St. Augustine's Confessions

Course No. 6627
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Course No. 6627
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professors

William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman

Professor 1 of 2

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Professor 2 of 2

Ronald B. Herzman, Ph.D.
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...
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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...
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Reviews

St. Augustine's Confessions is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Experience After extremely enjoying the course on Dante's Divine Comedy, I sought out this course because it is also presented by Professors Cook and Herzman. The conversational style in which this course is presented makes Augustine's Confessions very relevant to contemporary life. The background that the professors provide is amazing and I would not have understood much of the Confessions by just picking up a translation and reading it. In fact, I probably never would have been interested in studying the Confessions if it were not for this course. I studied technical subjects throughout my university education and never had an appreciation for works such as the Confessions. I completed courses from the Teaching Company on the Aeneid and Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature, finding that these provided much richness for the experience that I had with this course. If one has not taken courses in the ancient classics, this course is still very meaningful because the professors explain the literature that they are referring to and make the complex material easy to understand. I looked forward to every trip I had to take in my car so that I could listen to more lessons in this course. This course is informative, thought-provoking and entertaining! I'm looking forward to more courses presented by Professors Cook and Herzman.
Date published: 2010-08-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from disappointing One main problem with these lectures is that the speakers are apologists for St.Augustine; they either do not wish to or are unable to analyze him in any terms but his own. So uncritical of him are they that you would never know from these lectures that St. Augustine has been called "the prince and patriarch of persecutors",i.e. that he contributed the rationale for killing heretics. Secondly they waste a lot of time explaining what is obvious; for instance, when St.Augustine says you can remember the difference between honey and mead even when you're not tasting them, they think they are adding something by going into a rap about how one of them likes Coke-lite and the other likes Pepsi-lite and each can remember the difference even when they're not tasting them. This is exegesis? (Or perhaps they are being paid for the commercial.) About the only thing I gained from these tapes was the connections they sometimes made between St. Augustine and his classical models.
Date published: 2010-07-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Meaningful and Well Played I have taken numerous courses with Prof. Cook and have been impressed with his clarity. He does just as good of a job with another Professor who he knows very well. The History and English Professors compliment each other well to discuss this historically important piece of literature. The course is well organized and they make it easy to follow the story and the insights they bring to light are meaningful and can cause you to think about your own life. As a Christian, it made me think of my Christian walk but even non-Christians can get alot from the Confessions. I would recommend this course because it is well done!
Date published: 2010-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Never thought I would enjoy this St Augustine is a philosopher and down to earth man. His insight into how to look at your own life is what I have gotten out of this course. What were the decisions that got you here? Where they correct. This course is not all about religion. It is about understanding the choices we have made in our lives and realizing the consequences of those choices.
Date published: 2010-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Ever! I loved this course. I can't say enough about it. The profs play off against one another beautifully. They prove St. Augustine's adage, that to be a good teacher, one must love one's subject, and one's students. They obviously love St Augustine and his age. They love each other, I woudl have to say. And yes, I felt loved! I have read the Confessions several times, and I still learned alot from their presentation.
Date published: 2009-11-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course This course was outstanding in all respects. The presentation was excellent and kept you eagerly anticipating the next lecture. I was so riveted that I listened to several hours at a time. The two professors played off on another in a manner that engaged the listener. The depth of their expertise with the subject matter was clearly self evident. They brought Augustine to life in their presentations.
Date published: 2009-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course The two professors worked very well together. They were able to explain a very complex subject in terms that appeal to both a scholar or a beginning student. One advantage of studying by DVD is the ability to go and replay sections to better understand the material.
Date published: 2009-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A thoughtprovoking wander of a study guide I would never have been able to penetrate the Confessions at any level without this course to assist me. It is a very thought provoking course, but somewhat ineffective unless you are willing to crack along at confessions on the side. it is also not the kind of course that you can take in all at once, in one sitting, like the book you need to dip into it and revisit passages and places. I did find the two person style annoying, and will be happy if i never hear the word "piggyback" used in a sentence again. However, I think it far better than the alternative or one man droning on and the two worked very well together. Hard to imagine a better use of my time
Date published: 2009-06-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Didn't Care For... Let me begin by stating I know next to nothing about St. Augustine--that's why I thought I'd benefit from these CD's. Whether it's this lack of knowlege that made the course difficult for me, or the 2 professor presentation style I don't know,but I found this course very hard to listen too and understand. The tag team style presentation I found grating. I believe there is a lot of good information presented but I spent more time trying to refocus after the constant swings in cadence as the professors alternated speaking. I returned the course.
Date published: 2009-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prepare to be Glued to the Course! I thoroughly enjoyed this course. The two-professor team worked very well, and they held my attention throughout. It left me wanting to learn even more about this fascinating man from history who I knew next to nothing about when I started. I purchased the audio download and put it on my iPod - my husband was wondering what I had on it that kept me plugged in! I highly recommend the course, especially if you are interested in the history of religions and the people involved.
Date published: 2009-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very worthwhile indeed This is an excellent course. They do such a great job together. As a Platonist, my circuits were popping throughout the course. I came to know this man in a way I often found surprising.
Date published: 2009-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting... I really enjoyed the content and presentation - i enjoyed the interplay between Prof Cook and Herzman - I think it added an element of additional depth to the series of lectures. I may even try to find a copy of St Augustine's confessions to read...
Date published: 2009-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Confess I Liked This Course Anyone interested in St Augustine, the history of religion, Western Civilization or just an amazing story will like this course. The tandem teachers cover more than just Augustine's Confessions delivering hisfascinating life story along the way. The style of the doctor duo is seamless and flows so smoothly that most of the time you are unaware that two people are lecturing. I have an interest in religious thought but this course will be appreciated by anyone who has an interest in how Western Civilization got western in the first place. This course compliments an earlier TC course on St Augustine by Dr Phillip Cary, Augustine: Philosopher and Saint. Try them both!
Date published: 2009-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to TC This course started me off on the right foot as a Teaching Company fan. Professors Cook and Herzman do a wonderful job of guiding the listener through 'Confessions' deftly juggling the religious, historical, and literary aspects of St. Augustine's writing. As a Roman Catholic, this course shone a new light on my faith, filled in some gaps in my historical knowledge, and entertained me. The two lecturers do a great job of blending their contributions into a seamless whole.
Date published: 2009-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Augustine is a Must Read Professors Cook and Herzman work as a kind of literary tag team, taking turns delivering portions of this course. For me, they are a great team, complementing each other in just the right way. St. Augustine's Confessions is a demanding text. Highly philosophical, brilliantly original. Augustine has a kind of self-reflective nature that we don't see again until Hamlet. Profs. Cook and Herzman bring out a lot of Augustine's life, but it's the lectures on Augustine's reflections on Time and Memory that I found most compelling. I started with their course on Dante's Divine Comedy, which I thought was great. This one works for me as well and I recommend it whole-heartedly.
Date published: 2009-01-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing I really did not enjoy the pace of the course or the dual lecturer approach. I didn't get through all the lectures.
Date published: 2008-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I enjoyed the team-teaching on this course. The Prof's were animated and easy to listen to. Their material was comprehensive as well as fascinating.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved this course. I was fascinated from beginning to end. I especially enjoyed the way the professors established the historical setting in which the book was written and brought Augustine's personal spiritual struggle alive.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I greatly enjoyed the dual lecturer method of Prof. Bill Cook and Ron Herzman. Their down-to-earth language & comments bring St. Augustine's confessions to life.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fabulous! I only wish a 2nd course on the confessions were offered to fill in some of the details they couldn't elaborate on due to understandable time and length. the professors were outstanding!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Cook and Herzman are outstanding! If I lived near Geneseo I would sign up to audit one of their courses. (I'm 70!) They are excellent!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It was pure delight to encounter this well taught course.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I would take another course by these professors.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well done but not my cup of tea. Not as captivating or interesting as their lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The two professors complemented each other well. their presentation was very informative and interesting.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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