Why Has the Story of St. Augustine and the Pear Tree Had Such Staying Power?
By Sean Reynolds
"It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing."
Perhaps we tell a lie, and we have nothing to gain from this lie. We steal, and we do not want what we’ve stolen. We turn on the lights, and walk out of the room.
These actions are hard to explain, but not impossible. Of the stories related by St. Augustine, the one with the most continual resonance is a short passage from Book 2, where he describes once stealing from a pear tree as a teenager. Seems simple enough—a youthful indiscretion.
Nevertheless, his story of teenage hijinks has been adopted and adapted through the centuries, recited whenever social scientists, philosophers, or poets need to address the topic of guilt or disobedience. Twenty-first-century neurologists have used this story to illustrate the rewards provided by adrenaline-inducing thrills. The great poet W. H. Auden pointed to it as evidence that “St. Augustine was the first real psychologist."
Let’s look at the story.
As is well known, St. Augustine ran with a sketchy crowd as a teen, their name was something like “The Destructors.” One night, after the gang had finished playing sports in the streets of their neighborhood, their attention turned to a pear tree that was heavy with ripe fruit. The tree did not belong to any of their families, but it grew on a plot adjacent to that of Augustine’s family. The boys did not find the pears tempting in their color or flavor.
Nevertheless, they wanted to steal them. They went to the base of the tree and shook down the ripe pears. Augustine relates:
We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart–which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. - Saint Augustine
Writing in his mid-40s, Augustine looked back on this theft and was stuck by the fact that he did not even want the pears. Yet, he knew the pears were not his. The natural law that he should not steal the property of others--this is what pushed him to steal the pears. He took a pear merely to throw it to the pigs, not for the pigs’ sake, but for the sake of his own desire to disobey.
He explains the act this way:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.
This story has been chosen by many more recent critics as a prime example of “Catholic Guilt”—of attaching and unnecessary amount of self-punishment over a tiny error. No one less than the highest judge in the US, former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. commented that it was an “[Odd] thing to see a man making a mountain out of robbing a pear tree in his teens."
However, St. Augustine does not appear to be infatuated with the idea of punishing himself in these passages. He begins from a place of wonder and fascination, a self-astonishment that many of us share.
The majority of our sins are not so complex. We often choose incorrectly between short-term and long-term goals, we sacrifice a value we hold for a lesser good. Most who steal money, for example, desire the money. Things are different with St. Augustine’s example. He enters into the realm of Pure Sin. This is the sin that enjoys that it’s a sin. This sin does not want a forbidden fruit. It does not even desire a Knowledge of Good and Evil, as with Eve’s sin. Augustine’s sin just hopes to be a sin.
Where Augustine succeeds, however, is that he does not wallow in his guilt. He does not rest in shame and self-loathing. Rather he uses this to kindle within him a Divine Restlessness--or even a Divine Un-Ease—that drives him close to the Lord. This restlessness makes him seek for greater perfection, while acknowledging that humans will always need the divine aid of Grace if they are to finally reach peace. This is the form of Divine Restlessness that became the charism of the Augustinian Order.