One of the advantages of taking the same kind of classes in college as you did in high school, and of teaching those same subjects again when you graduate, is that you cover the same ground several times. I commenting to some friends the other day that I’m enjoying Pilgrim’s Progress far more during my second round of teaching it–which is probably the third or fourth time I’ve read it through—than I did when I first flipped through its pages. This morning it occurred to me that something similar is going on with St. Augustine’s Confessions.
The Confessions are Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, something like a fourth century Surprised by Joy to those of us who read a lot of C. S. Lewis growing up. An evangelical might call it his testimony, and it certainly resembles the sort of thing you would hear on the Unshackled radio program, where people go through their life story, recount their sins and struggles, and then explain how they turned to Jesus and he changed them. In some ways, Augustine invented the genre.
I’ve read the Confessions three times in its entirety—once in junior high or high school, once in college, and once while teaching it. All three times one particular section stood out as particularly baffling: the pears. Augustine informs us that as a young man he was involved in every kind of debauchery, every kind of vanity or ambition. But rather than dwelling on his sexual misdeeds, his desire to be the world’s best rhetorician, or his obsession with dark or lewd poetry and drama, he spends almost an entire book of his work—what we could call a chapter—exploring this one time he stole some pears when he was a kid.
Listening to a discussion of the Confessions on the Mere Fidelity podcast, it struck me that there are three solid reasons for Augustine’s strange obsession with this apparently minor peccadillo.
First, human beings have a tendency to let our eye be drawn to interesting or fascinating sins. It’s the sordid adulteries or the bloody murders that catch our eye, or the vaunting ambition of the characters on House of Cards. We don’t particularly care about a kid’s temper tantrum, or a mom taking it out on her husband, or the husband spending his time elsewhere instead of helping out around the house. Minor sins are not interesting.
But sin is not meant to be interesting. Sin is fundamentally a tragedy, a flaw in our character, a flaw in the universe, that separates us from God. It is a thing that corrupts us, and corrupts society. It makes us low and petty, giving up great goods for minor, empty, fleeting pleasures. In focusing on the pears, Augustine draws our eye away from the salacious details of more fantastic sins, and asks us to examine what sin is in itself.
Second, Augustine draw our eye to this sin to draw out the motive behind it. Violence, lechery, gluttony—none of these are much of a mystery. But why did Augustine steal the pears? He was not hungry. It wasn’t because these pears were better than pears he could have gotten elsewhere. In fact, they were worse. He did not have a grudge against the owner of the pears. He suggests the possibility that it might have been to enjoy the fellowship of the friends he stole the pears with. But even then he doesn’t seem to be certain.
At the end of the day, it seems that he stole the pears mostly out of a perverse delight in doing something he knew to be evil. This says something profound about the state Augustine was in, and about human nature generally. We do not sin merely because we want what we cannot have. Sometimes we sin for the pleasure of sinning. We are, deep in our souls, beings that desire to do evil. The depths of this corruption are startling, and call for a truly profound kind of grace to purify us.
The last reason Augustine might dwell on the pears is less theological or philosophical, and more literary. Just as Adam and Eve stole the fruit from the tree in the midst of the garden, and that archetypal sin through the world into disarray, so Augustine steals pears from a forbidden tree, and this sheds light on the disorders of his own heart.
I should point out that none of these insights is entirely new. Each of these topics was something both my secondary school teachers and my college professors dwelt on, and something I tried to pass on to my students. What was new to me was the realization that these things could only have been highlighted by something like the theft of the pears, and not by other, grander sins whose sordid details which might distract us from the point. Augustine’s focus on this particular sin had been baffling before, but now it seems incredibly reasonable.
There is a mentality that sees some value in reading great books, but not in reading them again. It’s true that a first reading can give you a familiarity with the general themes, allow you to understand references made by others educated in the classics, and perhaps give you some sort of bragging rights.
But the value of great books is not merely in giving us access to a cultural conversation, but in teaching and shaping us. By spending time with great minds, great souls, and great imaginations, our own minds, souls, and imaginations are made greater. But in order to see the true measure of what these men have done, it often takes several readings, accumulated life experience, and repeated study. A truly great book should be read again and again, over the course of a lifetime.