Intensive Source Reading Seminar: Augustine's "The City of God"

Course Description: 

Augustine’s The City of God belongs to the most influential treatises in European history. In the West, it dominated medieval political thought over almost a millennium; yet, its influence reaches far into modernity. It remains constitutive for the self-interpretation of the Catholic Church, forms the background of Luther’s and Calvin’s considerations on the relation of church and secular government, inspired the enlightenment reflections on the state of nature, and even influenced political thinkers of the 20th century, such as Hannah Arendt.

The City of God originally reacted to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in the year 410, and the accusations against Christians resulting thereof. The apologetic character of the work is obvious in its first half. Yet, in the second half, the work turns into a general Christian theory about the situation of man in history and society, providing a magnificent narrative that extends from the creation of the world and original sin to Last Judgement and eternal afterlife. Augustine’s political and historical thought is based on a principle differentiation, which separates the visible sphere of profane history and empirical politics from the invisible sphere of sacred history. Thus, The City of God formulates a political theory for the post-imperial situation, which allows to evaluate sacred and secular order as separate spheres of human existence. This is a major formative step in the history of Western political thought. It constitutes a major difference to the dominant trends of political thought in Byzantium, where the imperial integration of sacred and secular order continued for many centuries.

While formulating groundbreaking principles of theology, cosmology, and anthropology, Augustine refutes diverging claims of his enemies inside and outside the Christian Church (Manicheanism, Donatism, Millenarianism, Pelagianism) and critically evaluates the achievements of pagan philosophy (Stoicism, Platonism) and Roman political thought. Thus, students will gain a broad perspective on the colourful religious and intellectual life of late antique society.

Students participating in the class will read and analyse the entire 22 books of the City of God, while receiving background information on historical, religious, and intellectual contexts, based on modern secondary literature.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will acquire knowledge about

  • the religious and political situation in the late Western Roman Empire
  • the political, philosophical, and theological foundations of the Latin West
  • Augustine’s impact on medieval and modern thought

Attendance at all lectures is mandatory. Students taking the class for grade must not miss more than two sessions. Students taking the class for audit must not miss more than three sessions.

The grade is composed of:

  • 25% class presentation of one section from The City of God
  • 25% class participation
  • 50% a commentary on one section of the text (3000 words).