Augustine in school

An example of why Augustine remains a compelling diagnostician of the human condition.  From Book I of St. Augustine’s Confessions:

O God, my God, “what miseries I experienced” at this stage of my life, and what delusions when in my boyhood it was set before me as my moral duty in life to obey those who admonished me with the purpose that I should succeed in this world, and should excel in the arts of using my tongue to gain access to human honors and to acquire deceitful riches.  I was next sent to school to learn to read and write.  Poor wretch, I did not understand for what such knowledge is useful.  Yet if ever I was indolent in learning, I was beaten.  This method was approved by adults, and many people living long before me had constructed the laborious courses which we were compelled to follow by an increase of the toil and sorrow of Adam’s children.

And a little further on he adds,

But we loved to play, and punishments were imposed on us by those who were engaged in adult games.  For the ‘amusement of adults is called business’.  But when boys play such games they are punished by adults, and no one feels sorry either for the children or for the adults or indeed for both of them …. As a boy I played ball-games, and that play slowed down the speed at which I learned letters with which, as an adult, I might play a less creditable game.  The schoolmaster who caned me was behaving no better than I when, after being refuted by a fellow-teacher in some pedantic question, he was more tormented by jealousy and envy than I when my opponent overcame me in a ball-game.

The most interesting thing here, as I see it, is not so much the image of young Augustine being beaten and caned.  One assumes Augustine was fairly advanced for his age  and was most likely quite bored.  What strikes me is how Augustine gently undermines the seriousness with which as adults we treat our “less creditable games” and how he exposes the pettiness that never quite leaves us as we grow older.  Rather as it becomes more “serious” it becomes more destructive.  One gathers that in maturing into adulthood we grow more “serious” in all the wrong ways.

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