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Friday, April 1, 2011

The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric

Surely one of the strongest of the historical categories that are employed, often with apologies, to organize a vision of the past is the opposition of the classical age to the medieval. While each interpenetrates the other with anticipations, vestiges, and continuities many of which are familiar, the moment of rupture retains a certain mystery. It is the purpose of this study to focus on the transmission of one important element of classical culture, the theory of rhetoric. St. Augustine, a pivotal figure in any account of European culture, set forth his ideas about rhetoric in a form at once undeniably derivative and definitely innovative. Since Augustine lived in a milieu only partially Christian, since he was educated along traditional classical lines and relished Latin drama, poetry, and oratory in his youth and yet developed into a bishop and one of the most important fathers of the church, his work is well-suited for a study of the processes by which the ancient world's culture became transformed into the medieval.

An examination of the reworking of Ciceronian rhetorical theory in Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana will specify the mode of appropriation of classical learning that Augustine practiced and which was to be decisively influential in the educational institutions of Europe for the next thousand years and beyond. Augustine by no means simply passed on the pagan precepts on eloquence as he had learned them. He correctly saw that, however technical, rhetorical teaching did not provide value-free aids that could equally serve any ideology. Nor, on the other hand, did he reject them altogether or simply overlay them with Christian coloring to make them acceptable. Rather he truly renewed and recast the concepts he had learned in his youth to make a genuinely Christian discipline.

Most typically, the process involves maintaining the Ciceronian categories while altering the value judgments associated with certain of them. While his changes are for the most part explicable in terms of the requirements of a Christian philosophical position, they also imply highly significant shifts in literary practice and criticism, and initiated trends in the writing and reading of literature that were to challenge and, in some instances, to supplant the older practices. Augustine's approach of “redeeming” the classics rather than writing them off as hopelessly corrupt must have been the result of a deliberate and difficult decision. An alternative reaction was readily available. Such writers as Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen exemplify the unqualified rejection of non-Christian culture that contended with an attitude like Augustine’s in the early days of the church. [1]

Augustine's creative restoration of vitality to a system that had been regarded as decayed into a pitiable senility long before his own time did not come about without conflict and contradiction. Every reader of the Confessions is familiar with the young man's saturation in linguistic and rhetorical studies. His love of Latin literature led him to identify with the emotions of fictive characters almost to the exclusion of his own feelings. [2] His attachments to drama, philosophy, and oratory were no less deep. Indeed, for the young Augustine the Bible deserved condemnation on the grounds of style alone. [3] Even his devotion to absolute values which began the quest that was to be fulfilled in his conversion arose from his study of Cicero's Hortensius. [4] Whereas he had previously devoured “libros eloquentiae” with an eye to his own future eminence and thus became as ventosus (“puffed-up”) in pride as the language of the most Asiatic of stylists. [5]

When he happened on Cicero’s work, though, he changed the motives and the focus of his study, declaring that he turned then to God, though conscious of loving only philosophy. He says quite pointedly (and with a fine sense of antithesis) that Cicero is commonly loved for his tongue and not for his heart, while he himself was interested in content only, and not at all in language at this point. [6] Having earlier thought he loved Hierius whom he had never met due to his reputation for eloquence, [7] he is later indoctrinated in the details of Christianity by Ambrose whose method is equally “literary” and who corrected his original notion about the poverty of style in the Bible by explaining how to interpret the Old Testament figuratively. [8] He continues in his later writings to make copious reference to classical texts and ideas, [9] and, moreover, his own style continues to make use of the technical repertory of devices fostered in him by his training. [10]

The tension between classical and Christian culture that defines much of the movement of Augustine's life is part of the very structure of De Doctrina Christiana. While the first three books are basically concerned with setting forth a system for reading the Bible with understanding, [11] the fourth assumes the task of constructing a Christian rhetoric so that the truths available by the methods of the previous books may be effectively communicated to others. It was clearly a difficult piece of work for Augustine — he wrote the first three books about thirty years before adding the fourth — and he clearly marks it off from the rest with a separate introduction. Having repented of his early preference of Cicero to the Bible, he finally was able to face the grounds for that taste and to attempt to lend sufficient “dignitas” to the Christian style that others may not be similarly misled. The book is explicitly modeled after the teaching of Cicero whom he “saves” for posterity by correcting. [12]

One of the central organizing principles of classical rhetoric as set forth in Cicero is the concept of the three styles or levels of discourse. [13] For Cicero the use of the three is dictated by considerations of propriety and indeed all three are not merely admissible for different occasions, [14] but all may be used in a single speech. [15] For Cicero, though, propriety is not the sole index of value, and there is unquestionably a hierarchy of worth associated with the three levels. The genus submissum is good but not great, [16] while the genus sublime is princeps. The ideal orator can use any level he likes, while a mediocre speaker may master the low and medium style but will be unable to attain the high. [17] The middle style is described by Cicero as temperate, and moderate, [18] as one would expect, but it also includes the genos antheeron which is brilliant, florid, and polished. [19] He identifies Gorgias, Thrasymachus, and Theodorus as practitioners of the middle style and regards epideixis [20] as its method. Its end is to charm [21] while the low style is good for teaching [22] and the high for oratory proper.

Part of the reason for his relegation of extreme stylists to the middle level is that the moral foundation of his thinking would not permit him to equate a sensational verbal texture with the expression of serious content. [23] He stigmatizes those Asiaticos who are servientes numero and thinks of their goals (placare, delectare) as inferior to the true orator’s (persuadere, perturbare). It is only a lesser speaker for Cicero who will consider a statement that is elegant alone worth saying rather than one which is true or likely as well as comely. Still, the nobility of the high style was not wholly dependent on logical development and ambitious content, as the mention of perturbare along with persuadere indicated. The high style is acer and ardens as well as gravis [24], suggesting the necessity for all three elements: truth, a serious topic, and manipulation of emotion by artificial literary devices.

Augustine begins rather similarly, finding a place for all three levels in his system, but the function he assigns to each and the valorization do not correspond to Cicero. The low Biblical style was his original reason for dismissing Christianity; in retrospect he called himself “puffed-up.” Having learned to find things of value in what seems at first humble and mean in the stories of the Old Testament, he applies the same viewpoint to the data of experience and realizes that everything has multiple meanings, being susceptible to allegory, anagogy, and ethics, as well as to literal understanding. Thus nothing is really trivial. [25] There can be no distinction of levels on the basis of content since explicit content does not exhaust real content.

The fundamental principle for Augustinian division is, however, based in Cicero, in the specific functions associated with each level. He agrees with Cicero that the low style is best for teaching where clarity is most required, but for Augustine teaching is not a preparation for acting a citizen's part in society, but a means of aiding the soul on its way to salvation. The middle style he associates with epideixis as Cicero had done, but for Augustine the laudes and vituperationes were meant to move the listener not to awe and appreciation alone, but to right action.

Fond as he was of fine language and yet constrained from celebrating it for its own sake, he was able to characterize the middle style as “temperate” in the moral as well as the technical sense. The high style troubled Augustine, and he accepts Cicero's definition of its goal as persuasion -- only for Cicero this was a matter of forcibly presenting a moving, convincing case while for Augustine it is a special resource to bring to bear on recalcitrant souls obdurate to any other/appeal. [26] He agrees with Cicero that all levels may be mixed, [27] and he ridicules those who care only to elaborate their style to absurd extremes. [28]

The most important distinctive elements of Augustine's rhetoric are the institution of truth-value as the primary criterion of worth, the denial of any inherent hierarchy in levels of discourse, and the readiness to interpret actively to construct the meaning of the text rather than accepting its apparent meaning. Brief treatment of a second point of comparison will reinforce these ideas. Cicero expounded the traditional threefold officia oratoris. To teach, to delight, and to convince seem for him to be strictly parallel in theory, [29] though in practice they tend toward an ascending series just as the three levels did. Thus the function docere is associated with the preliminary groundwork of the narratio [30], and delectare is useful mainly inasmuch as it facilitates persuadere. For Cicero the whole complex is valued as the quintessential human activity, marking off man from beast and making civilization possible. [31] The pleasure derived from listening to skillful speech is neither questioned nor is it given absolute value.

For Augustine the problem was different. Given the Bible as the only source of truth [32] and the godhead as the only object one may properly enjoy, [33] there is a clear role for teaching and even for persuading (for hardened cases), but enjoyment is suspect indeed. The first time Augustine mentions the officia oratoris, he suppresses pleasure. [34] Later he includes it in the same sort of defensive role allowed persuasion, to aid in the ministry toward souls who must be seduced to listen to appeals that are really in their own interest. But while the image of eating that succeeds this discussion seems to concede some amusement as acceptable for mortal men, the image of the gold and wooden keys returns the priorities squarely to truth-value again so that the beauty of words is almost like a Platonic myth which cunningly uses deceit to lead people to good paths they would not select alone. Thus, though “sober ears” should be universal, there is a godly as well as a diabolical use for beauty.

The Ciceronian orator is moral and philosophical, the finest representative of humanity and his facility in deploying the skills of the rhetorician is properly something of which he is proud. For Augustine the implied goal is invariably to turn others to God, and for that the most useful “office” is to teach. An examination of the pictures
of the ideal orator sketched by both writers will complete the distinction I have been developing between them.
The character of the ideal orator as defined by Cicero is a lofty one. The marvelous picture in De Oratore (I, 8, 30) suggests that oratory is quite simply the most excellent thing and discusses language as the precondition for social intercourse, for binding men to each other, and allowing each to assume the challenge of the responsibility for action. This is a much more radical claim than the familiar one that rhetoric prospers in democracies and suffers under autocracies. Cicero’s claim is nothing less than that language is what makes man possible. The rarity of the great orator in Cicero is not just a matter of the fact that advanced expertise requires mastering so many difficult fields of study. Rather it seems a use of the decay of learning topos to symbolically emphasize the virtually unreachable grandeur of Cicero's ideal.

He frequently points out that the complete realization of the ideal does not exist, [38] but it is clearly a humanistic goal nonetheless. The rhetorician lays claim on realms of eternal value for Cicero because he is at once the highest sort of man (the most knowledgeable, the most artful, the most powerful), the source and protector of civilization (as a legislative and judicial functionary), and, in the capping argument, the orator has a special claim on the moral area of philosophy. [39] Cicero says, in fact, that this realm of judgment in the affairs of men, embracing both politics and ethics, is the only arena in which the orator may achieve real greatness. His preeminence in skills is a matter of degree (he must learn more than other people) except for this sole (but uniquely significant) qualitative distinction. His discipline is finest since it deals in values, and this is perhaps as close to a vision of the transcendence as Cicero can come.

The vocabulary that he uses to celebrate the high or sublime order of diction suggests that its place at the summit of his evaluative scheme relies on just that association with “the greatest of matters”: words like grandiloquent, [40] copiosus, amplus, and gravis [41] surely refer to the significant quality of the topics being discussed rather than to greater length or any specific stylistic features.

Far from entertaining such a glorified notion of the vocation of the orator, Augustine begins his treatise quite apologetically, with a defensive tone defining a defensive rhetoric. He justifies Book IV at its outset as a rhetoric that can protect against rhetoric, while still maintaining that he will not instruct in rhetoric per se, since it is not truth-oriented, but can equally serve truth and falsehood. He speaks in a condescending tone about the subject, commenting that anyone may rapidly learn the principles of the art, but he should not bother if he has any less trivial occupation. [42] At another point Augustine seems almost embarrassed by his professional ability to explicate rhetorical figures, [43] and he again defines his motive as wholly defensive.

God, of course, for Augustine replaces those social or moral ideals which informed Cicero's value system, but for Augustine God has a transfiguring effect on the rest of creation, for there can be no small matters to the man who views every earthly thing with reference to divinity and judgment. With the displacement of authority from the wise orator to the Bible, the speaker's role may seem to be demeaned since he is not himself originating truth. However, for Augustine the service of the most high is precisely what allows the speaker to attain true greatness rather than simply social approval. [44]

The model for this notion is the Biblical text which seems for the most part to use a low style, but which contains the most sacred revelations. Similarly the preacher may or may not appear to be a grand orator, but if he gain any success in his calling he will participate in a greatness of which Cicero had no idea. Thus, while the Christian orator may appear to fall below the standards set by others, in reality he rises above them.

The vocabulary I have used in reporting Augustine's ideas seems so specifically theistic that one should take care to recall that the moral absolute is implied as the ground of greatness in Cicero and that moral qualities have been regarded as an important element in the orator's training by writers such as Isocrates (though he is theoretically coy about this) and, most notably, Plato, whose language is often quite close to Augustine's and whose view of the absolute approaches the theistic. What is more novel in Augustine’s point of view is largely stylistic, though it has moral analogues. The celebration of the low style is a striking departure from classical standards and parallels Christianity's advocacy of virtues with the same names as the styles humilitas. the quality of being submissus. As a literary idea it has perhaps its fullest fruiting in practice with the realistic novel of the nineteenth century. [46] In a writer like Balzac, themes of the gravest nature were addressed with language and characters that strove to resemble the everyday. This would have been unthinkable to the ancients who, while they were willing to concede genre effects and satire to realism could not conceive of its supporting the greatest types of literature. [47]

The effects of Augustine's theory were no less revolutionary in terms of criticism. His hermeneutic method underlies most modern critical endeavors with their acceptance of multiple meanings and the willingness to infer apparently unlikely semantic implications in details of description or correspondences between texts. This, too/ had played little part in criticism before Augustine, but the ingenious medieval commentaries on Scripture that had seemed to some fantastically overwrought have been outdone by ever more aggressive uses of the text in recent criticism.
In accepting Cicero's categories and terminology but rejecting his value judgments associated with them, Augustine marked a radical philosophic discontinuity, but also defined new possibilities for literature the consequences of which have been far-reaching. Even without accepting Augustine as “godfather” to Flaubert and Balzac, say, it would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of his transformation of classical rhetoric. It was the single most important factor in assuring the role of the church as caretaker and, what is more, renewer of learning.

Without the implied imprimitur from Augustine it is questionable whether Priscian, Donatus, the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, and the Rhetorica ad Herennium could have exercised the hegemony they did over medieval writers, critics, and educators. The very fact that works such as the De Rhetorica quae Supersunt [48] were attached to his name is testimony to his authority in questions of pedagogy and a correct approach to language. Furthermore, the style and ideas of his authentic works had prodigious progeny: Cassiodorus, Rabanus Maurus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Hugh of St. Victor, and Peter Lombard are among those who refer directly to his rhetorical teachings, while his influence is implicit in nearly every treatise on poetics, rhetoric, education, and the arts of letter-writing and preaching throughout the Middle Ages. [49] In terms of curriculum and the eventual institution of universities with their emphasis, persisting virtually until this century, on Classical studies, Augustine is perhaps the most significant single figure in the history of education in Europe.



1. Another instructive example is Jerome whose great service in translating Scripture was possible due to a level of scholarship that made him liable to constant guilt and misgivings about his attachment to the charms of pagan authors.

2. Augustine, Confessions, edited by William Watts (London: Heinemann, 1912), Bk. I, Ch. 13.

3. Confessions, III, 5.

4. Confessions, III, 4.

5. See Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) entry under ventosus for a series of examples of its usage as applied to both language and character.

6. Confessions, III, 4.

7. Confessions, IV, 14.

8. Confessions, V, 14.

9. Harald Hagendahl, Augustine and the Latin Classics (Goteborg: University Press, 1967) provides encyclopedic evidence for Augustine’s classical learning and his constant reference to classical authors in his work.

10. Sister Inviolata Barry, St. Augustine, the Orator (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1924) exhaustively documents Augustine's use of rhetorical figures in his Sermones ad Populum.

11. It is well here to bear in mind the etymology of the word “doctrine.”

12. Confessions, III, 5.

13. Auerbach's Mimesis (Princeton, 1953) views European literature as a whole as a working out of the problematic posed by the system of the three levels.

14. Cicero, De Oratore, translated by E. Sutton and H. Rackham (London: Heinemann, 1979), Book III, 55, 212.

15. De Oratore, III, 45, 177.

16. Cicero, Orator, edited by H.M. Hubbell (London: Heinemann, 1942), 28, 98-99. It is this conventional limitation, of course, that initially made Augustine discount the Bible.

17. Orator, 29, 101.

18. Orator, 28, 98.

19. Orator, 27, 96.

20. Orator, 12, 38

21. Orator, 26, 91

22. Orator, 29, 102. Cicero uses his own Pro Caecina as an example of a "teaching" text in the low style.

23. Orator, 19, 65. The phrases quoted immediately following are also from this passage.

24. Orator, 28, 99.

25. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill Co., 1976), p. 143.

26. Doctrine, p. 145.

27. Doctrine, p. 158.

28. Doctrine, p. 138-9. He surely has the excesses of specific contemporary speakers in mind here.

29. De Oratore, II, 27, 115; II 28, 121; and II 77, 310 are among the places where the three are enumerated as apparent equals.

30. De Oratore, I, 53. 229; II, 27, 115.

31. De Oratore, I, 8, 33.

32. Doctrine, p. 122.

33. Doctrine, p. 10.

34. Doctrine, p. 121.

35. Doctrine, p. 135.

36. Doctrine, p, 130.

37. One might think here of the unabashed pride Cicero takes in his own powers. The boasting that had been sanctioned for the hero of the heroic age is here turned toward intellectual accomplishments.

38. De Oratore, I, 18, 78-81 and Orator 2, 7-8, 29, 101.

39. De Oratore, I, 15, 67-69.

40. Orator, 5. 20.

41. Orator, 28, 97.

42. Doctrine, p. 119.

43. Doctrine, p. 128.

44. Doctrine (p. 143) insists that the reaction of one's audience is irrelevant to the evaluation of the orator. The same contempt for the opinion of the crowd is evident in Plato's Phaedrus.

45. Doctrine, p. 123.

46. Compare the “trivial” status of classical mimes and romances.

47. It surely could not support epic or tragedy in the old sense. For a theoretician of this point of view see pseudo-Longinus’ (On the Sublime).

48. See J. Miller, M. Prosser, T. Benson, Readings in Medieval Rhetoric (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, l973), p. 6 for the fraudulent character of the attribution.

49. Further information on the influence of Augustine’s rhetorical teachings is available in Doctrine, p. xii, in Therese Sullivan, Doctrina Christiana, Liber Quartus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1930), p. 41, and throughout Eugene Kevane's Augustine the Educator (Westminster [Maryland]: The Newman Press, 1964).

50. The fact that “rhetoric” is still taught as the basis of a liberal arts education (though the liberal arts themselves have precipitately declined) and that literature is still the primary object of its study are evidence for the continuing vitality of this tradition.

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