Most people who recount the conversion of St. Augustine highlight his former life of sexual sin, and for good reason. But he also had to undergo an enormous detachment from the admiration of the men of his age. Before his conversion, Augustine was the 4th century equivalent of a tenured-professor at a prestigious University in Milan. One day, while walking along, he came across a rather happy-drunk. Unlike the modern tenured-professor who might ask shallow, self-righteous ethical questions (eg Why are there homeless people? Why is he drunk?) Augustine ponders in Book VI of his Confessions as to why this drunk had attained some happiness and he had not:
I recall how miserable I was, and how one day you brought me to a realization of my miserable state. I was preparing to deliver a eulogy upon the emperor in which I would tell plenty of lies with the object of winning favor with the well-informed by my lying; so my heart was panting with anxiety and seething with feverish, corruptive thoughts. As I passed through a certain district in Milan I noticed a poor beggar, drunk, as I believe, and making merry. I groaned and pointed out to the friends who were with me how many hardships our idiotic enterprises entailed. Goaded by greed, I was dragging my load of unhappiness along, and feeling it all the heavier for being dragged. Yet while all our efforts were directed solely to the attainment of unclouded joy, it appeared that this beggar had already beaten us to the goal, a goal which we would perhaps never reach ourselves. With the help of the few paltry coins he had collected by begging this man was enjoying the temporal happiness for which I strove by so bitter, devious and roundabout a contrivance. His joy was no true joy, to be sure, but what I was seeking in my ambition was a joy far more unreal; and he was undeniably happy while I was full of foreboding; he was carefree, I apprehensive. If anyone had questioned me as to whether I would rather be exhilarated or afraid, I would of course have replied, “Exhilarated”; but if the questioner had pressed me further, asking whether I preferred to be like the beggar, or to be as I was then, I would have chosen to be myself, laden with anxieties and fears. Surely that would have been no right choice, but a perverse one? I could not have preferred my condition to his on the grounds that I was better educated, because that fact was not for me a source of joy but only the means by which I sought to curry favor with human beings: I was not aiming to teach them but only to win their favor.—Confessions, Book VI, St. Augustine.
Notice that that happy-drunk on the street had attained “no true joy,” but he had indeed already attained “temporary happiness.” Amazingly, this was more than what Augustine had attained, even with all of his prestigious education and winning the accolades of many pagan men. In fact, the happy-drunk had attained a higher goal of earthly happiness than the pre-conversion Augustine, but with much less “anxieties and fears” as baggage to his complex life. Of course, the above episode was just one more clue that… neither sex, nor drink, nor education, nor popularity… could fulfill the human soul longing for the infinite. As St. Augustine later wrote to Jesus Christ:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.