What’s Wrong with the World

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Augustine on Infancy

I have recently begun a rereading of Augustine's Confessions, a fine work when considered purely as literature, but finer still when read as high theology, and yes, even as philosophy. Theologically, the work is structured in accordance with one of the great motifs of Patristic thought - man as microcosmos, a recapitulation in miniature of the cosmic drama of redemption.

But one must begin at the beginning:

Afterwards I began to smile, first in my sleep, then when awake. That at least is what I was told, and I believed it since that is what we see other infants doing. I do not actually remember what I then did. Little by little I began to be aware where I was and wanted to manifest my wishes to those who could fulfill them as I could not. For my desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes, the small number of signs of which I was capable but such signs as lay in my power to use: for there was no real resemblance. When I did not get my way, either because I was not understood or lest it be harmful to me, I used to be indignant with my seniors for their disobedience, and with free people who were not slaves to my interests; and I would revenge myself upon them by weeping. That this is the way of infants I have learnt from those I have have been able to watch. That is what I was like myself and. although they have not been aware of it, they have taught me more than my nurses with all of their knowledge of how I behaved.

Some might be inclined to see in this passage, the eighth section of the first book of the Confessions, Augustine's reputed excesses, his harsh view of humanity, to the newest babe, as altogether sunken in depravity. I think this unsubtle and uninteresting. For, in the first place, Augustine here draws upon a trope common among the ancients, namely, that of infancy as a clue to human nature. Not for them the view of childhood as an idyll of innocence, a Rousseauian perfection from which we fall as we age. No, infancy discloses the mixed character of human nature, the lower inclinations and the potentialities for the nobler attainments; the ancients were realistic, and not at all sentimental: tantrums and slapping tell us something about ourselves.

In the second place, it is this very mixed character that is the existential backdrop to the drama of redemption; the lower tendencies, both for the pagan and the Christian, must be gradually and methodically chastened, disciplined, neutered, mortified, that the higher may manifest themselves. For the Christian, some of these tendencies will be implicated in sin and mortality; but for both Christian and pagan, they are the clue that man is born into the world in possession of a common nature, a nature having a telos: we must become what we are by ordering our souls and bodies rightly. Where the two differ is on the question of capacity and means; the enlightened pagan turned inward, to discover his origin, and laboured by the powers with which he was endued. The Christian knew himself to be enslaved, his highest faculties dragged down into the mire of disordering passions - as did the noble pagan - and knew that his own innate powers did not suffice, but that in his very struggle, God was present to him. The question then became, "How does God condescend to man in man's weakness?"

All men are like the infant Augustine; it is by grace that they attain to the stature of men.

Comments (5)

Studies have shown that humans reach their peak of selfishness and greed during the toddler period, and I think it falls then levels out after that. I'm reading the Confessions myself at the moment, and was struck by the beauty of the eulogy for his mother, but taken aback at his justifications for wife-beating.

It's true that Augustine did believe in total depravity, but this passage sounds like plain common sense to me. As he says, that's what little ones are like. As for wanting the adults to be enslaved to them, it is so accurate as to make any mother a little wry. And it goes on a lot older than infancy and into young childhood with full speech, which Augustine no doubt knew, too. I resist those pressures from the youngest member of the family every day of the week. Often it's easier just to be a slave and to ask that everyone else in the family do the same, even to use my own authority and the plea of keeping peace in the house to insist that we all go along with her wishe. But that would be very bad for her immortal soul.

I wouldn't pin a hyper-Calvinist construal of total depravity on Augustine, though that is a controversy that will probably never find resolution. But the passage does express common sense, albeit colourfully - 'revenge myself upon them by weeping' is precisely what my children did this morning, when their breakfast did not arrive as expeditiously as they desired.

I cannot recall the passage concerning wife-beating, and my edition lacks an index sufficiently fine-grained as to enable me to find it with ease. Augustine does analogize the subordination of woman to man to the subordination of the actions of the body to rational judgment; this, although in the preceding sentence, he acknowledges that women are the equals of men in mental power.

All I remember about wife beating is that he implies (without saying it directly) that his father beat his mother and expresses admiration for her patience under her trials.

I'm re-reading Confessions now, myself. I love the style and the philosophy, but I would also say that it was more relevant for it's time than now. I don't mean to say there’s nothing in here that is valuable—I wish more people understood the mediaeval mind. I agree with what some say about religion being fossilized philosophy, but I still see the intellectual beauty within it.

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