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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 31, 2016

On Christian Teaching


Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movement that have shaped rhetorical history. Big thanks to the University of Texas’ Humanities Media Project for supporting the podcast.


Today we get to talk about the saint who brought classical rhetoric into the realm of Christian homiletics. Augustine was a fourth century saint whose life in someways demonstrates the great sea-changes in the Mediterranean world of rhetoric, education and religion. His father was pagan, his mother was Christian and young Augustine describes himself as a bit of a genius hedonist in his Confessions. His teachers were supposedly terrible, but he mastered the standards of a Roman education—Virgil and Cicero. He eventually became a rhetoric teacher in Carthage, Rome and Milan. He taught rhetoric all told for somewhere between ten and fifteen years, before his eventual conversion to Christianity and vocation as a priest and the bishop of Hippo. He must have spent a lot of time pondering the question of how his previous career as one who taught other people how to persuade could be reconciled with his new religion’s emphasis on inspiration. If God will give the preacher exactly the words which he needs, either through scripture or through divine inspiration, is there any space for a Christian rhetoric? He started working on his definition of Christian rhetoric as early as the 390s, but On Christian Teaching wasn’t finished until 427, only three years before his death. Throughout those forty years, Augustine must have thought about the practical question of whether Christian preachers could be trained to give better sermons, much as he had spent more than a decade teaching young men in the principles secular rhetoric.


The first argument that Augustine has to make is that Christian teaching can be rhetorical. Rhetoric was seen as pagan and more than a little sneaky. Augustine argues that rhetoric may be used by Christians as a means of spoiling of Egypt to adorn the temples of Jerusalem (Green’s 64-7). The biblical allusion he’s making comes from the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt who took pagan gold with them to make their own religious items. Augustine’s metaphor implies that rhetoric, like the gold itself, is valuable, but it must be melted down and essentialized from its current pagan form. Augustine goes on to argue that Christians not only benefit from using rhetoric, but they avoid rhetoric at their own peril. Because “rhetoric is used to give conviction to both truth and falsehood” why should truth “stand unarmed in the fight against falsehood” (101)? So Augustine argues that rhetoric has both positive and defensive value, but as part of the melting down of the pagan gold idols, he recommends several key differences from classical rhetoric.


First, the similarities: there’s a lot that Augustine believes that the Christian can be taught about oratory, especially he classical idea of the three levels of speaking, high, middle and plain. He is very willing to steal the gold, also, of the three aims of the orator, to instrut, delight and move, which Augustine calls “to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure and with obedience” (87). Even the methods of instruction can be taken from the pagan rhetors. Imitation looms large, except more Paul, perhaps, and less Cicero. Augustine sees the bible as not just source material, but examplars. This is a very Classical way of teaching style. Augustine’s destinction between “things” (the content) and “signs” (the proclaimation of the content) is itself a very classical distinction. Augustine’s “Egyptian gold” seems to be of a very Platonic and Ciceronian ore, but he does melt it down to reform it into a more Christian shape through two important moves.



First, Augustine puts a heavy emphasis on the ethos of the speaker. Classical rhetoric, too, especially Cicero, who Augustine read, valued ethos, but for Augustine, the character of the preacher is important for practical as well as theological reasons. Augustine demands that the speaker live a good life and be in companionship with the inspiration of the Spirit of God. While Augustine admits that “A wise and eloquent speaker who lives a wicked life certainly educates many who are eager to learn, although he is useless to his own soul,” he believes that the speaker in front on an audience should, in the best case, be the best sort of man (142). The speaker who is a good person can teach through acts as well as through words. By living lives that were beyond reproach, the preachers who follow Augustine “benefit far more people if they practiced what they preached” (143). This follows Paul’s injunction to his own teacher-in-training, Timothy, when he says about bishops that they “must have a good report of them which are without” (1 Tim. 3:7). The people outside of the church as well as in, would be best to have a good example teaching them


            But for Augustine, it’s not enough just to live a moral life—pagan Stoics and Epicureans can similarly follow rules they have made for themselves. Augustine also says that the preacher needs to pray and receive the Holy Ghost’s instruction. The preacher needs to pray in preparation “praying for himself and for those he is about to address” (121). He needs the prayer in order to be able to be an instrument of the Spirit and the audience need the prayer so they can be receptive to the message. The preacher gets the truth of the subject as well as the delivery from the prayer. As a vessel fro the truth the preacher prays so he “can utter what he had drunk in and pour out what has filled him” (121). Augustine even goes as far as to say of the preacher that “he derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory” (121). The idea behind this is that eloquence can come as does inspiration to speak the right thing—from the inspiration of the Spirit.

Augustine even goes as far as to say of the preacher that “he derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory” (121).

This idea that the preacher can appeal to divine eloquence instead of considering the rhetorical situation has made several 20th century scholars frustrated with Augustine. Kenneth Burke complains in Rhetoric of Motives that Augustine seeks “cajoling of an audience [not] routing of opponents.” I don’t pretend to know every Burke means, but that seems like a bit of an unfair argument because Augustine spends most of his time describing homiletics, a genre that operates on the assumption that the speaker and the audience are already in agreement on most of the key principles, if not the application and degree. Once they’ve put on the stiff suit, or itchy nylons and are sitting on the hard-backed pews at an unreasonable hour of a Sunday morning, you’ve already won a large part of the battle. Your audience is probably less diametrically opposed to you than would be, say, the senate in a legislative speech or the jury in a judicial speech. Stanley Fish objects that that Augstine’s dependence on spirit depreciates the speaker, which is actually a very old argument against Christian homiletics. In the Renaissance, rhetoric was a scary idea in general and we’ll talk about Wayne Rebhorn’s books about rhetoric debates later, but the key thing is that Augustine along with his critics had to deal with how rhetoric fits into one of the key Christian paradoxes: that men are both “little lower than the angels” and also “less than the dust of the earth.” Fish is right that Augustine’s reliance on spirit depreciates the agency of the speaker, but he neglects that for Augustine the steps necessary to receive the spirit—obedience and prayer—are responsibilities of the speaker, as necessary to a Christian canon of rhetoric as invention and arrangement. And it’s not just a Christian rhetoric that Augustine is describing here: it’s a neo-Platonic one.

Plato’s influence is seen all over On Christian Doctrine. You might not remember from our episode on the Pheadrus, but Plato believed that eternal truths about, for example, beauty could be “remembered” in this world. What we are remembering are the glimpses of truth that we were able to see in a spirit world where we were able to control our rash desires. In other words, when we were obedient to our better selves. Augustine was a big fan of Plato, but as a rhetorician, he probably liked the pro-rhetoric Plato best. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine seeks a way to reconcile his neo-Platonist philosophy, Christianity and the idea that good preaching is a skill that can be teachable and improved. In the turn of the fourth century, Augustine witnessed both the 410 sack of Rome and the 430 Vandal invasion of Hippo, his own home. He lived right on the boundary between the end of the old, Roman Mediterranean world and the rise of the Christian European one. In all of the tumultuous change that was about to begin, Augustine recommended adaption, not revolution, as Christians reused the best rhetorical practices of the pagan world to build their new era.