The Miseducation of St. Augustine

The Miseducation of St. Augustine


Boys Laughing Together With Pears
Boys Laughing Together With Pears

I spent most of the last academic year teaching Augustine’s Confessions and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. Two semesters in a row, my students and I took a full two months to read/listen to the two texts side by side, a luxurious time frame that enabled me to go much more deeply into Confessions than I had ever done before. Turns out it’s a pretty good book.

One of the things I ended up fascinated by is that Confessions is a story, among other things, about education. Much has been made of Augustine’s theory of original sin, the thing that seems to be wrong in us from the moment of our conception (so much for the innocence of the fetus/the infant!) But Confessions spends its first books clinically detailing how Augustine is mis-educated. If he had been abandoned at birth and survived in the wilderness, original sin would still have been there. But what actually happens is that his elders and peers consistently call on him to be the worst he can be, and he responds to their demands. He describes, in other words, the social aspects of sin.

This begins in book 1 from the moment he is able to learn anything. Here’s his description of learning language:

I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which You gave me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language of all nations expressed by the countenance, glance of the eye, movement of other members, and by the sound of the voice indicating the affections of the mind, as it seeks, possesses, rejects, or avoids. So it was that by frequently hearing words, in duly placed sentences, I gradually gathered what things they were the signs of; and having formed my mouth to the utterance of these signs, I thereby expressed my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, depending the while on the authority of parents, and the beck of elders.

This is not exactly a neutral description of language acquisition. He imitates his elders, which meant he expressed his will – and this brought him into the stormy fellowship of human life, while he was in a position of obligation to respond to/obey authority (parents and elders).

Immediately after this passage on informal education he describes his formal education, which turns out to be not entirely useless in his later life, but still:

14. O my God! What miseries and mockeries did I then experience, when obedience to my teachers was set before me as proper to my boyhood, that I might flourish in this world, and distinguish myself in the science of speech, which should get me honour among men, and deceitful riches! 

The problem with Augustine’s formal education is that it teaches him not to seek God or the good, but to seek “honour among men” and “deceitful riches.” And he doesn’t discern that these are the goals from nowhere, or from lurking original sin somewhere deep inside him; he gets them from those same elders he hears from every day:

For they considered not in what way I should employ what they forced me to learn, unless to satisfy the inordinate desires of a rich beggary and a shameful glory.

He is so clear on how bad we are at valuing the content of character, as opposed to what is “conventionally” regarded as well-educated:

29. Behold, O Lord God, and behold patiently, as You are wont to do, how diligently the sons of men observe the conventional rules of letters and syllables, received from those who spoke prior to them, and yet neglect the eternal rules of everlasting salvation received from You, insomuch that he who practises or teaches the hereditary rules of pronunciation, if, contrary to grammatical usage, he should say, without aspirating the first letter, a human being, will offend men more than if, in opposition to Your commandments, he, a human being, were to hate a human being. 

Well then.

There’s more of this meditation on how informal norms (seek riches and glory and grandchildren) shape both formal and informal education, but basically, that’s the idea, which he backs up with biographical examples.

And that’s the framework within which the famous pear theft takes place. My theologian friends probably all know the basics here, but for those who don’t, in this passage, at the end of book 2 when Augustine has just finished describing how his elders have set up this education system to teach people to want all the wrong things, he tells a story about how he and his friends stole some pears from a local tree. It’s a long passage with a very thorough analysis of what exactly happened – why did he do it? It wasn’t hunger. Conclusion, he did it because he enjoyed it. But why did he enjoy it? He goes through several reasons, all interesting in themselves, but then concludes (and I’m going to quote the entire thing):

16. …that theft, which I loved only for the theft’s sake? And as the theft itself was nothing, all the more wretched was I who loved it. Yet by myself alone I would not have done it — I recall what my heart was — alone I could not have done it. I loved, then, in it the companionship of my accomplices with whom I did it. I did not, therefore, love the theft alone — yea, rather, it was that alone that I loved, for the companionship was nothing. What is the fact? Who is it that can teach me, but He who illuminates mine heart and searches out the dark corners thereof? What is it that has come into my mind to inquire about, to discuss, and to reflect upon? For had I at that time loved the pears I stole, and wished to enjoy them, I might have done so alone, if I could have been satisfied with the mere commission of the theft by which my pleasure was secured; nor needed I have provoked that itching of my own passions, by the encouragement of accomplices. But as my enjoyment was not in those pears, it was in the crime itself, which the company of my fellow-sinners produced.

17. By what feelings, then, was I animated? For it was in truth too shameful; and woe was me who had it. But still what was it? Who can understand his errorsWe laughed, because our hearts were tickled at the thought of deceiving those who little imagined what we were doing, and would have vehemently disapproved of it. Yet, again, why did I so rejoice in this, that I did it not alone? Is it that no one readily laughs alone? No one does so readily; but yet sometimes, when men are alone by themselves, nobody being by, a fit of laughter overcomes them when anything very droll presents itself to their senses or mind. Yet alone I would not have done it — alone I could not at all have done it. Behold, my God, the lively recollection of my soul is laid bare before You — alone I had not committed that theft, wherein what I stole pleased me not, but rather the act of stealing; nor to have done it alone would I have liked so well, neither would I have done it. O Friendship too unfriendly! You mysterious seducer of the soul, you greediness to do mischief out of mirth and wantonness, you craving for others’ loss, without desire for my own profit or revenge; but when they say, Let us go, let us do it, we are ashamed not to be shameless.

That is a ruthless dissection of “unfriendly friendship” right there. Why say that “the companionship was nothing” in the middle of this long passage about why he only stole the pears because of the companionship? I think it’s because he understands now, as he looks back, that this kind of companionship is nothing, because he has learned a better kind of companionship (both human and divine). And yet, it is also everything, if you have been mis-educated your entire life, if you have come to believe – as is only natural – that language is about expressing your immediate desire in order to obtain it, and if you have advanced deeply into the stormy fellowship of humankind…. The pear-tree-theft story is a story about how Augustine and his teenage buddies have fully appropriated what their elders have taught them from birth, about how life is a quest for riches and glory and the gratifying of your desires, and how they are now enforcing that quest among themselves, not waiting for their parents and teachers to tell them what to do.

So far, so relatively generic. But the reason I keep returning to the pear tree story lately is that these first two books of Confessions are not just a generic exploration of the social transmission of sin, but a quite specific one. Augustine is an upper middle class boy from a good family  whose parents and teachers and friends all expect him to get a good job, ideally a good job in a higher-profile city than the one he grew up in, marry, and have kids (well, sons.) As it turns out, Augustine is going to reject every part of those expectations, but it’s going to take a long time and a big helping of God’s grace for him to break through this very specific social conditioning into what I think it’s fair to call toxic masculinity.

What exactly does Augustine learn from his elders?

  1. That language is about expressing and having immediate desires gratified, without regard to whether those desires are good for either you or the other people involved in gratifying them
  2. That formal education is about seeking riches and glory, again without regard to whether what you say and write is “good” in any other sense, and that what is needed to attain these goals is the approval of people who are already in power (teachers, employers, the emperor, etc)
  3. from his father, that uncontrollable sexual arousal is terrific because it will lead to descendants for the male line

And from his peers he learns:

  1. to rejoice in others’ loss, even if he himself doesn’t gain anything by it
  2. to enjoy deception – that is, to enjoy doing what they know to be wrong in the expectation that they’re not going to get caught
  3. That peer bonding is accomplished through laughter.

The pear tree episode is directly comparable to Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure,” in more ways than I’ll go into right here, but check this out:

Really I’m a sober soul
But I’m with the homies right now
And we ain’t asking for no favors
Rush a nigga quick then laugh about it later
Aye aye aye aye
Really I’m a peacemaker
But I’m with the homies right now

“Then laugh about it later.” Indeed.

Men and laughter. We’ve been hearing a lot about it lately, from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s assault on her, to the grinning faces of those Covington boys. Reading Augustine describing the same dynamics, and the larger context of education that produced them, helps me understand how deeply this conditioning goes. His question is my question:

But woe unto you, you stream of human custom! Who shall stay your course? How long shall it be before you are dried up?

And, not to be too depressing about this — because if sin can be transmitted by formal and informal education networks, so can grace, as Augustine shows in later books as he acquires some real friends — the answer is, only God can transform the stream of human custom into something else. Augustine (and Lamar, and a lot of other people) can show us in precise detail how sin works, but neither they nor anyone else can show us precisely how to solve the problem. We can only do the best that we can to counteract education into sin, and pray that it is enough.

(Catherine R. Osborne | January 2019)