Confessions: The Destitute Beggar


 [A]s I passed down a street in Milan and noticed a destitute beggar; it wasn’t late in the day, but he’d had quite a few, it looked to me, and he was humorous and enjoying himself. To the friends who were with me, I moaned in speaking of the many sufferings of our own insanity. In all our kinds of effort… we didn’t want anything but to reach a state of carefree enjoyment; that beggar had beaten us to it, and perhaps we were never going to arrive.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 6.9


Augustine was preparing to do an encomium to the emperor. He tells us that he had prepared many lies to win approval. But all the while, his “heart was issuing furnace-blasts anxiety over this assignment and seething with the fever of the obsessive thoughts disintegrating [him] from within.” One day, as he passed down a street in Milan, he noticed a destitute beggar. It was not late in the day, but the man was already drunk. The beggar seemed to be “humorous and enjoying himself.” (6.9.3).


And it occurred to him that humans suffer from their own insanity. All the fixations that were straining him were for the purpose of making him happy and to “reach a state of carefree enjoyment,” yet the beggar had beaten him to it. (6.9.4) The drunk beggar had achieved happiness with just a handful of change while Augustine was miserable “taking a woefully winding course, advancing [himself] by paths that circled back on themselves” (Ibid).


Sure, the beggar did not have true joy, but neither did he. The drunkard’s joy was temporary, but his was non-existent. Therefore, all his bids for advancement were a “quest of something much less real.” He continued, “He was enjoying himself, no doubt about it, while I was in distress; he was carefree, while I was shaking in my shoes.”


Augustine questioned himself if he was better than the beggar; if he would rather be the beggar than himself. If his answer was himself, then it could not have been because he had a better education because it was not a source of joy for him, only anxiety. In the end, despite his pertinacity, he would have to admit that the beggar was in a better position than him. They were both perusing happiness through meaningless means, but the beggar had achieved it with a few cents while Augustine would not. Both were suffering for their insanity, but Augustine was more insane.


Augustine then admits a reason for his unhappiness, “I was seeking to use my education to please other people—not to teach them, but just to please them” (6.9.5). The problem was then not the education itself, but how his fixations had selfish motivations.


God poked Augustine’s wound by showing him that he was suffering from his own insanity through a drunk beggar. He was no better than those he looked down on, but that in fact, they were better than him, because for a lot less they had achieved what he was chasing.


For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.—Proverbs 3:12


Lord, save me from my own insanity, that I may live wisely.



Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.

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