St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 2: Chapters 4-10

Summary

With a gang of his friends, Augustine sneaks into an orchard at night and steals a load of pears. He did not want the pears, nor was he motivated by any self-interest. He simply enjoyed the act of doing wrong for its own sake. Trapped in misdirected love of earthly goods, the soul separates itself from God and tries to demonstrate its power over God by breaking God's laws. Augustine knows also that he would never have committed the theft alone. He withdraws from contemplation of his crime in disgust, taking refuge in God's peace.

Analysis

Readers may wonder why Augustine lavishes such anguished and intense self-scrutiny on what sounds like an otherwise minor bit of juvenile delinquency: the theft of some pears from a neighbor's orchard. However, do not accept the description at face value, because Augustine is using this episode to stand both as a generic example of all the other sins committed in his youth and of the common sins of humanity. Viewed this way, Book 2 points up two types of sin: The first, lust, is an example of misdirected love, a confused attempt to seek satisfaction in transitory things that can never truly satisfy.

The second type of sin, the love of wrongdoing simply for the doing of it, is more difficult to classify. Scrutinizing his actions, Augustine expresses dismay at his complete lack of logical motivation for the theft. Every crime has a motive, he says, and it is easy to understand crimes motivated by greed or some other self-interest. But Augustine did not even want the pears. Augustine's theft had no excuse beyond the illicit thrill of doing wrong.

Augustine concludes that this sin is a kind of rebellion against God's omnipotence, a perverse attempt to demonstrate the soul's imagined self-sufficiency. Even by attempting to deny God's omnipotence, the sinner imitates it, thereby proving that nothing is outside of God's fullness and dominion. Like the misdirected love of others that is at the root of lust, misdirected love of self is at the root of rebellion.

The theft of the pears has further implications if you view it as generic rather than specific. Humankind's fundamental disobedience and fall from grace involved the improper taking of fruit from a tree in a garden, as recounted in the story of the Fall (Genesis 2-3). Later, Augustine's final conversion takes place under a fruit tree in a garden, standing in contrast to a present episode of sin as well as to Adam and Eve's. Some scholars have seen the pear theft story as simply an extended metaphor for the sin of promiscuity, the theme begun in the first part of Book 2. This interpretation also has links to the story of Adam and Eve, because humanity's Fall was believed to have included a fall from sexual innocence. Augustine himself describes sin in Book 2.6 as the soul's "fornication" against God.

As much as he is concerned with analysis of his own individual sins, Augustine is always concerned with the life of human beings within society and here, he runs into a wall. He knows that he would never have committed the theft if he had not been with a group of his friends. In contemporary terms, he is aware of the influence of peer pressure, subtle and unspoken, on his own behavior. Augustine tries to explain exactly how this social pressure operates. What is it about human beings in groups that makes them so susceptible to irrational impulses, impulses they would never act upon if they were alone? For Augustine, who so deeply values friendship, this remains an unsolvable problem. People in groups can both support each other in good — as his little community of friends later does at Cassiciacum — and egg each other on in evil, as his gang of boyhood friends does at the orchard.

Glossary

Catiline d. 62 B.C.; Roman conspirator. Augustine quotes from the history of Catiline's career by Sallust (c. 86-35 B.C.), in which Catiline is represented as an archetypal villain.

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