But we need not fear their suggestions, for by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails. But even when it does they cease not, but knavishly by subtlety come on again. For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers.
Athanasius on St Anthony
Athens was the cultural center of the world in Plato’s time; Rome in Augustine’s. The Piraeus is the port town of Athens (9 km, says Google); Ostia of Rome (26 km). In the Piraeus Socrates gives his Allegory of the Cave (Republic, VII) narrating the soul’s metaphysical ascent from appearance to reality; in Ostia Augustine and Monica join in a mystical ascent (Confessions, IX).
I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine how conscious Augustine himself might have been of the Piraeus-Ostia connection and whether he then wittingly or unwittingly uses it to compare/contrast pagan and Christian metaphysics. And indeed what many things the compare/contrast yields - as a poetic evocation, I imagine there is no limit. To get things started, I throw in my own observation of what I see as a primary, if not the primary, distinction: For Augustine and Monica the ascent was one of truth and communion, whereas with Plato’s cave (forget for a moment dialogical direction of the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter), a truth achieved is achieved alone.
I mention this by way of introduction Huysman’s En Route, which as a conversion narrative naturally enough invites comparison with Augustine. The overall difference: the one talks with God; the other with himself, and I submit that this has everything to do with why we have a St. Augustine and not a St. Joris-Karl.
"Nietzsche is willing to admit that religion in some of its phases has expressed the will to life or rather to power; but his general attitude is that belief in God, especially in the God of the Christian religion, is hostile to life, and that when it expresses the will to power the will in question is that of the lower types of man...Given this attitude, it is understandable that Nietzsche tends to make the choice between theism, especially Christian theism, and atheism a matter of taste or instinct. (A History of Philosophy, Volume VII, pp. 403-4)
And I would say that it is taste, and perhaps instinct, that drives Durtal out of the confines of Parisian society and back to a very primitive expression of Catholicism. See in the following how he disagrees with Nietzsche: Christianity is not defunct but merely covered over with layers of artificiality and convention. The aesthetic impulse - Huysman's will to life, perhaps - behind Durtal's encyclopedic command of music and architecture can only find its fulfillment beneath the cultural sediment that has served as the object of his passion:
Artists of genius have set themselves to translate the sacred texts: Vittoria, Josquin de Près, Palestrina, Orlando Lasso, Handel, Bach, Haydn, have written wonderful pages; often indeed they have been uplifted by the mystic effluence, the very emanation of the Middle Ages, for ever lost; and yet their works have retained a certain pomp, and in spite of all are pretentious, as opposed to the humble magnificence, the sober splendour of the Gregorian chant—with them the whole thing came to an end, for composers no longer believed. Yet in modern times some religious pieces may be cited of Lesueur, Wagner, Berlioz, and Cæsar Franck, and in these again we are conscious of the artist underlying his work, the artist determined to show his skill, thinking to exalt his own glory, and therefore leaving God out. We feel ourselves in the presence of superior men, but men with their weaknesses, their inseparable vanity, and even the vice of their senses. In the liturgical chant, created almost always anonymously in the depth of the cloisters, was an extraterrestrial well, without taint of sin or trace of art. It was an uprising of souls already freed from the slavery of the flesh, an explosion of elevated tenderness and pure joy, it was also the idiom of the Church, a musical gospel appealing like the Gospel itself at once to the most refined and the most humble.
But following Durtal's aesthetically driven attempt to recover original Christianity, because aesthetically driven, has the air of folly to it. Aesthetic sensibility so often translates to a toxic subjectivity. Durtal doubts himself and frets at every turn; his judgments of taste turn into judgments of people and congregations; he lapses into encyclopedic discourse with little provocation; his most wrenching sins are those of the flesh, but we hear practically nothing of the woman he visits; indeed, almost nobody else speaks in the book, except for those few clergy qualified to know his heart; his beloved works of Catholicism are almost exclusively mystical and not theological or scriptural. And I would say that this is all interconnected. When after his Trappist retreat, involving a harrowing confession and a return to communion, he heads home, he is once again struck by doubt: "How could he live among stupid people like the devout, how listen without gnashing his teeth to the affected chants of the choirs?" Granted, one of the great doors to Catholicism is its artistic past. And granted, I would never put down one's efforts at religion. But at the point he utters this in the closing pages, it is clear that he is still quite stuck in the subjectivity from which religion promises to free us. For the aesthetic, nothing but the Great Man is ever good enough.
Aside: Durtal doesn't mention Beethoven or Verdi in the long passage above, but he should. For my tastes the Missa Solemnis and the Requiem are the farthest you can get from religion with religious texts.