Augustine’s Confessions: Growing Up Human

Wednesday, March 16, AD 2011

The second half of Book I (Chapters 7 to 20) deal with the earliest years of Augustine’s life, starting with his infancy. One of the things I find kind of charming about this section is the approach Augustine brings to examining his earliest years:

I do not remember that early part of my life, O Lord, but I believe what other people have told me about it and from watching other babies I can conclude that I lived as they do. But, true though my conclusions may be, I do not like to think of that period as part of the same life I now lead, because it is dim and forgotten and, in this sense, it is no different from the time I spent in my mother’s womb.

This is one of those fascinating things about Augustine. He’s never just talking about himself and his memories, even if that is the theme which drives his narrative. He’s perhaps more interested in the experience of being human, and of humanity in relation to God, than he is in telling us about his experiences in particular.

Of course, when Augustine thinks about the experience of being human, he immediately starts thinking about original sin, and some find him rather dour because of this. Augustine is one of the few people you’ll find talking about infants sinning:

It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to whims which would only do him harm. This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.

Read in isolation, this can sound rather cold and severe. Of course babies cry, they have no other way of making their needs known! But Augustine recognizes this, and indeed notes that people never blame or scold babies for being selfish, because of course they can be no other way. I think Augustine is trying to get at two things with his was of describing babies’ actions here. First, he seeks to show us how naturally selfishness comes to us as human beings. When infants, we care for nothing but What We Want Right Now, and it is only gradually that we learn that other people may rightly not satisfy our every desire immediately. Second, Augustine is very deliberately drawing a comparison between how babies react to the world which to us seems so clearly understandable (and yet to them so cruel and unreasonable) and how we react to God. Just as a baby cries and strikes out at his parents when he doesn’t get some toy or food that he thinks he desperately needs, so we strike out and cry out against God. And like the baby, our trials are very much rooted in the fact that we do not understand the world as God understands it, and so every trial seems strange and unaccountable.

Moving on into his boyhood, Augustine talks about his struggles with being made to learn Greek in school — a section I remember with particular fondness and clarity because I spent a couple days in college working my way through chapters 13 and 14 in Latin. Augustine, who spoke Latin as a native, is talking about the difficulty he had in learning Greek, and specifically about how learning a foreign language from a grammar book is so completely different from the natural process of picking up a language from hearing it spoken around you. These days, of course, there’s virtually no other way to learn how to read Augustine’s language. Language changes, but being a schoolboy remains the same.

Augustine also speaks so movingly of the plight of the schoolboy, motivated primarily by the fear of being beaten, trying to conform himself to the seemingly arbitrary desires of the adult world that one almost pictures him sitting down with Rousseau for a chat — except that for all his talk about infants sinning one gets the impression that Augustine actually likes children rather more than Rousseau did. Augustine’s sympathy for his boyish rebellion against the wishes of his teachers comes not from some mistaken belief that children are naturally good, and that it is only society that corrupts them, but from the more balanced realization that while the process of civilizing children enough that they stop hitting others and taking their toys does impart a certain degree of real virtue, but that very much of what society considers virtue (which in Late Antiquity involved such skills as a thorough knowledge of the classics, the ability to argue persuasively in the law courts and in politics, knowing all the right people and respecting them for being “the right people”, etc.) is in turn so much arbitrariness and self regard. Augustine’s total focus on God and our final purpose causes him to see not only his won priorities as a boy as often being selfish but also those of society as often being mere vanity. If there’s a bit of the rebel in Augustine, it is not because he wants to “do his own thing”, but rather because he understands that conforming to God is of such infinitely greater value than conforming either to society’s expectations or to his own will.

The edition I’m reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University


2 Responses to Augustine’s Confessions: Growing Up Human