In book 2 Augustine moves on to discuss the sins of the flesh he committed during adolescence. He notes that he only delighted in loving and being loved but without proper restraint. His erupting puberty sent him into a “fog of lust” and he “floundered in the tumultuous sea” of his fornications (2.2.2). He asks, “Who was there to alleviate my distress?” Why did his parents not encourage him to marry? Could he not have been content to use his sexuality to procreate children? Yet he recognizes that he would not have found peace in marriage, since he feels called to the celibate life. Yet at the age of sixteen his family tolerated him forming a relationship with a concubine, rather than a marriage (2.4).
In that same year he was forced to return to his native Madaura, while his father saved up to send him to Carthage. Although he recounts that his mother warned him to keep clear of fornication and adultery, he was reckless and did not head her advice. Driven on by peer pressure he recounts that he even pretended to obscenities that he had not committed (2.7) in order to appear a rascal to his adolescent friends.
In Augustine’s mind one particular episode in the adolescent life stands out, and that is the robbing of the pear tree.[i] Augustine reminisces about the thief of pears from a tree near his home. With a group of boys he stole the fruit simply to enjoy stealing. He notes that its fruit was “not enticing, either in appearance of flavor” (1.4.9). The boys took enormous quantities of fruit and ate very little, the rest they thru to the pigs. The wasteful act was done primarily for the sinful pleasure of doing what was forbidden.
Does Augustine intend to highlight this episode because of its parallel to eating the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Genesis account of the Fall? Is there a contrast with his later conversion under the Fig tree in the Garden in 8.12.28? Both seem quite likely but why specifically a pear tree? Shanzer has proposed that the pear may also be a verbal allusion to the pagan Roman literary tradition.[ii] The common Roman understanding of pears is that they are ordinary and cheap. There are apparent parallels between this story and a parable in Horace about an unwanted gift of pears which also involves boys and pigs. Shanzer notes,
Horace explored the graceless and useless gift with a rustic fable that highlighted the behaviour of the giver. Augustine took a criminal and meaningless theft and explored it from the point of view, not of the giver or receiver, but of the taker. In both cases boys and pigs get pears, in neither does either derive any good from the fruit. The stories are two different reflections of the similar facts.[iii]
An even stronger reaction might come from a Manichaean background. Manichaean mythology believed that trees sprang up from the semen of demons and there fruit contained the particles that escaped from the Kingdom of Light. A Manichaean would never intentionally pick fruit and if they did they would ask one of the Manichaean elect to ingest it to release its hidden light.[iv]
While all of this must surely have been in his mind, the focus appears to be on the Genesis parallel and the mystery of sin. Augustine makes it clear he had no ethical reason to steal the fruit. It was stolen purely for the pleasure of the act itself. He also makes clear seven times in (2.8.16-2.9.17) that he would never have stolen the fruit alone. Does the theme of negative peer pressure, or the danger of bad friendships, parallel the situation of Adam and Eve? Does it parallel the ‘stolen’ pleasure of sexual concupiscence?
The next section of his text talks about how the beautiful form of physical things attracts our eyes (2.5.10). Augustine then discusses friendship which draws human beings together, but notes that “sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire” (2.5.10). He then moves on to enumerate a list of vices which lurk in “counterfeit beauty” (2.13); pride, ambition, flirtatiousness, curiosity, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, avarice, envy, anger, timidity, and sadness (2.13). He concludes that, “a soul that turns away from you therefore lapses into fornication” (2.14). He asks, “Is there anyone who can take stock of his own weakness and still dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own efforts?” (2.7.15). Although this incident of stealing fruit is real, it stands as a metaphor for his own meaningless stolen pleasures which are a part of the corruption of the bad company he kept.
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
[i]Danuta Shanzer, “Pears before Swine: Augustine, Confessions 2.4.9” Revue des Études Augustiniennes, 42 (1996), 45-55. Augustine appears to have mixed thoughts from both the classical author Horace and the Bible in Gen 3.
[ii] Ibid., p. 50.
[iii] Ibid., p. 52-53.
[iv] Vaught, Journey, p. 55.