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Book 2: The Sins of Youth

Confessions Book 2 pear 200 x 113This page is the second entry in the Core
Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 2, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.

Summary:

In the brief second book, Augustine informs us about his sixteenth year. During the preceding four years he had attended school in a town twenty miles north of his hometown of Thagaste. That school was located in the town of Madauros, a center of classical education in Roman North Africa. Augustine returned home for an interim year as his father saved money to send him to an even more prestigious school in Carthage. Two main subjects occupy Augustine’s highly selective review of his sixteenth year—his sexuality and his theft of pears from a neighbor’s orchard.

Commentary:

Augustine nowhere calls the book he is writing an autobiography. He believes that he is writing a confession—a confession of past wrongdoings and of his spiritual quest for God. What we mainly get in Book 2 is an abundance of analysis and commentary, scantily tied to the two external events of reaching puberty and stealing pears. The dominant format is the memoir—a highly selective remembrance of a few events that are subjected to extensive analysis.

Whereas Book 1 had cast a critical eye on the people who oversaw Augustine’s education, Book 2 turns the gaze inward. Augustine is unsparing in judging his teen behavior as having been very bad indeed.

In Augustine’s analysis, sin is misdirected longing for the beauty that only God can supply in a person’s life. — Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of English

Augustine never gives us details about his lust, and it seems likely that he simply had the normal urges of a young man who had reached sexual maturity. In his own mind, however, he was guilty of excessive and misdirected sexuality. The note of regret runs strong, as Augustine now wishes that he had done better.

It is possible that in Augustine’s imagination, sexual misconduct is metaphoric of sin generally, thereby accounting for the hyperbolic rhetoric that he uses. Augustine lived in a Romanized culture; its sexual conduct and values ran counter to Christian standards of married sexual love. When he looked back on his early sexual behavior as an adult Christian, he found it despicable.

The pear orchard incident is one of the most famous stories in Augustine’s life. Externally it is an example of what we would call petty theft, but in Augustine’s imagination and theological analysis it becomes nothing less than a paradigm of the essence of human sinfulness.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that Augustine devotes the second half of Book 2 to an analysis of the nature of sin. In Augustine’s analysis, sin is misdirected longing for the beauty that only God can supply in a person’s life. Desire defiled is Augustine’s theme here, and it includes his delight in doing something sinful.


For Reflection or Discussion

What are the precise points Augustine makes about these two main youthful experiences? Why do they loom so large?

What landmark events do you return to in thinking of yourself as a sinful person?

What points does Augustine make about sin in the second half of Book 2?

How does Augustine believe he was being directed to God by God even in his sinful
behavior?

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