Augustine’s Confessions: Sin for the Sake of Sin
In Book 2, we find Augustine (the character) as a teenager, while Augustine (the author) takes the opportunity to think about what makes us sin. The connection will be familiar to us all. Augustine talked about Original Sin in Book 1, that tendency which we can see even in very young children towards selfishness in which we can see the rooted tendency towards self over others which is at the root of sin. But that selfishness of childhood is largely unthinking. It is as we enter late childhood and early adolescence we attain the ability to think about sin in a way much like that of adults, but with the drives almost unique to adolescence. Augustine sees this in his past self and doesn’t like what he sees:
For as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.
In this book, the story of what’s going on in young Augustine’s life (versus his examination of the human condition) struck me, with the ways that it seemed both familiar and alien.
This book primarily deals with Augustine’s 16th year. He’s done well at school, but he’s taking a year off from his studies because his father wants to send him off to a more advanced school of rhetoric (Augustine has shown a great deal of promise in school) but can’t afford to send him yet. In Late Antiquity, rhetoric was something that could take you far. Augustine’s father is not among the richest men in the town — in modern terms Augustine’s family is solidly middle class, though that was a smaller segment of the population then than now. But Augustine’s abilities seemed to promise the chance he could rise to the big leagues. Think of this along the lines of Augustine’s father thinking his son could make it into Harvard Law and make it as a top lawyer — but he doesn’t have the money to send him yet, so they’re taking a year to save up.
This is also the year that adolescence hits Augustine full force. As an adult, looking back on the history of his soul, as it were, what strikes Augustine is not so much that this was the pause before he took a shot at an ivy league education and high powered career but rather that this is there year when lust took control of his life. And looking back, it seems to the adult Augustine that others were surprisingly unconcerned about this:
No one had anything but praise for my father who, despite his slender resources, was ready to provide his son with all that was needed to enable him to travel so far for the purpose of study. Many of our townspeople, far richer than my father, went to no such trouble for their children’s sake. Yet this same father of mine took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight or whether I was chaste or not….
One day in the public baths he saw the signs of active virility coming to life in me and this was enough to make him relish the thought of having grandchildren. He was happy to tell my mother about it, for his happiness was due to the intoxication which causes the world to forget you, its Creator, and to love the things you have created instead of loving you, because the world is drunk with the invisible wine of its own perverted, earthbound will. But in my mother’s heart you had already begun to build your temple and laid the foundations of your holy dwelling, while my father was still a catechumen and a new one at that. So, in her piety, she became alarmed and apprehensive, and although I had not yet been baptized, she began to dread that I might follow in the crooked path of those who do not keep their eyes on you but turn their backs instead…. I remember well what her wishes were and how she most earnestly warned me not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man’s wife.
However, Augustine sees a bit of worldliness even in Monica’s concerns, for though she worries about her son’s morals she does not encourage him to marry and thus give a lawful vent to his desires. She too is concerned that he focus on his studies and his career.
This was because she was afraid that the bonds of marriage might be a hindrance to my hopes for the future — not of course the hope of the life to come, which she reposed in you, but my hopes of success at my studies. Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn, my father because he gave next to not thoughts to you and only shallow thought to me, and my mother because she thought that the usual course of study would certainly not hinder me, but would even help me, in my approach to you.
Augustine the narrator seems to see some degree of fault with this — though given what we as the reader 1600 years later know of Augustine’s later career, one can’t help seeing Monica’s desire to see him complete his studies as being well-founded. And thought Augustine is justifiably regretful of some of his actions in the intervening years, his studies did, in the end, form him into the Father of the Church we know today. Encouraging a promising young man to get married at 16 would have been about as unusual in the 4th century as it would be today. From the sound of it, one gets the impression that Patricius took the approach that boys will be boys, while Monica prayed that her son would be a “good boy”, yet considered it a normal and acceptable risk to put him on a good career path and expect him to find a way to put his hormones on hold for ten years. Questioning, as he does, the value of worldly success in general from his current vantage point, Augustine as the author gives these concerns less weight, but the actions of Patricius and Monica will sound familiar and sympathetic to any modern parent.
Of course, one can’t write about Book 2 of Confessions without talking about pears, and the reflection on the attractions of sin which takes up more than half of the book.
One of the moral questions Augustine is trying to examine in this portion of the story of his life is what makes us want to sin. According to the Platonic tradition, one only ever desires something because it is good. Thus, if one wishes something bad, it is either because one imagines it to be good, or because it has some good in itself which we are wrong in loving only to the extent that we do so immoderately.
Yet often, we sin not out of desire for some concrete good thing, but rather out of the simple joy of transgression. To illustrate this, Augustine tells of an escapade during this year he spent at home:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night–having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was–a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.
The pears were clearly not the object here because, as he restates several times in examining the act, the pears weren’t even good pears — the boys knew that tree produced pears that were hard and indigestible.
Thus, this is not, Augustine concludes, like those sins committed for some simple good, as when one steals something because one wants to have that thing. The joy he and the other boys experienced was the joy of breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. This desire to be a law unto oneself and break rules for the sake of disobedience is an inversion of our desire for God. When we love God, we desire to follow His laws. However, when we want to break laws simply for the sake of breaking them, what we really want is to experience ourselves as the make of all laws — as God. The excitement and enjoyment we feel in violating rules is the excitement promised by the serpent who said, “You will become like God.”
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.