The difficulty of reading Augustine

Augustine is a difficult writer, and City of God is one of his most difficult works. The problem, it seems to me, is not that of following his arguments on a line-by-line level, or not primarily. Rather, the problem is figuring out why he is even talking about this topic in the first place. (I suppose we could just dismiss him as a sloppy thinker, etc., but those explanations are never very interesting or compelling to me.)

Nearly every book of City of God seems to be taken up with extraneous material and never get around to its main point — yet clearly Augustine believes that he’s getting at his main point. If you want to get at what’s distinctive in Augustine’s thought, you need to be able to get a sense for the unstated superstructure that is directing his inquiry — you need to develop a scent for the often unstated questions to which his arguments are an answer.

I’m tempted to draw a parallel with Dogopolski’s understanding of the task of Talmudic analysis, which is not to arrive at an answer but first of all to reawaken the disagreement that motivates the text.

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5 Responses to “The difficulty of reading Augustine”

  1. Sam Says:

    These are interesting thoughts. Could you redirect me to something that elaborates on this?

  2. Dean Says:

    I’ve always tried to read City of God as the writing of a bishop. All the weird stuff in the beginning about astrology and retaining virginity makes sense from a pastoral perspective, and I’m not sure it needs to be reconciled to an underlying superstructure necessarily as much as providing a response to some legitimate existential dilemmas (i.e. violence against Christians as the allegedly holy empire is being sacked and believers are raped and killed). The positive political stuff seems like a last ditch effort to provide hope for Christian/pagan society in the wake of invasion.

  3. Sue Says:

    Given that the entire Wisdom Tradition of humankind is now readily available to anyone, with much of it online too, why would anyone even want to read him in this day and age, especially a woman
    Perhaps as a means of self torture.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sam, I don’t know of anything that fits that description.

    Sue, You’ve got to deconstruct something, right?

  5. Wilson Dickinson Says:

    I am inclined to think you are right about this in City of God, but I have been teaching the Confessions this semester and have been floored by how well seemingly disparate elements in the same book fit together. In the Confessions, I think that a lot of it is following the therapeutic thread rather than knowing the superstructure. Or the superstructure is more about the education of desire than an abstract formulation


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