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Level 6

6AACTL60 Conversion in the Ancient World

Credit value: 30
Module convenor/tutor: Professor William Fitzgerald
Teaching pattern: 20 x 2-hour seminars (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 3-hour examination (100%)

Assessment pattern for Graduate Diploma students

Assessment: 3 x 3,000-word essay (100%, essays worth 1/3 each)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand, there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

“Turning your life around” is a common modern expression, reflecting the tendency of modern biographies to speak of turning points, epiphanies or conversions which set lives on a new track. What are the origins of this idea? While it was Christianity that gave a decisive thrust to the idea that you can, and should, turn your life around, there are classical sources and analogues of the idea. This module will examine ancient ideas and representation of life-changes, ranging from falling in love to religious conversion. It will consider the various contexts—historical, philosophical and religious, in which the notion of conversion arises, and the various literary forms in which it is represented. Two important and influential narratives will be the focal point of the module, namely Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and St Augustine’s Confessions. We will end by studying some modern accounts and versions of conversion.

This module will examine the notion of a change of life, whether in amatory, philosophical or religious contexts, with special attention to the literary forms in which it is expressed. The focus will be Latin literature, but Greek literature will be considered two. The two main works studied will be Apuleius’ Golden Ass and St Augustine’s Confessions, both first-person accounts of religious conversion. We will consider the nature of a narrative of conversion and locate it in the context of other biographical or first-person literary works. Philosophical literature urging a change of life or understanding, and forms influenced by philosophy, such as satire, will also be examined. So also will the literature of love insofar as it represents love as an experience that changes the lover’s life. We will examine the difference and relation between ancient forms and contexts of conversion and the abundant modern discourse of conversion or change of life. 

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory.

  • Apuleius, The Golden Ass, tr. P.G.Walsh (Oxford 1994)
  • St. Augustine’s Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 2009)
  • Seneca, Selected Letters, tr. Elaine Fantham (Oxford 2010)
  • A.D.Nock, Conversion.
  • P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?
  • P. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercise from Socrates to Foucault.
  • M. Trapp, Philosophy in the Roman Empire (Ashgate 2007)
  • W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
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