April 7, 2014 by mattwilcoxen
“I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.”
Augustine describes his adolescent period as marked by two passions: sex and fame. He was engaged in torrid love affairs, and addicted to the approbation of others. As he says: “What was it that delighted me? Only loving and being loved.” Some of his best phrases come out of his descriptions of this period in his life. For instance: his “erupting puberty belched out murky clouds” that darkened his spiritual vision. Or: he says his lust dragged him “over the cliffs of my desires, and engulfed me in a whirlpool of sins.”
Augustine describes this situation, and how the sin of his parents was their enabling of his lust. His father crudely celebrated Augustine’s sexual awakening, and sacrificed nearly everything so that the boy could become a rhetorician and win fame and fortune. Even his Christian mother, Monica, knowing what was right, placed such a high priority on the boy’s future prospects that she did not push him toward the bounds of marriage that could have checked his lust. (Augustine thinks it could have curbed his sexual enthusiasm, anyways!)
Now, all of the sudden, Augustine breaks off this train of thought and raises the topic of theft. Specifically, a theft he committed when he robbed a pear tree as an adolescent. His treatment of the theft is fascinating, because he gropes around for some reason as to why he took part in the theft. He can find nothing. He didn’t do it out of hunger. The pears he stole weren’t particularly good; he had better ones already in his possession. He struggles to find a motive for his deed, other than just the empty act itself. He muses that perhaps there was “no motive for my malice except malice.”
At this point Augustine offers what becomes his classic depiction of sin: the treating of lesser goods as if they were the greatest good. Within this depiction of sin, there is at least some logic to every despicable act. The soul is desiring beauty, but desiring it wrongly. Every vice is a parody of some characteristic of God: “For in vice their lurks a counterfeit beauty.” Pride mimics the sublimity of God. Ambition parodies glory. Ferocity tries to replicate God’s status as the one to be feared. Flirtatiousness is an imitation of God’s alluring charm. Curiosity apes divine omniscience. And the list goes on and on (cf. 2.6.13). Augustine seeks in all of these for a classification of his robbery of the pear tree. Within this analysis of sin, all he can say is that perhaps his act was a “shady parody of omnipotence” (or divine freedom.) Augustine does not intend by this analysis to excuse his sin. In fact, he continues to describe this particular act as the incomprehensible. Sin generally seems to be a perversion of our desire for good things; but this act is so heinous and absurd that it continues to baffle Augustine.
When Augustine describes the sin of the pear tree he is, of course, interpreting it as some sort of recapitulation of the fall of Adam. It is the thing that provides an explanatory framework for all the other sins, but itself cannot be explained. Why would a human being desire this false form of freedom? Why would we leave that-which-truly-is for nothing-at-all? “Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle? It is disgusting, and I do not want to look at it or see it.” As Augustine reflects on this reality, you can hear the voice of Paul: “O Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
For Augustine, sin is incomprehensible. It isn’t even a thing at all, it’s a willful attempt of the creature to turn back to nothing, to descend into disorder and chaos. On the basis of God’s status as the self-existent Creator, the only one that truly “is”, we have to see sin as in opposition to existence and form. But that means it is really nothing at all. For this reason, it can only be a futile phenomena that God permits. It is not, however, something God makes (nothing is not something one can make). It can only be something God permits. And as the perpetrators who are our own victims, we can only hope it is something that God will put an end to as well.