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The Philosopher's Plant 4.0: St. Augustine's Pear

After the publication of his Confessions, Augustine was unable to rid himself of a nagging suspicion. What if the success of the book were due to something other than the moral-pedagogic purpose he had in mind? It quickly became obvious that readers were attracted to the text out of perverse curiosity for the descriptions of Augustine’s sexual tribulations. They were excited to learn about the carnal temptations that had continually thwarted his conversion. In short, the book of repentance was received in some circles as an erotic bestseller of the fourth century.

Having said that, the first comprehensive confession of Confessions is not related, at least not explicitly, to the author’s struggle against his sexual urges. Instead, it revolves around an act of theft. The stolen objects could not have been more trivial: what the adolescent, not-yet-saintly Augustine and his fellow gang members took without permission were pears. But the fruits were not desirable in and of themselves. “My desire,” Augustine recounts,

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was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. 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… We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs (Confessions, II.iv.9).

Most will dismiss stealing pears as a relatively innocent teenage prank, as insignificant as the stolen things themselves. To Augustine, however, the act is symbolic.

His judgment of the pears’ quality — “attractive in neither color nor taste” — is of the essence. Why did he steal mediocre fruits? –Because what he craved were not the pears but the forbidden fruit of committing a crime and the thrill of breaking a law. Or, as he succinctly states on the same page of his book, “I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.”

In much the same manner, he will later love not the blessings of God but divine love itself. The material object, for instance a fruit, is a pure means, a vehicle for the satisfaction of desires that may be physical (hunger) or may not be oriented to anything in the order of nature at all (craving the acceptance of one’s peers).

Seeing that the pears themselves and the thievery are but foils for Augustine’s confessional self-flagellation, we cannot be certain whether the recounted event really happened or is an allegory of the narrator’s fallenness in general. Much is in favor of the latter interpretative option with the attendant conclusion that the theft was figurative.

Think back to the eating of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge that augured the fall of Adam and Eve, or to Augustine’s habitual interpretation of good works qua spiritual fruits. There is no reason to doubt the allegorical connection of the stolen pears to both of these tropes. And the same goes for other — presumably real-life — occurrences described in Confessions, not the least of which is the author’s emblematic weeping under a fig tree, reminiscent of the first humans’ post-paradisiac condition.

The plant is a symbol (symbolum: a token for or a mark of something other than itself), if not the symbol of a symbol. But so is everything else in the world accessible to the senses, along with the world as a whole, which is a token for God’s benevolence. The work of Christian hermeneutics proves indispensable for tracing these marks to the hidden meaning they, at once, reveal and encrypt.

It is beside the point whether or not the events in question actually happened. If we were to insist on a careful sifting of the real from the imaginary, we would turn our backs on Augustine’s message and his method.

Literalness in the eyes of the Christian philosopher is typical of a Judaic approach, enamored with that law which is etched on stone and that covenant which is inscribed on the flesh. Conversely, the New Covenant demands a “circumcision of the heart,” and, with this emphasis on spiritual interiority and on faith, comes the depreciation of literalness. The world becomes a matter of interpretation, not for knowledge’s sake but as an intermediary step toward the divine. Whatever pertains to the empirically real pales in comparison to the “fictions” of love, faith, and hope with which the road to heaven is paved.

We must confess, however, that there is something ominous in the decision to feature the theft of a fruit so prominently in the philosophical confessions. Why stealing? And why stealing fruit, of all things?

Let us try to advance in the symbolic, allegorical spirit required by the genre Augustine has pioneered.

First, those who read the confessions cannot rid themselves of the impression that they are breaking into a forbidden space, a private, secretive, and usually carefully protected domain of the psyche. Our opening the book (hence, the confessor’s soul) is already, in some sense, a burglary.

Of course, the author willingly lets us in and guides us with the help of selective and highly structured narratives. But he also indicates, in so many words, that his subjective interiority is, from the start, broken into, invigilated from within by God or by the Other. Far from a late disruption, it is this break-and-enter that makes the psyche what it is.

Second, if the act of stealing harkens back to the confession, then the object of theft, the fruit, must be associated with the broken-into psyche. Confessing is like peeling a fruit — an orange, an apple, or maybe even a pear, except that the juicy core is the denuded soul of the confessor.

An open-heart surgery in the sphere of spirit, it is an attempt to get “inside and under the skin,” intus et in cute, as the epigraph to Rousseau’s Confessions mandates. The confessor steals himself, wrenches his self through his own confessional performance, even if in the end he must throw the stolen fruit away, or feed it to the pigs, who are starved for yellow-press sensationalism and are eager to learn every spicy detail about the sex lives of intellectual celebrities. The spiritual “open-heart surgery” invents, lifts, and trashes the very heart it operates on.

And so, confessions commence with and proceed through a series of burglaries. At sixteen, Augustine may have stolen pears. At forty-something, the period of his life when the book was composed, he graduated to grand theft, spiriting away the inherent value of the fruit.

In reflecting on the shameful event of his youth, Augustine is reluctant to attribute physical seductiveness to the pears themselves. The beauty is not properly theirs; it is the stamp of God who created them: “The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, the good God, God the highest good and my true good” (Augustine, Confessions, II.vi.12).

There is no discrepancy between the initial qualifications of the pears as, at best, mediocre and this reference to the fruit as “beautiful.” Unremarkable when considered in and of themselves and in the light of sensory appreciation, they become magnificent as the bearers of the divine signature, the signatura rerum. Those who steal them are impotent to undo the bountiful goodness of creation; a rebellion against God does not evacuate the rebel from the world that emanated from, and remained bound to, the divine Word.