Master Class: Augustine on Human Freedom and Divine Grace: What is Really Going on in the ‘Conversion Scene’ in Augustine’s Confessions?

Feb 17, 2017
Gavin House
1220 E 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
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This master class is open to graduate and undergraduate students, including non-University of Chicago students. Space is limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Copies of the readings will be made available online to all participants.

Although the part of Augustine’s Confessions that describes his conversion to Christianity is arguably the most famous passage in his influential corpus, scholars have long disagreed about how to understand this important section of Book 8.

I will argue that the hermeneutical key to the passage is knowledge of the philosophical psychology that Augustine assumes in the passage, which is a synthesis of Stoic and Platonic epistemological and motivational theory.  Augustine is claiming that his conversion was given to him by God – that is, that is was a grace – but also that grace operates on humans by altering their natural cognitive and conative powers, and that these powers were correctly described by Hellenistic philosophers. 

We will examine the passage from Confessions Book 8 in depth, bringing to bear the relevant philosophical context, and then draw further conclusions about his position on the relation of human freedom to divine grace.  On the topic of grace and freedom we will make comparisons with Augustine’s later works, as well as with the Reformation-era debate about grace and freedom, alluding to authors such as Molina, Bañez, and Jansen.

Primary Readings:

Augustine, Confessions Books 6 and 8.  Please bring this text with you to the seminar.

Additional handouts of shorter texts from Hellenistic philosophy and from Augustine’s later corpus may be provided to read through during the seminar.

Optional Secondary Readings:

Sarah Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine (Cambridge: 2013).

Prof. Byers will give a lecture on Augustine's Debt to Aristotle on Thursday, February 16.