"The Pear Theft of St. Augustine" by Phineas Upham

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Contributor Phineas Upham examines the incident of Saint Augustine’s pear theft in “Confessions,” and Augustine’s conclusions on virtue, sin, and redemption. Read more at http://thoughtsuite.com.

Contributor Phineas Upham examines the incident of Saint Augustine’s pear theft in “Confessions,” and Augustine’s conclusions on virtue, sin, and redemption. Read more at http://thoughtsuite.com.

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  • 1. Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft by Phineas Upham
  • 2. Phineas Upham examines the incident of Saint Augustine’s pear theft in“Confessions,” and Augustine’s conclusions on virtue, sin, and redemption. The nature of sin and virtue as revealed in Saint Augustine’s confession of thepear theft, and the confession of the greatness of man’s need of God’s great mercy. “There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree and carry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late at night after (in our usual pestilential way) we had continued our game in the streets. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs,” (p29). Augustine’s confession of the pear theft is that drop of dew in which one can seereflected all the colors of Augustine’s demanding concept of sin and virtue. Recountinghis pear theft Saint Augustine analyses what seemed in his youth a comradely escapade,a youthful prank; and he finds that this pear theft was as significant as the apple theft inthe Garden of Eden. Saint Augustine examines in this act of pear theft his impudenceand his audacity in trying out the liberty of God. As Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in The Garden of Eden expresses a restlessdesire to be Godlike and gain God’s knowledge of Good and Evil, so Saint Augustine’sviolation, his “sin for its own sake,” expresses a restless desire for God’s Liberty. In this“maimed liberty” in which he “viciously and perversely imitate[d] my Lord,” Augustinewas “thereby making an assertion of possessing a dim resemblance to omnipotence”(p32). It is this demonic “imitation of God” that Augustine did “love in that theft.” Heloved the essential audacity of theft, the audacity of the exercise of God’s law-unto-himselfness and the disregard of spiritual consequence with a callow assumption ofimpunity. Augustine’s rigorous and analytical examination of the nature of his pear theft isalternated with expressions of pious exhilaration with God, “You alone are worthy ofhonor and are glorious for eternity. … Who is to be feared but God alone?” Thesealternations make Augustine’s confessions engaging and readable rather than relentless.Also adding to the liveliness and effectiveness of the pear theft story are Augustine’scontrary uses of similar words in unlikely juxtaposition, for example “a friendship too “Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft” by Phineas Upham
  • 3. unfriendly”, and “ashamed not to be shameless”, and “the satiety of your love isinsatiable” (p34). In these intriguing terms Augustine emphasizes that the theft was for its ownsake and not for pears, “The fruit was beautiful, but was not that which my miserablesoul coveted … My feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure inenjoying” (p31). Not only was Augustine’s theft not for pears and not only was it anattempt to displace and assume God’s liberty and omnipotence, but also it was as graveas any sin. Saint Augustine believes himself more culpable in his pear theft than eventhe killer Catiline. For Saint Augustine, unlike Catiline, loved his act of theft: “I lovedmy fall… shame for its own sake,” (p29). Although Catiline was generally considered toembody the principles of evil, wanton cruelty, and unrestrained brutality, Augustine doesnot believe it, “No one would commit murder without a motive, merely because he tookpleasure in killing. Who would believe that? … No, not even Catiline himself loved hiscrimes…” (p30). Augustine imagines Catiline’s motives to be ambition for honors,security and wealth, while Augustine considers his own motives to be much more baseand onerous. Augustine is more distressed with his crime because, “My feasting wasonly on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (p31). How different this confession from the Old Testament’s Psalm 139 in which ademanding God is called upon to behold an upright and “wondrously made” man andhis moral achievement, “Do I not hate them [His enemies] with a perfect hatred … seeif there be any wicked way in me.” But Saint Augustine does not find God asdemanding as He is merciful, nor does he find that the progress of a man’s soul requiresachievement as much as submission. Therefore Saint Augustine considers it ungrateful of God’s mercy to ascribe“purity” or “innocency” , “virtue” or “strength” to any man for, at best, his uncommittedsins. “I also attribute to your grace whatever evil acts I have not done. … No one whoconsiders his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity andinnocence …” (p32). In his pious delight in submission to God and in his exhaustivegratitude for God’s mercy, Augustine confesses, through this sin of theft, all and any sins “Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft” by Phineas Upham
  • 4. of which we are all potentially guilty, and “he should not mock the healing of a sick manby the Physician, whose help has kept him from falling sick” (p33). For Saint Augustine,however, a man has sinned or might have sinned and only in turning towards God andreceiving His mercy is he saved. The pear theft is significant not only in its essentialaudacity and in its imitation of God’s liberty, but also and especially for its reflection ofall sin as a turning away from God, and for the worst sin, the love of sinning. For SaintAugustine, all sin is a turning away from God and all virtue depends on God’s mercy.Augustine essentially confesses the greatness of man’s need of God’s great mercy. “Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft” by Phineas Upham
  • 5. About the Author Phineas Upham graduated from the Wharton School of the University ofPennsylvania, where he was awarded for his research and served in leading communityservice roles. Upham published a successful book in 2002 that was translated intoMandarin and sold in the US, Europe and China, and has since edited two more. He hasalso written a nationally syndicated newspaper column and had his work published innumerous scholarly journals. Phineas Upham is a frequent contributor to blogs likeThought Suite. Phineas Upham currently works as an investor in New York City and SanFrancisco, where he has previously worked doing financial research and analysis for abulge-bracket investment bank and most recently in macro-economic and technologyinvesting at a leading hedge fund. Uphams community service involvement includesserving as a member of the Board of the University of Pennsylvania Museums YoungFriends, where he led major aspects of its community outreach in West Philadelphia andwas responsible for all graduate student involvement in the Museum. Phineas received hisundergraduate degree with Honors from Harvard University. He is a Term Member atthe Council on Foreign Relations. “Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft” by Phineas Upham