Summary of The City of God, Books I–III

So I’m going to blog through, perhaps intermittently, my reading of Augustine’s The City of God. I’m merely summarizing, hopefully to help myself with retention. A few disclaimers.

  1. I have no pretensions that my summaries are authoritative. I could be totally wrong.
  2. I’m merely summarizing, not evaluating. Just because I write something in this little series doesn’t mean I endorse it. It’s just what (I think) Augustine said.

With that said, here we go.

Book I

Augustine wrote City of God in response to mounting claims that the newly ascendant Christian religion was the cause of the Roman Empire’s decline and eventual fall. He wrote this after Rome fell, in part to debunk these claims. But as he acknowledges, the work has grown into something a bit bigger. Also, he sums up the feelings of every student assigned this book.

The work is great and arduous; but God is our helper.”

And yes, he really did write that in reference to his own book.

Augustine begins his apologetic by noting how merciful the Christian Visigoths who sacked Rome were to the Roman citizens. He summons historians of the ancient world to prove that this mercy is thoroughly unusual, and that, indeed, the custom of invading armies is to brutally kill all those–even those seeking refuge in temples. Augustine’s point is that the Christian Visigoths spared those who took refuge in Christian sanctuaries, even the pagan Romans who merely confessed to be Christians to save their lives. How ironic, Augustine notes, that these pagans who were saved by confessing Christ now blame their ills on Christianity.

But Augustine anticipates a further objection: some Christians did die in the sack, and some non-Christians were spared who shouldn’t have been. Why would God allow this? Augustine’s answer is “great and arduous,” but in essence boils down to this. God allows evil things to happen to Christians to strip them of their earthly loves and the security they may have drawn from financial stability, social status, or good fortune. He redirects their loves towards Himself by destroying the temporal things Christians love. Or in his words:

“The whole family of the highest and true God, then, has a consolation of its own: a consolation which depends neither upon falsehood nor upon hope in those things which falter and fail. Also, its members have a life in this age which is not in the least to be regretted: a life which is the school of eternity, in which they make use of earthly goods like pilgrims, without grasping after them, and are proved and corrected by evils.

Why do good things happen to bad people, then? I’m not really sure of Augustine’s answer.

Book II and III

Books II and III are basically centered on showing that the Roman Empire was in horrible disarray and suffered all sorts of evils even when being incredibly pious and religious in their paganism. Thus, Augustine says, Christianity cannot be the cause of Rome’s misfortune.

Precisely, actually, Augustine is responding to the claim that the pagan Gods are punishing Rome for turning largely away from them and to Christianity. Augustine’s tour of Roman history in these next two books is basically showing that even when the gods were being worshipped perfectly calamities still fell on Rome. Also, as an aside, Augustine points out that the type of worship demanded by these gods is grotesque and horrible and involves the kinds of actions the Romans condemn–except in worship. Why, then, worship the gods anyway? What god who commands such obscene rituals is worth worshipping?

Augustine also attacks paganism on the grounds that, even when Rome’s civic virtue was faltering, the gods didn’t speak from the heavens and teach Rome how to live. But the Christian God has taught us how to live and how to please Him.

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The Old Man and the Spinning Top: A Reflection on the Theme of The Old Man and the Sea

The final scene of Inception is one that’s hard to forget. The main character, Cobb, finding himself back at his home spins the top to discover if he’s in a dream or not. Then, he leaves it behind, going to see his children. The camera pans back to the top, and we see it spinning perfectly, indicating that he’s in a dream. We see the top waver–and then the screen cuts to black.

What does Inception have to do with The Old Man and the Sea? At first glance, a film about stealing dreams and a novella about fishing seem to have little in common. However, I suggest that there is a resemblance the two have, and that by examining them in conjunction we can understand The Old Man and the Sea’s theme better. What is the similarity between the two? I believe it has to do with the shared theme of perception.

Inception presents this theme in a more overt, less-subtle way. The Old Man and the Sea is, first and foremost, a story. But underlying that story is an examination of the power of perception, and the place perception has in determining what we believe to be reality.

The specific example I’d like to bring up from Inception is the character of  Mal. Mal has the idea that her world isn’t real planted in her head. From that point on, she becomes obsessed with that idea, and begins to construct her own reality. Everything becomes an illusion–she is convinced that herself and Cobb are still stuck in a dream. This reality becomes her life, until finally she commits suicide to try to get out of the dream.

The concept of perception is obvious in that example. Mal perceives reality to be one way, and decides that her perception is reality. In The Old Man and the Sea, the idea is more subtle, but still present. The theme does, however, become more obvious as the story progresses.

The Old Man is, at the start of the book, down on his luck. Yet, despite that, he continues to go fishing, expressing certainty that his luck will change. When he starts on the voyage that brings him the Fish, there is an interesting section where he contemplates how he refers to the sea as opposed to how others refer to it. The difference is that he refers to her as female, while others act as if the sea were male. Why is this important? The importance isn’t so much the difference in referential terms, but in what happens next.

The Old Man reflects on the power of the sea; it is uncontrollable and prone to seemingly random storms. The Man cannot control them, and acknowledges this fact. An interesting tension emerges, and that is the tension between the man’s perception and reality.

There are several examples of this. Early in the book, the Old Man and the Boy speak of food the Old Man doesn’t have. They know he doesn’t have it, but every day we are told they act as if he does. Why? Why waste time doing that? Later in the same section, they speak of buying a lottery ticket, acting assured that they will win. Yet even there they recognize that they cannot control it. But they still, even with that knowledge, act as if they can.

I could go one, pointing out various examples throughout the book of how the man acts as if his perception determines the world around him. But, I think that a more fruitful question to ask would be, “why does he act this way?”

In Inception, the answer is obvious–Mal is, in essence, coerced into thinking that way. The Old Man, on the other hand, is not being coerced. He chooses to deceive himself–to act as if he has control over that which he does not. Why?

Perhaps the answer is found at the parts in the book where the theme shows most clearly. When he is still trying to reel in the fish we read an interesting passage: “The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.” Then again, later in the book we find something interesting: “I wish I could show [the fish] what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so.”

What do we see from these two examples? We see that in both situations he deceives himself–lets his perception determine reality for himself–so that it will be easier for him. His perception of reality is a perception where he is stronger, where life is easier. And thus, he lies to himself, believing that those things are true.

Somehow, even though we understand that ultimately it does not actually help his position, he still believes it. He refuses to acknowledge truth because he knows the truth is dangerous. G.K. Chesterton said it best when he said, “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”

It seems the Old Man created a fiction, just as Mal created a fiction. They believed what they wanted to in order to make life easier.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is what happens to them both at the end. Mal dies. Her fiction destroys her. The Old Man loses the fish, and has little to show for his efforts. He is exhausted, sick, and hungry. His fiction, his deliberate deception of himself seems to have brought him nothing but pain in the long run.

What is being said about this theme? Does Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Old Man and the Sea, suggest that deceiving ourselves is acceptable, since it does create momentary relief? The answer to that question is an entirely different blog post–but yet it’s an important one. I don’t want to get into the subject much, but I will say this. What is important, I think, to not forget is that the Old Man recognizes that what he is doing is refusing to accept the truth. He understands, at least at some level, that he is believing a lie.

That’s an important point. Hemingway may argue that ignoring the truth is acceptable. Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction. Perhaps lying to oneself does create momentary relief, or at least the appearance of momentary relief. But even if that’s what Hemingway is arguing, we’re still left with a very simple fact that has to be dealt with, especially if we agree with that argument. We may think that truth is dangerous enough to suppress, but we can’t ignore the fact that it’s still truth.

In other words, truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is truth nonetheless.

Breaking Our Own Rules: A Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

“Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven’s music if he’d chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh’s paintings?”

So begins The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. The funny thing is, The First Five Pages is a book on writing that opens with an indictment against books on writing. Now, I appreciate what Lukeman goes on to do in the rest of that opening chapter. He distinguishes, it appears, between storytelling, and writing. Storytelling is an art. Writing is, but is less of one than storytelling. Lukeman proposes that rules can be set down when it comes to writing.

If he adhered to this proposal (that rules can be set down for writing, but not storytelling) I’d agree with him. Sadly, he doesn’t.

First, though, credit needs to be given where credit is due. This is a truly unique book on writing. It’s written from the perspective of an agent or editor who has just received a manuscript from an aspiring author. Lukeman, as a former agent himself, outlines what things agents and editors look for when reading a manuscript. He claims that they are simply looking for a way to reject your work (and he gives backup for that).

Then, going in order of what an agent or an editor looks at first, he sets out rules to avoid getting rejected.

Let me say this. This book is helpful in many regards, but perhaps best in the sense that it teaches you to think like a writer. I found myself, during the days that I was reading it, suddenly paying attention a bit more to language, to imagery around me, and trying to write something about it in my mind. That’s helpful because, as Orson Scott Card reminds us “We storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.”

This book helps train you to drag that idea net along.

Nevertheless, ultimately, I think this book breaks its own rule. It creates rules for storytelling especially in the chapters and sections on creating likable characters, pacing, setting, characterization, and even its chapter on viewpoint. It gives us many “thou shalt nots” even though, as it itself claimed, it is ridiculous to do so when it comes to an art like storytelling.

Even with that problem, though, there is still much to learn from this book. It’s not perfect–no book really is–but so long as we realize that the “rules” set down for storytelling are opinions and not objective facts, we can enjoy and learn from this book. I recommend it.

Justifying the Means: An Overview of the Philosophy in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Something I really appreciate is when a story isn’t afraid to deal with complex themes. Sure, it’s a risk to do so. The storyteller risks alienating audience members if the theme is too blatant, or he risks sacrificing good story for good theme. Every now and then, though, a story comes along that embeds its theme in the plot, characters, and setting.

Ender’s Game is one such book, and for that I am grateful. However, just because it wove the theme into the story well, doesn’t mean that it necessarily was a good theme. To clarify, I’m only speaking of the first book in the series, Ender’s Game. I haven’t read the rest of the series.

My primary problem with Ender’s Game is that ultimately it seems to endorse a view of “the ends justify the means.” This is a philosophy known as pragmatism.

In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it is expedient. If it works. Workability becomes the determining factor in truth. If something achieves a good end, it is justified. It is true. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend their position.

Nazi’s come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically. Being a pragmatist means that you believe the ends justify the means.

That’s a very basic definition, and if you’d like a more in-depth discussion of pragmatism, I suggest you check out this lecture. I took all the information above from it.

So, how does Ender’s Game endorse pragmatism?

The primary and most obvious way is simple. Throughout the book a simple question is raised: is it right to turn a child into a killer, to put a child through so much pain, so that he could save the human race? Does the end (saving the human race) justify the means (turning Ender into a killer)?

And ultimately, the answer given appears to be yes, for three reasons. 1) The planet is saved, 2) Ender is not harmed, and 3) No real consequences take place because of the militaries’ choice. Most of the characters end up happy. Basically, the goal is achieved without much (if any) harm coming to the characters. The pragmatistic logic used to justify their actions works.

Granted, it’s a subtle message, which is why I say it appears to endorse pragmatism. Because it is subtle and woven so well into the story, it’s hard to figure out precisely what’s being said. But after thinking about it for a while, I believe that this is the message given.

So in essence, I’m going to be careful when I recommend Ender’s Game. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good book–rather, it was a fantastic one. But even good books have flaws; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Instead, it means that we should watch out for the bad, and praise and enjoy the good.

The Power of Simplicity: A Review of So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

I’m going to be completely honest here. I haven’t read many Westerns. In fact, I count, including this book, a total of two that I’ve read. This isn’t because I have anything against them, rather, I’ve very much enjoyed the ones that I have read. The only reason my count is so low, is because I’ve never found too many to read.

The point being, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome as just another story, not necessarily as a Western.

The story follows a struggling writer named Monte Beckett. His first book was a runaway bestseller, prompting him to quit his job and turn entirely to writing (every aspiring writer’s dream). That was seven years before the story opens. When it does, we see him yet to publish another book, always unable to get very far into any attempted project. When he meets a man named Glendon who has his heart set on returning to New Mexico to see his former wife one last time, Monte can’t resist joining him.

The author of So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, had written a single book before this one. That book, Peace Like a River, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed it, I felt it took too long to get where it was going, and dipped a bit into sentimentality near the end. Funny thing was, everyone liked Peace Like a River, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome got mixed reviews. I personally prefer the latter. Here’s why.

To begin, the story got moving far faster than did Peace Like a River. Because it started so fast, I was a little worried it would slow down around the middle. To my surprise, it kept up the pace for most of the book, while maintaining strong characters at the heart of it. Speaking of which, the characters were exceptionally well-drawn.

Never once did any of them go “over the top.” Meaning, the story never painted anything as black and white, including the characters. They all do good things, they all do bad things. Instead of stereotypical–and slightly easier to write–heroes and villains, we have legitimately flawed characters, all of which we sympathize with in some way or another.

But perhaps the aspect of this book that made me love it so much was the simplicity. It wasn’t simplistic, but it was simple. The entire book was understated, which made the moments where emotions ran high far more believable than if the entire book was written that way. In fact, the most emotional part of the book was simply the main character leaving another, wounded character (arguably the “bad guy,” though as I previously said it’s hard to define anyone that way).

In that scene where Monte Beckett leaves, there’s no long discussion. No speech. No overt emotion. Monte just leaves. And somehow, the way that was written, the subtlety with which the emotion was portrayed, affected me far more than many things I’ve read as of late.

So yes, this book is understated and simple. On occasion, this hurts it, especially near the end. At the end there is a section of about fifty pages that while significant, could have easily been cut back to thirty or twenty-five, without any real loss.

The climax might disappoint some because of how understated it is. For me, I thought it was perfect. Maybe you won’t, but I’d urge you to give this book a try anyway. I highly recommend it.

Breaking Our Own Rules: A Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

“Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven’s music if he’d chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh’s paintings?”

So begins The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. The funny thing is, The First Five Pages is a book on writing that opens with an indictment against books on writing. Now, I appreciate what Lukeman goes on to do in the rest of that opening chapter. He distinguishes, it appears, between storytelling and writing. Storytelling is an art. Writing is, but is less of one than storytelling. Lukeman proposes that rules can be set down when it comes to writing.

If he adhered to this proposal (that rules can be set down for writing, but not storytelling) I’d agree with him. Sadly, he doesn’t.

First, though, credit needs to be given where credit is due. This is a truly unique book. It’s written from the perspective of an agent or editor who has just received a manuscript from an aspiring author. Lukeman, as a former agent and editor himself, outlines what things people in these professions look for when reading a manuscript. He claims that they are simply looking for a way to reject your work (and he gives backup for that).

Then, going in order of what an agent or an editor looks at first, he sets out rules to avoid getting rejected.

Let me say this: this book is helpful in many regards, but perhaps best in the sense that it teaches you to think like a writer. I found myself, during the days that I was reading it, suddenly paying attention a bit more to language, to imagery around me, and trying to write something about experiences I was going through in my mind. That’s helpful because, as Orson Scott Card reminds us that, “we storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.”

This book helps train you to drag that idea net along.

Nevertheless, ultimately, I think this book breaks its own rule. It creates rules for storytelling especially in the chapters and sections on creating likable characters, pacing, setting, characterization, and even its chapter on viewpoint. It gives us many “thou shalt nots” even though, as it itself claimed, it is ridiculous to do so when it comes to an art like storytelling.

Even with that problem, though, there is still much to learn from this book. It’s not perfect. No book really is. But so long as we realize that the “rules” set down for storytelling are opinions and not objective facts, we can enjoy and learn from this book. I recommend it.

Heartwrenching Realities: A Review of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

If you start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old named Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later, you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one. (From the back cover)

Good stories involve you emotionally. In whatever way that story is supposed to, it does. It could make you tense, or make you sad, or make you happy but there has to be some sort of emotional investment that you, the reader, have made in the book and that the book takes advantage of in some way, shape, or form. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does this beautifully.

Decent stories allow me to disengage from the emotional pull of them very quickly after they’re over. This is almost a week after I finished The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, and I am only just now disengaging enough to write this review. Why? Because this book is sad.

Not in the bittersweet way, or the shimmer of hope way, but in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking method of pain. Because that’s what this book makes you feel: not sadness, but pain. It hurts to read these final chapters; not because they are done poorly–far from it, they are near-perfect–but because by the time you arrive at the final chapter, you are so emotionally invested in the characters, but at the same time fully aware of the reality of their surroundings, that you can’t help but feel pain when the end comes.

John Boyne, the author, approaches the subject in a different way. He writes from the perspective of a nine-year-old named Bruno (who is completely ignorant of anything that is going on around him), and who’s sole concern is becoming content with his new home in what Bruno thinks is called Out-With (Auschwitz). Then, very slowly, Bruno begins to discover certain odd things about his surroundings: the hundreds of people beyond the fence, the soldiers constantly milling around, his father’s frequent disappearances. But instead of Bruno realizing something is wrong, or at the very least trying to figure out what is going on, he takes it all through his view of the world. The people beyond the fence simply moved there, and were given nice jobs to take care of them. The soldiers are protecting his father because he is important. His father is going on business trips of little consequence.

But all the time, we the readers acutely understand why the people are behind the fence. We understand why Bruno can’t cross over to that side of the fence when he eventually meets another young boy named Shmuel from the other side. We understand why Shmuel doesn’t like the soldiers, why he is always so hungry, and why he is so frightened. And we understand what happens when he takes the march.

When the end of this book comes, it hurts even worse. I thought I knew the ending (it’s tragic Holocaust fiction, the ending shouldn’t be that hard to guess, right?) but I was dead wrong. It was so much worse.

Very rarely does a book completely blindside me to what is coming. Even rarer is when the book can make me realize my error at exactly the right moment to increase the emotional impact to its full potential. This is a book that did both of those things. This is also a dark book. This is a sad book. This book is a painful one. A story that is hard to read, because we know that things like this happened. And slowly, through the eyes of an ignorant, innocent nine-year-old, we understand anew just how bad people can become and just how dark a place the world we live in is.

That’s never a comfortable reality to be reminded of. But it’s a necessary one. I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Note: This book contains intensely unsettling thematic elements. While there is very little graphic imagery, the subjects dealt with are mature. Recommended for those 13 and up.