Books That Matter: The City of God

Course No. 6941
Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
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Course No. 6941
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Why The City of God is such a powerful book—and what impact it has made over the centuries, including our world today.
  • numbers About Augustine’s devastating critique of Roman society and his argument for a new relationship between humanity and the world.
  • numbers The politics, religion, and culture of the ancient world during the 5th century following the sack of Rome.
  • numbers To explore some of our biggest philosophical questions, from the problem of evil to the nature of the divine to our role in this world.

Course Overview

Augustine of Hippo’s magnum opus The City of God is one of the greatest works of the Western intellectual tradition—so powerful, in fact, that one could argue all of Christian theology has been a series of footnotes to Augustine. Written during the transition from antiquity to the rise of Christianity, it is one of the key texts in defining our ethical framework into the 21st century. Yet even serious readers can be intimidated by a book that spans over 1,000 pages.

Augustine started writing The City of God in 411 A.D. as a defense of Christianity after the sack of Rome—indeed, as a critique of the depravity of Rome itself. Yet by the time he completed the book more than 15 years later, he’d taken the offense, arguing in favor of a radical new relationship between humanity and the world. Modern readers, warily eyeing the book’s imposing scale, may wonder: What made this book so influential over the years? What mysteries lie between its pages? What relevance does the 1,600-year-old text have for our world today? How should contemporary readers approach this monumental text?

Take the plunge with this profound survey of one of the world’s truly great books. Books That Matter: The City of God ushers you on a historical and theological journey through the final years of the ancient world. Taught by Professor Charles Mathewes of the University of Virginia, these 24 in-depth lectures guide you chapter by chapter through Augustine’s masterpiece, introducing you not only to the book’s key arguments but also to the historical context necessary to comprehend The City of God‘s true power.

Augustine began the book as an apologetic when Romans began to blame Christians for the sack of their city. But his audience was hardly a homogenous group of skeptics that he could win over by linear argument. Rather, he faced multiple audiences with myriad motivations. Trained as a rhetorician, he employed a different kind of argument, filled with digressions and stories and historical accounts, to make his case for a new Christian worldview.

The result was a wide-ranging philosophical treatise whose ultimate strategy was conversion—to transform Rome from a brutally immoral society to a city where Christ’s love provided the guiding star. As you’ll discover in Books That Matter: The City of God, Augustine’s argument was so powerful that his book became one of the most influential texts on politics, humanity, divinity, and the long and ultimate destiny of the world.

Discover a New Perspective on Augustine

You likely know Augustine as the author of The Confessions and one of the fathers of the Christian Church. Based on the common historical perception, you might imagine he was a dour figure with a somewhat grim outlook on human nature and the world in general. Thanks to his early flirtations with Manichaeism and Platonism, misconceptions about him abound.

But as Professor Mathewes ably shows, Augustine was a surprisingly modern man with a clear-eyed, sophisticated outlook on the world. He truly comes alive on the page, and in this course, you will travel with him as he wrestles with some of the thorniest philosophical challenges of any time, including:

  • The problem of evil
  • Faith versus reason
  • Fate versus free will
  • The doctrine of original sin
  • The nature of Heaven and Hell
  • The nature of God

Although there are no easy answers to any of these issues, Augustine’s approach is ultimately comforting. Rather than pat rhetorical answers, he provides a perspective and a worldview that allows readers to live “happy in hope,” which he argues is the only true happiness available in a fallen world.

As you move through these lectures, one of the most striking aspects of the book is the way Augustine’s world and worldview feel so familiar to us today. He wrote The City of God during a time of religious pluralism, when the Roman Empire (which had perhaps seen better days) struggled with the nature of its conquests and the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Gain New Insights into the Ancient World

Augustine’s thought straddles the line between the Old World of pagan antiquity and the dawn of the Christian era, and The City of God offers astounding insights into both worlds. As an apologetic for Christianity, the first half of the text offers a scathing critique of Roman society, its immorality and decadence, arguing that statesmen could not be distinguished from gangsters, and that the grandeur of Rome was a false idol.

Professor Mathewes guides you through the historical context of the earthly city, drawing a picture of Augustine’s contemporary audience as well as a world in transition. Among other fascinating topics, you will learn about:

  • The sack of Rome by the Visigoths
  • Roman philosophies and religion
  • The politics and history of the empire
  • Roman spectacles and ideology
  • Antiquity through a scriptural survey

Augustine offered a devastating “immanent critique” of Rome—that is, a critique using their own rhetoric and their own historians against them. He drew from so many historical sources that The City of God became a historical source in its own right, offering a first-hand account of the end of the imperium and the dawn of Christendom.

Augustine’s ultimate goal with this book is conversion, so in the second half of his masterpiece, he shifts from a critique of the Old World to an argument for what the new world should be, showing a fallen mankind how to appreciate and embrace a new vision of life. Using scripture as his guide, he constructs a history of the world from Creation and the Fall to the Resurrection and the Last Judgment.

Augustine and his readers—then, as now—were living in a kind of epilogue, after the Resurrection of Christ but before the Last Judgment. Therefore, in his extended consideration of the nature of humanity, the world, and the cosmos, he tackles issues ranging from politics and war to the human quest for happiness, showing how to live a just and rewarding life—how to live in the earthly city with an eye toward the heavenly one.

An Accessible Yet Highly Intellectual Ride

A close reading of The City of God rewards you with deep insights into what it means to be human. With Professor Mathewes as your guide, this course is your chance to unpack the big questions about our life on Earth and what might come after. You’ll see how, despite its scope, The City of God is not only accessible, but also just as relevant today as it was in the 5th century.

Whether you come to this text as a Christian, a philosopher, a historian, a literature lover, or someone who simply wants fresh insight into our world today, Augustine will revolutionize the way you think about politics, religion, history, and our relationship to the divine. Books That Matter: The City of God is a magnificent introduction to one of the world’s truly great books.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Your Passport to The City of God
    The City of God is a monumental work-not just for its scale and structure, but for what it asks of us as readers. In this first lecture, dive into the many layers of this powerful book, surveying why Augustine wrote it, for whom, and what impact it still has on our world today. x
  • 2
    Who Was Augustine of Hippo?
    Examine the paradoxical life of Augustine: Who was he? Why is he such an important historical figure? You'll be surprised that much of what we may associate with him, such as his metaphysical dualism and his antidemocratic adherence to Church law, is mistaken. Here, you'll uncover the real Augustine-and find a man not so unlike ourselves. x
  • 3
    The Sack of Rome, 410 A.D.
    While Roman elites viewed the sack of Rome as a turning point that changed the world forever, the event itself lasted only three days and served more as a catalyst for change than a cataclysm in its own right. In this lecture, you'll find out why the sack was so monumental, and how it inspired Augustine to write The City of God. x
  • 4
    Augustine's Pagan and Christian Audience
    Before delving into the text of The City of God, Professor Mathewes sets the stage with some context about the many audiences that Augustine was writing for, as well as the arguments against Christians that he was confronting. See how Augustine co-opted Roman notions of city" and "glory" and applied them to his divine purpose." x
  • 5
    The Problem of Suffering (Book 1)
    Book 1 opens by addressing civic-minded Roman citizens looking for happiness in this life-a mistake, Augustine believes. By exploring the problem of evil and questions of suffering and suicide, you'll discover how Augustine's approach toward life differs from the Roman view, yet is arguably more life affirming and even therapeutic. x
  • 6
    The Price of Empire (Books 2-3)
    Continue your study of Augustine's argument toward civic-minded Romans by reviewing his attacks on their morality and their sense of self-regard. Using their own historians as evidence, Augustine teases out the logical and psychological implications of the Romans' quest for domination, which Augustine says is born out of a longing for transcendent joy. x
  • 7
    Augustine's Political Vision (Book 4)
    Augustine had a clearly defined political philosophy that ran against the grain of Roman beliefs. Here, examine his view that there is no distinction between gangsters and statesmen, and that the difference between conquering and theft is merely one of perspective. Reflect on this political realism" and what it means for the Roman state." x
  • 8
    Splendid Vices and Happiness in Hope (Book 5)
    In this lecture, you'll reach the climax of Augustine's argument toward civic-minded Romans, which answers the question of how best to pursue happiness while also being a good citizen. The answer takes you through a dazzling discussion of fate versus free will, the nature of divine providence, the errors of glory-seeking, and the tragic nature of the world. x
  • 9
    Public Religion in Imperial Rome (Books 6-7)
    Turn to The City of God's next set of arguments, which in Books 6 to 10 are aimed toward Roman philosophers who had a different-if still incorrect, according to Augustine-view of religion. After studying the role of religion in Roman society, Professor Mathewes analyzes Augustine's critique of one particular philosopher, Varro. x
  • 10
    Who or What Is God? (Books 8-9)
    Of all the Roman philosophers, Augustine felt the most kinship with the Platonists, who had developed a transcendent view of God. Where they fell short, he believed, was in imagining God as a distant being, uninterested in material reality. For Augustine, God is immediate and accessible, as he argues in Books 8 and 9. x
  • 11
    Sacrifice and Ritual (Book 10)
    Once we understand God's immediacy and love for humanity, what next? What are humans meant to do in return? In book 10, Augustine takes aim at the transactional nature of Roman religion-offering sacrifice in return for special favors. Instead, Augustine lays out a blueprint for what religion should be like. x
  • 12
    Augustine's Critique of Rome (Books 1-10)
    The City of God is arranged into two broad parts. Here at the halfway point, recap Books 1 through 10 and analyze the first half of the text as a whole. At this point, Augustine has laid the groundwork for a transition from a largely apologetic argument to something more transformative in the second half. x
  • 13
    Metaphysics of Creation and Evil (Book 11)
    Now that Augustine has thoroughly critiqued Roman society, it's time to turn away from what he was arguing against and find out what he was arguing for. In this new beginning, Augustine uses biblical evidence to explore the world's creation and how God works both within and outside of time. x
  • 14
    Fall of the Rebel Angels (Book 12)
    Revisit the problem of evil as a reaction against the good of creation. Why would the rebel angels deny the good and allow themselves to fall? And what does Augustine's view of evil mean for humanity, beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Explore Augustine's vision and consider its implications. x
  • 15
    Augustine and Original Sin (Book 13)
    Settle into a powerful analysis of original sin, the condition humans inherited from Adam and Eve after the Fall. Professor Mathewes shows that while Augustine's vision may seem bleak on the surface-with people as zombies roaming the earth in living death-it is ultimately an encouraging message for the way it points toward grace. x
  • 16
    The Two Cities and the Two Loves (Book 14)
    Continue your study of original sin and what it implies about how we should live in this earthly world. Here, Augustine conjures up two cities-the city of flesh and the city of God-and shows how our key challenges on Earth are rooted in our psychology, in our orientation toward the world. x
  • 17
    Augustine's Scriptural History (Books 15-17)
    In Books 15 to 17, Augustine begins to tell the history of the world through the lens of the Christian Bible. Scholars tend to overlook these books, but as you'll discover, they not only provide a remarkably complete history of the ancient world, they also provide a new picture of our place in the world, as well as a new way of understanding our history. x
  • 18
    Translating the Imperium (Book 18)
    Once Augustine completes his survey of history, one big question remains: Once all the worldly empires, including Rome, have fallen, what next? If the earthly city's days are over, how do we transition to the heavenly city? How do we translate the past into the future? Find out what Augustine has to say about carrying on. x
  • 19
    Happiness and Politics (Book 19)
    In Augustine's view, we are living in an epilogue" to history. The Fall and the Resurrection have occurred, and we are awaiting the Last Judgment. In this lecture, you'll encounter The City of God's most worldly book, in which Augustine expounds on how we are meant to live in this interim period. Explore his view of politics, happiness, and world peace." x
  • 20
    Judgments, Last and Otherwise (Book 20)
    We have reached the last section of The City of God. If Book 19 was about worldly wisdom, then Book 20 is about other-worldly wisdom. Reflect on the meaning and purpose of the Last Judgment. Our world and its ultimate end may be obscure, but Augustine shows how to begin thinking about these matters. x
  • 21
    Augustine's Vision of Hell (Book 21)
    Shift your attention from the end of the world to what happens after we die. Professor Mathewes delves into the deep questions of damnation: Why does Augustine believe Hell is real? What is the nature of suffering in Hell? And why does God mete out an eternal punishment for a temporal crime? x
  • 22
    Heaven: The Self Redeemed (Book 22)
    Now turn from the nature of Hell to the nature of Heaven. Here, review Augustine's account of Heaven, his vision of the final fulfilled state of the human, and the realization of God. See how he works to resolve one of theology's key puzzles, the tension between here and there, Earth and Heaven. x
  • 23
    The City of God as a Single Book
    The City of God is so searching, so wide reaching, so vast and so coherent that it has few rivals as an achievement of the human mind. Now that you have explored the entire text, step back and consider the book as a whole. Examine some of its key themes and what Augustine may have wanted us to take away from the book. x
  • 24
    The City of God's Journey through History
    Much has happened in the world after The City of God's publication, from the Vandals besieging Hippo in Northern Africa and the fall of Rome to what is arguably the end of Christendom in our modern era. In this final lecture, take a look at Augustine's impact on history and his continued relevance to our lives today. x

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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Illustrations and photographs
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Charles Mathewes

About Your Professor

Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Dr. Charles Mathewes is Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches religious ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion. He earned his B.A. in Theology from Georgetown University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago. From 2006 to 2010, Professor Mathewes served as editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the flagship...
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Books That Matter: The City of God is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 40.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not Recommended for a General Audience I have listened to many Great Courses, and am usually a fan. This course is in a category by itself, but not in a good way. Professor Mathewes' lectures are undoubtedly read from a fully-prepared written text: they are dense and sound erudite, but they are also highly elusive for the non-specialist. His vocabulary is that of a religious studies scholar, perhaps meaningful to his academic colleagues but not to the uninitiated. Time and again, Mathewes emphasizes how deep and important Augustus's insights are on topic X, but then he fails to articulate in a comprehensible manner just what that insight is. I consider myself a dedicated, attentive listener, but I found Mathewes very opaque. Professor Mathewes, in short, does not know his audience. He would be well served by showing off his linguistic gymnastics less and trying harder to reach his non-specialist listeners. (I also agree fully with SETXDOC's review of this course.)
Date published: 2020-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Transformative- Read aloneside Why Evil Exists This book and its companion audiobook "Why Evil Exists" are two of best books you will ever read or listen to. Both are profound studies in good and evil. In this book, focus is on the "participation" embodied in the "bene" of "benevolence aimed at union", where the union is the complete giving or gifting of oneself to God, to one's neighbour and to one's higher self, understood not as who you currently are, but who you are intended to be. In "Why Evil Exists", the focus is on the "non-participation" embodied in the "mal" of "malevolence aimed at rebellion, isolation and annihilation." Read and profit.
Date published: 2020-02-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Two of the cd’s are corrupted. Just a green screen. I called the company for replacement and 3 weeks later still have not received them.
Date published: 2019-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Name for the course Please add more courses with this Prof.! He is outstanding in every way, and really is a great teacher.
Date published: 2019-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview of the City of God Teacher does a good job of hitting the highlights of the book. The course is tempting me to read the book.
Date published: 2019-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Methodical set up and details Loved the background about conditions of the times and current thinking of various factions of society.
Date published: 2019-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from City of God; Prof Mathewes Prof. Mathewes Is very knowledgeable about his subject and presents it in a very compelling way. I couldn’t wait to proceed to the next lecture to gain a better understanding of Augustine’s thinking.
Date published: 2019-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highbrow, but an Excellent Course! Wow, after years of looking at Augustine's colossal "City of God" up on my bookshelf and wondering about the specifics of that intimidating volume, this course answered all my questions, and then some! I really can't imagine a more thorough and nuanced audio-tour in just 24 lectures. Professor Mathewes addresses all pertinent aspects of the book, including the history, philosophy, and theology necessary to explore Augustine's magnum opus in considerable depth. I appreciate too how the professor focuses in on many passages concerning our basic humanity, psychology, and behavior, themes that still may concern any or all of us today, regardless of our individual beliefs. As a bonus, I also learned quite a few new things about Augustine that weren't covered in the other two Great Courses about him. And don't be put off by the first few minutes of the first lecture. In my opinion, the professor doesn't quite find his sea legs until a few minutes or so into the journey. Once he does, you'll likely find yourself riveted to the narrative as Augustine takes on the Roman heroes, philosophers, aristocrats, and others, practically deconstructing the entire Roman ethos. Chapter by chapter, Prof. Mathewes examines the whole book in all its glory and complexity, even demonstrating how Augustine composed the work like a great symphonist, weaving and re-weaving the main themes into an elaborately designed whole. Admittedly, this is a challenging course, as is Augustine's sprawling philosophical tract, but if you're willing to roll up your shirtsleeves and allow the professor to be your personal cicerone, this course provides an excellent, detailed overview of the work. I look forward to my second listening, after which, I now plan to read the book myself. Who'da thunk it? Like other reviewers have stated, I did need to consult a dictionary for unfamiliar vocabulary words throughout the lectures; ergo, my pun about the prof. as a cicerone. If you just enjoyed googling that word, or maybe didn't need to at all, you'll be just fine with this course. Other reviewers, however, do find the professor's highbrow vocabulary a tad frustrating. Personally, I thrive on artful language and thank the good professor for the many interesting words I encountered in his lectures. And he really does serve up a veritable smorgasbord of delectable little dandies, enough for any self-respecting logophile out there to feast on copiously! So you decide whether highbrow or grandiloquence, as another reviewer describes it, is a style you might feel comfortable with or not. More to the point, I found professor Mathewes' narration very expressive, appropriately serene, and well organized. Likewise, his explanations and elucidations are consistently clear and insightful, elegantly stated, even quite moving at times. The professor really knows his subject and seems genuine in his desire to share it with his audience as best he can. In short, this is a very informative and rewarding course on many levels. I listened to it on CD in my car and on my iPhone at home (without earbuds) and had no difficulties other than the occasional vocabulary word, which, as I said, provides yet another learning opportunity. I did pull the book off the shelf after completing the course, peaking in at random places to test the waters, and low and behold, I was able to understand and, more importantly, to contextualize the many pages I read. So if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or reading in this case, I believe my high praise for this course is clearly justified. I know I could not have just picked up Augustine's "City of God" and comprehended what I was reading with such confidence and insight without the help of this course. Oh, and I really enjoyed the extended passages I did read. Yes, the one book on my shelf that always seemed so far beyond my grasp -- really more of a decoration than an actual book -- now waits for me impatiently on the coffee table. Augustine's famous words from "Confessions" -- Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege! -- have taken on a whole new meaning. I'm so glad I purchased this course.
Date published: 2018-09-30
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