In the congregation of St. Ambrose at Milan, in the latter part of the fourth century, there was a young man with whom many persons are better acquainted than with some of their intimate friends. He wrote an account of his life, in which he set down with exceeding frankness not only what he had done, but what he had thought. And this account remains to this day. It is the earliest of autobiographies. Here, for the first time since the world began, did a man write a book about himself. Even now, after these fifteen hundred years, it is still the best of such books.
Benvenuto Cellini gave an interesting and entertaining account of himself, telling honestly how faithfully he prayed and how frequently he broke the Ten Commandments, and thereby revealing the mediaeval conscience. John Bunyan, in "Grace Abounding," recounted his religious experience, with a statement of his faults so frank that it went beyond the fact, and revealed thereby the self-accusing conscience of the Puritan. But the supreme autobiography is the "Confessions" of St. Augustine.
The book had no precedent, and in its form it has had no imitator; for it is in the form of prayer,—the longest printed prayer. From beginning to end, the writer addresses himself to God. To read it is to overhear a penitent at his devotions.
Augustine was born in the middle of the fourth century, in the Roman province of Africa, in Tagaste, a country town of Numidia. Of the two great Christian fathers of that neighborhood, Cyprian had been dead a hundred years, and Tertullian a hundred and fifty; but they were remembered as Whitefield and Edwards are remembered in New England. In spite of these devout memories Carthage was still a pagan city. Augustine's mother was a Christian, but his father was a pagan.
A recent writer, in a book upon which a very respectable English publisher put his imprint, cast it up as a reproach against the Christian Church that its theology for a thousand years was dominated by a black man. The idea was that all people who lived in Africa must be of African descent. A similar course of reasoning would include to-day the English governors of Egypt. Augustine's name is evidence of his Roman ancestry. His people came from Italy.
Monica, the mother of Augustine, belongs to the shining company of saintly wives and mothers who have contended successfully with difficult domestic conditions. For many years, neither her husband nor her son showed any interest in religion, and during much of that time they lived not only irreligious but immoral lives. The attainment of her prayers in the final conversion of them both has ever since been an inspiration to maternal faith and patience.
As for Augustine's father, the only thing which is set down to his credit is the fact that he did not beat his wife. The discipline of wives was a part of the common life of the time. Almost all of the friends of Monica appeared occasionally with bruised faces. Her immunity was a continual perplexity to the neighborhood. She explained that it takes two to make a quarrel.
Augustine learned to pray at his mother's knee, but he was not baptized. The age of thirty was considered the proper time for baptism, following the example of Christ. The life of Augustine represents a transition in the doctrine of baptism from one superstition to another. In his infancy the idea was that the water of baptism washed away all sin; it was well to defer the cleansing bath till the temptations of youth were past. In his maturity the idea was that without baptism salvation was impossible, or at the least uncertain; infants must be baptized in order to be saved.
He went to church with his mother in his early childhood, but soon showed a disposition to follow the example of his father. He says that he was a bad boy at school, neglecting his studies, running away to play ball, in spite of his mother's diligent beating. He liked Latin, but hated Greek much, and mathematics more.
Going to college in Carthage, he changed from bad to worse. He made the acquaintance of evil companions, and exposed himself to all the temptations of the college and the city. This, he says, was not wholly from a love of wrong, but in great part from a love of praise. He desired admiration, and tried to get it by making himself out worse than he was, and boasting of misdemeanors which he never did. A common prank of college life in Carthage was to break up lectures by disturbances in class rooms. A gang of youths would go about from room to room for the purpose of annoying the instructors. Augustine either belonged to such a crowd or sympathized with their performances. These, however, were minor offences. Carthage was still the same hard town against which the soul of Tertullian had revolted. Augustine entered into its vicious ways. At the age of eighteen, he took a wife, without the observance of any formality either civil or ecclesiastical. He seemed to be going to the devil.
In this darkness, there were two rays of light. One was the fact that the boy, with all his disregard of study, had a singularly able mind. The other was the fact that he was dissatisfied and unhappy. He says that he was as one who has lost his way, and earnestly desires to get out of the woods into the road, but knows not in what direction to turn. The note of this whole period of his life is in the first paragraph of the "Confessions": "Thou, O God, hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee."
He was recalled in some measure from his evil courses by reading a book of Cicero, the "Hortensius," now lost. It stirred in him the spirit of speculation and of aspiration. That the lad of nineteen was interested in such a book shows that he was different from his companions. Cicero had much to say about the quest of. truth. He exalted truth for its own sake, apart from all entanglements of formularies, as the most precious of possessions. He taught also that truth is to be attained by the pure mind, along the way of character.
In order to get strength to realize this ideal Augustine associated himself with the Manichæans. They attracted him as the Montanists had attracted Tertullian.
Manichæism was a new religion which had been founded in the middle of the third century by Mani, a Persian prophet. He appeared as a man of God, having a message from on high. At first he proclaimed his revelation with acceptance, but presently opposition arose from the established religion of Zoroaster, and the prophet was crucified. Thereupon his doctrines were carried east and west, east to India and China, west to Italy and Africa.
The basis of Manichaeism was the dualistic theology of Zoroaster. There are two gods, good and bad, corresponding to the two sides of human life, symbolized by day and night, by joy and sorrow, by life and death. The son of the good god invaded the kingdom of the bad god and was taken captive. His father came and rescued him, but in the struggle he lost a great treasure of celestial light. To keep this treasure from recovery by the good god, the bad god placed it in man who was created for that purpose,—a little light in every man. Here are we, then, children of the devil, but having within us a celestial spark. The problem of human life is how to free this bit of heaven from the bondage of matter. To aid in this endeavor came first the prophets, then Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit whose coming Christ foretold, and who was present in the world in the person of Mani. Man proceeds along the way of life according to counsels and directions which are given him as he advances from grade to grade of the Manichaean mysteries. At last he attains to life eternal. Into this system of religion, the Manichæans brought occult doctrines of stars, and dealt in magic, and cast horoscopes.
Manichæism attracted Augustine by its appeal to his intelligence. It offered a solution of the problem of evil. It gave a rational explanation of sin and pain. It showed how a bad world and a good God could exist together. And this explanation was in accord with the current philosophy, according to which matter is essentially evil, and the source of evil. To this was added an exhilarating sense of freedom, an intellectual liberty, a large license of criticism of the past. For Mani proposed his religion as an advance beyond Judaism and Christianity, and his followers felt privileged to read both Testaments with discrimination, choosing here, and refusing there.
Manichæism further attracted Augustine by its appeal to his conscience. It convicted him of sin. It set before him a conception of the wickedness of the world which was in accordance with his own experience, and offered him a way out. It proposed a plan of salvation. It did not disclose the details of this plan. These were reserved to be communicated to the disciple little by little, as he passed from grade to grade. This reservation was in itself attractive by reason of the element of mystery. It encouraged and maintained devout expectation. The disciple began as a "hearer," serving a long novitiate; then he became an "adept"; and there were attainments of degrees beyond that. Augustine never advanced beyond the preparatory stage, but the undisclosed central sanctuary gave significance to all the approaches, however distant. He hoped to escape at last from sin, and find peace and blessing. Meanwhile, the doctrine that the struggle of which he was conscious in his own soul was part of a vast universal contention between rival gods gave new dignity to his life.
By this time Augustine had completed his college course, and had returned to his native town as a teacher of rhetoric, or, as we would say, literature. He read the Latin classics with his students. But the sudden death of a young man to whom he was devotedly attached so saddened him that he felt impelled to leave the scenes of a friendship so tragically interrupted. He returned to Carthage, and began to lecture. He now found that the custom of disturbing lecture-rooms, which had been so pleasant to him as a student, was by no means so agreeable from his point of view as teacher. Augustine disliked it so much that he left Carthage and went to Rome. But the Roman students had a way of their own quite as inconvenient as the boisterous manners of the Carthaginians. They were much more courteous in their behavior, but they evaded the payment of their bills. When the end of the course approached, and pay-day with it, they absented themselves, and the teacher found himself without support. Happily, at this moment there was a vacancy in the professorship of rhetoric at Milan. This was a government position, and the salary was paid by the state. Augustine applied for the position. The prefect Symmachus approved, and he was appointed. To Milan, then, he went, taking with him his mother, his wife, his little son Adeodatus, and Alypius, a friend.
Being thus established at Milan, Augustine rejected Manichæism. This he did in part because he lost faith in the veracity of horoscopes; a slave and a prince might be born under the same star: but also because he observed that the practice of some eminent Manichæans contradicted their professions.
He was now reading Aristotle, and that master's emphasis on facts, demanding a solid basis of reality, completed his conversion from a religion whose theology was mainly constructed out of imagination. Indeed, the clear intellect of Aristotle served for a time to turn Augustine from all creeds, and all faith in whatever could not be proved by processes of reason. Again he drifted without anchor, blown by the shifting winds.
Out of this condition, Neoplatonism came to save him. In the doctrines of this philosophy, subordinating all things material, finding all reality in God, and all worthy occupation in the endeavor to know God and to be in communion with Him, Augustine found nourishment for the mystical side of his nature.
It is a curious fact that at this moment, as he was committing himself to a career which demanded first purgation, then illumination, then separation from the world, Augustine looked about with deliberate prudence for a rich wife. He had proposed to establish a little community of philosophers, wherein he and a few congenial companions might debate without interruption the problems of the soul. But such a community must have a financial basis. Even after the plan failed, Augustine found that his creditors interrupted the serenity of his thought. So he proposed to improve his condition by marrying. money. A young woman was found who on her side was willing to undertake the perilous adventure of marrying philosophy. They were accordingly betrothed. Thereupon Augustine discarded his true wife, the mother of his son, who had lived with him faithfully for thirteen years. She was his wife, saving only the formulas of church and state. But he put her away, keeping his son, sending her back to Africa. And to these transactions, the good Monica gave her approval.
We are following the frank story of the "Confessions," saying to ourselves, How contemporary it all is! and of a sudden we come on such an incident as this, and we perceive that after all we are dealing with a Roman African, in the end of the fourth century. Happily, the conversion of Augustine to the Christian religion put a stop to all further matrimonial progress. The young girl with the great fortune passes out of sight between the lines of the book and is heard of no more.
Meanwhile, Augustine had been attending the services of the church in Milan. Ambrose had strongly appealed to him, a great noble who had become a great bishop. He heard him often. He perceived that Ambrose was basing truth on authority, telling the people that they ought to believe thus and so because that was the doctrine of the church.
This teaching was the result of Ambrose's own experience. Coming to his place as bishop straight from civil life, having never so much as opened a book of theology before the day of his ordination, and being so busy from that time forward that serious study was almost impossible, he had been obliged to take the doctrines of divinity at second hand. And to this his administrative genius further inclined him. He regarded the church from the point of view of an experienced state official. He saw the working advantage of a general uniformity of thought and action: men must do as they are told, and believe as they are taught. This was the attitude not of Ambrose only, but of the West in general. It was characteristic of the Occidental mind, impatient of metaphysics, caring for conduct rather than for creed. To Augustine, after his fruitless wanderings, seeking truth and finding no abiding satisfaction, the position of Ambrose was appealingly attractive. Tossed by waves and buffeted by winds, he was invited into the secure harbor of the church.
Then on a day when Augustine with a group of friends was discussing the problems of the religious life, one told the story of St. Antony as written by St. Athanasius: how for love of Christ he had abandoned all and followed Him. The recital impressed Augustine profoundly. He listened with tears. Disturbed in mind, restless, dissatisfied, reproached by his conscience, called of God but returning no reply, he parted from his companions, and going into a little quiet garden behind the house began to consider his forlorn condition. "How long," he lamented to himself, "shall I be as one who wakes in the morning and knows that he should rise, but rises not? How long shall I pray, O God, make me a Christian—but not yet!"
Suddenly he heard a voice as of a child, singing over and over as if it were the refrain of a song, "Take and read! Take and read! Take and read!" He received the words as a message from on high. He understood them to have reference to the Bible. That book he was to take and read. He took the book, and let it fall open where it would, and read, "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." "Instantly," he says, "as if the light of salvation had been poured into my heart with the close of the sentence, all the darkness of my doubts had fled away."
Nothing so important in the history of Christianity had happened since the heavens opened over the road to Damascus. The dominance of Augustine in Western theology can be compared only to the universal dominance of Paul. He directed the thought not only of the Middle Ages, but of the Reformation.
Immediately, Augustine informed Ambrose of his desire to be baptized, and retired with a few friends into the country to prepare himself. There they exercised their bodies in the fields, and their minds in long debates on the Blessed Life, the Order of Providence, and kindred themes in religion and philosophy. Then on Easter Even, 387, Augustine was made a member of the Christian Church.
There is no foundation for the tradition that the Te Deum was composed on that occasion, Augustine and Ambrose singing the great words in turn. That hymn was composed about that time, but probably by Nicetas, a missionary bishop in Dacia. It expresses, however, the faith and praise with which their hearts were filled.
Augustine resigned his professorship to devote himself entirely to the service of religion. He determined to return to his own land. One evening at the port of Ostia, where they waited for the ship which was to carry them to Africa, Augustine and his mother sat together in the moonlight, looking out over the sea, talking long and intimately of the past and the future, and especially of the religion which had transformed his life. There they sat as Ary Scheffer represents them in his famous picture. And Monica said, "My son, I am now altogether satisfied. Why should I live longer? The hopes and prayers of all my life are answered."
The next day she fell sick, and in a little while she died.
With the death of Monica the autobiographical part of the "Confessions" ends. Augustine wrote the book twelve years after, in order, as he said, to show out of how deep a depth a soul may cry to God and be answered and delivered. Of all the writing of the early church this is the only book which. is known to-day to the untechnical reader, the only contribution of the time to the common treasury of literature.
The interests of men change, their emphasis passes from one matter to another, even the theology of the old time becomes unreadable to the new generations; but human nature remains the same. It is forever contemporary. The "Confessions" is one of the immortal books, with the epics of Homer and the dialogues of Plato, because it is an honest disclosure of the temptations, the contentions, the aspirations of the soul of, man.
The return of Augustine to Africa marks the beginning of the second of the two major divisions of his life. Out of his novitiate he passed into his ministry.
He spent three years in monastic seclusion, though not in solitude. He kept a group of friends about him. They lived on the farm which had been the property of his father. There they set the example in Africa of that spiritual discipline which Basil and Gregory had practised in the East, and Martin and Cassian and Jerome had preached in the West.
After three years of this delightful quiet, being on a Sunday in the neighboring town of Hippo, the bishop of that place in his sermon reminded the congregation that he was growing old and feeble, and that being himself a Greek it was particularly hard for him to preach in Latin. The people, understanding what was in his mind, seized upon Augustine whose holy life they knew, and demanded that he become the bishop's assistant. To this he reluctantly consented. He was ordained, and entered upon his duties. By and by, the bishop died, and Augustine became bishop of Hippo in his place. There he continued forty years, all the remainder of his life.
Hippo is still a populated place, in Algiers, two hundred miles west of Tunis. The neighborhood is singularly suitable for the observation of eclipses of the sun, and thereby invites the visits of both English and American astronomers. An aqueduct of the time of Hadrian remains from the town which Augustine knew. The city in his day had a wall about it, and its inhabitants were sixty thousand. The great Basilica, his cathedral, stood on high ground in the midst of the city, among almond and orange trees, looking towards the sea and the far hills of Tunis. In 1890, Cardinal Lavigerie consecrated a new cathedral on the site of the old, naming it in memory of him who is still spoken of, even by the Mohammedan inhabitants, as the Great Christian.
There Augustine went about his business as a bishop. In all simplicity, without ostentation, in a day when bishops lived like princes, he ministered to the fishermen of Hippo. With much strictness of personal abstinence, he maintained a modest hospitality. A sentence carved on the table in his dining-room reminded his guests that as for those who were disposed to speak unfriendly of their neighbors, their room was better than their company. He gathered his clergy about him, to live under his own roof. He required them to follow that ascetic life in which he set them an example. He forbade them to have private property, or to be married. He set forth for their guidance a rule of life, adapted to those who having their daily occupation in the world were intent on the improvement of their souls. In the eleventh century, this rule, or what was thought to be this rule, was adopted by the clerical order of Augustinians, the Austin Canons, in whose house at Erfurt Martin Luther studied the Bible and prepared himself to undertake the German Reformation.
In the midst of these quiet labors came three determining events: two controversies and a great calamity.
The controversies, one with the Donatists, the other with the Pelagians, were characteristic of the Christianity of the West. The Western Church had regarded the Arian Debate with perplexity and impatience. The discussion had been carried on in Greek, a language with which the West was imperfectly acquainted. The General Council at Nicæa under Constantine, which proclaimed the Nicene faith, and the General Council at Constantinople under Theodosius, which confirmed it, had been remote from the concerns of Europe. There were but seven Western bishops at Nicæa, and none at all at Constantinople.
Moreover, the theme of the debate had been foreign to the active and practical interests of the Western mind. The Eastern bishops of eminence were for the most part theologians, of a speculative habit of thought; the eminent bishops of the West were for the most part ecclesiastics, administrative persons. Thus while the Eastern Church was vexed with heresies, arising from differences in theology, the Western Church was vexed with schisms, arising from differences concerning organization. And when a notable heresy did appear in the West,—the Pelagian,—it was concerned not with the nature of God, but with the nature of man: it had to do with practical human life.
Against the erection of a complete and exclusive organization, the Donatists had long since protested. They had now been a separate church for nearly two hundred years. They were especially strong in Africa. There were Donatist churches side by side with the Catholic churches in Hippo. So intimate was the contention that no Donatist woman would bake a loaf of bread for a Catholic. And there was frequent violence.
Augustine at first addressed himself to the reconciliation of this inveterate division. But the original arguments for and against were now so entangled with prejudices, so complicated by years of abusive controversy, and so lost under an increasing burden of fresh grievances, that no friendly settlement seemed possible. The cruelties of imperial soldiers against the Donatists had been answered with fierce reprisals. In Augustine's own time and neighborhood, one Catholic bishop had been ducked in a pond, and another had been beaten about the head with the pieces of his broken altar. Augustine himself was in frequent peril.
In his books against the Donatists, Augustine shows the effects of this contention. First of all great Christian teachers, he formally defended the persecution of heretics. The shedding of the blood of the Priscillianists had indeed been undertaken at the instigation of bishops, but other and better bishops had deplored it. Here, however, were heretics destroying churches and assaulting clergy. Their evil must be met with evil. Their violence must be resisted with violence. Augustine tried in vain to keep the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. He was disposed to love his enemies. But he hated the Donatists. They seemed to him to be outside the limits of Christian forbearance. He advised treating them as thieves and robbers should be treated. In a writing entitled "De Correctione Donatistanum," he held that the civil power ought to restrain schism. He was the first to translate the hospitality of a parable into the hostility of a religious war, and to find a sanction for persecution in the words "Compel them to come in." He might as well have taken for a text, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat!" The principle proceeded easily from the punishment of wrong acting to the punishment of wrong thinking. Augustine became an apostle of intolerance. Thus the controversy with the Donatists continued until all the clamorous voices were silenced, in the year when Augustine died, by the victorious invasion of the Vandals.
The heresy of the Pelagians turned upon the question, How may we be saved from sin? An answer was given by a Briton, named Pelagius. He said, "We may be saved by being good." He quoted the words of Jesus, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." Anybody, he said, can do that, if he tries hard enough. The church is not necessary, the sacraments are not necessary, the grace of God is not necessary. These are all helpful, but not essential. Be good: this is the desire of God, and it is possible to every child of God.
The matter became a subject of controversy in connection with the letters of congratulation which were written to Demetrias, a young Roman lady who had entered the monastic life. Jerome said that this was the most important event in the history of Rome since the defeat of Hannibal. But Pelagius was not so enthusiastic. He acknowledged the excellences of the single life, but observed that there was danger of overestimating them. Men and women could be holy, if they would, under any conditions. The natural life was as acceptable to God as the ascetic life. He praised the innate goodness of human nature, and protested against the theory that man's will is totally corrupt.
The letter precipitated a general discussion, and Pelagius, a sweet-tempered, simple-hearted person, who in his own experience and observation had encountered much more good than ill, found that he had drawn upon himself the fire of the great guns of Augustine.
Never has the personal equation entered more evidently into the progress of thought. To Augustine, with his hot African nature, remembering his own participation in the wickedness of the world, the supreme fact of human life is sin. Taking his clue from expressions of St. Paul, he traced it back to the first man. The spring of humanity was poisoned at its source. Every human being is born bad. The race is lost, and every member of it, by nature inclined to evil, is not only unable to do good, but is doomed, in consequence of this inability, to everlasting punishment.
Accordingly, salvation cannot come by any effort of our own. It must be derived from without. In his teaching as to the source of salvation, Augustine presented his two characteristic doctrines.
The first doctrine was that salvation comes by grace. Grace is help from God. To a part—a small part—of our doomed race, by reason of the act of His inscrutable will, God gives grace, and they are saved. The sacrifice of Christ upon the cross makes grace available, but it becomes applicable to us not by any act of ours, not of ourselves. The saved were chosen of God, elect, predestinated to eternal life, before the world began.
The second doctrine was that grace comes by the church. It cannot be had outside the church. It is a subtle something which is imparted by the sacraments. Outside the church, then, among the schismatics, among the Donatists, is no salvation. All the heathen are lost. Infants dying unbaptized are not saved; they may be punished with some measure of mercy, and be damned with a somewhat mitigated damnation, but they cannot enter into heaven. The church is in the world as the ark floated on the flood. Unless we get in and stay in, we shall certainly be drowned in an ocean of everlasting fire.
The Pelagians said that Augustine's doctrines were immoral. If man has no free will, then he has no responsibility, and there is no difference between vice and virtue. They said that Augustine's doctrines were blasphemous. The condemnation of a race for the sins of one would be a horrible injustice, not to be attributed to God. They said that Augustine had been a Manichee, and had believed in a bad god, and had never been converted. But the church went with Augustine. In the breaking-up of the Roman Empire by the invasion of the barbarians, in the violence and misery of the time, in the prevalence of evil, in the face of the wicked world, he seemed a true interpreter of human life.
Toward the end of his long career Augustine did a curious and interesting thing. He published a good-sized book called "Retractations." In it he confessed the errors of his teaching. Concerning this matter and that he had changed his mind, in the better light of experience and truth. It was characteristic of his habitual humility and honesty. He did not retract, however, the positions which he took against the Donatists and the Pelagians. By virtue of these positions, he was the founder of Latin Christianity.
At last, in the midst of these controversies, came the great calamity of the fall of Rome.
Gradually, step by step, the barbarians had passed over the boundaries of the Danube and the Rhine into the empire. Constantine had held them in check, but after him they came in greater might than ever. They presented themselves as settlers, and were received as allies. These two aspects of their invasion dimmed the sight of the Romans regarding the tremendous changes which were taking place. Theodosius mastered them as long as his strong reign continued. After him his son Honorius reigned with incredible indifference in the West, and the barbarian Stilicho became his minister of state. And after Stilicho came Alaric.
Jerome writes in 409: "Innumerable savage tribes have overrun all parts of Gaul. The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the ocean, has been laid waste by Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepidi, Herules, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemans and, alas for the common weal, even the hordes of the Pannonians. The once noble city of Mainz has been captured and destroyed. In its church many thousands have been massacred. The people of Worms have been extirpated after a long siege. The powerful city of Rheims, the Ambiani [near Amiens], the Altrabtae [near Arras], the Belgians on the outskirts of the world, Tournay, Speyer and Strassburg have fallen to the Germans. The provinces of Aquitaine, and of the Nine Nations, of Lyons and Narbonne, with the exception of a few cities, have been laid waste. Those whom the sword spares without, famine ravages within. I cannot speak of Toulouse without tears. I am silent about other, places, that I may not seem to despair of God's mercy."
In 410 Alaric the Goth besieged Rome and took it. The eternal city, the immemorial metropolis of the world, the invincible and inviolable fortress of civilization, fell and was plundered by the Goths.
By the emperor Honorius, in his court at Ravenna, the news was received with that amazing indifference which was his most marked characteristic. He is said to have shown in his career only two signs of any interest in life: he had a strong sense of the importance of keeping his imperial person out of danger, and he had remarkable success in raising hens. Messengers brought the emperor the awful news. "Rome," they cried, "is destroyed!" "What!" he said, "only this morning she was feeding out of my hand "; and when they made him understand that it was the imperial city of which they spoke, he replied, greatly relieved, "Oh, I thought you meant my favorite hen, of the same name!"
But to Jerome at Bethlehem, Augustine at Hippo, and all other thoughtful Romans, it seemed to be, as indeed it was, the end of the age.
Then Augustine wrote his greatest work, the "City of God:" The purpose was to show that though the city of the world had fallen, the City of God stands strong forever. This writing is in twenty-two books. Ten are negative, showing the falsity of paganism: five to disprove that the present prosperity of man is dependent on the pagan gods; five to deny that they have anything to do with man's prosperity hereafter. Even in the fifth century, two hundred years after the conversion of Constantine, paganism was still of sufficient importance to call for this long and laborious refutation. The other twelve books are positive, setting forth the truth of the Christian religion: four about its origin, four about its growth, four to set in contrast the cities of the world secular and temporal, and the church, the city of the world spiritual and eternal.
With this work, the Early Church, and the Roman world with it, spoke its last word. After that, amidst the confusions and distresses of the barbarian invasion of the empire, the learning and literature of the time lapsed, for the most part, into the making of copies and compilations of previous opinions. Augustine's "City of God" served as a treasure house of theological material throughout the Middle Ages. It was a store of thought by which men lived in times of intellectual famine.
In 429, the Vandals under Genseric invaded Africa. Down they came over "the shining fields which had been the granary of Rome." In the common destruction of the country, the force of the invasion fell terribly upon the churches. When the Vandals came, Africa had five hundred bishops; twenty years after only eighteen dioceses had survived.
The invaders besieged Hippo. Augustine was in his seventy-fifth year. In the third month of the siege (430) he fell into a mortal sickness. The last of the fathers, the last of the great Romans, lay dying, as the empire, wounded beyond recovery, lay dying beside him. Outside the sickroom was the noise of fighting, and the shouts of the besiegers. Thus the city of his long service faded from Augustine's eyes, and he entered into that other city of which he wrote, the city of his hopes and prayers, the divine city, founded, as he said, on earth, but eternal in the heavens.