Augustine Feels the Pressure of Daily Life
In Book VI, Augustine is spending time with his friends, trying to figure out how to live his life and trying to find God. He has quit the Manichean church, which he says mocked the credulity with the promise of certain knowledge that never came.
Around the same time, his mother shows up and fits herself into the local Catholic Church and its customers. She does not bring wine and cakes to church anymore and follows the dictates of the local bishop. All the while, she is trying to get Augustine to marry. For his part, though, Augustine wants no part of this.
Instead, he and his friends talk about forming a commune where they can share all their property together and live apart from the “turbulent turmoils of human life.” I think here we see something that a lot of scholars and college students would like to do. They want to get away from it all and just think about their philosophy and areas of study.
As is evident by my sporadic postings to this blog, it can be hard to read, study, and think about things when you are trying to deal with the demands of everyday life. But what Augustine and his friends figure out is that some of them have more to contribute than others and when the question of whether the men would bring their wives comes into play, the whole idea falls apart.
Much of this book is about how daily life can make the path to wisdom very long. Living in the world makes wisdom and faith hard to achieve, especially for a man of education.
For example, Augustine says that he has to learn to trust in God and accept things on faith rather than being “as assured of the things I saw not as I was that seven and three are ten.”
Next, he talks about how he wants to withdraw from daily life and pursue the cause of finding God, even if that search was not manifestly clear to him at the moment that he feels the desire. As noted above, his commune idea was designed for that, though it fell apart, and his friend Alypius tries to keep him from marrying that they might live together “in the love of wisdom.”
Augustine also has cautions for us as we deal with the structures of the world where we live and work. He described going to give a panegyric – a speech of elaborate praise – for the emperor “wherein I was to utter many a lie, and, lying, was to be applauded by those who knew I lied….” Augustine is doing this to chase honors, gains, and marriage, but along the way he sees a beggar who is asking for alms that he will use to by booze and make himself happy.
“For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same I was plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding: the joy of a temporary felicity. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.”
While both the beggar and Augustine are in error, Augustine notes that his is worse.
“He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.”
Augustine gives us another example of how the pressures of daily life can weigh upon by describing his friend Alypius’s job as an assessor in the Roman Treasury. A powerful senator comes in and tries to get the treasury to do some unspecified, but illegal thing. Alypius won’t allow it, and one of his co-workers, to whom the Senator also appeals, puts the refusal on Alypius. The senator offers to have books copied at a cheap rate for Alypius, but he refused.
Alypius learned to trust God and prefer justice after being caught up in the spectacle of gladiator sports and once falsely accused of an attempted breaking and entering of a silversmith shop.
Alypius detested the gladiator fights, and though his friends dragged him, he swore he would not get caught up in them. But the shouts and noise and energy around him caused him to get caught up in the fights, and it was only through God’s “most strong and most merciful hand” that Alypius learns to trust God and gives up the gladiator games.
Being falsely accused of a crime, after he was the one who scared off the would-be thief, taught Alypius to prefer justice.
It seems what Augustine is trying to show us in this book is that even though we might prefer to withdraw from the world and go live on a commune and love wisdom, we must face the world. We need to experience and learn from the challenges it throws at us so that when we are tested, we do not end up like Augustine, chasing honor, gains, and marriage in a way that leaves us unhappy and feeling full of anxiety day after day. I will say this is the lesson that I take away from it as a modern, secular reader. I think along with the message of learning from the world’s challenges in the message that we must learn to trust God in those situation to bring us through and teach us the lessons, as he did with Alypius.
Next Time: Book VII – Augustine Gradually Extricated from his Errors