IntroductionPhineas Upham examines the incident of SaintAugustine’s pear theft in “Confessions,” andAugustine’s conclusions on virtue, sin, andredemption. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
The nature of sin and virtue as revealed in Saint Augustine’sconfession of the pear theft, and the confession of the greatness of man’sneed of God’s great mercy. “There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, thoughattractive in neither color nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree andcarry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late atnight after (in our usual pestilential way) we had continued our game inthe streets. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for ourfeasts but merely to throw to the pigs,” (p29). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
Augustine’s confession of the pear theft is that drop of dew in whichone can see reflected all the colors of Augustine’s demanding concept ofsin and virtue. Recounting his pear theft Saint Augustine analyses whatseemed in his youth a comradely escapade, a youthful prank; and he findsthat this pear theft was as significant as the apple theft in the Garden ofEden. Saint Augustine examines in this act of pear theft his impudence andhis audacity in trying out the liberty of God. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
As Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in The Garden of Eden expresses arestless 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 arestless desire for God’s Liberty. In this “maimed liberty” in which he“viciously and perversely imitate[d] my Lord,” Augustine was “therebymaking an assertion of possessing a dim resemblance to omnipotence”(p32). It is this demonic “imitation of God” that Augustine did “love in thattheft.” He loved the essential audacity of theft, the audacity of theexercise of God’s law-unto-himselfness and the disregard of spiritualconsequence with a callow assumption of impunity. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
Augustine’s rigorous and analytical examination of the nature of hispear theft is alternated with expressions of pious exhilaration with God,“You alone are worthy of honor and are glorious for eternity. … Who is tobe feared but God alone?” These alternations make Augustine’sconfessions engaging and readable rather than relentless. Also adding tothe liveliness and effectiveness of the pear theft story are Augustine’scontrary uses of similar words in unlikely juxtaposition, for example “afriendship too unfriendly”, and “ashamed not to be shameless”, and “thesatiety of your love is insatiable” (p34). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
In these intriguing terms Augustine emphasizes that the theft wasfor its own sake and not for pears, “The fruit was beautiful, but was notthat which my miserable soul coveted … My feasting was only on thewickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (p31). Not only wasAugustine’s theft not for pears and not only was it an attempt to displaceand assume God’s liberty and omnipotence, but also it was as grave as anysin. Saint Augustine believes himself more culpable in his pear theft thaneven the killer Catiline. For Saint Augustine, unlike Catiline, loved his act oftheft: “I loved my fall… shame for its own sake,” (p29). Although Catilinewas generally considered to embody the principles of evil, wanton cruelty,and unrestrained brutality, Augustine does not believe it, “No one wouldcommit murder without a motive, merely because he took pleasure inkilling. Who would believe that? … No, not even Catiline himself loved hiscrimes…” (p30). Augustine imagines Catiline’s motives to be ambition forhonors, security and wealth, while Augustine considers his own motivesto be much more base and onerous. Augustine is more distressed with hiscrime because, “My feasting was only on the wickedness which I tookpleasure in enjoying” (p31). “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
How different this confession from the Old Testament’s Psalm 139 inwhich 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 inme.” But Saint Augustine does not find God as demanding as He ismerciful, nor does he find that the progress of a man’s soul requiresachievement as much as submission. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
Therefore Saint Augustine considers it ungrateful of God’s mercy toascribe “purity” or “innocency” , “virtue” or “strength” to any man for, atbest, his uncommitted sins. “I also attribute to your grace whatever evilacts I have not done. … No one who considers his frailty would dare toattribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence …” (p32). In hispious delight in submission to God and in his exhaustive gratitude forGod’s mercy, Augustine confesses, through this sin of theft, all and any sinsof which we are all potentially guilty, and “he should not mock the healingof 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 havesinned and only in turning towards God and receiving His mercy is hesaved. The pear theft is significant not only in its essential audacity and inits imitation of God’s liberty, but also and especially for its reflection of allsin 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 virtuedepends on God’s mercy. Augustine essentially confesses the greatness ofman’s need of God’s great mercy. “Human Happiness” by Phineas Upham
About the Author Phineas Upham graduated from the Wharton School of theUniversity of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded for his research andserved in leading community service roles. Upham published a successfulbook in 2002 that was translated into Mandarin and sold in the US, Europeand China, and has since edited two more. He has also written a nationallysyndicated newspaper column and had his work published in numerousscholarly journals. Phineas Upham is a frequent contributor to blogs likeThought Suite.
About the Author (contd) Phineas Upham currently works as an investor in New York City andSan Francisco, where he has previously worked doing financial researchand analysis for a bulge-bracket investment bank and most recently inmacro-economic and technology investing at a leading hedge fund.Uphams community service involvement includes serving as a member ofthe Board of the University of Pennsylvania Museums YoungFriends, where he led major aspects of its community outreach in WestPhiladelphia and was responsible for all graduate student involvement inthe Museum. Phineas received his undergraduate degree with Honorsfrom Harvard University. He is a Term Member at the Council on ForeignRelations.