Monday, March 23, 2009

On Pears, Sin and St. Augustine

I remember back many moons ago (well, eighteen years ago, anyways), when I was in my first year of my first MA (they are habit forming), I was taking a course called Topics in Mediaeval History. That was a bit of a misnomer. It really was Beginners Intensive Augustine. In one term, we read (at breakneck speed) the Confessions and the City of God. That is a lot of theological meat in a short time, to say the least, even in the washed out and anemic secularized reading of Augustine that this particular history course privileged. When you add that I was in the middle of a major spiritual upheaval which would eventually lead to my coming to faith and joining the Anglican Church of Canada, the impact of Augustine was transformative in a deep way. My wife often jokes that I was the only person she knew who had been converted by Augustine and, if she means in the same way that the example of Victorinus caused Augustine to turn (back) to the Christian God (Confessions, 8,2), she probably is right. There is no doubt that the example of St. Augustine informed my conversion and continues to affect the way that I think about my faith. I am, at the end of the day, an Augustinian (albeit in a Protestant mode) and proud of it.

The memory of this class came back to me a few weeks ago, as I was reading the famous passage from the second book of the Confessions which deals with Augustine's gratuitous and sophmoric theft of pears. I remember my colleagues were inclined to either trivialize this passage or reflect on Augustine's clearly neurotic psyche. I always thought they had the wrong end of the stick and my re-reading of this passage confirms me in that opinion.

Here is the passage in question (my translation)
Certainly, your law and your law, which is written on the hearts of people and which iniquity itself does not destroy, punishes theft. For what thief endures another thief calmly? Not even a rich thief endures another one compelled by want. I wanted to steal and I did it, compelled by no need unless an impoverishment and aversion to justice and the baggage of iniquity. I stole that which was available in abundance for me and much better than what I was seeking in theft. Nor did I wish to enjoy the thing, but rather I wanted to enjoy the theft and sin itself. There was, near our vines, a pear tree, laden with fruits, but which did not have an enticing shape or taste. In the dead of night, we, the most good-for-nothing youths, hurried to shake the pears down and carry them off. We had prolonged our game in a pestilential manner in the open space. We carried off from there a huge load (of pears) not for our own meal, but for feeding to pigs, although we ate some of them, as long as what was pleasing was done by us not what was permitted. Behold, my heart. Behold, my heart, which you pitied in deepest pit. Behold my heart tells you what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously evil. There was no cause of my evil except evil. It was foul, and I loved it. I love to destroy. I loved my fault, not that for which I was faulty, but I loved my fault. Foul soul, leaping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything through shame, but shame itself.

Powerful stuff and, perhaps, it is safer to domesticate it by dismissing the occasion for this passion as something trivial and unimportant. What a to-do about adolescent stupidity? Sure, it was theft, but who really cares about a few dozen inedible pears thrown to a bunch of pigs, who probably would end up with them anyway? Isn't Augustine just being morbid post facto?

This attitude, however, entirely misses Augustine's point. Augustine really isn't this concerned with the pears per se, but, rather, he is more concerned about the state of his soul. That is, the theft was less worrying than the sheer willfulness and desire to do wrong which served as the motivation for his sinful actions. As elsewhere in the Confessions, Augustine highlights what looks like a trivial episode in his life, not because he is morbid or neurotic, but because these episodes demonstrate something about his own character and his predilection to sin. This revelation of character through seemingly trivial incidents is ancient biography at its best, so it is harsh to criticize Augustine's choice of self-revealing episodes, when any biographer worth his name in the ancient period would choose similar incidents to demonstrate the lives of their subjects.

What is more, I think the common reaction of my classmates also implied a serious misunderstanding of what the sin on which Augustine focuses on throughout the Confessions actually was. In contemporary North America, we tend to view sin as being a discreet, evil action for which we repent or not depending on whether we think it wrong or not. Augustine, while concerned about discreet action, is more interested in sin as a disturbance in human nature and a disturbed will. What moves Augustine to his passionate repentance in this passage is a recognition of the disposition of sin working its way into his youthful heart in such a way that it caused him to prefer evil (theft) over good. This can be demonstrated by the sheer gratuitousness of his theft and his revelling in the sin that he reveals in this passage.

Ultimately, what this passage tells me is that we all can get to the point where we prefer evil to good, especially when we begin to move away from God. Sin can be very enticing- so much so that we may well pursue it to our own destruction. What Augustine provides in this seemingly trivial theft of a few pears isn't his neurosis, but the anatomy of a human heart turning towards sin. Yet, what Augustine also knew when he wrote the Confessions, and what I, ultimately, discovered those many years ago, God is even more powerful than the power of sin and the weakness of our will. Nothing separates us from God and not even, if we are willing, ourselves.



Weekend Fisher said...

Augustine made a lot of sense to me, being worried about the pears. Of course the pears are trivial, and of course if he were hungry and needed food (had stolen not because it was wrong, but because it was necessary) anybody would overlook it. But he realized he had done it for the opposite reason: not because it was necessary, but because it was wrong.

Had to have reminded himself of another story about stealing a piece of fruit ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

levon said...

Thanks for posting this. Is there another translation available online? This passage makes me think about the sin of adam in taking the fruit in the garden, in that it was the disobedience and impatience which was sinful...the fruit itself contains no sin. I also think this passage has environmental implications. I would have like to have come across this passage when I was working on this film: