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St. Augustine's Confessions

St. Augustine's Confessions

Taught By Multiple Professors
Course No.  6627
Course No.  6627
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture
pIn St. Augustine's Confessions , Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman lead a chapter-by-chapter—or, in Augustine's terms, "book-by-book"—analysis of one of history's most significant literary works. Written in the 4th century C.E., the Confessions is an opportunity to explore, in one book, questions that have been addressed in many books—by the likes of Plato, Cicero, Freud, and Einstein—for more than a millennium.

How should parents raise children, and how should schools educate children? Why are we attracted to things that are forbidden, and how do we develop addictions? What is time? What is memory and what can it tell us? How can we understand God, or the nature of evil? How should we interpret scripture? What is true friendship? How should we deal with the death of a loved one? Augustine addresses each of these issues, and many more, in a way that few thinkers have been able to equal.

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p>In St. Augustine's Confessions , Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman lead a chapter-by-chapter—or, in Augustine's terms, "book-by-book"—analysis of one of history's most significant literary works. Written in the 4th century C.E., the Confessions is an opportunity to explore, in one book, questions that have been addressed in many books—by the likes of Plato, Cicero, Freud, and Einstein—for more than a millennium.

How should parents raise children, and how should schools educate children? Why are we attracted to things that are forbidden, and how do we develop addictions? What is time? What is memory and what can it tell us? How can we understand God, or the nature of evil? How should we interpret scripture? What is true friendship? How should we deal with the death of a loved one? Augustine addresses each of these issues, and many more, in a way that few thinkers have been able to equal.

The Confessions has had a staggering influence on Western civilization. It provided the framework through which the Judeo-Christian world accepted the thinking of Plato and other classical pagan philosophers. It served as the blueprint for Dante's Divine Comedy and inspired Martin Luther.

This course is designed to enable you to understand the Confessions as Augustine intended. In the early lectures, your professors cover such necessary background information as Roman history and Christian controversies during Augustine's time, and look at such other works by Augustine as City of God and Teaching Christianity.

An added benefit of the course is that it covers all 13 books of the Confessions: the nine in which Augustine narrates the story of his life leading to his Christian conversion, and the four in which he meditates on time, memory, and scripture interpretation. Due to time constraints, most college-level courses cover only the first nine.

Stories that Are as Powerful as any in World Literature

Most of the lectures focus on Augustine's narrative of the events and decisions that led him to change his life radically by converting to Christianity. This aspect of the Confessions has made it not only a great book but a beloved book—one that has earned the reputation, over the centuries, of being able to change lives.

Augustine's pre-Christian life is in many ways familiar to today's reader. He was a stellar student, and a successful professional: a teacher of rhetoric, the equivalent of a law professor today. He was not someone who seemed headed for sainthood: He had a preoccupation with sex, and he had a mistress with whom he had a child.

But such facts only make Augustine a more human and credible narrator. He asks questions of his life that we are likely to ask of ours. How did my childhood influence me? Why was I raised the way I was raised, and taught what I was taught? He examines meaningful events in his life that have stayed with him over the years, and are likely to stay with anyone: childhood mischief, the turbulence of adolescence, the death of a close friend.

However, Augustine's conclusions about these often commonplace events are always profound. Professors Cook and Herzman assert that there is "almost nothing in the world's literature that is more powerful than some of the stories that Augustine tells," including his stealing of some pears as an adolescent, the death of his beloved mother Monica, and the moment when St. Paul's Letter to the Romans finally convinces him to convert.

Augustine's soul-searching meditations on his own life teach a lesson that readers have taken to heart ever since. Our lives and experiences are never really ordinary. Instead, they are always an opportunity to gain insight into our psychology and morality, and to become wiser and better people.

One of History's Greatest Thinkers and Writers

Your professors note that one reason it is fun to read the Confessions is to see how sophisticated and intelligent Augustine is in so many areas. He was not only a saint but also one of history's greatest theologians, philosophers, scripture experts, psychologists (long before the profession existed), and writers. This is an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate the writing and thinking of a man who:

  • Resolved the fundamental question of "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" Augustine saw that such pagan classical thinkers as Cicero, Plato, and the neo-Platonists could be compatible with, and even enrich, Christian theology. In fact, the Confessions opens with a Platonic concept—permanence versus impermanence—and Augustine's discussion of time was likely influenced by Plato's creation story, the Timaeus.
  • Helped originate the notion that the Bible should be read beyond its literal meaning. He was less interested in the story of Genesis as a factual account than in how it symbolized the relationship between God and humans. To him, a phrase such as "Be fruitful and multiply" was not limited to having children, but could also mean contributing intellectually and spiritually to the world.
  • Established himself as a far-ranging and remarkably prescient thinker. He drew conclusions about human nature from watching his own child; he believed that personality was determined early in life through imitation and the formation of habits; and he debunked astrology.
  • Was so influential that even his casual opinions could change history. Because he simply mentioned that he wasn't very good at Greek, and that he didn't learn as much from Aristotle as from other philosophers, the teaching of both was de-emphasized in the Western world for the next 1,000 years.

Two Superb Teachers

Professors Cook and Herzman bring an exceptional level of scholarship and experience to the study of one of history's deepest and most multilayered books. With their combined specialties and subspecialties, they are able to examine the Confessions as a historical work, a theological work, and a work of literature.

As importantly, their presentation highlights the Confessions as a book that is as contemporary today as it was 1,500 years ago. They approach it as a highly relevant and personally enriching work, one that can help you discover what is truly meaningful in your life.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Augustine and the Confessions
    Lecture 1 introduces the course plan: a close reading of Augustine's Confessions in the contexts of his time and ours. Why are we still reading the Confessions in the 21st century, and how should we read the text in translation? The professors explain what translation they are using for this course, and why. x
  • 2
    Augustine and the World of Classical Antiquity
    Knowing the political, social, and cultural contexts of the Late Roman Empire is important because Augustine assumes his readers have this knowledge. It is also important to know that during Augustine's time, the relationship of Christianity to the state was undergoing extraordinary changes. x
  • 3
    The Corpus of Augustine's Writings
    To place the Confessions in context, we need to become acquainted with Augustine's other works. In addition to the major works On Christian Teaching (Christian doctrine) and The City of God, we will survey the scope of his writings, which total 48 volumes. x
  • 4
    Form and Genre
    The Confessions is a rich narrative, one that is not easy to characterize. One unusual element is that the entire work is a prayer to God. In addition, the first nine books are a narrative of Augustine's life, but the last four are not. This lecture examines these elements to show we are not dealing with autobiography in the modern sense. x
  • 5
    Book I—Sin and Confession
    The first book of the Confessions begins with a general introduction and then turns to Augustine's infancy and childhood. We can see how Augustine will "Christianize" elements of classical thought. He also describes the restlessness of the human spirit, and he ponders the stability of the moral order. x
  • 6
    Book I—Augustine's Childhood
    Augustine condemns himself as a sinner even as a 1-day-old baby. His portrayal of himself as a pupil in a "pagan" school, and with his family, is not of a bright kid—how we would probably view him—but of one who was selfish and miseducated. For Augustine, his youth is not a matter of outgrowing habits but of habituation to sin. x
  • 7
    Book II—Augustine Grows Up
    In Book II, Augustine explains how his parents dealt with him growing into a man. Combining the first part of Book II with what Augustine tells us about his schooling in Book I, we can conclude that teenage Augustine's sinfulness has actually been furthered by his teachers and parents because they are determined that he become rich and famous. x
  • 8
    Book II—Stealing Pears: So What?
    The longest narration of an event from Augustine's youth is of a minor incident when he was 16. With friends, he stole some pears from a neighbor's tree. To Augustine, this incident shows him to be another Adam—unwilling to obey laws and trying to declare a kind of freedom from society and from God. x
  • 9
    Book III—The Journey Begins
    In Book III, Augustine comes to Carthage "where the din of scandalous love affairs raged cauldronlike around me." But balanced against his lustful impulses is the beginning of his search for truth. At 18, a book by Cicero begins to turn Augustine's attention to the highest endeavors. x
  • 10
    Book IV—The Problem of Friendship
    While Augustine was engaged in studies and a carefree life, a dear friend died. Augustine became severely depressed. By the time he writes the Confessions, he realizes he was mourning not for his friend but for his own loss. Augustine realizes both the goodness of friendship and how it can become another manifestation of selfishness. x
  • 11
    Book V—From Carthage to Rome
    Augustine moves from North Africa to Italy, first Rome and then Milan. Two powerful encounters define Augustine's journey. He finds the Manichee bishop Faustus to be superficial. But in Milan, Augustine finds the Christian bishop, Ambrose, to be a brilliant and substantive speaker. This leads Augustine to give Christianity another look. x
  • 12
    Book VI—A New Look at Christianity
    While taking a fresh look at the Bible and Christianity, Augustine changes his mind about faith: it is necessary, he decides, because no one has sufficient knowledge. Augustine also "interrupts" the narrative to mention a new friend, Alypius, who has gone astray with a love of gladiatorial violence while in Rome. x
  • 13
    Book VII—Neo-Platonism and Truth
    Augustine becomes convinced of Christianity's truth through an amazing paradox: by reading pagan philosophers. Because he makes the case for the necessity of pagan learning, this book is an important chapter in the history of Christianity and in Western intellectual history. x
  • 14
    Book VII—Faith and Reason
    Augustine's reading of the Platonist philosophers brings him to conclusions about the nature of evil and the goodness of creation. The end of the book is a powerful meditation on the limits of reason, the necessity for faith, and the relationship between faith and reason. x
  • 15
    Book VIII—Converging Conversions
    Book VIII presents one of the most important moments in the Confessions: Augustine's conversion. By focusing on the conversion stories in this book, from Paul to Antony of the Desert to Victorinus, this lecture shows how Augustine prepares the reader to understand his conversion and, to a great extent, the Christianization of the Roman Empire. x
  • 16
    Book VIII—"Pick It Up and Read"
    This lecture begins with a close look at Augustine's description of his addiction to sex: as chains of lust that bind his will. We then examine Augustine's dramatic description of his conversion. This scene has an important post-Augustinian afterlife, as a model for subsequent Christian conversions, and for such writers as Dante. x
  • 17
    Book IX—The New Man
    Augustine's baptism marks the end of his conversion story, and the end of the biographical part of the Confessions. But he must decide what to do with his life now that he is a Christian. We discuss his new "career choice"—a life of leisure and contemplation—both in itself and in terms of his later life as a bishop. We also follow Augustine's accounts of the deaths of several friends, and that of his son. x
  • 18
    Book IX—The Death of Monica
    This lecture focuses on one of the most famous sections in the Confessions. To prepare the scene of his mother's death, Augustine tells the story of her life. His description sheds light on late antiquity, especially in terms of domestic life. Augustine's meditation with his mother before her death is widely considered one of the great examples of Christian mysticism. x
  • 19
    Book X—Augustine the Bishop
    In Book X, Augustine leaves the past to reflect on his present. He tells us his flock should know who its bishop is. He presents himself as one who is still struggling, still subject to temptations. Thus this book provides a powerful interpretation of conversion as a continual struggle. x
  • 20
    Book X—Augustine on Memory
    Having just finished an account of his past in the first nine books, Augustine's discussion of memory is a logical next step. Augustine sees memory as a mystery and explores some of its paradoxes: for example, that we are in some ways able to remember forgetfulness. He uses this discussion as part of a larger quest for God. x
  • 21
    Book XI—Augustine on Time
    Augustine's exploration of the nature of time in Book XI is a fascinating exercise. He notes the difficulty of it in this famous line: "What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone, I do not know." He sees the paradox of talking about time while remaining in time, a paradox similar to using the mind to discuss the mind. Augustine must talk about time in order to justify his time-bound autobiographical account, and because it leads to a discussion of eternity and God. x
  • 22
    Book XII—Augustine on Biblical Interpretation
    As someone whose conversion depended on learning to read texts correctly, especially the Bible, Augustine ends the Confessions with a demonstration of the fruits of that conversion. He begins an explication of the Book of Genesis, a key text because it deals with the nature of time and the nature of God. Augustine's approach to Scripture is open to symbolic meanings and multiple interpretations. x
  • 23
    Book XIII—Augustine on Creation
    In this concluding book, Augustine continues his interpretation of the opening passages of Genesis. Once again, he argues for a sophisticated understanding of Creation. He gives an important explication of the command to "increase and multiply." We end the lecture by discussing how the text continues to engage us in the 21st century. Augustine has much to say to a culture that is sometimes satisfied with easy answers. x
  • 24
    The Confessions Through the Ages
    Great thinkers have made use of Augustine's reflection on his life, and we focus on two of the most important: Dante and Martin Luther. In the 21st century, people want a way to reflect on their lives and to find meaning that is often hidden in masses of detail. There is no better guide than the Confessions. x

Lecture Titles

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2 Professors
William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman
Ph.D. William R. Cook
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Ph.D. Ronald B. Herzman
State University of New York, Geneseo

Dr. Ronald B. Herzman is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1969. He graduated with honors from Manhattan College and earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Dr. Herzman's teaching interests include Dante, Chaucer, Francis of Assisi, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Arthurian literature. He has written many articles and book chapters and is the coauthor of The Apocalyptic Imagination in Medieval Literature and coeditor of Four Romances of England. Professor Herzman received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976, and in 1991, Manhattan College awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Professor Herzman and Professor William R. Cook have been collaborating intensively since 1973, when they team-taught a course at SUNY-Geneseo called The Age of Chaucer. Subsequent courses included The Age of Dante and The Age of Francis of Assisi. Both prolific writers in their own right, together they have published The Medieval World View with the Oxford University Press, currently in its second edition. In 2003, Professors Cook and Herzman were presented with the Medieval Academy of America's first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies.

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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 37 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Take and read...while you listen As other reviewers have pointed out, this course would probably work best for those who are reading the Confessions at the same time. I took this course to “fill in a blank” in my college reading, as I have done with the Iliad, Aeneid, etc. But it was slow going, and didn’t keep my interest kindled. I already knew a fair amount about Augustine’s theology via Luther and Calvin, but I only had a sketchy idea about his life. The professors DID provide that information, but I think it could have been done more economically. Twenty-four lectures was a big investment of my time. I took the audio version of the course. This was my first “tag team” teaching experience from TGC. The profs clearly know each other and the topic very well, but I have to confess that neither one of them has what we might call a “radio voice.” Dr. Herzman’s voice in particular would be best taken in small doses. I would only recommend this to students who are truly interested in delving into Augustine; it is not for the casual listener. In sum, I would recommend you follow the advice Augustine once received: “Take and read” while you listen. May 4, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Try Phillip Cary First I give these 24 lectures on Augustine's Confessions a rating of three stars, which means that I think the course is below average for a TLC/TGC course--a high standard--but is nonetheless worth listening to. This advice is subject to two caveats. First, before bothering with this course you should listen to Phillip Cary's extraordinary (5 star) 12 lecture course on Augustine: Philosopher and Saint, which is simply at a another level in terms of understanding Augustine. Second, these lectures are not particularly good at summarizing the Confessions but rather provide literary commentary that will be most relevant if you read the book while listening to the lectures. (In this regard, the lecturers helpfully suggest the excellent recent translation by Maria Boulding.) The lectures are presented by a professor of history (Cook) and a professor of English (Hertzman), both of whom contribute to each lecture. In contrast to some other joint TLC/TGC lectures, the tag-team approach here works fairly well. The lecturers do have an annoying tendency to compliment each other and to contrast each new point to the point just made by the other. But their contributions usually fit together into a coherent lecture rather than a series of separate soundbites, so on balance the presentation works fairly well. On the other hand, neither lecturer has any expertise, or apparent interest, in theology, philosophy, or intellectual history. So their aim is merely to appreciate the Confessions as literature, providing some useful historical background but showing no real interest in Augustine's intellectual journey as such. Ironically, they do point out at the start that the Confessions is not an autobiography in the modern sense, focused on people and events, but is rather an intellectual and spiritual autobiography--but they then focus on people and events rather than on Augustine's intellectual and spiritual development. (They would probably claim that they do focus on Augustine's spiritual development, at least, but this is only because they view that development as simply a matter of Augustine's moving towards and finally choosing biblical Christianity over generic 'paganism'. They don't so much reject Augustine's Christian Platonism as never examine it.) These lectures provide only the most cursory explanation of Manichaenism, which was Augustine's faith for a decade, or of Platonism which triggered his intellectual conversion. In discussing the critical book 7 of the Confessions, they focus almost entirely on Augustine's references to the Incarnation and Atonement, the elements of Christian faith that (writing years later as a bishop) Augustine says he did not find in the books of the Platonists, rather than on the doctrine of the Trinity that he says he did find there and that clearly overwhelmed him at the time. If the lecturers have read Augustine's classic On the Trinity then there is no hint of it here. In connection with Augustine's conversion experience in book 8, when he heard the words 'Take it up and read', the lecturers state several times that their students sometimes ask whether another observer (another person in the room, say, or a tape recorder) would have heard the same words--but that these students are 'asking the wrong question'. Yet this is a perfectly reasonable question, which should provide an opportunity to discuss the theological doctrine of primary and secondary causes to which Augustine subscribed--with the conclusion being that Augustine almost certainly did not believe that another observer would have heard the particular words that he heard. The lecturers, however, are interested only in the literary aspects of the Confessions, so this is a 'wrong question'. Regarding books 10-13 of the Confessions (in which Augustine moves from autobiography to a philosophical discussion of memory, time, heaven and earth, and creation), the lecturers note that they don't usually teach these books, and regarding book 11 on time--widely considered seminal for Western philosophy--Professor Cook states that it sounds to him like a late night college bull session and he just doesn't get it. He should perhaps listen to Sean Carroll's TGC lectures on the physics of time which discuss and largely adopt Augustine's view in the context of modern physics. More generally, he should listen to Professor Cary's extraordinary lectures on Augustine. But philosophical issues just don't seem to interest either of these lecturers--which is a problem for a lecture series on Augustine, the most philosophical of the Church Fathers. The above substantive complaints would have led me to a four star rating, ie average for a TLC/TGC course but not at the extraordinary level of professors such as Cary, Cahoone, Castor, Daileader, Harl, Kors, McInerney, or Vandiver. But I ended up with three stars for two more reasons. First, these 24 lectures are too long for the content. The last five lectures are pointless, and in many others, particularly later in the course, you sometimes get the sense that the lecturers are just filling time. With better focus this could have been a good 12 lecture course rather than a mediocre 24 lecture course. Second, while the lecturers spend a lot of time teasing out the implications of Augustine's narrative, they don't do a particularly good job of summarizing the Confessions for someone who hasn't read it. For better or worse, this is one of the reasons that people listen to TTC/TGC lectures. (Contrast, for example, any of Professor Vandiver's excellent TTC/TGC lectures on Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, etc.--which concisely summarize the texts before providing extraordinary insights about them.) These lectures, however, seem to be designed for college students who, unlike TTC/TGC customers, are actually expected to do the reading. So I ended up with three stars rather than four. In summary, this course is worth it, but only after you have listened to Phillip Cary's much better course on Augustine and only if you plan to read the book at the same time. September 7, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Much better appreciation of Augustine This was an incredibly comprehensive view of Augustine. Although it didn't go into his other works, I was absolutely amazed at the organization and presentation of the material that was presented. The team teaching of the material is almost flawless as well. I better understand why so many refer back to Augustine for rigor and clarity of thought. Augustine is a religious figure, but this introduces you to so much more. July 28, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by OK book review. DVD review. ST. AUGUSTINE'S CONFESSIONS by Drs. Cook and Herzman's, is a good, quick "Coles Notes" review of a very influential classic. The lessons are organized to paraphrase and comment on "The Confessions" chapter-by-chapter. Their presentation is sufficiently detailed to help you decide whether you want to read the text directly. Beyond that, Augustine's life path towards his dramatic conversion to the Christianity of his time — some modern Christians would be repelled by many of its assumptions — raises a host of questions that are left unanswered. Augustine's views on women and sexuality, for example, were hugely influential in medieval Christian thought. In this course, however, this issue is dealt with in concrete terms as Augustine's relationships with his mistress #a bad girl eventually discarded without regret# and his mother Monica #a saint in her late years#. His conception of God and of the soul's ascent towards the divine was deeply influenced by Plato and Plotinus. What did this mean concretely? How does this differ from modern notions of psychology or conversion? We are not told. I could go on and on, but you get the point. __________________ PRESENTATION was unusual with the two lecturers alternating like anchors presenting the evening news. As they did not really disagree about anything, a single lecturer would have been better. Both were equally good speakers. Neither had distracting mannerisms. Audio versions are sufficient. Strongly recommended as long as you want a book review." June 17, 2013
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