St. Augustine's Confessions

Course No. 6627
Taught By Multiple Professors
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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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  • 104-page printed course guidebook
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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 67.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Saint-Augustine! Oops! I neglected to provide a review for this course after I completed viewing it late last year. Ironically, I was left with great admiration for both Saint Augustine and Saint Monica at that time. Saint Augustine’s personal reflections on his life and his views of Christianity and spirituality left an indelible and positive impression on me after the lectures. As my memory recalls, the instructors’ give-and-take dialogue was complementary and inspired multi-faceted thinking of the book and its author. Almost one year later, I’m still a true follower of this remarkable saint, and this course inspired me!
Date published: 2019-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting I have only just started this course (it is rather long) but I like the teaching format. The professors toss the comments back and forth very well. It is more interesting than I thought it would be. I had liked Professor Cook in his Cathedrals course so I thought I would try this one and I'm glad that I did.
Date published: 2019-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative This is a very informative course taught by two knowledgeable professors. I've taken many Great Courses, but this is the first time that I've seen one with two professors teaching at the same time (I've seen a couple where lecturers take turns teaching different lessons). The format worked very well, and I think it made the subject matter more interesting to watch them play off of each other. St. Augustine is one of the most influential thinkers and writers in history, and this course does an excellent job both explaining St. Augustine's most famous book and explaining the impact on later philosophers and writers.
Date published: 2018-12-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not impressed The instructors were enthusiastic and seemed to know the subject, however the problem with this course for me was that the instructors delivery and seemingly random thoughts about the topics made it very difficult to listen to and distracting. I expected this to be a course about learning the content and meaning of Augustine’s writings however that was overshadowed by several tangent thoughts by the instructors. They switched back and forth with their thoughts and the delivery by one of the instructors was abrasive. I think that their enthusiasm was very evident and believe that they know the topic well, however for me they strayed away from the main topic too far and as a result I would sometimes forget what the topic was. This course would be useful for someone looking to learn what some instructors think about Augustine’s writings rather than the writings themselves. For me it missed the mark.
Date published: 2018-07-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very helpful and informative I had started reading Augustine's Confessions, but felt like I was wandering in the wilderness. I had a few commentaries to help, Christian History Magazines as well. Then I saw this in the sale brochure. I've been doing the lectures as I read the book (read a chapter quickly, watch the video and then reread.). I'm getting so much more out of the book and can't wait to do City of God course next. The lectures provide insight comparing the time period he was writing about, as well as what lay ahead. Insight into the culture of the time is very helpful as well. The professors often say things like "Augustine will come back to this" or "This will be very important to Augustine" which aids me in watching for those keys as I read on. I've never done a course where two professors did team teaching. This has been fun as they build on each other's comments.
Date published: 2018-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy Listening I really enjoyed the tag team approach with this topic. It did take some getting use to, but it was worth the wait.
Date published: 2018-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable Two instructors make for an unusual course teaching, but wow, most enjoyable and keep your attention active. Well done.
Date published: 2018-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great overview of St. Augustine's Confessions I was very pleased with the content and delivery of the information in this class.
Date published: 2018-05-29
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