St. Augustine – On Christian Doctrine – Books I & IV

Book I

  • From Book I, Chapter I Augustine claims that this work is in the service of creating a useful/accurate hermeneutic for the scriptures.  In chapter II the author highlights how this work will be also be concerned with semiotics – or the function of signs (though of course he wouldn’t use that language).  This points to the probable uptake of particular signs – a distinctly rhetorical consideration of the way words and language function; further, this also dispels some of the literal scriptural interpretation by understanding Biblical texts as metaphorical/allegorical.
  • We get two kinds of signs – those used and those enjoyed.  The use of signs, ultimately, should only be used toward the enjoyment of one thing: God.  (XXII – “Thus there is a profound question as to whether men should enjoy themselves, use themselves, or do both.  For it is commanded to use that we should love one another, but it is to be asked whether man is to be loved by man for his own sake or for the sake of something else. . . . But no one ought to enjoy himself either, if you observe the matter closely, because he should not love himself on account of himself but on account of Him who is to be enjoyed.” And again “When you enjoy a man in God, it is God rather than the man whom you enjoy – XXXIII)
  • Augustine seems to place a large emphasis on the rhetorical nature of words (XIII).  The broader point, though, is to ensure that the deployment of words is used toward the Good – in this case leading folks to God.  As such, we get a new articulation of the “Good man speaking well” from Quintilian; however, in this case, from where the “good” arises (from within or without?) isn’t an issue as it emanates from Him, God.  Another nod to this occurs in book IV (121) “wisdom without eloquence is of small benefit to sates; but eloquence without wisdom is often extremely injurious and profits no one”)
  • Through scripture and God Augustine weaves a very civic mission into his exigesis.  The two precepts on which he relies most heavily in Book I (“Love thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”) uses different language and a different approach (of sorts) to cultivate a civic care that is present in the works of rhetoricians like Isocrates.  What might be missing here is a love of the neighbor toward the good of the state as that ultimate good has been replaced with a love of God above all.
  • Augustine’s positions on deception in XXXVI are interesting – in this section he notes that there is a chance that interpretation of the scriptures could be inaccurate; however, if that deception leads to good ends (charity) then he shouldn’t be damned; rather, he should be corrected and brought to the accurate path (31).  So, what do we make of this?  Is this the same sort of thing that Cicero is arguing for in De Oratore when he notes that the ends (at least in some degree) justify the means (I think Quintilian advocates something similar here. . . it is just difficult to draw parallels between the Roman orators and Augustine because of the universal truth of God)?

Book IV

  • Interestingly, Augustine notes that Book IV is NOT about rhetoric; he states, “But first in these preliminary remarks I must thwart the expectation of those reader who think that I shall give the rules of rhetoric here which I learned and taught in secular schools” (118).
  • Augustine notes the importance of practice – reading, writing, and speaking – if one is to pick up the art of eloquence (as long as he learns it with an attention to piety and faith).  Put differently, eloquence MUST be accompanied by wisdom.
  • We get some pretty extensive hermeneutical work and stylistic discussion in the sections where Augustine analyzes the work of the Apostle in V-IX.
  • There is some specific advice for priests/speakers in this book (well, the whole book actually).  In one section Augustine urges speakers to consider their audience, “But where all are silent that one may be heard and all are intent upon him, it is neither customary nor proper that anyone inquire about what he does not understand.  For this reason the teacher should be especially careful to assist the silent learner.  However, an attentive crowd eager to comprehend usually shows by its motion whether it understands, and until it signifies comprehension the matter being discussed should be considered and expressed in a variety of ways” (134-5).  Advice for the priest/pedagogue.
  • We get some discussion of forensic rhetoric in XVII-XVIII.
  • The low, middle, and high styles (or for Augustine the subdued, moderate, and grand styles) are given a twist in this text.  For Augustine, the “subdued” style should be used for teaching, the moderate for praise or blame, and the grand for persuasion of a hostile audience (145).  This isn’t al there is to say about style.  Inside of particular speeches a use of multiple styles is important because it allows for rhetorical efficacy.  For example, Augustine states that, “Thus even in the grand style the beginning of the discourse should always, or almost always, be moderate.  And it is within the power of the speaker that he say some things in the subdued sytle which might be spoken in the grand style so that those things which are spoken in the grand style may seem more grand by comparison and be rendered more luminous as if by shadows” (XXIII, 159).
  • Augustine notes that style is important; however, the speaker’s ethos is actually the determining factor for whether he is “obediently heard” – this rhetorical concern outweighs style (XXVII, 166).


1.     In chapter XXV of Book I do we get an indictment of the ascetic Christians of the period?

2.     I don’t know how to ask this question, so I’ll just try.  What I find a little frustrating about Augustine’s text is the allegiance to wisdom via an inspiration by God.  If this is the case, then what do we do with the interpretive functions – the hermeneutics – that Augustine discusses in Book I.  In other words, how are we to ever discuss/talk about eloquence and wisdom when the interpretation is always inspired by God?  If wise eloquence is always the function of divine inspiration then what is the importance of exposure and education to eloquent and wise speakers (something that he – apparently – advocates in the beginning of Book IV).

3.     What do we make of the section in Book IV, Chapter XII when Augustine states, “But if they still do not know this, instruction should come before persuasion.  And perhaps when the necessary things are learned, they may be so moved by a knowledge of them that it is not necessary to move them further by greater powers of eloquence.  But when it is necessary, it is to be done, and it is necessary when they know what should be done but do not do it” (137).  Is Augustine arguing for a bit of persuasion accompanied with knowledge if the audience isn’t receptive to the point offered?

Leave a Reply