The complex recounting of the “theft of the pears” in Book 2 of his Confessions is often distilled into Augustine’s famous evaluation of the act: “I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake, and the sin” (nec ea re volebam frui quam furto appetebam, sed ipso furto et peccato) (4.9). The entire tale, so it is thought, is a potent lesson in the irrationality of sin: so twisted is our desire, intellect, and will that we seek sin simply for its own sake. Augustine’s narrative, in fact, partially supports this reading: “I was under no compulsion of need…Yet I wanted to steal, and steal I did. I already had plenty of what I stole, and of much better quality too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it” (ibid.). In this chapter we find, it seems, a shocking revelation unknown to the ancient world’s more optimistic evaluations of human freedom: so profound is our corruption that we are capable, perversely capable, of willing evil for its own sake.
The only problem with this view is that it is not what Augustine actually says. Or rather, it is not what he ultimately says by the end of his meditation on his nocturnal crime. As Augustine turns his fructiferous larceny over and over in his heart and mind throughout the rest of that book, his final evaluation of what motivated him on that fateful night in the garden reaches deeper levels of discovery than simply sin for sin’s sake. Instead, Augustine will find at the end of this particular confession the image of God within him, shackled by sin but nonetheless still alive and reaching out towards its fulfillment in imitation of the One in Whose image it is made.
But I am getting ahead of myself. For now it is worth pausing on a significant fact: more than a few scholarly interpreters of the theft at Thagaste have argued, for decades, that Augustine did not intend to teach the sheer irrationality of sin. Yet, curiously, it remains widely accepted that this is just what Augustine hoped to accomplish with his narrative, to demonstrate that sin is opaque to rational analysis. Why should this be the case? For starters, the text is somewhat confusing, replete with turns, backtracking, and crisscrossing. Augustine does indeed make statements like the above-quoted, to the effect that he desired sin for its own sake. These are among the most purple of purple passages in the Christian tradition, and as is often the case with oft-quoted texts, their context — either literary or historical — in time recedes into oblivion. But there is another reason, I suspect, why Book 2 of the Confessions is continually misinterpreted on this score.
For some streams of Christian thought, to deny the human heart’s desire for evil, as embodied in the theft at Thagaste, is tantamount to denying an integral part of the Gospel. If Christianity introduced good news to the world, this good news is always attended by its shadow proclamation of our transcendental wickedness; Christ’s grace shines more gloriously when accompanied by the penumbra of our desire for sin itself. Often this idea is expressed by affirming pride as the fundamental motivation of fallen humanity, with the result that our self-curvature feeds only on itself and not on any transcendent desire for the Good. To desire sin for its own sake is to desire to worship ourselves. In light of this reading of Augustine, any account of the will as directed to the Good must be viewed as a revival of a pre-modern, pagan inspired hold-out that refuses the vision of our fundamental corruption — something the atrocities of the 20th century should have made apparent to anyone with eyes to see. The “rational man” of Enlightenment philosophy as well as Rousseau’s “noble savage” must cede to postmodernism’s Christian patron, Augustine, who recognized in his Confessions the primordial instability and incoherence of the self.
Whether Augustine’s writings considered in toto might serve as a confirmation of this powerful articulation of Christian anthropology is not a question that concerns me here. After all, Augustine — like most great thinkers — is not one: his ideas are constantly in development and transposition in his search not only for a synthesis of his philosophy and revelation but also for a firm demarcation between the two. But what is clear is that any attempt to establish the view of “sin for its own sake” on the basis of Augustine’s theft of the pears must fail, for the simple reason that it is based on a deficient reading of Book 2 of the Confessions. Augustine’s examination of conscience unearths something deeper, something stranger than the affirmation of sin for its own sake. In Augustine’s final analysis, our sin, paradoxically, reveals to us our desire for God, our true rest. Not only that, the very structure of Augustine’s sin in the garden reveals our desire to imitate God precisely in his Trinitarian fullness. A close reading of Book 2 will bear this out.
Already in the very first paragraphs of this book do we find the answer to what Augustine was seeking in the sinful wanderings of his adolescence: “What was it that delighted me? Only loving and being loved” (II.2.2). This sets the framework for all of Augustine’s further inquiry: how could he be so fallen as to confuse love and lust? Though at this stage the incident of the pears is not yet in view, that fateful scene is prefaced and contextualized by the more primordial urges of sexual desire in which Augustine locates the greatest emblem of our fallen humanity. For, after all, what is so different about lacking rational control of one’s members and desiring a pear that is, by all rational standards, unappealing? The problem of the pears is the problem of sex is the problem of primordial desire—the perennial and perpetual confusion of love and lust in the human heart. Yet it is love that delighted him, Augustine tells us, loving and being loved, and this final point underscores again the connection between his sexual desire and the desire for the pears, for in both of them Augustine was seeking love by sharing in the sexual exploits that served as the bond between his friends (3.7).
Chapter 4 of Book 2 begins with Augustine preoccupied to make clear the unattractive quality of the pears: nec forma nec sapore inlecebrosis – “Neither in appearance or in taste enticing”. Whereas in other cases of stealing one might be able to rationally comprehend the theft — it was occasioned by need, or by the overwhelming desire induced by the good qualities of the thing stolen — Augustine forecloses these paths early on for the reader, just as he will again and again in chapters 5 and 6. By closing these exits, Augustine manages to literarily hold up the act for consideration, and the reader’s wonder grows at the deed the more unintelligible it becomes. To set up the story this way, then, is to invite the reader to contemplate a mystery, the very mystery of lawlessness: fieret a nobis quod eo liberet quo non liceret – “we derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden” (4.9).
This is the crystallization of “sin for its own sake” and an arresting commentary on St. Paul’s claim that the law actually increases trespass. But it must categorically be stated that Augustine remains unsatisfied with this answer, and he ends chapter four by crying out to God, asking what it was that his heart was seeking in becoming “bad for no reason.” This sentence rewards close attention:
Behold my heart, o God, behold this heart of mine, on which you took pity in its abysmal depths. Let it tell you now — behold my heart! — what it was seeking in this action which made me bad for no reason, in which there was no motive for my malice except malice
(ecce cor meum, deus, ecce cor meum, quod miseratus es in imo abyssi. dicat tibi nunc, ecce cor meum, quid ibi quaerebat, ut essem gratis malus et malitiae meae causa nulla esset nisi malitia) (4.9).
Note the three-fold repetition of the word “heart” at this moment of Augustine’s perplexity about the motivation of his action. This repetition tells us two things: first, it signifies to us the spiritual content of his opening invocation in this book, recordari volo – I want to recall. To “recall” in this book of the Confessions is — to stretch the English a bit — to “re-heart,” to return to where the heart was at any moment in time and to see the heart’s movements as God sees them. Second, it tells us that Augustine is not convinced that he pursued evil simply for its own sake; were that the case, it would be fruitless to continue his inquiry and to ask the Spirit’s help in recalling the deeper motive for now kept from his sight. He must persevere in the relentless examination of his heart to get to the bottom of the events in the garden.
In chapter 5 Augustine zooms out: instead of considering his own case, he looks at other examples of egregious sin, including that of the infamous Roman conspirator Catiline, and remarks that it would be incredible to suppose that someone could commit homicide for no reason except a love for killing. We sin, Augustine concludes, because we seek certain advantages in vice, such as power, honor, and friendship. The danger comes in pursuing these goods in an illicit manner and refusing to rank them below the love of God. Already therefore a reading of Augustine’s theft as sin for its own sake is brought into serious question, and this even before Augustine delves deeply into his own interior state at the time of the theft. Only after he has definitively claimed that sin for its own sake is impossible, even in the case of a sinner as egregious as Catiline, does Augustine again plunge within, this time in greater perplexity, and with a vocative address to the theft itself. “What did I love in you, O my theft (o furtum meum), what did I love in you, the nocturnal crime of my sixteenth year? There was nothing beautiful about you, for you were nothing but a theft. Are you really anything at all, for me to be speaking to you like this?” (aut vero aliquid es, ut loquar ad te) (6.12).
It is a simple observation, but one not to be overlooked, that this address to his crime (o furtum meum) strongly resembles Augustine’s repeated invocations of God throughout Books 1 and 2 of the Confessions: deus meus. It is significant, then, that for a moment Augustine toys with the idea that his theft, his sin, has some subsistent reality, some being that could make it capable of address, of interrogation, and therefore of intelligibility. This suggestion is quickly discarded, however, as Augustine returns to his confession with these words: “O good God, creator of all things, and more beautiful than all of them, those pears we stole did have a certain beauty because they were your creation — yours, O God, who are the highest good (summum bonum) and the true good for me (bonum verum meum)” (ibid.)
Augustine’s rejection of his sin as real is signified by his return to God who is the creator of all that is, not the Creator of anything that lacks being, like Augustine’s “nocturnal crime.” Here in rhetorical form we have before us Augustine’s doctrine of the insubstantiality of evil, privatio boni, and its necessary implication that a sin desired for its own sake would be a metaphysical and moral intelligibility, for “nothing” cannot become the true object of desire or thought. And yet the question remains: what was it that Augustine loved, since his sin possessed none of the natural goods with which vice attempts to imitate the true Good?
This address to God as the “highest good” as well as the question of the good in the seemingly pointless theft lead Augustine towards a description of the real goods that motivate every temptation to vice. For example, Augustine states that human ambition craves honor and glory, but only God is truly honorable and glorious (6.13). All vice, then, that is not immediately explicable with regards to desire for its earthly object is finally intelligible as the human attempt to imitate God. Augustine understands this to be a fundamental corollary of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, that God is the Creator of all:
“All those who wander far away and set themselves up against you are imitating you, but in a perverse way; yet by this very mimicry they proclaim that you are the creator of the whole of nature, and that in consequence there is no place whatever we can hide from your presence” (6.14).
Thus does Augustine, like the Hebrew prophets before him, determine that the shape of all sin is ultimately that of infidelity, of fornication against God in whose image we are made and from whom we can never truly escape. It is surely no accident that Augustine alights upon this sexual definition of sin, even apart from the biblical precedent, for this second book of the Confessions is in the final analysis a profound interrogation of God’s presence in the midst of our most primal desiring.
With this excursus contrasting the nothingness of his crime and the substantiality of God and His creation, Augustine prepares the reader for the penultimate level of his spiritual excavation. If this metaphysical picture is true — if God truly is the creator omnium — then even Augustine’s theft must be transparent to explication, because there is no part of creation that is not oriented towards its Creator, not even human vice. After all, Augustine’s sin could not have been more profound that Catiline’s:
With regard to my theft, then, what did I love in it, and in what sense did I imitate my Lord, even if only with vicious perversity (in quo dominum meum vel vitiose atque perverse imitatus sum)? Did the pleasure I sought lie in breaking the law at least in that sneaky way, since I was unable to do so with any show of strength? Was I, in truth a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom, attempting a shady parody of omnipotence (tenebrosa omnipotentiae similitudine) by getting away with something forbidden? How like that servant of yours who fled from his Lord and hid in the shadows! What rottenness, what a misshapen life! Rather a hideous pit of death! To do what was wrong simply because it was wrong — could I have found pleasure in that (potuitne libere quod non licebat, non ob aliud nisi quia non licebat)? (6.14, italics in English mine)
Augustine plunges to a deeper level of desire, the level at which the will is moved not by external goods that God has created but more profoundly by the wish to become a certain kind of person. This is what Augustine means when he says that in his theft he desired to imitate the omnipotence of the Lord, to attain to the freedom of God. Simply put, the teenage, thieving Augustine wants to be like God. And this in turn explains why our author chooses at this moment to bring in, in an oblique manner, the figure of Adam, for Adam plucked his own fruit with similar hopes of becoming like God. That Augustine has at last found intelligibility in the theft is signified by his eruption of praise following this paragraph; at least he can “recall” these things “without fear,” the fearful prospect that he committed sin for its own sake.
Made in the image of God, humans cannot help but strive towards god-likeness, towards godhood. All sin is the attempt to actualize our divine image’s vocation in distorted and fruitless ways (“What fruit did I ever reap from those things which I now blush to remember? [8.16]). But as Augustine knew by the time he wrote this confession, the divine image in us is none other than the image of the Holy Trinity. That is why Augustine ends his analysis of the theft with a discussion of the gang of boys with whom he committed the deed. This is the last aspect of the crime revealed to him in his joint act of “remembering with God,” the final layer of analysis:
And yet, as I recall my state of mind at the time (sic recordor animum tunc meum — cf. 2.1.1, Recordari volo), I would not have done it alone; I most certainly would not have done it alone. It follows, then, that I also loved the camaraderie with my fellow-thieves. (8.16)
Though Augustine does not explicitly unmask the motivation behind this love of the camaraderie in sin, it is no great stretch to take our author’s theological analysis of motivation for sin thus far and apply it here. The good that Augustine sought in the crime — friendship — can be understood, by Augustine’s own logic in Book 2, as a form of divine imitation. What is the divine “something” that this love of “nothing” was imitating? It is none other than the Holy Trinity’s life of mutual admiration in humility. Unlike the society of pride in lawlessness that was Augustine’s teenage gang, the fellowship of the Holy Trinity is one marked by humility, and it is precisely the humility of the Son of God —who did not consider divinity something to be grasped, but instead emptied Himself in a garden of His own before his death — that haunts this entire narration of Augustine’s original sin. Just as my “I” comes into being only by being addressed by a “thou,” so too does my every act subsist in a network of relations that pre-existed me and that form the matrix from which my desire can arise. “But since my pleasure did not lie in the pears, it must have been in the crime as committed in the company of others who shared in the sin” (8.16)… “to do it alone would have aroused no desire in me” (9.17). And the ultimate ontological matrix of all desire, the source which is simultaneously the goal, is God’s life of friendship in the Holy Trinity.
This might seem the definitive statement, but Augustine has one more reversal in store for the reader: “So is it not true to say that I loved nothing other than the theft? Ah, but it is true, because the gang-mentality too was a nothing (quia et illud nihil est) (8.6). Does this final insight overthrow our entire previous reading?
The reader must exercise caution here, for at this stage in the recollection we now understand this “nothing” as the parasitic shadow of what truly exists, and what truly exists cannot be anything but good. To understand this “nothing” that Augustine loved in his theft as sin for its own sake, we must ignore the entirety of Augustine’s soul spelunking, the search for his sin’s motivation and meaning that lands him, at last, in a place of rest when his question is finally answered. And that is no accident: the restlessness of the human heart proclaimed schematically is Book 1 of the Confessions is giving some content in the very next chapter, when the restlessness that is identical with our experience of autobiographical inquiry finds its term in graced understanding. In the Confessions, this desire to understand takes the form of a search for God’s presence as manifested in the constant undertow of desire that propelled our murky past. In this regard, it is a thoroughly Christological desire, since the prime site for discovering God’s presence in the flesh is the history of yearning disclosed in three gardens: Adam’s, Christ’s, and Augustine’s —all of them our own.
At this point it should be clear that any reading of the Confessions that understands the theft of the pears as a narrative exercise in demonstrating the sheer irrationality of sin, or the will’s desire for sin for its own sake, misses the mark; it is a reading frozen in the early stages of Augustine’s own spiritual recollection of the event. The will cannot desire sin for its own sake. Many (that is, we) follow after false joys and not the true joy that leads to God, yet nonetheless “their will is not turned away from some image of joy” (conf. 10.22.32). Even in our sin we seek God —for whither can I go from thy Spirit? If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
This account of sin bears significant implications for how we should relate to our own spiritual failure as well as that of others, Christian or otherwise. Augustine’s psychological analysis of the sinning self and his metaphysical investigation of creation as the good work of the good God — these two meet in the affirmation that the human person made in God’s triune image will seek to imitate its Protoimage in all things, whether blindly in sin or consciously in grace. With his tale of the pears, Augustine invites us to verify this ourselves, by recalling or “re-hearting” our own experience of sin to see if we might find God in the garden of our own hearts, and so catch a glimpse of Him in the hearts of others too.
Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.
- All English quotations from Confessions are from Maria Boulding’s translation, 1997. I have altered the English to closer adhere to the Latin in various cases. ↑
- For a strong challenge to this Augustinian emphasis on pride as the primordial human sin, see Terry D. Cooper, Sin, Pride, and Self-Acceptance: The Problem of Identity in Theology and Psychology (IVP, 2003). ↑
- Translation mine. ↑
- Note the subtle shift between liberet and liceret. Since Augustine has precluded the reader from assuming the pears themselves were desirable, all that is left to be desired is the illicit character of the act itself. For the rest of book 2, libet and non licet will be inseparable for Augustine; like the pears he stole, they grow together on the same tree. ↑
- John Cavadini’s chapter, “Book Two: Augustine’s Book of Shadows” in A Reader Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, ed. Paffenroth and Kennedy, helpfully illuminates the intertextual conversation between the Confessions and Genesis, and I depend on it here, though in my analysis I push somewhat further than Cavadini’s reading of this passage in light of human society and the pre-Fall society of Adam and Eve. ↑
- I am grateful to Taylor Nutter for pointing out this passage to me. ↑