According to Erikson, the ultimate purpose of developing into an adult was to develop strengths that enabled one to care properly for the next generation (Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed, 67). Successful childhood development culminated in adolescence, where the need for guidance was transferred from parental figures to mentors and leaders in order to be identified with society (Erikson, Life Cycle, 72). Infancy was particularly important, because it was here that the basis for this identity was formed (Erikson, Childhood and Society, 249). Infantile trust had a strong relation to adolescent fidelity, which was in turn strongly connected to an adult's mature faith (Erikson, Life Cycle, 73).
But Erikson was far from the first to consider childhood development as a series of struggles to be resolved. St. Augustine (354-430), presbyter of the North African city of Hippo for thirty-four years (Stortz 78), saw childhood development in a similar light. He "realized and articulated the necessity of examining the human psyche from the first months of its existence in order to understand its dynamics and change its deficit patterns" (Miles 351). St. Augustine also saw infancy as the foundational basis of one's lifelong identity. His theology of childhood, which centered upon the moral development of children, has shaped the Christian attitude towards children (Stortz 79). His theological viewpoints "more than those of any other leader of the early centuries of the Christian church, have formulated the ideas of self and world, God and the church, that structure Western consciousness" (Miles 351). St. Augustine may therefore be able to shed some light on the question of how society should understand and nurture the development of children. This paper will show that St. Augustine's theology of childhood should be given the same credibility as Erikson's model of childhood. It will compare the approach that St. Augustine's moral viewpoint took in nurturing the development of infants with that of Erikson's psychosocial model.
St. Augustine's thought on the status of childhood comes through the lens of his conversion. Because of this, he viewed childhood as being two things: both a revealing of the non-innocence of humanity and the symbol of humility that should characterize the Christian life. His final interpretation of childhood, the result of his controversy with the Pelagians (420-430) had three main points: 1) even infants show sinful tendencies, 2) Adam's transgression, which implanted an alien attitude of sin into his descendants, accounted for these tendencies, and 3) baptism, the link between non-innocence and the humility of the Christian life, remedies these tendencies and should be administered as early as possible. His moral viewpoint to childhood took the approach of compassionate training in nurturing the development of children (Stortz 78-79).
St. Augustine saw childhood as a revealing of the non-innocence of humanity as a result of his viewpoints on original sin and on the life stages of the human being. After a lifetime of biblical study and reflection, St. Augustine came to the conclusion that sin was both exemplary and essential. Sin was both the exemplary result of a good human nature repeating sinful acts and an essential part of corrupt, or fallen, human nature (Stortz 91-93). Repetition of specific sinful acts sprang out of the essentially sinful human nature.
God had created human nature as good, but it became essentially corrupted and sinful as the result of the Fall. The created nature of Adam and Eve before the Fall was sinless and good. When Adam and Eve irrationally chose to sin by desiring the earthly pleasures of tasty fruit and the knowledge of good and evil instead of choosing to obey God's command to not eat the fruit, their created natures became fallen and corrupt. Their wills were guilty of concupiscence - of abandoning attachment to God, and seeking instead attachment to one's self and to earthly pleasures.
Since the only human nature left was the fallen, sinful nature, all of Adam's descendants were encompassed by the single mass of sinning that originated in him. Therefore, the nature of every human being was perverted, prone to concupiscence. As a result of the Fall, human beings could not do what was good even if they would will to do so. Human beings now naturally desire the wrong things of earthy pleasures in place of that which we were made to trust in - God. Without the intervention of divine grace, their wills tend naturally to sin (Stortz 89-90). "And when I asked myself what wickedness was, I saw that it was not a substance but perversion of the will when it turns aside from you, O God, who are the supreme substance, and veers toward things of the lowest order, being bowelled alive and becoming inflated with desire for things outside itself." (Confessions 150) Through personal observation of children, what he remembered of his own childhood, and also through what others had told him of his own infancy, St. Augustine found ample evidence that disordered desire - the essential sin - exists in all stage of life, even in infants (Stortz 91-93). For example, he observed that even infants have jealousy.
I myself have seen jealousy in a baby and know what it means. He was not old enough to talk, but whenever he saw his foster-brother at the breast, he would grow pale with envy. This much is common knowledge. Mothers and nurses say that they can work such things out of the system by one means or another, but surely it cannot be called innocence, when the milk flows in such abundance from its source, to object to a rival desperately in need and depending for his life on this one form of nourishment?…But if I was born in sin and guilt was with me already when my mother conceived me, where, I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent? (Confessions 28)
Erikson also saw evidence of the existence of evil, and like St. Augustine, he thought that it posed a "constraint and inescapable threat to human life and institutions" (Roazen 150). Unlike St. Augustine, Erikson did not see the problem of human misbehavior as the result of the existence of evil, but rather the result of humanity's "sense of evil." Erikson believed that this could be minimized by proper childrearing, because the human conscience also grew according to the epigenetic principle. Too often, the human conscience remained partially infantile all through life. Erikson regarded the failure-to-thrive of mankind's ethical potential as the core of human tragedy. This moral stagnation was the result of overly zealous ethical rules, which stifled the growth of the infantile morality of trust. However, Erikson believed that these needed ethical strengths would indeed grow, if children were guided through a successful resolution of each psychosocial crisis. As this occurred more and more, these ethical strengths would spread, gradually changing morality worldwide until humanity followed one universally applicable standard: the Christian golden rule, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The foundation of ethics was in infancy, "for the basic fact that will always keep and bring us all closer together is the nakedness and helplessness of the newborn human child." (Roazen, 150-156)
St. Augustine's theory of the stages of human development closely prefigured Erikson's theory. St. Augustine grouped the human life into six stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. In his studies of original sin in children, he drew upon his own observations, his own memories, and other's accounts of the first three stages of his own life (Stortz 78-85). These three stages closely resemble Erikson's first five developmental, or psychosocial, stages: infancy, early childhood, play age, school age, and adolescence (Erikson, Life Cycle, 56-57).
A set of two opposing terms defined each struggle, or "task," in Erikson's stages. If the task was learned well, a balance between the two would be achieved, and the person would come away from that developmental stage with a certain psychosocial virtue that will help him or her though the rest of the stages. If the task was not learned well, maladaptations and malignancies could endanger future development. St. Augustine's theory determined that it was essential sin that maligned the development of every human being from the created nature that God created them to have. He came to the conclusion that accountability for sin grew as the person grew, even though a human being was sinful from the very beginnings of life.
Infancy lasted from birth to the acquisition of language. To St. Augustine, who was fascinated with infants and observed them closely, this was identically the most treacherous and the most humbling time of life. Infants were completely helpless, dependent on their parents (the mother in particular) for everything. Life itself was in the hands of others.
In the Roman world of St. Augustine, two decisions were made immediately after birth concerning the life and welfare of the infant. The midwife would inspect the infant for any physical defects or imperfections. If none were found, she would cut the umbilical cord at the length of four fingers from the stomach and knot it. If defects or imperfections were found, the cord would be neither cut nor knotted. Instead, the infant would be left to hemorrhage to death. (Stortz 82-83)
The second decision was made when the infant was presented to the father. If the father raised or "took up" (tollere) the infant to a vertical position, he was claiming the child as his own. The child would be safe from abandonment and disinheritance. Infants who were not "taken up" were not safe from these dangers (Stortz 82-83). Parents had the right to put unwanted children outside the home on exposition, usually in public place where they would be noticed (Boswell 25) and hopefully taken into the home of another. Girls were not taken up, and as a result were exposed more frequently than boys (Stortz 82-83).
Having no language, infants were completely dependent upon their caregivers, especially upon their mothers, for the nourishment of milk. Not only was this nourishment virtually guaranteed from the facts that the infant needed to suck and the mother needed to suckle (Miles 352), but the serene body language of the infant while nursing indicated that the infant found a comfort in it. Yet, serenity and hunger were not the only expressed emotions that stood out in St. Augustine's mind. Infants were capable of other emotions as well.
St. Augustine once saw a nurse who was suckling two infants at the same time. The infant who had just finished suckling threw a tantrum when the other would suckle - strong indications of a jealous rage (Augustine, Confessions, 28). Far beyond the jealousy and the loss of self-control exhibited by these tantrums (Stortz 83-84), infants exhibited anxiety (Miles 352). Infants already fed, and therefore in no hunger, still grasped for the breast. They had a "grasping insatiability beyond all physical need" (Stortz 83-84).
By grasping repeatedly for what they did not need, the infants were demonstrating an anxiety that the nourishment they desired would no longer be there. This nourishment was guaranteed and had been given every time the infant had cried for it, yet the infant still did not trust that it would be there. The infant has made a 'choice' motivated by anxiety, not to rely on the care that was volunteered but to grasp at objects without discrimination as to their beneficial effects. Augustine called this anxious grasping at objects in the anxiety that something will be missed "concupiscentia" (Miles 352).
The mistrust, the insatiable desire for what was not needed, was an example of concupiscence. The infants were demonstrating perverted self-love through their desire of earthly pleasure of unneeded food, instead of placing their trust in their faithful parent. Fantasies of power over the parents and the possession of the nourishing breast were forerunners of the concupiscence to come in the adult life. Because concupiscence, the essential sin, pervaded and organized human life, it did not disappear or become mastered as the child grew into adulthood. It was merely given new objects and a wider scope (Miles 352), remaining infantile, as Erikson later put it. Infants did indeed have the disordered desire of original sin. Were they also guilty of exemplary sin?
St. Augustine claimed that because infants had not yet acquired language, they could not be held accountable for obedience or disobedience to the rules and boundaries that the adults in their life enforced. Because infants could not be held accountable for disobedience, they could not be accountable for exemplary sin (Stortz 83-84). Any innocence they had, then, resulted from their weakness, their inability to sin. They were not good; they merely did not have the power to commit specific acts of sin. Infants were pre-moral due to a lack of physical strength. St. Augustine's term for this infant state of essential sin without exemplary sin was "non-innocence" (Stortz 83-85).
It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to ponder to whims which would only do him harm. This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength. (Confessions 27-28)
Since it was essential sin that caused the Fall in the first place, any infants who died were indeed condemned. Therefore, it was cruel to withhold baptism, which removed original sin, from infants (Stortz 95-97). Baptism was the beginning of the proper choice to trust, even for the infant.
Infancy, according to Erikson, lasted from birth until one or one-and-a-half years of age. Like St. Augustine, Erikson also said that the psychosocial crisis for this stage was trust vs. mistrust. If the infant's caregivers, the mother in particular, were able to give the infant a sense of familiarity, consistency, and continuity, then the child would be able to develop the trusting sense that the world is a safe, loving, and reliable place to be. A little mistrust was needed to prevent the child from being completely gullible. If this balance between trust and mistrust was achieved, the infant would develop the virtue of hope - the belief that things will work out in the end, even if they are not going well right now. One sign that an infant was doing well in developing this virtue was if the infant was not overly upset by the need to wait a moment for the satisfaction of his or her needs (Boeree). Hope would lead to the growth of other virtues, culminating in the adult virtue of faith. Since so many adults had an infantile conscience, Erikson recommended a return to an infant-like state of hopefulness, in order to develop the moral conscience properly. 'If, then, at the end the life cycle turns back on the beginnings, there has remained something in the anatomy even of mature hope, and in a variety of faiths ("Unless you turn and become like children…"), which confirms hopefulness as the most childlike of all human qualities' (Erikson, Life Cycle, 62).
St. Augustine would have responded to Erikson's stage of trust vs. mistrust by saying that the need for a little mistrust to keep us from being gullible is in itself a sign that concupiscence is the root of human nature. If sinful human beings were not going to misuse this child later in life, the child would not need to develop a little mistrust to keep from being gullible. St. Augustine saw the stage of trust vs. mistrust as the occasion for the human will ultimately to choose whom to trust - God or self. Because of that, he would also say that the goal of the trust vs. mistrust stage is not, as Erikson said, to achieve a balance between trust and mistrust, but to choose instead to trust God absolutely.
Choosing to mistrust even a little bit for the sake of protection sets the infant in the ways of sin. The anxious grasping of the infant to satisfy his or her own need, to posses the nourishing breast and to hold power over the parents as a result, results in the proper choice of trust never being made. As the infant grows into an adult, concupiscence becomes the frenzied pursuit of sex, power, and possessions (Miles 352).
Can this be the innocence of childhood? Far from it, O Lord! But I beg you to forgive it. For commanders and kings may take the place of tutors and schoolmaster, nuts and balls and pet birds may give way to money and estates and servants, but these same passions remain with us while one stage of life follows upon another, just as more severe punishments follow upon the schoolmaster's cane. It was, then, simply because they are small that you used children to symbolize humility when, as our King, you commended it by saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Confessions 39-40)
This growth of concupiscence pointed to the foundation of basic mistrust as the root of not only the frenzied, insatiable adult life, but also of moral wrong. St. Augustine had built up an account of moral accountability that increased with the development of the child (Stortz 84-85). "Yet I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack…I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin" (Confessions 47). The continuity of concupiscence, beginning in infancy, meant that children provided insights into adult behavior. Increasing moral accountability was matched with increasing sympathy (Miles 352), for infancy epitomized "the wretchedness of the human condition" (Stortz 31).
To St. Augustine, childhood was not merely a reminder of the corrupted and fallen human nature, it was also a symbol of the hope that resulted from the humility of the Christian life. Through "the grace of Christ's name, which He has given in His sacraments" (Augustine, To Jerome), the fallen nature of essential sin could be removed. Converting to Christianity by returning to an infant-like state of spiritual helplessness and choosing to trust God's provision (as one would trust a parent), meant a re-orientation of one's will from mistrust to trust (Miles 355), and a removal of essential sin through the sacrament of baptism (Stortz 97-98). The growing Christian was to be like an infant is to its mother's breast, utterly dependent on God for all life (Brown 352).
This religious and moral development was the responsibility of the Christian's spiritual family - the Catholic Church. As bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine was responsible for the education and training of the children in his diocese. Because childhood was both a revealing of the non-innocence of human and a symbol of the humility of the Christian life, children were to be treated with compassion and gentle, yet firm training in the truth of God. St. Augustine took up the classical education of the Roman Empire and applied it to the understanding of the Scriptures. The Christian education would be through worship, biblical preaching, and reading Scripture aloud. A conscious training would direct the will of those instructed toward true happiness (Stortz 97-98).
Erikson entrusted moral development to the series of healthy crisis resolutions. As parents properly guided their children through the five developmental stages, the children would gain more and more self-regulation, resulting in an increased sense of moral responsibility. While he did not attribute moral training to religious institutions, he did attribute them with the development of basic trust. This foundational strength, developed in infancy, had been entrusted throughout history to organized religion. Erikson saw in all religions a trustful pattern of a periodical childlike surrender, humility, admittance of wrongdoing, and becoming part of a common faith (Erikson, Childhood and Society, 250-257).
Both Erikson and St. Augustine saw the effects of infant development on one's later moral state and recommended a return to an infant-like state for successful moral development, although they differed in their definitions of morality and of the proper source of trust for the infant. Because St. Augustine, who had significantly shaped Western society, identified so precisely the same patterns which Erikson later saw, their theories of moral development in childhood should be taken together. St. Augustine's theology of childhood should be studied alongside Erikson's model of psychosocial development. St. Augustine not only applied the stages of human development that Erikson later noticed, he foresaw as Erikson did that the religious institutions in society are key in the moral development of children.
Augustine, St. To Jerome, Letter 166: A Treatise on the Origin of the Human Soul. Letters, from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, St. Augustine Volumes. http://www.ccel.org/fathers2
Augustine, St. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961.
Boeree, Dr. C. George. "Erik Erikson." Personality Theories. Online textbook for the Psychology Department, Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA. Copyright 1997, C. George Boeree. Online at http://www.ship.edu/%7Ecgboeree/erikson
Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: the Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: a Biography. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2000.
Erikson, Erik H, and Joan M. Erikson. The Life Cycle Completed: The Extended Version. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1997.
Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1963.
Miles, Margaret. Infancy, Parenting, and Nourishment in Augustine's Confessions. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50 S 1982, p. 349-364.
Roazen, Paul. Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision. New York: The Free Press, 1976.
Stortz, Martha Ellen. (Ed. Bunge, Marcia) "Where or When Was Your Servant Innocent?" Augustine on Childhood. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001.