Friday, April 22, 2011

Infancy and Childhood (Confessions 1.6.7-1.20.31)

st augustine detailIn discussing his infancy Augustine is forced to talk about what he in a sense cannot know or understand because he cannot remember and as an infant he lacked the cognitive tools to assess his environment. This beginning highlights a profound place of humility that represents our common condition as humans. We all begin in a state of original innocence. Although we cannot examine this state through recollection we can explore it by inference through the observation of other infants. St. Augustine is not attempting to engage in scientific enquiry or to develop a theory of cognition. His focus is on the will and the practical context of communal interaction. Carl Vaught notes, “The infant’s struggles to express its desires reflect a fundamental opposition between positive and negative elements in its nature, and it is out of this internal conflict that the negative community of fallen individuals emerges.” [i] Here we begin to touch on the tension between original innocence and original sin in the human condition. The Church affirms that the doctrine of original sin is an essential part of the faith (CCC 388-390). The Catechism reminds us;

How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam "as one body of one man".293 By this "unity of the human race" all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. (CCC404)

Or solidarity with Adam leaves us afflicted with this condition but the Church has not clearly defined the exact mechanism for its transmission. Various theories were being debated at the time of St. Augustine and even today the Catechism calls this “a mystery that we cannot fully understand” (CCC404).

By analogy to other babies Augustine recounts his first smiles and also his tantrums “because my elders were not subject to me” (1.8) and even the “sins of infancy” including greed and jealousy (1.7.11) though he is quick to point out that we do not discipline infants for this behavior because they would “not have been able to understand” (1.7.11). Ultimately Augustine moves on, comparing his infancy to a dark blank in his memory on par with the time he spent in his mother’s womb (1.12).

Moving on to his boyhood Augustine begins to describe his acquisition of language. Some modern philosophers have criticized Augustine for what they perceive to be his overly simplistic approach to the subject. Ironically this is based on a failure to read him carefully. Augustine makes it clear that language is learned through a framework of social conditioning based on the interactions with the linguistic community formed by his parents and nurses (1.8.13).[ii]

Augustine’s early school experiences appear to be mostly negative. He enduring being beaten at school and recounts his heart felt fear of such torments. Hi parents only mocked his punishments. Looking back he notes the irony of disciplining children for their love of play when many similar adult pursuits are considered “business” (1.15). Yet he acknowledges his fault, “I sinned because I disobeyed them not in order to choose something more worthwhile, but simply because I loved games” (1.10.16). His disobedience was motivated by the triple concupiscence of vain glory, curiosity, and lust. For these follies he begs God’s mercy.

Next he recounts an incident where he became deathly ill with a fever. He earnestly begged to be baptized but recovered. He notes;

My cleansing was therefore deferred on the ground that if I lived I would inevitably soil myself again, for it was held that the guilt of sinful defilement incurred after the laver of baptism was graver and more perilous (1.11.17).

Looking back Augustine, asks God to what purpose his baptism was delayed. He could have entered adolescence with the graces of this sacrament to face the waves of temptation. God has turn to profit the lessons he learned.

In his studies Augustine loved Latin literature and hated Greek. He preferred learning in the language of his community rather than studies in a foreign tongue. His boyish mind was taken with the frivolous tales of Virgil’s Aeneid. He notes how he wept “over Dido, who killed herself for love” (1.13.20). He notes further that he gave full reign to his curiosity studying the Greek and Roman myths which model many obscene deeds. He complains about the use of words as finely-crafted vessel into which “the wine of error” was mixed “by teachers who are drunk themselves” (1.26). Augustine recounts how he became a gifted speaker, yet he recounts how empty and vacant it is to recount “licentious deeds in correct and well-turned phrases, in ample and elegant style” (1.18.28). One can be trained in fine speech yet still neglect the eternal rules directed to unending salvation (1.29).


Text © Scott McKellar 2011




[i] Carl G. Vaught, The Journey toward God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books I-VI, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), p. 32.

[ii] Vaught, Journey, calls Augustine’s account “proto-Wittgenstienian.” p. 41.

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