us (Pages 105-108). At first, he hates the gladiator fights. But, when a group of his friends go to the circus games, he allows them to bodily drag him along with him, while loudly proclaiming that he will be mentally absent. He then sits there in the crowd with his eyes closed, trying to block everything out. Then, he allows himself just a little a peek, confident that he will “remain aloof from whatever evil was before him.” Before long, he is caught up in the excitement with all the rest, and after that, even tried to draw others into attending the games. Their hold is finally broken on him when Augustine makes an offhand comment mocking the games, which Alypius takes to heart.
Read Books 7-8, which includes the story of Augustine’s conversion.