Great Courses: Augustine: Philosopher And Saint, taught by Professor Phillip Cary
I greatly enjoyed this course, largely because I have found Augustine to be a fascinating person in my own reading and thinking . This instructor is certainly fond of Augustine and has a lot of praise to give him, but to his credit he is also someone who wishes to be honest about Augustine’s flaws when it comes to being able to properly understand and conceptualize the workings of God in history as well as pointing out how Augustine was influential in smuggling Neoplatonism and Hellenism in general into the early Roman Catholic Church of his time. The staggering intellectual creativity of Augustine, though, means that even those of us who are critical of the relationship of Athens and Jerusalem are influenced by his writing and thinking because of the way that his view has influenced our own, even in spite of what we may prefer. I come from a religious tradition that views Augustine rather dimly, and I still find myself as a philosophical and intellectual person still engaged in a conversation over aspects of the Augustinian perspective that are worth appreciating even despite this.
This course is thankfully a short one, twelve lectures that take up six relatively short hours. The first two lectures take up the complex way in which Augustine served as both a church father whose writings were often meant to support the doctrines of the Catholic church of late antiquity as well as a Christian Platonist whose religious path included time spent as a Manichean. After this comes three lectures on the Confessions which include a discussion on the search for wisdom, the love and tears of Augustine’s mother, and the road home to the Hellenistic faith of his youth. The sixth lecture discusses Augustine’s career as a Christian writer involved in a great deal of polemical disputes with the Donatist schismatics as well as Pelagius. After this the professor examines Augustine’s views on faith, love and grace, some of his darker beliefs in evil, free will, original sin, and predestination, his thoughts about signs and sacraments, and closes with three lectures on Augustine’s view of the inner self, the Trinity and the soul, and the City of God and its view of community. The professor is clearly fond of Augustine but also is honest about what he sees as the flaws of Augustine’s thinking and conceptions.
This book is about as fair-minded a look on Augustine as one would expect to find from a Christian humanist perspective. Admittedly, my own perspective is more critical largely because I view Platonism as a less viable and worthwhile worldview than the professor does and certainly than Augustine did. Even so, as someone whose writing and thinking deeply involves the inner self and who is inclined to wrestle with questions of philosophy and the borders between Christian doctrine and intellectual research and reflection, I find that at least some debt of honor and respect must be paid to Augustine even if our religious beliefs are different that we probably would have written hostile books about each other had we lived at the same time of history. If you want to know more about Augustine and about why he is such an important figure in the Middle Ages and to this day, this course certainly does a good job at explaining and expressing his worldview and demonstrating his pivotal role as a bridge between the world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The book made me want to read more writing by Augustine himself, and that is certainly a sign that this course was well done, even if it was not perfect.
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