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Stealing the Pears

Augustine considers the theft of the pears halfway through Book II. What particularly disturbs him about this teenage prank is that he did it out of no other motive than a desire to do wrong. “I loved my fall [into sin],” he writes. The pears were not stolen for their beauty, their taste, or their nourishment (there were better pears at home), but out of sheer mischief.

Investigating this point further, Augustine again concludes that his actions simply represent a human perversion of his God-given goodness. In fact, each thing he sought to gain from stealing the pears (and everything humans desire in sinning) turns out to be a twisted version of one of God’s attributes. In a remarkable rhetorical feat, Augustine matches each sinful desire with a desire to be like God: pride seeks loftiness (and God is the highest), perverse curiosity desires knowledge (and God knows all), idleness is really aiming at “quietude” (and God is unchanging in his eternal repose), and so on. The underlying theme here is, again, Neoplatonic.

For the Neoplatonists, all creation (the material world) has “turned away” from God’s perfection, becoming scattered into a chaotic state of mutability, temporality, and multiplicity. God remains unchangeable, eternal, and unified, and creation always seeks (whether it realizes it or not) to return to God. Here, Augustine has argued that even sin itself fundamentally aims at a return to God. Book II ends with a consideration of the peer pressure on which Augustine partly blames the theft of the pears. The main lesson he takes from this is that “friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind.” Like love, it must be subjected to reason if it is to be truly good.