Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Two)

Denied his Baptism in Christ, Augustine began to cope with the polarity between his mother and father, caught between their personal systems of belief. This resulted in a tangle of juicy psychology as Augustine links his feelings about God to his feelings about his mother, Monica. She, as God’s instrument, agreed to deny him his baptism. Yet, as he writes, if it weren’t for:

she (who) did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he. In this you helped her to turn the scales against her husband, whom she always obeyed because by obeying him she obeyed your law, thereby showing greater virtue than he did. (I, 2)

This dichotomous statement is intriguing and sheds light upon Augustine’s view of a virtuous sin committed by his mother, which seems to be in direct conflict with what we have already learned about his views of sin. How can it be that all sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord, even an infant’s cries, but it is somehow virtuous for a woman to “turn the scales against her husband”? He witnessed his mother walking a theologically fine line as she thwarted his paternal father’s influence while somehow still abiding in God’s Law. She never disobeyed her husband except through her enduring piety to the Christian God and her prayers for her son. Augustine credits his mother's piety as the one constant in his life which lead to his ultimate salvation and, in so doing, he estabilshes a repeating pattern in his early life which involved turning his back on his mother and God alike.

Augustine continued his studies, having been sent to Madaura, where he found that he disliked Greek and preferred Latin writers over his other studies. He found himself lost in the stories, another example that he gives of turning away from God and into a world of falsehood and fiction; “a ferment of wickedness.” (II, 2) Coming upon his adolescent years, Augustine began to yearn for the sin of lust which, he claims, would continue to haunt him until his conversion. His studies of literature and public speaking were interrupted when:

my father, a modest citizen of Thagaste whose determination was greater than his means, saved up the money to send me farther afield to Carthage…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..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..Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn…my mother because she thought that the usual course of study certainly would not hinder me. (II,3)

This is how Augustine “construe[d] the character of his parents” and there is conflict in this belief. He describes himself as spoiled and self entitled, both bitter about his parent’s desire for his education and unequal in his forgiveness of one of them despite their equal roles. In a feat of impressive mental contortion, he recognizes his mother’s part in this stage of his development as God’s hand in his life and yet he offers no such accolades to his father because he is pagan and not a believer.

All of this is but a preamble to the parable about sin to come. While waiting for his journey to Carthage, at the age of 16, he had free time to spend with unruly friends. Augustine claimed that he fell prey to peer pressure and gave in to the grievous sin of theft. He and his buddies had a habit of engaging in games out of doors after dark and these games involved committing anything that might be forbidden, such as stealing pears from a tree near a local vineyard. Augustine took these pears not because of need and cannot recall if they ate more than a few. He stole them for the sake of committing a theft and fed most of the pears to the pigs. What some might consider a simple adolescent prank, Augustine elevates to such a degree that it might be better interpreted as a symbol for original sin. For “if any one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor.” (II,6) It can be assumed that there were other pranks committed by these “ruffians” but Augustine chooses specifically to tell us his story of stealing fruit from a forbidden tree.

Augustine’s inner reflections about the reasons he commits his version of original sin are quite innovative and compelling. He attempts to converse with his crime of theft as if it “were a living thing” (II,6) in order to gain a greater understanding of that which he considers to be the plight of all descendents of Adam and Eve. Augustine believes the source of all sin can be boiled down to three states of the human condition: anger, fear and grief and that sin translates or is “hatched” by a “lust for power, gratifications of the eye and gratifications of a corrupt nature.” (III,8) He goes on to converse with this disembodied sinful part of himself in an attempt to reason through the process of sin. This dialogue regarding the nature of sin suggests that he (and all of us who sin) continuously experience all the human corruptions that lead to the first sin in every act of sin committed since our removal from Eden; whether cruelty, lustfulness, inquisitiveness, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, and envy, to name but a few.

And now, O Lord of my God, now that I ask what pleasure I had in that theft, I find that it had no beauty to attract me. I do not mean beauty of the sort that justice and prudence possess, nor the beauty that is in man’s mind and in his memory and in the life that animates him…It did not even have the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive-pride, for instance, which is a pretense of superiority, imitating yours, for you alone are God, supreme over all; or ambition, which is only a craving for honour or glory, when you alone are to be honoured before all and you alone are glorious for ever.(II, 6)

Ultimately, however, Augustine uses this mental exercise as a means of discovering that the reasons for sin are of no consequence, writing that if “it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin.” (II,8) He, like Adam, was lured by others to commit his grave act of eating the forbidden fruit and thus “wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” (II,10)

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