I’ve heard from a number of people, via email, about this series, and almost all of the responses have been negative. This has surprised me.
Most of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the project. My critics seem to think that I am seeking to describe “the Augustinian view of X” or “the Augustinian position on Y,” and so they want me to talk about something that Augustine writes in one of his other books or in a sermon. But I’m just trying to read a book, you know? Just read one book, a big complicated book.
There may be another misunderstanding at work in these critiques. The assumption seems to be that for any X there’s one “Augustinian view,” on any Y there’s one “Augustinian position.” But maybe he changed his mind about some things, or framed some complicated issue differently in one book than he had in another. Maybe also — I’m speaking from experience here — when you write millions of words over several decades you kinda forget some of what you’ve said. There’s a funny moment in CD XVIII.41 where Augustine contrasts the disagreements of the philosophers with the unity of the authors of Scripture, and when I came to that I made a little marginal note that this reminded me of his earlier statement that Babel/Babylon mean “confusion” (XVI.4). But then a couple of pages later he writes, “For ‘Babylon’ means ‘confusion’, as we remember having said already.” Oh right, I said that already. (It me.)
Maybe people are always this way, but I think in our own moment — I wrote about this in How to Think — the stream of information and misinformation so overwhelms our sensorium that we crave fixity, we like being done with something. Encountering a writer as prolific and various as Augustine, we perhaps look to manage the torrent of words by finding “the Augustinian position on Y” and putting it in our pocket for later use.
However valuable that might be, it’s not what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to read a book, and I think the reading of books — especially big complicated books — is pretty much a lost art. You read and you think, and then you read more and you decide that you thought wrong, you reflect and revise your interpretations — and you do so over a fairly lengthy period of time. (I may be adding second and third thoughts to this project a decade from now.) It’s a good intellectual exercise, I commend it to you.
Also: that’s why I’m organizing these posts in a Zettelkasten style: Every time I introduce a new topic I use a new number, but when I go back to revisit an earlier topic I create an appendage. So I might have topic 3 and then follow-ups I designate as 3a and 3b. Later I might add 3a1 and 3a2. Eventually I’ll create a page that lists all the posts in the proper reading order.
I’m traveling this week; posting will resume soon.