Confessions Book 2

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

This short book of Confessions is disproportionately significant, featuring Augustine’s most profound analysis of the psychology of sin. Here we see Augustine scrutinize the first of two trees in Confessions (an intentional biblical allusion?). Also, to the theme of rest in God we add joy in him.

Before beginning any pondering on this section, we need to supplement Augustine’s presentation of himself with some historical facts. Although Augustine speaks at length about his unrestrained passions, it would be wrong of us to suppose that Augustine was abnormally sexually profligate. On the contrary, fairly early in life he took a concubine (a common-law wife) and remained devoted to her for over 13 years. He admits in this chapter that he mostly had to fabricate stories of debauchery to impress his friends (iii.7). The story of the pears needs similar adjustment; it was a theft, but it is doubtful that the community would have considered it a terrible crime or dubbed Augustine a juvenile delinquent. Why, then, does Augustine go so hard on himself? Is he sensationalizing like an American revivalist, playing up his pre-conversion transgressions to spice up the story? I don’t think so. The fact that Augustine was not that bad as humans grade wickedness actually enhances Augustine’s point — sin is heinous because it robs God and pollutes the sinner.

Augustine begins by affirming that God is the true pleasure, “a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content” (i.1). In contrast to God, the “hellish pleasures” (i.1) that Augustine pursued “befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness,” causing him to exclaim, “How slow I was to find my joy!” (ii.2). As Augustine distinguished between higher and lower loves in Book 1, here he remarks how God was “always with me, mercifully punishing me, touching with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures. Your intention was that I should seek delights unspoilt by disgust and that, in my quest where I could achieve this, I should discover it to be in nothing except you Lord” (ii.4). Once again, all true joy is joy in God, and other joys are healthy only as they point us to God and as we enjoy them for his sake.

Here we are confronted with Augustine’s prudish views on sexuality, and it is on this point that he is usually charged with dualism. Yet, as wrong as his views are on this point are, they are not as bad as his contemporary Jerome’s (see Augustine’s “On Marriage and Concupiscence” for a “defense” of marriage), and they are not dualist. Augustine does not think that sex for the sake of pleasure is evil because it is physical, with the unstated premise that physical things are evil. This entire book militates against an alleged dualism.

Rather, physical things are truly beautiful, temporal power is a real dignity, and human friendship is a genuine union (v.10). The goodness of creation is the background against which the horror of the theft of the pears is intelligible. Augustine makes this explicit: “The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, the good God, God the highest good and my true good” (vi.12). The sin certainly does not consist in the monetary value of the fruit or the use to which they put it.

To discover the outrage, we must deduce the motivation. Sin without motive would be monstrosity; even Catiline (a bad boy of Roman history) had perverted reasons for what he did. Indeed, the very nature of sin is perversion; it takes a good thing and makes evil of it. Sin is the abandonment of supreme good  to chase shadows (v.10). Idleness, luxury, avarice, envy, anger, and other sins are misguided attempts to appropriate what God already possesses and gives to those who are virtuous (vi.13).

Can people really, then, erase God from their lives and create their own sinful reality? No, for “in their perverted way all humanity imitates you…. But even by thus imitating you they acknowledge that you are the creator of all nature and so concede that there is no place where one can entirely escape from you” (vi.14). Augustine anticipates G. K. Chesterton’s saying, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Although at a few points Augustine suggests that his crime was indeed without motivation, suspending us over the edge of the gaping chasm of impenetrable evil, he finally does reveal a cause. He would not have committed this act alone (viii.16-x.18), so it must have been a perversion of friendship, an inversion of the union of souls directed toward God into a union for the sake of mischief.

Now, it is clear that Augustine is no dualist. The dualist cannot really be outraged at the misuse of the physical world, because he has already decided that matter is bad and spirit good. If my TV ceases working, and on my way to the neighborhood trash receptacle I drop it and shatter the glass, it’s no great loss. It was already trash. On the other hand, if someone threw coffee on the Mona Lisa, the response of the room would be a horrified paralysis melting into rage. Because God is the true love, joy, rest, and beauty, seeking to satisfy oneself in a brothel is actually more debauched than it would be if our physical bodies belonged to an already dirty sphere of existence. The best explanation for Augustine’s views on sexuality is likely an aggregate of social convention, his personal struggle with lust, and an inappropriate deduction from his philosophy of a hierarchy of loves.

Although Augustine does not shy from pondering his sin, it is too dark to remain the focus of his thought and exhortation. Because of God’s forgiveness, he can say, “It is a foul affair, I have no wish to give attention to it; I have no desire to contemplate it. My desire is for you, justice and innocence, you are lovely and splendid to honest eyes; the satiety of your love is insatiable. With you is utter peace and a life immune from disturbance. The person who enters into you enters into the joy of the Lord” (x.18). To come to God without the confession of our sin is presumption; to acknowledge sin without the confession of salvation is an abyss which Augustine exhorts us not to gaze into transfixed, but to cross over to the other side.

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 10:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Along with your last paragraph, I think the first paragraph of Book II makes the point regarding why considering past sins is important:

    I intend to remind myself of my past foulness and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection.

    As you say, his desire is not to continue to dwell on them. It is intended to drive him to reflect on the love of God (both from and for God). Everything in the chapter seems connected to this purpose.

    In paragraph ii(2), he says,

    The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness.

    I found that particularly compelling, because it reflects deeply on the nature of sin: that it is blinding. A lot of the reflections that follow seem to be continuing that thought, namely, that his sin constantly blinded him from the higher love of God. I wonder if that might be partially related to your thoughts on his view of marriage. Given the power of sexual attraction, perhaps he viewed it as something that dulled one from the higher love of God, or at least could be a pull away from the love of God.

    One last thought: Augustine provides some helpful reflections on the tension present in all mankind, the tension spoken of in Romans 1 (knowing, but suppressing the truth):

    So the soul fornicates when it is turned away from you and seeks outside you the pure and clear intentions which are not to be found except by returning to you. In their perverted way all humanity imitates you. Yet they put themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against you. But even by thus imitating you they acknowledge that you are the creator of all nature and so concede that there is no place where one can entirely escape from you. (p32, paragraph 14)

    If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that when people seek after their strongest desires, they are imitating God. Yet their imitation is devoid of God’s intentions for them. In other words, their expression of their desires shows that they know their is supposed to be directed to the highest desire, but their perversion shows that even in this demonstration of God’s existence they reveal their idolatry.

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