Friday 20 May 2022

Why did I steal the pears?

I didn't actually. The question is raised by Augustine, writing in North Africa in the late 300s.  He is reflecting on a youthful misdemeanour when he and some other lads raided a neighbour's pear tree late one night, for it was, he writes, our bad habit to carry on our games in the street till very late.

His point is that he didn't actually want the pears: they weren't very nice, and he and his friends ended up throwing them at some local pigs. So why did he steal them in the first place?  He reflects that he would not have done so, but for the company he was in; but presumably the same was true the other way around.

All of which took me back to some of the misdemeanours of my adolescence: why did I do them?  In part, of course, showing off, and fear of losing face with my friends with whom I was wandering the night streets of West London for it was our bad habit to carry on our games in the street till very late.

But where was the pleasure? What was the gain? These are the hard questions with which Augustine wrestles.

Not being as profound a thinker as he is, I am struck by something else: that sense of recognition in what he writes about. Sixteen hundred years later, in another country and another culture, we were exactly the same.

And whilst I am ashamed of my adolescent bad behaviour, there is a certain pleasure to be found in that sense of common humanity, even if it is humanity at its less edifying: boys, as the saying goes, will be boys. And for me that is one of the reasons that reading ancient literature is so satisfying: connecting across time and space in extraordinary ways; and when that connection is with a mind as fine as that of Augustine, one realises that he may well have much to teach us, even in the 21st century.


With thanks to Dan Gold for sharing this photo on Unsplash

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