Half-Way Up the Mountain

Before the Fall?

Augustine writes like an architect. His logic isn’t linear so much as structural, with ballrooms and storage rooms and corridors all rambled through at leisure, at times in darkness, until we think we’re lost or losing it and then . . . outside, at last, we see the house in daylight and it’s beautiful.

He was a very careful editor. Near the end of his life, he wrote a thing called Retractions that revisits all his major works and corrects parts, with reasons. He’s the only Ancient author whose individual works can be dated precisely because he did it for us.

In his two greatest hits — Confessions and City of God — Augustine puts his main point . . . where? Exactly where a modern writer would not: IN THE MIDDLE. Not just near the middle, or somewhat central . . . exactly in the middle, almost to the word. It’s an odd technique, no? Imagine Malcolm Gladwell putting the main thesis for Blink in the center of the book. He’d be working the toaster at Toronto’s Great Canadian Bagel.

What happens in the middle that’s so special? Thanks for asking:

  • Confessions — Augustine spends the first half of this book-length prayer confessing to a “misspent” youth that isn’t as bad as he says and a certain, um, lustiness that strikes us today as entirely normal. Then — at the end of Book 8, word 63,000 of this 126,000-word hut — he describes a life-shattering moment. In a Garden (knock knock, Adam!) he hears a voice and reads a passage from Galatians to “make no provision for the flesh” . . . and his old life is over. Like that.
  • City of God — The architect turns urban planner in this much bigger book, laid out like Confessions: first half describes the restlessness and torpor and (ouch) death that come from living in the world; second half, the completeness and peace and immortality that come from turning our eyes to the Big Banana in the African Sky. Both start refuting “errors” of non-Christians in meticulous detail and end explaining Genesis in meticulous detail. And in both books, these neat halves are separated by a conversion that is not a physical but a psychological event.

Put simply, both pivot on a moment when Augustine — and the reader — realize something. Something that’s been there all along but we just haven’t seen. It’s a moment of clear sight, a change in attitude, a step into the psychic light of truth.

Right in the middle of City of God is where Augustine talks about the nature of human beings and what we call Original Sin. As I said, it’s not what you may think. Hint: all of us are literally at the center of our worlds; it’s baked into being human. Right?


2 responses to “Half-Way Up the Mountain

  1. I still haven’t made it through the City of God. Thanks for this post — now I don’t feel like I have to! Perhaps I will someday, I mean; but for now I’ll just content myself with skipping to the middle.

  2. yes indeed – the middle is where it’s at! also the end … I’m not quite there yet but I have a good feeling about it – Augustine likes to end with a bang!

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