Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume I/Confessions/Book VIII/Chapter 7
Chapter VII.—He Deplores His Wretchedness, that Having Been Born Thirty-Two Years, He Had Not Yet Found Out the Truth.
16. Such was the story of Pontitianus. But Thou, O Lord, whilst he was speaking, didst turn me towards myself, taking me from behind my back, where I had placed myself while unwilling to exercise self-scrutiny; and Thou didst set me face to face with myself, that I might behold how foul I was, and how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous. And I beheld and loathed myself; and whither to fly from myself I discovered not. And if I sought to turn my gaze away from myself, he continued his narrative, and Thou again opposedst me unto myself, and thrustedst me before my own eyes, that I might discover my iniquity, and hate it. I had known it, but acted as though I knew it not,—winked at it, and forgot it.
17. But now, the more ardently I loved those whose healthful affections I heard tell of, that they had given up themselves wholly to Thee to be cured, the more did I abhor myself when compared with them. For many of my years (perhaps twelve) had passed away since my nineteenth, when, on the reading of Cicero’s Hortensius, I was roused to a desire for wisdom; and still I was delaying to reject mere worldly happiness, and to devote myself to search out that whereof not the finding alone, but the bare search, ought to have been preferred before the treasures and kingdoms of this world, though already found, and before the pleasures of the body, though encompassing me at my will. But I, miserable young man, supremely miserable even in the very outset of my youth, had entreated chastity of Thee, and said, “Grant me chastity and continency, but not yet.” For I was afraid lest Thou shouldest hear me soon, and soon deliver me from the disease of concupiscence, which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished. And I had wandered through perverse ways in a sacrilegious superstition; not indeed assured thereof, but preferring that to the others, which I did not seek religiously, but opposed maliciously.
18. And I had thought that I delayed from day to day to reject worldly hopes and follow Thee only, because there did not appear anything certain whereunto to direct my course. And now had the day arrived in which I was to be laid bare to myself, and my conscience was to chide me. “Where art thou, O my tongue? Thou saidst, verily, that for an uncertain truth thou wert not willing to cast off the baggage of vanity. Behold, now it is certain, and yet doth that burden still oppress thee; whereas they who neither have so worn themselves out with searching after it, nor yet have spent ten years and more in thinking thereon, have had their shoulders unburdened, and gotten wings to fly away.” Thus was I inwardly consumed and mightily confounded with an horrible shame, while Pontitianus was relating these things. And he, having finished his story, and the business he came for, went his way. And unto myself, what said I not within myself? With what scourges of rebuke lashed I not my soul to make it follow me, struggling to go after Thee! Yet it drew back; it refused, and exercised not itself. All its arguments were exhausted and confuted. There remained a silent trembling; and it feared, as it would death, to be restrained from the flow of that custom whereby it was wasting away even to death.
- Ps. xxxvi. 2.
- See iii. sec. 7, above.
- It is interesting to compare with this passage the views contained in Augustin’s three books, Con. Academicos,—the earliest of his extant works, and written about this time. Licentius there maintains that the “bare search” for truth renders a man happy, while Trygetius contends that the “finding alone” can produce happiness. Augustin does not agree with the doctrine of the former, and points out that while the Academics held the probable to be attainable, it could not be so without the true, by which the probable is measured and known. And, in his De Vita Beata, he contends that he who seeks truth and finds it not, has not attained happiness, and that though the grace of God be indeed guiding him, he must not expect complete happiness (Retractations, i. 2) till after death. Perhaps no sounder philosophy can be found than that evidenced in the life of Victor Hugo’s good Bishop Myriel, who rested in the practice of love, and was content to look for perfect happiness, and a full unfolding of God’s mysteries, to the future life:—“Aimez-vous les uns les autres, il declarait cela complet, ne souhaitait rien de plus et c’était là toute sa doctrine. Un jour, cet homme qui se croyait ‘philosophe,’ ce senateur, déjà nommé, dit à l’évêque: ‘Mais voyez donc le spectacle du monde; guerre de tous contre tous; le plus fort a le plus d’ésprit. Votre aimez-vous les uns les autres est une bêtise.’—‘Eh bien,’ répondit Monseigneur Bienvenu, sans disputer, ‘si c’est une bêtise, l’âme doit s’y enfermer comme la perle dans l’huitre.’ Il s’y enfermait donc, il y vivait, il s’en satisfaisait absolument, laissant de côté les questions prodigieuses qui attirent et qui épouvantent, les perspectives insoudables de l’abstraction, les précipices de la métaphysique, toutes ces profondeurs convergentes, pour l’apôtre, à Dieu, pour l’athée, au néant: la destinée, le bien et le mal, la guerre de l’être contre l’être, la conscience de l’homme, le somnambulisme pensif de l’animal, la transformation par la mort, la récapitulation d’existences qui contient le tombeau, la greffe incompréhensible des amours successifs sur le moi persistant, l’essence, la substance, le Nil et l’Ens, l’âme, la nature, la liberté, la nécessité; problèmes à pic, épaisseurs sinistres, où se penchent les gigantesques archanges de l’ésprit humain; formidables abimes que Lucrèce, Manon, Saint Paul, et Dante contemplent avec cet œil fulgurant qui semble, en regardant fixement l’infini, y faire eclore les étoiles. Monseigneur Bienvenu était simplement un homme qui constatait du dehors les questions mystérieuses sans les scruter, sans les agiter, et sans en troubler son propre ésprit; et qui avait dans l’âme le grave respect de l’ombre.”—Les Misérables, c. xiv.