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Augustine and the Sacred Orator

“It is necessary, therefore, that the sacred orator, when urging that something be done, should not only teach in order to instruct, and please in order to hold, but also move in order to win” (467).

For Augustine, the ideal rhetor is comprised of this notion of the “sacred orator,” the speaker who speaks the word of God[1] to the masses in order for them to understand His divine imperative, be persuaded of its rightness, and then act in accordance with those measures. Because of the difference in motivation to speak, Augustine perceives rhetoric in a different way than rhetorical theorists before him. Despite these difference, he grounds his work within the existing canon of Greek and Roman writers, though adapts their methods to be more suitable to his purpose of disseminating the tenants of Christianity. The “three styles” method can be seen in the Rhetorica ad Herennium as well as in Cicero, and the idealized orator has correlates in both Cicero and Quintilian. For Austine, though, these considerations take on a particular and distinctly Christian motivation as they are specifically applied to the proliferation of Christian doctrines and institutions.

For Augustine, teaching is of primary importance in his use of oratory. Of the three reasons to speak, instruction is first, and in some cases this instruction alone might suffice to persuade others to act in accordance with Christian doctrine. Because teaching is so central to Augustine’s work, clarity in style becomes important as well, “for what is the good of correctness of speech if the understanding of the hearer does not follow it, since there is absolutely no reason for speaking if they for whose instruction we speak are not instructed by our speaking?” (465). Eloquence in teaching, then, arises when “what was obscure becomes clear” (465). For this type of oratory, Augustine recommends a plain style, one that is clear and easy to understand, and undertaken in a calm and subdued manner. This relates to Cicero’s first method of eloquence, whereby matters of lesser importance were discussed. However, in Augustine’s view, nothing that is “unimportant” in the oratory of the ecclesiastic, as they are always dealing with matters of great significance, centering upon man’s temporal and eternal welfare (470). Because of the weighty nature of ecclesiastical discourse, the subdued style, then, is reserved for instances where the motivation is to teach or instruct.

This first style of oratory can also be viewed as reliant upon the ethos of the speaker as having the ability or authority to instruct. It is interesting to note that Augustine’s view of ethos is that while it is not strictly necessary to wholly live by the ideals one teaches, it makes one much more persuasive if one does adhere to those ways of living. He admits that though “they do good to many by preaching even what they do not live up to; but far more would they do good to by practicing what they preached” (483). As with Quintillian who highly valued both pedagogy and ethos, Augustine places an important focus upon both of these aspects of oratory, that of the ethical teacher who speaks from a place of sincere authority, where words and actions are in congruence. He cautions that, when dealing with an audience, “they do not follow one who does not follow his own preaching, and they condemn the word of God which is preached to them, along with the preacher himself” (483). Thus, for the sacred orator, practicing what one preaches becomes a primary concern, as it increases not only the ethos of the speaker, but of the word of God and the Church itself.

In alignment with Cicero‘s second means of eloquence, that of the moderate style for issues of greater importance, Augustine adapts this methodology in ecclesiastic oratory to expound upon that which is in need of persuasion, where multiple interpretations are possible. This moderate style is to be employed when there are questions or disputes about the meaning of a text, in which Augustine recommends engaging since “it is a very good thing to answer whatever objection can be raised, as it occurs, for fear lest it occur at a time when there will be no one to answer it, or lest it occur to someone present indeed, but silent, and he go away unhelped” (472). Thus, this moderate style can be used to persuade an audience about the veracity of one’s claims regarding the meaning of scripture, and though it is not as subdued as the style used to teach, it is not as intense as the “grand style” used to call forth action for those thus persuaded.

This second style of oratory can also be linked to the concept of logos, wherein logic is applied in order to persuade others that one’s view is correct. Devices such as those outlined by Aristotle are also employed, including stylistic adornments, metaphor, and enthymemes in order to connect with and sway an audience by appealing to a logic that is socially constructed and internalized. Additionally, this style should also be pleasing to hear, and pleasing to the mind, which is in accordance with the ways of delivering a speech discussed by Aristotle, wherein the rhetor utilizes these techniques in order to sway an audience to the underlying logos that is at the speech’s heart.

The third style of Augustine’s oratory relies upon grand speech styles that are intended to move an audience to action. It differs from the other two approaches to speaking in “that it is not so much adorned by ornate expression, as rendered passionate by the heart’s emotions” (474). Rather than relying upon logic or the authority of the speaker to instruct, this form of oratory is “governed by the ardor of the heart” (474). This method of speaking, based upon the concept of pathos, is imperative for moving those who might know the truth, or who have been persuaded about the veracity of the speaker’s version of the truth, but who do not act in accordance with it. The effectiveness of the grand style and its appeal to the emotions of the audience is apparent to Augustine in that “it was not when I heard their applause, but when I saw their tears, that I felt I had gained something. For by their applause they showed that they understood and were pleased, but that they were won, they made evident by their tears” (480). For Augustine, then, the ethos of the speaker and the logos of the speech are not enough to enact change or action from an audience, “for truly to bend stubbornness… the grand style is necessary” (480). It is through emotions that people are moved to act, thus it is important to utilize this grand style in order to manifest the word of God within the world as concrete actions, rather than as immaterial values, ideas, or thought forms.

The connection of the three styles of oratory are integral for the sacred orator in order to maximize his potential to create change in the world in accordance with God’s laws.  It is through the synthesis and appropriate application of these three methods that the sacred orator achieves the greatest success of persuasion, and “no one should suppose that it is against the rule to mingle these three styles. On the contrary, as far as it can properly be done, one should vary his diction by using all three” (478). All three of these methods work together to persuade an audience, though Augustine grounds them all in the ethos of the speaker:

Such a teacher, to render himself persuasive, may without presumption express himself not only in the subdued and in the moderate style, but also in the grand style, because his life is beyond reproach… Even in his very speech he should prefer to please through his matter rather than through his words, and he should consider that a thing is not well said unless it be truthfully said; nor should the teacher serve words, but words, the teacher. (483)

In this way, Augustine outlines clear priorities for the sacred orator, including the underlying ethical motivation for his speech, i.e. to instruct and motivate an audience to live in accordance with God’s laws as decreed by the Church.

For Augustine, much like Plato, the ideal of wisdom is more important than eloquence. However, wisdom combined with eloquence has the greatest capacity to spread and enact the word of God (458-9). The Bible is upheld as the perfect intersection of these ideals, the site where “nothing can have more wisdom or even more eloquence” (459). Augustine cautions that “if a person cannot do both, let him speak with wisdom, even though he cannot with eloquence, rather than with eloquence without wisdom” (484). For those who do not have their own talent or wisdom, he advises them to “take what has been eloquently and wisely written by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it before the people, [and that] if they assume this character, they do no wrong” (484). The ideal of wisdom and “truth” is more important than eloquence itself, for to persuade others to evil ways (as defined by the church) is itself an evil undertaking. It is better, in Augustine’s view, to stick with the wisdom set down by others and to rely upon their eloquence than to erroneously interpret material or to deliver it ineloquently in one’s own style. Instead, he advises rote memorization of that which is already deemed both eloquent and wise, if not particularly original.[2]

Augustine’s rhetorical examination of the Bible as a persuasive argument for the veracity of the “word of God” demonstrates the ways in which the rhetorical principles of the Greeks and Romans might be appropriated for use in Christian discourse. This examination has both theoretical and practical implications for those disseminating Church doctrine, as well as for the student of rhetoric seeking to understand the ways in which these rhetorical means were put to use in the ecclesiastical context.  In addition, Augustine legitimizes the study of classic rhetoric as a means to understand that which is persuasive and why it is so, as well as to adapt those tactics as rhetorical strategies for deployment of Church doctrine. By adapting the works of Greek and Roman rhetoricians to the historical context of the Medieval Church, Augustine simultaneously innovates and embeds his methodology within the larger classical canon.


[1] “God” is used in this sense to designate the Judeo/Christian conception of a monotheistic deity, generally assumed to be Jehovah, as the God to whom they refer in their sacred texts. In the context of the Medieval ecclesiastic, this was not an ambiguous or problematic signifier, thus for the sake of this writing, “God” will refer to a concept consistent with that view.

[2] This seems in congruence with the sentiments of the time, as it was not until the Renaissance that the individual as the originator of thought and knowledge was a widely accepted world view.

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One comment on “Augustine and the Sacred Orator

  1. I too found Augustine’s idea of sacred oratory and orator fascinating as well. I think it most interesting that he most often quotes Paul, who was himself a Roman and alternatively addresses little the unique rhetorical concept or moves Paul (or other apostles) might have employed, but rather maps the Roman ideals of speech onto Paul and a few other stray examples. Paul exemplifies this here and that there. When he does call on other scriptures, they are mostly defense of his ideas rather than examples of them.

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