Augustine: De Doctrina Christiana, Book 4

So I’ve officially finished reading the primary Augustine works that I was planning on reading. I’ve got a long list of texts added to it now – On The Trinity is his other big work, besides City of God, and some of the secondary readings have made On Free Choice of the Will sound awesome, as well as The Teacher, a dialogue between Augustine and his son, who died aged 18. Anyway, those are for later – there’s no rush. I’ve ordered my next set of books – I’ve got Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem on the way, as well as Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which is (notably) neither about video games nor theology. I’m also playing around with learning about architecture. See, this is the glory of a full-time job after uni – you can just keep learning all the things. Anyway: let’s knock De Doctrina out of here. There might be a couple more Augustine posts, depending on how the supplementary reading goes – but Hannah Arendt will be here very soon. 

So in Book 4 Augustine starts talking about communicating the knowledge gleaned from Scripture. The first three have all been about different sorts of understanding – understanding things, obscure signs, and ambiguous signs – and now this final one is about style and public speaking. Given that he’s talking about public speaking, Augustine immediately draws a distinction between wisdom and eloquence, emphasising that wisdom is better than eloquence, but eloquence helps grease the wheels. This is similar to his gesture in the Preface arguing that human learning supplements understanding of/from the Divine.

Augustine borrows Cicero’s definition of public speaking to argue that the three functions of oratory are to teach, to pleasure, and to persuade. The third one is the most important, because that’s how the orator makes people do good things. It seems kind of akin to bludgeoning people with your rhetoric to make them put the truth into action.

This is where things get interesting. Because Augustine’s putting pressure on rhetoric as a way of helping people see the truth and apply it to their own lives, he’s immediately got to back-track and reiterate his hierarchy – and that’s exactly what he does. So far as the Christian orator succeeds, we are told, “he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory” (IV.15). There’s this repeated theme throughout De Doctrina Christiana as to where power resides – in every case, Augustine seems to insist, the power itself resides with God. That’s why he goes on in the Preface about how human learning is important – because he’s beginning with the idea that all power belongs to and stems from God, and so he’s got to defend human institutions of knowledge as still valuable. After all, if all power belongs to and stems from God, then what’s the point in intellectual study? Why not just go straight to the source?

In the same way, when he sets up rhetorical eloquence as a way to persuade humans towards the truth, he’s then immediately got to go back and reaffirm his foundational concept – the Christian orator succeeds more by appealing to God than by skill at oratory. Having repeated that rule, Augustine then tries to argue that yes, human instruction and skill at oratory is still important, even though the true power resides with God. It’s a tricky argument, but it is necessary, especially as Augustine poses the question in Biblical terms. This isn’t just his problem, it’s an apparent contradiction within the Bible itself.

Basically, Jesus says in Matthew that when we get arrested for being Christian, we should just be chill about it: “you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (10:19-20). Contrast that against Paul’s letter to Titus, where Paul gives Titus his Apostle Tips. Augustine raises this problem explicitly: “Does the Apostle in any way contradict himself, when, though he says that men are made teachers by the operation of the Holy Spirit, he yet himself gives them directions how and what they should teach?” (IV.16). 

Augustine resolves the dilemma with reference to medicine. If somebody’s sick, it’s important to apply medicine, because that’s how the world works. However, Augustine argues, those medicines only help insofar as God empowers them to help – which is simply to say that medicine relies entirely on God for its nature, and therefore also for its healing power. God can heal without the medicine, but the medicine can’t heal without God – which is not to say that the medicine is useless (take note, Christian Scientists). On the contrary, God has supplied it as a remedy for that which ails us. In the same way, oratory is only useful because God makes oratory useful, and a skilled orator is only skillfully speaking truth with the power given to them by God.

Again, it’s just about where power resides – we can be ‘good’ at oratory, but that doesn’t mean we’ve generated some special ability to speak truth. We’re simply working with the tools we’ve been gifted. We need to learn how to use those tools, which is why you have to study (and why human institutions of knowledge are important), but when we learn things it’s not as if we’ve generated some special ability to learn, either. Our ability to learn is also a gift that stems from God and relies on Him for its nature. Our role in this whole affair, therefore, is learning how to act in accordance with God’s will. That means understanding the way He meant for the tools to be used, and then correctly using them in the way He intended for us to use them. So it’s still an important job, because if we don’t actually act, nothing happens – but at the same time none of the things that happen originate within us.

There’s a bunch of other stuff on different styles of speech and when to use them, but it veers into rhetorical advice, which is by and large pretty uninteresting. I think I’ve covered the most of what I wanted to say on the book – and so here we are, more or less at the end of Augustine! It’s definitely the last of the planned writing – anything that follows hereafter will be based on interesting things in the supplementary readings. I’m looking forward to Hannah Arendt!

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