St. Augustine, in Book 1, Chapter 7, of The Confessions:
Who is there to remind me of the sin of my infancy (for sin there was: no one is free from sin in your sight, not even an infant...); who can remind me of it? Some ... tiny child now, in whom I might observe conduct I do not remember in myself?
What then was my sin at that age? Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? Certainly if I behaved like that now, greedy... for food suitable to my age, I should provoke derision and be very properly rebuked.
My behavior then was equally deserving of rebuke, but since I would not have been able to understand... neither custom nor common sense allowed any rebuke to be given.
After all, we eradicate these habits and throw them off as we grow up.... so can we suppose that even in an infant such actions were good -- the actions of a child who
- begs tearfully for objects that would harm him if given,
- gets into a tantrum when [persons] will not comply with his whims,
- and tries to hurt many people... simply because they will not immediately... obey his commands, commands which would damage him if they were carried out?
The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.
Yeah, I know. It grates on me too. But Augustine's writing about original sin, and that's not something I can reject out of hand. Let's see what we can do about it.
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It grates because it sounds too hard on the normal, natural instincts of babies. These are the instincts that drive maternal attachment and are their only means of communicating their needs to the adults that are charged with their care. Those "greedy" cries are the same cries that stimulate a mother's milk, that activate compassion and an urge to protect the helpless child.
You read something like that, and you kind of cringe, because someone is bound to take it too far and try to punish babies for crying. (Though if they do, it's not Augustine's fault: he approvingly describes parents and nurses who "charm away" and "cheerfully condone" babies' behavior, and says right there that "neither custom nor common sense" allows for a baby to be rebuked.)
Now that we know what we know about the biological basis of human attachment, can we really say that the "greediness" of babies is anything worthy of rebuke, or even that it is a consequence of original sin?
My edition of The Confessions (Ignatius Critical Editions, 2012) has a footnote here:
Critics of Augustine often point out how harsh he is toward babies... The point here, however, is not to condemn children for their seemingly selfish behavior when hungry or tired, but simply to point out that... we are born wholly "I-centered" with only our own interests in mind. In a very mundane way, this now shows the noxious effects of the concupiscence Adam brought about when he turned himself and all his descendents away from God. This is why we must learn to "speak" anew, to come to God with desires and intentions not turned in on self but on him.
Just like the parents and nurses Augustine describes, I'm used to treating infants' demands as necessary and natural communication. So, if it's necessary and natural, how could it also be worthy of rebuke? (Even if you add a modifier and make it "objectively" worthy of rebuke, the implication being that subjectively -- considering the infant's position -- it is not worthy of rebuke).
Consider this: the adults who are charged with care of an infant, any infant -- its mother, father, siblings, other members of the household -- are themselves fallen creatures, self-centered, "I"-centered. Perhaps we could consider the "wholly I-centered" nature of a newborn baby as a defense mechanism against the I-centeredness of adults. If babies were not so relentlessly demanding, maybe more of them would be left unfed, unwarmed, untouched.
And that makes it not so odd, then, to turn it around and say: If adults were not themselves, by nature, "I"-centered, then babies might come programmed with an entirely different set of mechanisms to communicate their needs. Maybe they wouldn't even need to communicate their needs because adults would provide for them before a need ever made itself known.
It's kind of like pain. Pain is, we are told, a consequence of original sin. Pain is objectively bad, but necessary in a world full of hazards; it communicates a bodily need. So we can listen to it, and often we should immediately do its bidding. We should be grateful for it, considering the circumstances in which we live.
- Move your hand away from that hot stove.
- Stop walking and take the thorn from the sole of your foot.
- Rest this limb until it feels better.
So it is with the "greed" of babies: a necessary fault, one we should listen to and respond to immediately -- "cheerfully" even -- and be grateful for, considering the circumstances in which we live.
Once man and woman had fallen, maybe we could not have survived unless the most innocent -- those who have that feature, "the weakness of their frames" -- also shared the ability to clamor greedily from the very beginning. Unless the greediness of the parents is somehow transmitted to the offspring, perhaps the offspring would not have had a chance in a world full of "I"-centered grownups who have the power to provide food and warmth, or to withhold it.
Parents who stay in touch with our babies know that the "greediness" of babies is something they need to have to make their way in the world, and so we respond to it. We can appreciate the power they have of making their needs known, of drawing us outside of ourselves by clamoring from their own center. We regard it, properly, as not a bug, but a feature.
A feature, that is, not of the original code, but instead of humanity's "plan B." O felix culpa! O happy fault!