It is well known that Augustine offers not one, but two motives for stealing the pears in his youth.

He did it, he says firstly, simply for love of the act itself.

What fruit did I ever reap from those things which I now blush to remember, and especially from that theft in which I found nothing to love save the theft itself, wretch that I was? (Conf. 2.8.16)

His love of “the theft itself” amounted, he says, to a nothing, a love of nothing. A nothing-loving which dragged him into the pit of wretchedness, suspending him over the abyss, the nothingness, from which God originally called forth the gratuitous goodness of the world.

Lurking in the cheap thrills of a trivial act, Augustine discerns the shadowy outline of an impulse to his own undoing.

But this is not the only thing he notices in the act. A second motive suggests itself:

And yet, as I recall my state of mind at the time, I would not have done it alone; I most certainly would not have done it alone (Conf. 2.8.16)

In fact, maybe he did it for the consortium eorum cum quibis id feci – the company, the partnership, the camaraderie of those with whom he did it. Today we might label this – but misleadingly so – “peer pressure.” Misleading, because it conceals where the drama really lies. Judgment falls not only on this particular act by this particular group, but on every act done in the spirit of idolatrous sacrifice – a sacrifice to the social.

It is true, of course, that for a moment, Augustine entertains the idea that this motive, this love of company, this need to belong socially, stands on its own as an alternative and even defensible explanation. This is why I did it. I wanted to fit in; I needed to be a part of this; a part of me reached out to it and embraced it and cleaved to it, not just under the pressures of a bad-faith group, but also under the pressures of my in-built, God-given nature as a social creature, animalis socialis.

I did it because I’m human, and to be human is to want to and need to belong.

But only for a moment does Augustine entertain this. He rejects it as a separate motive from the nothing of the theft:

So it is not true to say that I loved nothing other than the theft? Ah, but it is true, because that gang-mentality too was a nothing.

“Gang-mentality” is a gloss of illud, a demonstrative pronoun which refers us back to the slippery term consortium. It licenses us to ask what further thing we might say about it – hence, I think, the loose translation. Belonging in all its intensity and frenzy of feeling. Augustine surrenders to the social for the sake of the social, for the sake of belonging. In this moment, the social becomes his framework for intelligible action. It provides him with the explanation and justification for what he did – yet falsely so, he says now, and maybe even felt then. Now he confesses this “motive’ carried the seed of his own destruction. This because of, not in spite of, his nature as a social creature.

Salvation does not come from the social as such; society can only be saved from itself. This is Augustine’s view. It’s a difficult view to hear in this age of secular immanence. We believe in society because we have to believe in it. Nothing else can tell us who we are, nothing else can justify us, actualize us, sustain us – and maybe nothing else ever has. Society itself has become our religion. As one author puts it, it is “our supreme superstition.”

Whoever this our or we might include, we might do well to juxtapose Roberto Calasso’s suggestion to what Augustine has to say about the social in book 2, and everywhere else: “It is as though, after milennia, imagination had been stripped of its capacity to look beyond society in search of something that gives meaning to what is going on within society.”