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"Saint Augustine's Pear Theft" by Phineas Upham

  1. Saint Augustine’s Pear Theft By Phineas Upham
  2. Introduction Phineas Upham examines the incident of Saint Augustine’s pear theft in “Confessions,” and Augustine’s conclusions on virtue, sin, and redemption. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  3. The nature of sin and virtue as revealed in Saint Augustine’s confession of the pear 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). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  4. Augustine’s confession of the pear theft is that drop of dew in which one can see reflected all the colors of Augustine’s demanding concept of sin and virtue. Recounting his 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 in the Garden of Eden. Saint Augustine examines in this act of pear theft his impudence and his audacity in trying out the liberty of God. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  5. As Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in The Garden of Eden expresses a restless desire to be Godlike and gain God’s knowledge of Good and Evil, so Saint Augustine’s violation, 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,” Augustine was “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.” He loved 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 of impunity. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  6. Augustine’s rigorous and analytical examination of the nature of his pear theft is alternated with expressions of pious exhilaration with God, “You alone are worthy of honor and are glorious for eternity. … Who is to be feared but God alone?” These alternations make Augustine’s confessions engaging and readable rather than relentless. Also adding to the liveliness and effectiveness of the pear theft story are Augustine’s contrary uses of similar words in unlikely juxtaposition, for example “a friendship too unfriendly”, and “ashamed not to be shameless”, and “the satiety of your love is insatiable” (p34). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  7. In these intriguing terms Augustine emphasizes that the theft was for its own sake and not for pears, “The fruit was beautiful, but was not that which my miserable soul coveted … My feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (p31). Not only was Augustine’s theft not for pears and not only was it an attempt to displace and assume God’s liberty and omnipotence, but also it was as grave as any sin. Saint Augustine believes himself more culpable in his pear theft than even the killer Catiline. For Saint Augustine, unlike Catiline, loved his act of theft: “I loved my fall… shame for its own sake,” (p29). Although Catiline was generally considered to embody the principles of evil, wanton cruelty, and unrestrained brutality, Augustine does not believe it, “No one would commit murder without a motive, merely because he took pleasure in killing. Who would believe that? … No, not even Catiline himself loved his crimes…” (p30). Augustine imagines Catiline’s motives to be ambition for honors, security and wealth, while Augustine considers his own motives to be much more base and onerous. Augustine is more distressed with his crime because, “My feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (p31). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  8. How different this confession from the Old Testament’s Psalm 139 in which a demanding God is called upon to behold an upright and “wondrously made” man and his moral achievement, “Do I not hate them [His enemies] with a perfect hatred … see if there be any wicked way in me.” But Saint Augustine does not find God as demanding as He is merciful, nor does he find that the progress of a man’s soul requires achievement as much as submission. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  9. 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 uncommitted sins. “I also attribute to your grace whatever evil acts I have not done. … No one who considers his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence …” (p32). In his pious delight in submission to God and in his exhaustive gratitude for God’s mercy, Augustine confesses, through this sin of theft, all and any sins of which we are all potentially guilty, and “he should not mock the healing of a sick man by 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 and receiving His mercy is he saved. The pear theft is significant not only in its essential audacity and in its imitation of God’s liberty, but also and especially for its reflection of all sin as a turning away from God, and for the worst sin, the love of sinning. For Saint Augustine, 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. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
  10. About the Author Phineas Upham graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded for his research and served in leading community service roles. Upham published a successful book in 2002 that was translated into Mandarin and sold in the US, Europe and China, and has since edited two more. He has also written a nationally syndicated newspaper column and had his work published in numerous scholarly journals. Phineas Upham is a frequent contributor to blogs like Thought Suite.
  11. About the Author (contd) Phineas Upham currently works as an investor in New York City and San Francisco, where he has previously worked doing financial research and analysis for a bulge-bracket investment bank and most recently in macro-economic and technology investing at a leading hedge fund. Upham's community service involvement includes serving as a member of the Board of the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Young Friends, where he led major aspects of its community outreach in West Philadelphia and was responsible for all graduate student involvement in the Museum. Phineas received his undergraduate degree with Honors from Harvard University. He is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations.