Peter Brown, "Dialogue With God
," New York Review of Books
(October 26, 2017), a review of Sarah Ruden's translation of Augustine, Confessions
He spends a large part of book two (nine entire pages) examining his motives for robbing a pear tree. Modern readers chafe.
"Rum thing," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Harold Laski in 1921, "to see a man making a mountain out of robbing a pear tree in his teens."
But Holmes was wrong to be impatient. Only by winnowing every motive that played into that obscure act of small-town vandalism was Augustine able to isolate the very smallest, the most toxic concentrate of all—the chilling possibility that he had acted gratuitously, simply to show that he (like God, and then like Adam) could do whatever he wished. The publishers were right to put on the jacket of this book, which contains a succession of sins, each reduced to chillingly minute proportions, the image of a half-eaten pear.