Reflections on De Doctrina Christiana

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Reflections on De Doctrina Christiana


This is a brief analysis of De doctrina I wrote in grad school.


If it is true that, as Aristotle said, rhetoric is a counterpart of dialectic and ethics, then there should be a relatively discernable point at which dialectic, ethics and rhetoric all converge. The overlap of dialectic with rhetoric, for instance, is exemplified by the fact that "Discovery" is sometimes a synonym for "Invention"–the prime canon of rhetoric, and discovery of truth is traditionally accepted as one of the ends of dialectical inquiry. There is a point at which the process of invention entails a sort of rhetorical dialectic. An intriguing relationship given the historically rigid, dichotomous treatments of dialectic and rhetoric. Saint Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana serves as a profitable study of that relationship because, in De doctrina, Augustine advances a Christian ethical standard, a practical logic (which focuses on the unique challenges of Christian hermeneutics) and a christianized version of eloquence. Does Augustine’s combination of those particular elements render De doctrina a rhetoric or is it rather a dialectic? If so, what type of rhetoric is it? Philosophical, practical, formulaic or a hybrid? A selective textual analysis will provide the necessary means for determining which, if any, of the three components is privileged in Augustine’s doctrine for Christian teachers. My paper will close with a more general meditation on the place of rhetoric in advancing matters of faith.


Augustine’s first book takes the shape of an axiology by virtue of his initial division of the subject matter into "things" and "signs." Axiology is the study of relationships between various goods, self, and those things surrounding self. Ethics, for example, is the study of the good implied in the relationships between self and other selves. Politics is the good in terms of power relationships, and so on. In Book One, Augustine clearly proceeds in an axiological fashion as he teaches the reader (and would-be teacher) how one ought to relate to things. In so doing, Augustine asserts that some things are to be used and some are to be enjoyed. More importantly, as Augustine explicates the right relationship between selves (both my self and other selves) he unfolds his ethical doctrine–the doctrine of charity–beginning in chapter XXII.

The doctrine of charity is Augustine’s ethical imperative, derived from scripture, that we are all obligated to love " . . . that which is equal to us and that which is above us." This twofold love constitutes an ethical standard because " . . . all other loves flow into it . . ." (23). Augustine’s elaboration of the way in which charity constitutes an ethical standard is perhaps the most profound statement in De doctrina.

He lives in justice and sanctity who is an unprejudiced assessor of the intrinsic value of things. He is a man who has an ordinate love: he neither loves what should not be loved nor fails to love what should be loved; he neither loves more what should be loved less, loves equally what should be loved less or more, nor loves less or more what should be loved equally (23).

But, in the final analysis, De doctrina is not authored as a profound book and Augustine swiftly moves to harness his profundity for practical purposes. Chapter XXXVI (page 30) begins a transition to Book Two which contains Augustine’s teaching on the interpretation of scripture.

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity … has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way (30).

There are two interesting points about the above passage: (1) In it, Augustine establishes a standard for correct hermeneutics, and (2) It demonstrates (in rare fashion) the borderland between ethics and dialectic. The ethical rule of charity is utilized as a standard for judging the accuracy of scriptural interpretation; a dialectical tool for discovering truth.

If Book One can be understood as Augustine’s ethical doctrine for Christian teachers, then Books Two and Three can be understood as a practical logic for Christian teachers; practical in the sense that, in it, Augustine develops just enough of the dialectician’s art for his readers to aid them in their hermeneutic capacity. As I mentioned above, Augustine divided his subject matter into a study of things and signs. Book Two begins with an examination of signs and quickly moves to the particular signs most important to the would-be teacher: words. Ambiguities are a major stumbling block to correct interpretation, of scripture so, naturally, Augustine focuses his analysis on techniques for clearing up ambiguities.

In chapters XXV-XL Augustine briefly reviews the "human institutions" (of secular education), validating those disciplines useful to the Christian exegete. Book Three is the amplification and direct application to scripture of the dialectical method Augustine developed in the previous book. He maintains the focus on biblical interpretation by providing a plethora of examples of his method from scripture. Book Four is Augustine’s treatment of eloquence. He begins with an internal summary and then a disclaimer:

I must thwart the expectation of those readers who think that I shall give the rules of rhetoric here which I learned and taught in the secular schools. And I admonish them not to expect such rules from me, not that they have no utility, but because, if they have any, it should be sought elsewhere if perhaps some good man has the opportunity to learn them. But he should not expect these rules from me, either in this work or in any other (118).

Here is Augustine’s version of the rather standard disclaimer we have noted so many times already this quarter. The way I perceive such reluctance to associate with the first principles of rhetoric is twofold: First, the principles of rhetoric (at least as conceived in the Roman tradition) are indeed elemental and mundane. While much in the way of rich teaching on rhetoric is available, the standard treatment–aimed as it was at schoolboys–is rather superficial. Second, is rhetoric’s perennial bugaboo; guilt by association. From earliest times rhetoric has been associated with all manner of bombast and sophistry; an unpleasantness that especially prompts Saint Augustine to dissociate himself with rhetoric. At least at first glance. The disclaimer must also be understood in the specific context of Augustine’s purpose: i.e., that he wishes to groom his sheep for their responsibilities as teachers–as opposed to tending a flock of declaimers! Again, at the risk of sounding redundant, Augustine makes eloquence serve his practical ends. Hence comments like: "[T]hose with acute and eager minds more readily learn eloquence by reading and hearing the eloquent than by following the rules of eloquence" (119). Augustine apparently did not find it in the best interest of his pupils to study the depths of any of the several potentially deep topics he treats in De doctrina. However, he does not avoid giving practical guidelines. In much the same way that he provided tools for discovering truth, Augustine now explicates a practical set of stylistic guidelines. For example, on page 123 we find Augustine’s doctrine of propriety. That is, "Just as there is a kind of eloquence for youth and another kind for age, that should not be called eloquence which is not appropriate to the person speaking." Of the plain style: "But in all their utterances they should first of all seek to speak so that they may be understood . . ." (133). And so on. Augustine explains the styles appropriate to teaching and why a given style is appropriate to a given teaching situation. Chapter XVIII is an interesting example of Augustine’s attempt to extract from Cicero useful guidelines for the Christian teacher. He utilizes the Ciceronian categories of forensic eloquence for his own purposes by contrasting the role (and appropriate style) of teachers to the role and style of lawyers. Much of Augustine’s concern with style can be reduced to exhortations to his reader to appropriately adapt to both the audience and the situation. Consider, for example, the following lines: "But no one should think that it is contrary to theory to mix these three manners; rather, speech should be varied with all types of style in so far as this may be done appropriately. For when one style is maintained too long, it loses the listener" (158). Augustine closes his treatment of eloquence by stressing the importance of audience-centeredness.


Using the sampling of passages above as evidence for surmising Augustine’s rhetorical agenda in De doctrina, we will now return to our earlier questions. We have observed what he did . . . now, what is it that he did? Is it a rhetoric, and, if so, what sort of rhetoric is it? It all depends. It all depends on how we define rhetoric, on the purposes of the author, and on how much latitude we are willing to allow in order to uphold our argument! As for me, I will attempt to view rhetoric through the eyes of Saint Augustine (for the time being,) grant his stated purposes and give him the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. After all, it is his treatise and I think he is clear enough about both his intentions and his choices regarding the degree of rhetoric he included in his treatise.

De doctrina is, in one sense, simply a textbook for students who plan to teach the scriptures–a seminary textbook on teaching the word. As Augustine makes clear from his thesis statement on, the work has two broad divisions: Discovering the truth and teaching the truth. Insofar as Augustine’s goal is to equip the student with only the necessities of their vocation, he avoids writing a detailed handbook for either section: The tools for discovery are few and the tools for teaching are fewer. Therefore, it would seem, Augustine’s treatments of dialectic and eloquence are purposefully sketchy, so as to avoid undue encumbrance. It is important to always bear in mind Augustine’s practicality. He refuses to over-equip his young pupils–they are his "light brigade." In another important sense, De doctrina is more than a simple textbook on teaching. No doubt due to his expertise in rhetoric, Augustine saw an opportunity to achieve his purposes in short order–He needed only to acquaint his troops with the rhetorician’s art, make a few generalizations from rhetoric to teaching, and they would be off and running the good race; fighting the good fight. However, the choice to utilize rhetoric was not entirely unproblematic. That is why, in De doctrina, we observe several instances of Augustine carefully attending to potential abuses of the art. Matters such as: "This is not a full-blown rhetoric"; "Yes, it is acceptable to glean from pagan authors, but, No, one must not expect to achieve blessedness by the study of pagan authors"; "Rhetoric has been used for ignoble ends–so beware"; etc. Each of these caveats is interesting and, given more time, one could speculate on Augustine’s perceptions about the power of rhetoric or the value of secular education, but such are not the questions at hand.

Keeping in mind both Augustine’s end (equipping Christian teachers) and the particular fashion in which he construes his means of achieving that end (an ethic + some dialectic + a bit of eloquence), one begins to identify a strong rhetorical undercurrent in De doctrina. Considering, as I am wont to do, the Aristotelian conception of rhetoric in its fullness (that it is a counterpart of both ethics and dialectic) I must conclude that De doctrina is a thoroughly rhetorical approach to equipping Christian exegetes. Augustine brings together enough ethics to establish a rule for hermeneutic purity, enough dialectic to aid in exegesis, and enough Roman eloquence to accomplish his practical aim. In other words, Augustine has pulled together a concise volume that covers the essentials of Invention and Style without overdosing his pupils on rhetorical theory. It is narrow, limited, practical and "sanctified" for Christian workers; but nonetheless discernable as a rhetoric. One final question requires our attention.


Can Christian teaching and preaching, with their emphasis on apodeictic proof, ever be regarded as rhetoric? Augustine writes that, when one is speaking to those who ought to do something but do not wish to do it, "then those great things should be spoken in the grand manner in a way appropriate to the persuasion of their minds" (145). Apparently he felt that persuasion concerning matters spiritual was a viable possibility. The question shifts then to whether or not Augustine was right to think so. I believe he was right. Of course the "proofs" of Christianity are demonstrative (apodeictic) but conversion is the domain of evangelism, not teaching. The distinction between the ministry of the evangelist and that of the teacher is critical to the question at hand. The end of teaching is growth or maturity. Thus "practical Christianity"–principles for individual growth and maturity, (many of which come veiled in ambiguity–parable, allegory, etc.)–is the stuff sermons are made of. Such arguments are not based on apodeictic proof, but on case reasoning, explications of moral dilemmas, contingencies and the like. Christian teachers exhort those who already believe to develop the habit of choosing well (which is maturity or, "sanctification" or "blessedness" or, to borrow Aristotle’s term against Augustine’s advice, "eudæmonia"). The domain of rhetoric, if I understand it at all, is especially the realm of promoting individual maturity (through situated arguments, validated by, but not solely based upon, apodeictic claims).

But, on the other hand, rhetoric should not be made a worship. Perhaps that is the spirit of the question. George Kennedy is correct when he asserts that conversion should be understood as an act of the Spirit, but I would prefer to view rhetoric as a tool in the hands of God. I think it not too impious to propose that, through the word and faith, rhetoric somehow helps effuse the conversion (the acceptance of apodeictic claims) of those whom God calls. Finally, in a more general sense, theological questions are multidimensional: they frequently hold together–in suspension–both categorical and contingent elements. Excepting the few tenets of orthodoxy, theological questions are treated as just that–questions. Scripture is, itself, open to interpretation except, of course, among rabid fundamentalists. But then, rhetoric has never exactly flourished on the desolate shores of the idiot fringe. The delicate nature of treating such complex questions underscores the wisdom with which Augustine composed De doctrina; he baptized his pupils without saturating them; A rare feat … even for a Saint!