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Posted January 8, 2004

Book: Saint Augustine’s Sin
Author: Garry Will
Penguin Group, New York, pp.103

Excerpt from Jacket:

In Saint Augustine’s Childhood and Saint Augustine’s Memory, the first two volumes in this series of translations from Confessions, Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills illuminates the brilliance and lyricism of Augustine’s seminal work with breathtaking command, bring to life “one theological and psychological revelation only to tempt us to read on by promising another.” (The Chicago Tribune). Now, in Saint Augustine’s Sin, Wills gives a fresh interpretation of Book Two of the original text, the section that is most read and discussed by modern readers.

As Wills argues, for most readers “Augustine = sin = sex,” and people are so blinded by this question that they often misinterpret the events of Augustine’s life, and fail fully to understand Augustine’s concept of sin. Contrary to what readers have assumed, there is no evidence that Augustine was sexually promiscuous. He took a common-law wife in this teens and remained true to her alone until just before his conversion. When he reflects on the nature of man’s sinfulness in Confessions, sexual indiscretion is not Augustine’s main focus. Instead it is man’s power to transgress that occupies Augustine as he struggles to fathom how good creatures can choose to perform evil deeds. Meditating on an event from his own life., Augustine describes his shame after participating in a minor theft as a teenager and interprets this act — and all other acts of sin — in light of the three “founding sins”: the fallen angels’ rebellion, the temptation of Adam, and Cain’s fratricide.

Again, Wills frames this section of the Confessions with a sweeping introduction, concluding commentary, and incisive notes throughout. In addition, Wills provides rich discussion of the three founding sins in an appendix, with analysis of passages from scripture and from Augustine’s own City of God.

Excerpt from the book:

The Three Founding Sins

Augustine’s treatment of his pear theft can be understood only against th background of Adam’s sin in the garden. But that sin is, in turn, connected with — made further explicable by — two other sins. For Augustine, there were three “original sins,” the second descended from the first, the third from the second. The fallen angels commit the first cosmic sin, the one that best reveals the nature of sin, since it was committed with least excuse or extenuating factors.

Tempted by the one being punished for his first sin, Adam and Eve commit the original sin for humankind. It, too, partakes of the inmost nature of sin, which is a proud substitution of oneself for God, but with a distinction between the woman’s sin and the man’s. Eve wants to entertain a forbidden knowledge. She is tempted by Satan, which makes her sin less “pure” than Satan’s own earlier self-seduction. Adam’s sin, too, is different from Eve’s — he knows that he will not know more after eating the fruit, but he cannot allow Eve to suffer the consequences of her fall without his company. He acts with a “compulsion to solidarity” (socialis necessitudo) with her. These complications explain why Adam and Eve are redeemable but the fallen angels are not. The angels committed the purer sin, less defensible, a definitive and clearheaded rejection of God.

The third original sin is that of Cain, who founds the City of Man. He falls by resenting what God does for his brother, and is driven off to found the first city. Augustine sees in this the founding error of earthly politics, of society as built on an anti-social act. Rome, too, was founded on a brother’s murder, Romulus killing Remus. The City of Man is infected from the outset with contradiction, with love of self undermining the mutual loves of community. Augustine recognizes in his own sin an extension of all these founding sins: the sin of the angels is his own greatest sin, pride, the sin of Adam in his pear theft, performed out of a “compulsion toward solidarity: with his fellow delinquents, the sin of Cain repeated in his resentment of God’s treatment of his friend in Book Four of The Testimony.

Table of Contents:

Part I: Introduction

Adam’s sin
Book Two, Organizing Principles
Translating Book Two

Part II: The Testimony of Book Two

I. Sexual offenses

II. Pear theft

Part III. Commentary

Part IV. Appendixes: Augustine’s theology of sin

The Angels’ sin
Adam’s sin
Cain’s sin