St. Augustine’s Confessions is considered to this day to be one of the most important and influential works of Christian, and specifically Catholic, writing. Augustine’s work is an autobiography on the surface but, upon deeper reflection, can be seen as both an indictment of mankind’s sinful ways and a calling to come to Christ for all of Christendom, and humanity for that matter. He grants further insight into the concepts of original sin, mankind’s motives for sinning and how man can go about escaping and rectifying a repetitive whirlwind of sin and self-destruction.
As members of Professor Daniel Lende’s Anthropology of Compulsion, a freshman seminar at the University of Notre Dame, our task was to read Augustine’s work and make a presentation to the class about some of the most important themes of St. Augustine’s Confessions. In this post, we will delve into the themes of original sin, motives for sin, and escaping the pattern of sin from the standpoint of our class’s opinions expressed during our discussion and come to a consensus interpretation of this work.
At the outset of the book Augustine describes his now famous life of sin in which he wallowed during his youth. He fancies himself no different than any other person in that he has a natural aptitude for sin and crime. He says “we are carried away by custom to our own undoing and it is hard to struggle against the stream.” (Augustine 36)
This description of original sin as a roaring stream is strikingly appropriate, as advocates of original sin paint it as an inescapable force that holds back the human race as a whole. For example, Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History provides the following description: “peccatum originalis [original sin], the belief that we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing — that this world is a vale of tears because we made it that and, somehow, couldn’t have made it anything else.”
Most readers (and the vast majority of our classmates) would take offense with this pessimistic notion of human nature. Upon viewing the clip below, depicting a minister who berates his constituents for their own disposition towards sin, the class was certainly taken aback.
Some may take the idea of original sin as an accusation directed towards humanity as a whole. Discussion was met with quite a bit of flustered and frustrated students’ explanations of, “I’m not evil. How can original sin be serious?”
Yet upon further reflection, our classmates were able to recognize their own faults and come to the understanding that Augustine and certainly Jacobs are not portraying humans as hedonistic demons roaming the earth in search of sex and thievery, but rather as people who must fight temptation toward sin. If we as humans are naturally inclined to sin, we must do what is unnatural in being a pious and socially acceptable individual.
Augustine’s Motives for Sinning
In Augustine’s Confessions he offers a few different potential motives for why people sin. At least one of these motives can be applied to any given sin and each pose interesting questions. In brief, his three motives presented are peer pressure, sinning for the purpose of gain, and sinning for the sake of sinning. The first of these motives is the temptation of peer pressure of which he writes:
“It was not the takings that attracted me but the raid itself, and yet to do it by myself would have been no fun and I should not have done it. This was friendship of a most unfriendly sort, bewitching my mind in an inexplicable way. For the sake of a laugh, a little sport, I was glad to do harm and anxious to damage another; and that without the thought of profit for myself or retaliation for injuries received! And all because we are ashamed to hold back when others say ‘Come on! Let’s do it!’” (2.9).
In this passage, Augustine tells the reader that the reason he stole the pears was because his friends’ excitement was overwhelming him and so he gave in. He even points out that he was not influenced by selfish intentions or any other reason but for the fun of doing it with his friends. This act is innocent enough but it still reflects a serious motive for sinning and Augustine includes this passage so we can thoroughly discuss the temptation of peer pressure. During our class discussion, we related this motive to a riot killing thousands of people to mere high school peer pressure.
Augustine’s second reason is sinning for the sake of sinning. In other words, one might sin just for the feeling of breaking the rules or for the experience. Augustine writes, “Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden” (2.9) Here, he claims that his true motives were to sin for the sake of it. Augustine also points out that they may have eaten some of the pears that they stole but this was not the pleasure they were after when committing the act.
Finally, Augustine’s last reason for sinning:
“And in the games I played with them I often in order to come off the better, simply because a vain desire to win had got the better of me. And yet there was nothing I could less easily endure, nothing that made me quarrel more bitterly, than to find others cheated them. All the same, if they found me out more and blamed me for it, I would lose my temper rather than give in” (1.19).
In this, Augustine tells that he cheated in a small game in order to win, in order to better himself. This seems to be the most common motive for sinning and during a discussion in class, the majority of people tended to agree with this motive over the others. Once again, his sin is displayed in a minor context but still portrays the underlying reasoning in his actions.
The class was inclined to think most sins consisted of a combination of two of the three or even all three at once. The example of the Nazi culture came up throughout our discussions of sin and is a great instance in which all three motives can be seen. The Nazis obviously gave into peer pressure and were caught up in the culture of the Hitler, which represents the first motive listed. The class also pointed out that many of the Nazis and Hitler were just sinning because they were purely evil and wanted to break the rules and kill people for the sake of it. Lastly, the Nazis would often steal from their victims and would kill people simply in order to move up in the rankings of the Nazi army. And the paragon of this last motive was Hitler as he was power hungry and wanted to rule the world, which obviously fits under this rule. As the discussion grew, Augustine’s words of wisdom seemed to resurface over and over again in many of the modern examples that were brought to light.
When asked, “Why do people sin?” the class responded with almost identical reasons as presented in Confessions. Even after discussion, these ideas of original sin and motivations for sinning followed us and we began to realize how the words of Augustine and Jacobs described the modern world and rang true all around us.
How Should Humanity Respond to Original Sin?
So now that we’ve come to an agreement that original sin is a plausible description for human nature, an obvious question to follow is: how do we escape it?
Luckily for some, Augustine and the church have a ready-made answer: God. As Augustine reflects on his youth, he was in search of this answer as well, asking “will this torrent never dry up? How much longer will it sweep the sons of Adam down to that vast and terrible sea which cannot easily be passed?” (Augustine 36)
Later in his journey towards piety, however, he seems to have, through scripture, come to the conclusion that only through seeking higher truth in God can humanity overcome the rushing river of original sin. Augustine’s idea was met with some resistance by our class.
The class discussion on this idea was perhaps reflective of how the youth of the world are becoming more and more secular in thought, as everyone was in agreement that recognizing the Christian God and Jesus cannot be the only way to escape a life of sin. An example brought up time and again was of a man who has lived his life in isolation, say in the middle of a desert, and has never had the opportunity to learn about God and the Christian traditions of sin and morality. Is this man evil and damned to eternal suffering? He most certainly is not. The class was able to recognize that there is a difference between being a “good” person and being a “religious” person, and that the former is much more important than the latter.