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Books That Matter: The City of God

Books That Matter: The City of God

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Books That Matter: The City of God

Course No. 6941
Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
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4.3 out of 5
18 Reviews
83% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 6941
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for diagrams, illustrations, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, there are images of key figures and locations such as noted philosophers, academics, and theologians, text on-screen depicting Latin and English translation, and maps, which may help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Why The City of God is such a powerful book—and what impact it has made over the centuries, including our world today.
  • About Augustine’s devastating critique of Roman society and his argument for a new relationship between humanity and the world.
  • The politics, religion, and culture of the ancient world during the 5th century following the sack of Rome.
  • 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
 |  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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  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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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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Reviews

Books That Matter: The City of God is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 18.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not exactly making Augustine 'accessible' I am a big fan of the Great Courses, and the 30+ courses which I have enjoyed have brought me many hours of informative enjoyment, so it does bother me to write a negative review. Fortunately I don't have to. If you check out the review by setxdoc located on this site it says precisely all that I would have said, far better than I could have said it. If I could give a review 5 stars this would be the one.Yes, I did make it though all the lectures, but they were pretty excruciating and, very rare for a Great Course, I don't believe that I came out of it knowing much more than when I went in.
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Great, But Challenging Course This review applies to the audio version of the course. I have the City of God in my library. It is over 1,000 pages long divided into 22 books. Given the vast scope of this work, these 24 lectures do a good job of hitting the highpoints of the text. The material is densely packed so the listener must listen carefully and work to unpack it. Listening worked better for me while driving rather than while working out or walking the dog. The course guidebook is particularly important for this course. You should read the relevant sections before and after listening to the corresponding lecture. Unfortunately, the guidebook does not contain a glossary of theological and philosophical terms of art, e.g. theurgy, so I had to Google unfamiliar words. The course moves quickly. As I was listening, I thought the lectures would be very challenging for anyone unfamiliar with the historical setting of late antiquity when the book was written, the philosophical thinking of that era, and Christian thought prior to Augustine. With those caveats, I recommend this course as a solid overview of one of the most influential texts in the Western tradition. The lectures reflect Augustine's sharp mind and close reasoning. Working through this course was well worth the effort because I saw for the first time the themes that underpin Augustine's thought. I will re-listen to the lectures very soon.
Date published: 2017-05-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Rhetoric overwhelms content I have often contemplated undertaking the reading of The City of God because of its reputation as one of those books every serious Christian should read. And I have always put it off because I was intimidated by its length and the complexity I assumed it represented. I hoped this course would offer me a chance to dip my toe into the book and approach it with a head start. It did not work out that way. The course left me frustrated, confused, and disappointed. Professor Mathewes was simply over my head. His convoluted and flowery sentences are hard to follow. I think he is trying too hard to be clever and erudite. He sounds like he is reading a paper to an audience of fellow scholars and that it is not intended to be understandable to laymen; it is composed in unintelligible rhetorical jargon. He makes it more difficult by using unfamiliar words like perduring, rhetor, antipode, and one that sounded like angential. I can’t find it in a dictionary, but from the context it sounds like it has to do with angels. Naturally he might reply, as William F. Buckley did to those who accused him of using unfamiliar words, “They’re not unfamiliar to me!” But this is a course for laymen, not English professors, and many people like me listen to it on the move where a dictionary is not handy. In one unintentionally humorous instance he used “horizontically” in contrast to vertically. I am sure it was a slip of the tongue, but it tends to confirm that he has a desire to make things longer and more complex than they need to be, turning a five syllable word into a non-existent six syllable one. By contrast Prof. Lloyd Kramer, in “European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century,” to cite one contrary example, dealt with complex topics but presented them in clear terms that are understandable to the type of people who buy Teaching Company courses. I get the impression Mathewes is just showing off. On page 13 of the course guide he writes: “Augustine [believed] that theology was accessible to all if the theologian took care to render his language intelligible to ordinary folk.” Unfortunately, Prof. Mathewes does not follow Augustine’s example. His language was often unintelligible to this ordinary person. I will close with a couple of comments on his summary lecture, number 24. In that he says we should view Augustine not just as words on a page but as a man (or words to that effect). I have no idea what that means. All we have of Augustine is his words on a page. We have no recollections from others, no recordings, no painting or sculpture he produced. That statement does nothing to further my understanding of Augustine and is illustrative of the emptiness of some of Prof. Mathewes’ commentary. Also in the last lecture, he emphasized how often Augustine is misunderstood. This did not particularly make me want to read him. If scholars cannot agree on what he was saying, he will probably be as confusing to me as Prof. Mathewes was. My critics may attribute it to laziness on my part, but life is too short to spend it reading things I am unlikely to understand.
Date published: 2017-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An effective guided tour of a great work Although I received a good liberal arts education and an advanced degree, I continue to want to extend my knowledge of great works of philosophy and religion. This course is a huge assist in that continued interest. The course introduces Augustine's magnum opus with historical context and position within the pantheon of philosophical thought. The lectures are arranged to facilitate parallel reading of Augustine's text. If Augustine's main problem was to account for the sacking of a Christian Rome, the course examines every aspect of Augustine's elaborate rhetorical development and leaves us with an appreciation of both Rome's political realities and the position of Christians in society then, and I think now, through Augustine's eyes.
Date published: 2017-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very engaging professor. A video with very Rich content that "begged" to be watched a second time.
Date published: 2017-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary Book! Must read for all! Now I am retired I am focusing on many of these well known books. I had been trying to read "The City of God" over the past three years. Professor Mathewes is masterful in his presentation of this great book. If I had the power I would require this course mandatory for all college freshman.
Date published: 2017-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Cover Art The request for this review came so soon after the arrival of the course, that I have only had the opportunity to look at the cover.
Date published: 2017-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Compelling and challenging This is an extremely sympathetic treatment of the book and its author, with a lot of ten dollar words frequently thrown in. Mathewes is extremely erudite, but also an incredible lecturer. You will want to slow down the audio on the audio version to around 70 percent (maybe even 60 percent) in order take in all that he's saying. His voice at this speed as utterly hypnotic and compelling. If you're not a believer, he will turn you into one, almost. If you are a member of the "erudite right", you will certainly find this course perfect. Personally, I am not, but I found the lectures pleasantly informative, if taken in small doses. Typically, I would listen to ten minutes a day; that was all I could handle. And it was not just because of the religious content. I knew there would be that. Rather, it's the rhetoric. Here is just one random sample, taken from lecture 23: "We should see the world as a good place for us. . . but in its current condition, deeply and ambiguously so -- a sacramental presence with a pre-eschatalogical apophatic absence held in tension." Okay. I would definitely recommend this course, but it is not for listening in the car on your way to and from work. It bears much closer concentration and a willingness to be open to points of view that may have passed as valid in the Middle Ages, but now seem rather odd, such as the existence of fallen angels and demons. Bear in mind that Augustine was a rhetorician, someone who knew how to use words to persuade. Mathewes is also very rhetorical in his delivery. Be open to what is said. It will not only challenge you, but help you to see the world through the eyes of an early Father of the Catholic church.
Date published: 2017-02-11
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