Reflecting with Augustine on the Tyranny of Babies

After six months of feeding, clothing and cleaning the miniature human that is my daughter, I began to wonder if I had become a slave to a tyrant. A tyrant is a person who wants only to fulfill his own will, regardless of whether it is good for himself or for those he rules. Does this small, uncoordinated, demanding child before me have a tyrannical soul? I thought maybe I should turn to Saint Augustine, an expert in sinfulness, for he admits to his own infantile crimes in his book of Confessions

As all great theologians, he begins by reflecting on a line from Scripture. Job says, “Who can make him clean that is conceived of unclean seed?” (Job 14:4). He realizes that infants cannot be innocent because they are conceived with original sin. So I got to thinking. What was that first sin that caused all babies thereafter to be “conceived of unclean seed?” Indeed, it was the ultimate act of tyranny that caused the Fall. Adam and Eve wanted to decide for themselves what is good and evil instead of trusting their God who knows what is truly good and evil. Seeing “that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold” (Genesis 3:6), they ignored His warning that “in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death” (Genesis 2:17). They chose to follow their own wills, regardless of the danger in which it put them. Surely, this kind of tyranny cannot exist in any active way in the soul of my baby. Sure, she cries when she wants to eat, but food is good for her. It’s not like she wants something that God clearly says will cause death. 

And then I saw it. We were swimming at the pool together. I was holding her above the water while she kicked her legs and laughed at my smile. Of course, I had warned her that the pool water is not good to drink, and that on the day she drinks it, she surely could die. But her gaze turned away from my face and she looked down into the depths of the water. And seeing that it was delightful to behold, she decided to dunk her head and drink of the water therein. If it were not for my intervention, she surely could have died on that day. But I lifted her up out of the deadly waters with only a few choking coughs as a result. I knew then that it must be true. My baby has a tyrannical soul. She would rather do her own will than heed the warning of the one who knows what is good for her. I returned to Augustine for insight.

Surely it was not good, even for that time of life, to scream for things that would have been thoroughly bad for me; to fly into hot rage because older persons—and free, not slaves—were not obedient to me; to strike out as hard as I could, with sheer will to hurt, at my parents and other sensible folk for not yielding to demands which could only have been granted at my peril (8-9). [1]

I began to see the tyranny of my baby in several instances. She did indeed “scream for things that would have been thoroughly bad for [her],” such as the electrical wire of the lamp that I moved beyond her reach before she could grasp it. And she did “fly into a hot rage” when I did not allow her to stick her hand into the small, sharp opening of my can of sparkling water. It became increasingly clear that she preferred her own will to that which was good for her or for those subject to her rule. No matter how many times I asked her not to pull my hair, she would grab and pull it, “with sheer will to hurt.” Nor did she heed my warning about Newton’s third law when she thrust her head into the wall and cried in pain and frustration that it did not move out of her way. Another time, she threw a fit when she could not devour the playing cards we were using in our cribbage game. Later, her father had to remove the spitty chunks of a worn-out nine of hearts from inside her mouth. Not only would she reach for things that could harm her, she resisted things that were good for her. She “would strike out as hard as [she] could” and yell in anger when I attempted to put her in bed to sleep for the night, despite the apparent tiredness revealed by the rubbing of her eyes. And she made it clear by her resistant rolling and kicking and yelling that she preferred to sit in her own excrement than humble herself to be made clean by me—a hellish image indeed! More and more each day, I could see that she wanted us to obey “demands which could only have been granted at [her] peril.”

Augustine was right to confess the crimes of his infancy, for babies do have tyrannical souls. And then I wondered if all of our sins were as ridiculous as the crimes of my infant. If every sin is simply a choosing of our own wills over God’s will, are we not insisting that He yield to demands which can only be granted at our peril? And when we get angry at Him for not giving us what we want, are we not as ridiculous as the baby, screaming for things that would be thoroughly bad for us and flying into a hot rage because God—who is truly free and knows good and evil—is not obedient to us? Perhaps God allows our babies to be tyrants over us so that we learn how absurd it is to be tyrants towards Him. I can imagine Eve caring for the infants Cain and Abel and coming to understand what God meant when He said, “I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). Perhaps, through them, she realized the absurdity of her sin and spent her life in humble repentance. May we all learn from the tyrannical souls of our babies and remember with Augustine that “[we were] conceived in iniquities; and in sins did [our] mother[s] conceive [us]” (Psalm 50:7(51:5)).

[1] Augustine, Confessions. Translated by F. J. Sheed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006. 

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