Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Confessions – Book 2

The Third Day

Part of the background for Book 2 is Augustine’s use of the six days of creation to correspond to the six ages of history and the six stages of a human life.

Number

Ages of Man

Six Days

History

Confessions

1

Infantia (pre-verbal)

Light

Adam to Noah

Book 1.7-1.12

2

Pueritia (childhood)

Sky/Earth

Noah to Abraham

Book 1.12 – 1.1.31

3

Adulescentia (15-30)

Waters/Plants

Abraham to David

Book 2.1 – 6.26

4

Juventus (30-45)

Planets

David to Babylon

Book 7.1-

5

Maturitas (45-60)

Fish

Babylon to Christ

 

6

Senectus (60-90)

Animals/Man

Christ to the End

 

Book 2 begins his discussion of his own third age, and throughout the book Augustine uses language reminiscent of either the third day of creation, or of the Exodus journey. Specifically:

Vegetation

2.1 - For as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves.

2.3 – [You are] able also with a tender hand to blunt the thorns which were excluded from thy paradise.

2.5 - no matter how barren I was to thy tillage, O God, who art the one true and good Lord of my heart, which is thy field.

2.6 - The thornbushes of lust grew rank about my head, and there was no hand to root them out.

2.18 - I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland.

Waters

2.2 - The mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy. … I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and I boiled over in my fornications--and yet thou didst hold thy peace, O my tardy Joy!

2.3 - If only there had been someone to regulate my disorder and turn to my profit the fleeting beauties of the things around me, and to fix a bound to their sweetness, so that the tides of my youth might have spent themselves upon the shore of marriage!

2.4 - But, fool that I was, I foamed in my wickedness as the sea and, forsaking thee, followed the rushing of my own tide, and burst out of all thy bounds.

Wilderness Wanderings

2.1 - For love of thy love I do this, recalling in the bitterness of self-examination my vile wanderings, that thou mayest grow sweet to me, thou sweetness without deception!

2.18 - I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland.

Baptism

It should be noted that at this time, it was fairly common for people to hold off on baptism, because it was assumed that only sins committed before baptism could be entirely remitted -- sins committed after baptism would be punished harshly by God. So the idea was that you would wait until either you were on your deathbed, or were at least past the excesses of youth, before you would submit yourself to baptism. This involved a pretty chancy set of calculations, and Augustine disapproved of the whole mercenary idea behind it.

Why is it still dinned into our ears on all sides, “Let him alone, let him do as he pleases, for he is not yet baptized”? In the matter of bodily health, no one says, “Let him alone; let him be worse wounded; for he is not yet cured”! (1.11.18)

(2.4.9 – 2.10.18) A Certain Theft from a Tree

Augustine spends over half of book two trying to understand why he stole a load of pears from a tree. He has often been mocked for this excessive concern over such a small sin (in the scheme of things), but Augustine knew what he was up to. He concentrates on this particular sin for (at least) the following reasons:

  1. Augustine knew that small sins paved the way toward big sins. As C. S. Lewis says, “That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure – or enjoy – forever.” (Mere Christianity, p. 92).
  2. The sin has an obvious rhetorical parallel with Adam’s sin: it involved the stealing of forbidden fruit from a tree.
  3. The sin has many less obvious parallels with Adam’s sin:
    1. It was an apparently trivial matter;
    2. It was forbidden by God;
    3. There was no obvious motive;
    4. The actual motive was a hidden one, a desire to maintain community with someone else (at the expense of communion with God).

Consequently, this theft becomes a fairly good “hook” on which Augustine can hang a profound discussion of the nature of evil.

The Nature of Evil

Always lurking in the background of Augustine’s discussion of the origin and nature of evil is the Manichaean doctrine of evil. The Manichees were dualists. They believed that evil came from an invasion of the good – the Kingdom of Light – by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate – the Kingdom of Darkness. So for them, evil was an independent principle, a positive substance, something which did not depend on God for its existence. Furthermore, human beings were not entirely free: each human being is composed of a body, which is physical and hence belongs to the darkness, but also of a soul, which is immaterial and hence belongs to the light.

Augustine was a Manichee for over a decade, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that this episode of the theft of the pears may have played a part in that. As Augustine says, he can’t initially think of any reason why he would have engaged in such a silly and stupid bit of thievery. He goes through the possible reasons at some length, but nothing obvious initially presents itself. And of course, this has potential problems for Augustine, because if he can’t come up with a reason, then it means that perhaps he loved evil for evil’s sake, which would go against the Christian understanding of evil.

Because from a Christian perspective, Augustine taught, evil is a privation of the good. This is easiest to see when we look at the reasons why people do bad things. Nobody loves evil for the sake of evil. Rather, we engage in evil behavior because we want something that, in itself, is good. But we go about acquiring that good in the wrong way, or we give up some better good to acquire the worse. The most inexplicable acts of evil that we have heard or can imagine – the Holocaust, say – become oddly comprehensible when looked at in this way. Hitler justified the murder of six million people because he wanted something that was, in itself, a good thing: a strong, healthy society. He wanted a good thing: the evil was not in the desire, but in the subordination to that desire of the other things he should have been desiring, such as mercy and compassion, or even simple truth (since obviously the Jews were not the cause of all of Germany’s problems, and he should have known that).

This is indeed the nature of all evil: it is a lack of good. “It is a parasite on existence leeching existence from good things” (Will, p. 76). It is a reversal of creation.

Augustine’s account of evil thus leaves no room for evil to be an end in itself. So why did he do it? Augustine returns to his analysis of his own motives in 2.16 with a fresh observation: he would not have done it by himself. He did it, in other words, to be with friends, in a perverted sort of inimica amicitia, a dangerous friendship. This was Adam’s sin as well (though not Eve’s): Eve was deceived by the serpent, but Adam knew full well what he was doing (1 Tim. 2:14). He didn’t eat the fruit because it was tasty or because it would impart knowledge, Augustine concluded, but because he wanted to be with his wife and to do what she did. (See City of God 14.11.)

Questions

  • What do you think of Augustine’s description of his sexual awakening in puberty? Is he too hard on himself? Is his description of what it’s like to be a teenage male accurate? (Cordelia: Does looking at guns make you wanna have sex? Xander: I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.)
  • Where does evil come from? Is it possible to love evil the same way it’s possible to love good?
  • Why does Augustine make such a big deal about this theft of pears? Is Augustine too hard on himself?
  • What does Augustine conclude was his primary motive in stealing the pears?
  • Augustine seems to say (2.3) that sex should only be used for procreation (“for the begetting of children, as your law requires”). Presumably we disagree – but why?
  • Augustine says that all evil aims at some good. Is he right? Can you think of any counter-examples?

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