Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Babies: The World's Tiniest Terrorists

As we've noted, Augustine does not have very kind things to say about infants in Book I of Confessions. Below is a video of our friend Nelson reading and commenting on some of these most choice excerpts. 

What do you think? Is Augustine fair? Too cruel? Does he have a point or is he just picking a fight with our defenseless offspring?


  1. Somewhat off-topic, or taking it further: in I.9 he talks about being beaten as a schoolboy for not knowing his lessons, of praying for deliverance, which did not come, and of being mocked by parents for his failures. All in all, not a happy childhood.
    So, is he remembering his unhappiness, and somehow assuming it was his fault?

  2. Ahhh happiness. my favorite Augustinian topic : ) more will pop up on this in later books (gooood times ahead), so I'll hold off on diving into that for now.

    but as for Augustine potentially having a miserable childhood and blaming himself for it (great line in I.19: " I certainly deserved punishment, being a great sinner for such a tiny boy" (1.19)). this is an interesting thought. clearly a bit out of my (or i suppose anyone's) knowledge whether that could psychologically be what's going on here. but i don't get the impression that Augustine perceived himself to have had a more brutal or unhappy childhood than any of his other mid 4th century North African pre-adolescent peers. all the other kids got beaten too at school (and their parents probably laughed at them as well. seeing those beatings as a standard, if painful, part of childhood and a good upbringing).

    so apart from the beatings, I think in Bk I Augustine is just saying that he was a "normal" kid, and that normal kids are sinfully self-centered (want more food for themselves, want to win games and be #1 in their group of friends no matter the cost, etc.). And one interesting remark Augustine makes right after noting that he and his schoolmates were regularly beaten at school: "All the same, we were blameworthy, b/c we were less assiduous in reading, writing, and concentrating on our studies than was expected of us. It was not that we lacked intelligence or ability, Lord, for you had endowed us with these in a measure appropriate to our age; it was simply that we loved to play, and we were punished by adults WHO NONETHELESS DID THE SAME THEMSELVES. But whereas the frivolous pursuits of grown-up people are called "business," [zing] children are punished for behaving in the same fashion" (I.15). From Aug perspective, adults and kids are playing the same sinful game of (often ruthlessly) loving other things - wealth/fame/you name it - more than God and neighbor. disordered loves in full cry, which will of course reappear as a theme as Aug wrestles with what is the ultimate source of happiness/fulfillment.

    not sure that was particularly helpful as a response to your question, David, but just some musings.
    and i think if we read Augustine as blaming himself for having a miserable childhood (maybe as a way of trying to make sense of the suffering?), if we make that psychological interpretation, i think it'd have to extend beyond his childhood to include his whole life - and perhaps the miserable lives of all humanity. in other words, i think if we make that move, i don't see how we limit it to his childhood (as a way to explain why he thinks babies and little kids are so blameworthy), but would have to read it as part of why he thinks humans of all ages experience suffering. blaming oneself and all of humanity for misery provides in part an explanation for how there could be a Good God of infinite happiness (who loves humanity and wants happiness/not misery for humanity) and yet also a lot of crappy-ness in the world.

    i would of course contend that history and experience do seem to indicate that we are pretty focused on our proclivities for wealth, fame, security and luxury for ourselves and family/friends/country, pretty much anything else more than love of God and neighbor. so the self-blaming seems warranted - and not just an explanatory projection or something else. but that's just my two cents : )

  3. I would agree with you that trying to psychoanalyze Augustine is fruitless - I think you are saying that. I was just wondering if he was reading his memory of childhood back into infancy. Whether his childhood was unique or not, he says it was miserable. Then again, all of this could be colored by his theological commitments as an adult, reading basic human selfishness into his past.

    All of which says, I think, that we shouldn't read anything more into his comments about infants than that: they are basically selfish like all of us, that there is no time in a person's life before sin.

  4. I concur. and I think if there is doubt about the sins that appear even in childhood, we just have to consider bullying, which the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced is just a prime example of sin-induced evil (and it's an evil that habituates the bully, the bullied, and the observers into into desires, actions, fears, etc that just significantly undermine the love of God and neighbor).
    and although I acknowledge (and furthermore, rejoice!) that kids can often be innocent of some of the prejudices and malice in which adults are well versed, I think we really need to consider critically what Jesus could have intended when he said "let the little ones come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" (Mt 19:14). I tend to agree with Augustine that it has to do with the humble social status of kids (in 1st c. Palestine, and really anywhere aside from post Victorian Britain/America) more than anything else (I.30). If infants and kids had the size and strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger - when he was the terminator, not the governator - I doubt we today would consider them all so innocent (so yes. I suppose, after all, I'm glad they have tiny less-destructive arms. and come to think of it, often wish we did too).