FOURTH SESSION SUNDAY FEBRUARY 4—WHAT IS ST AUGUSTINE’S ATTITUDE TO AND UNDERSTANDING OF SIN—HIS OWN AND OTHERS?
“The evil in me was foul, but I loved it. I loved my own perdition and my own faults, not the things for which I committed wrong, but the wrong itself “ Confessions Book II, section 4.
Preparatory Reading: Confessions Book. II (especially sections 4-10 ) pp. 28-34
Focus Text: Confessions Book. II section 4, pp. 28-29.
1. Our theme for this fourth session is St Augustine’s attitude to and understanding of sin; his own and others. He says this of himself “The evil in me was foul, but I loved it. I loved my own perdition and my own faults, not the things for which I committed wrong, but the wrong itself “ Confessions Book II, section 4.
- 2. But as the older St Augustine, writing about his adolescence, he begins Bk II by confessing this: ”I intend to remind myself of my past foulness and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. it is from love of your love that I make my act of recollection.” (p. 24)
1.3. I said at the end of the third session that i would say something further about A’s relationship with his mother. What i have to say will appear in the mention of Monica in Bk. Ii which is our focus for to day.
- St Augustine’s understanding of sin
2.1. Plan of Bk II This book falls into two nearly equal parts.
2.1.1. In the first part, he confesses to his inordinate lust or concupiscence and vaunting ambition ( pp.24-28) in the second he focuses on one action of his in the company of friends that he regards as a greater sin that his lust—the stealing of some pears! (pp. 28-34)
2.1.2. His own confessions of himself as a sinner “My beauty washed away and in your sight I became putrid (Dan 10:8) by pleasing myself and being ambitious to win human approval.” (p. 24)
2.1.3. In this first part too he comments on his upbringing by both parents
220.127.116.11 His mother warns him about avoiding fornication and especially adultery. “Her concern(and in the secret of my conscience I recall the memory of her admonition delivered with vehement anxiety) was that I should not fall into fornication, and above all that I should not commit adultery with someone else’s wife.” (p. 27)
18.104.22.168. His father hopes that his “signs of virility” would soon result in grandchildren! “The thorns of lust rose above my head, and there was no hand to root them out. Indeed, when at the bathhouse my father saw that I was showing signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence, he was overjoyed to suppose that he would be having grandchildren, and told my mother so.” (pp. 26-27)
22.214.171.124. And his father sacrificed much financially so that his son could have the best education and he took great pride in his brilliant, accomplished and highly favored son. “At that time everybody was full of praise for my father because he spent money on his son beyond the means of his estate,…Many citizens of far greater wealth did nothing of the kind for their children.” (p. 26) But he goes on to say, “this same father did not care what character before you I was developing, or how chaste I was so long as I possessed a cultured tongue—. (Ibid)
2.1.4. In his now later evaluation St Augustine’s calls both parents to account. “”Sensual folly assumed domination overt me, and I gave myself totally to it in shameful act allowed by humanity but under your laws illicit. My family did not try to extricate me from my headlong course by means of marriage. There only concern was that I should learn to speak as effectively as possible and carry conviction by my oratory.” (p. 26)
2.2. in the second half of Bk II he focuses on one action of his—in the company of friends— that he regards as a greater sin that his lust—the stealing of some pears! (pp. 28-34) In treating his extraordinary account of the sinfulness of this act i have been helped by a very fine essay by Professor William Mann at the U. of Vermont, “Inner Life Ethics”, published in The Augustinian Tradition Edited by Gareth B. Matthews, California U. Press, 1999, pp. 140-165, especially the section The Theft of the Pears, pp.157-160, and Peter Brown’s review of the recent Sarah Ruden translation of the Confessions, The New York Review, Oct. 26, 2017, pp. 45-46.
2.2.1. Peter Brown makes what some of us might think is a strange, even wrong Judgement. He writes that A “ …has deadly gift for miniaturizing sin. There are no large sins in the Confessions. Those he examines most closely are tiny sins. He spends a large part of book II examining his motives for robbing a pear tree. Modern readers chafe. ‘Rum thing,’ wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Harold Laski in 1921, ‘to see a man making a mountain out of robbing a pear tree.’ ” (p,46) But Prof. Brown goes on to say that “Holmes was wrong to be impatient. Only by winnowing every motive that played into that obscure act of small town vandalism was Augustine able to isolate the very smallest, the most toxic concentration of all—the chilling possibility that he had acted gratuitously, simply to show that he (like God, and then like Adam) could do whatever he wished.” (Ibid)
2.2.2. Why this “tiny sin” in St Augustine’s estimation turns out to be the very essence of sin, to be sin par excellence. Prof. Mann puts it like this. “Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the theft of the pears is a case of an especially serious misdeed. And appearances are to the contrary.” Before we go on to analyze his motives, two relevant notes. First, A doesn’t say that he knew or didn’t know that his act harmed the owner of the pear tree: it is quite possible that the owner never noticed the loss. Second, while A says that he would not have stolen the pears if he hadn’t been urged on by companions this does nothing to explain “why the theft is so seriously wrong.” (Mann, page 157)
2.2.3. Let’s first hear what he says and then list the motives he rejects for why he stole the pears. “I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so…our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed.” (p. 29) Here’s a summary of the motives he rejects. First, he did not need the pears: he had plenty that were much better. Second, he didn’t steal them for the pleasure of eating them: he threw them to the pigs to eat. Third, sometimes people sin as a means to gain some other good, (like stealing from a mother’s purse to buy some candy) but A’s theft was not done as a means to any other end. Fourth, some sinful acts are best explained as arising from some ingrained habit, or bad character, or even a mental instability. St A is very aware of the typical vices of bad character and he list a lot of them, contrasting them to goodness, beauty and love of God. We will read this lovely passage from Bk II, vi, page 31, And what greater innocence…taken away from you.” St A often confesses that he exhibited some of these vices but they were not appealed to as motives for stealing the pears.
2.2.4. If he denied that any of these were the motive for stealing the pears what was it? Why did he steal them? He is very clear about this and repeats his reason (if it can be called that) at least seven times. Here are some examples found on p.29, “my desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.” (emphasis added) “Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed.” (emphasis added)”I had no motive for my wickedness except the wickedness itself.” (emphasis added) “I was seeking not to gain any thing by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.” (emphasis added)
2.2.5. The pleasure of doing what was wrong was his motive but underlying this is sin (not a sin); a sinful disposition underlying many of his acts: a desire to transfer a love for God to a love for objects. These objects—like the body of his mistress— are good because they are God’s creatures but are less than the highest. This comes out plainly when he writes; “Yet sin is committed for the sake of all these things and others of this kind [i.e. created goods] when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things that are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law (Ps. 118: 142, ESV 119:142). (See Chadwick’s helpful note 13 on page 30) These inferior goods have their delights, but are not comparable to my God who has made them all.” (p. 30)
2.2.6. St A on the homage all vice(s) pay to virtue(s) and all humanity in their sin yet imitate God. Here is crucial passage where he says just this (p. 32) “In their perverted way all humanity imitates you [God]. Yet they put themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against you.” He asks in what way did his act of stealing the pears “viciously and perversely imitate my Lord? Just in this: It was an act in that had “a dim resemblance” to the omnipotence of God. As fallen creatures it is not possible for us not to sin but in the very act of refusing God as our ultimate good our refusal, our defiance, our turning away to the satisfaction of our own desires exhibits a pale imitation of God’s omnipotence.See too Prof Brown’s observation above at 2.2.1.
2.2.7. St. Augustine sums up his account of the stealing of the pears as exhibit A of the essence of human sin. Notice how what he has just said about inferior created yet perishable goods and the superior uncreated eternal good God is carried over to this summing up. “The fruit we stole was beautiful because it was your creation most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, the good God, God the highest good and my true good. The fruit was beautiful, but was not that which my miserable soul coveted… My feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying.” Please read the rest of this remarkable paragraph.
2.2.8. Why did St. Augustine think that the motive behind his stealing the pears exhibited the nature of sin even more clearly than his lust? I started out our analysis of this incident by saying just that. (See 2.2 above) To lust after a woman or a man is to desire a created good. “No one would commit murder without a motive, merely because he took pleasure in killing. Who would believe that? That might be questioned but the point A is making and why his stealing the pears was worse that lust is that “I wanted to carry out an act of theft, driven by no kind of need [or want] other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for justice…My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.” (29)
3.1. But wonderfully typical of St Augustine everywhere in the Confessions he does not leave things in the mire of his sin. He not only thanks God for forgiving him for the evils he has committed but also for preserving him from other evil intentions and acts. “I will love you Lord, and I will give you thanks and confession to your name because you have forgiven me such great evils and nefarious deeds. I attribute to your great grace and mercy that you have melted my sins away like ice… I confess that everything has been forgiven, both the evil things I did of my own accord, and those which I did not do because of your guidance.” (p. 32)
3.2. This invites to to consider the theme of our fifth and last session St Augustine’s attitude towards and understanding of his redemption, forgiveness of sin and deepened love for God? In this winter time we will carry with us his lovely metaphor of God in his mercy towards us melting our “sins away like ice.”