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Rhetoric and Christian Colonialization

“But through use of identification, rather than overt persuasion, Patrick may have managed to encourage what Burke calls ‘an attitude of assent’ that might ‘then be transferred to the matter which happens to be associated with the form’” (Sheehan-Johnson 14).


“Nonetheless, there can be no denying that with varying degrees of emphasis, depending partly on where in Europe the schools were located, concern for orthodoxy affected what the moral and religious formation of the student entailed” (O’Malley 9).


Both of these articles approach the subject of Christian evangelism and its relationship to rhetorical practices from (what I would call) a “sympathetic” viewpoint, and I was struck in both cases by the unproblematic way that the spread of Christianity was addressed, or rather not addressed, in both articles. Through persuasion, identification, and education, these values colonized and overtook many of the pagan epistemologies on the European continent, as they did eventually throughout the Roman Empire. By the political maneuvering of morality and rhetoric, people could be “overcome” by the “truth” of Christian doctrine. Though both of these articles are positioned to examine the role of rhetoric via the spread of Christianity to wide parts of the Empire, neither addresses the ethical role (and contradiction?) that this use of moral power played within the civilizations and cultures that it penetrated.


Sheehan-Johnson notes the difference between Greco-Roman rhetorical styles and that of Patrick, whose education was “arrested” by his capture by Irish raiders. Though his style, certainly, would be different in this context, it seems that his aims were not so dissimilar as those in classical agonistic rhetoric, i.e. to overcome opposing points of view by whatever means available. As a lone man heading into the wilderness armored only with his doctrines, beliefs, and “down-homey” rhetorical approach, Sheehan-Johnson notes that “such a mission would have required rhetorical prowess just to survive” despite its apparent lack of (what we might label) sophistication (11). Instead of using what we might call formal rhetorical practices, “Patrick is unrefined and rural, using his local knowledge of Celtic practices and beliefs to convert Irish chieftains one at a time” (11). It is noted that “he is aware of his shortcomings as a writer” and says as much in his compositions (12). This “rural style,” far from being unsophisticated is exactly what is called for in that time and place, despite his self-admonitions. Where older stories used identification to instill mythic histories and identities, Patrick supplants these with Christian ones, superimposing different “characters” onto similar values (e.g. Mary, Jesus, etc.). This, to me, is a rather sneaky use of identification and highlights exactly how one – nay, an entire culture – can be persuaded in a subtle, “non-violent” manner to adopt a different epistemology without questioning whom it serves.


As Yeats (per the article and other research I have done) notes, later there were few old Irish tales and myths upon which to build a national identity. This lack of deep roots is often attributed as the exigence for the Irish Renaissance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, after the colonization of Ireland was well and truly successful by many accounts. Thus, writers such as Yeats and Joyce sought, in their own divergent ways, to resurrect or renew a deeper Irish identity beyond the limits of Christian doctrine, which was (later) viewed as the erasure of an ancient cultural identity.


The O’Malley article, likewise, does not address the potential for rhetorical violence in the inculcation of students into Christian doctrine via the Jesuit humanist educational tradition. I originally misread the title as “How Humane is the Jesuit Tradition?” rather than what it actually said. Though the Jesuits are often credited with recording the practices and mythologies of many aboriginal peoples (the Norse and Native Americans, among others) they were also largely responsible for educating these practices and beliefs “out” of these same peoples. Again, this is not at all directly addressed, and while I understand that it is beyond the scope of the article perhaps, the ethics around which Christian-based educational systems, starting in 1548, spread “in rapid succession” seems problematic to me (7). Though O’Malley imagines non-religious motivations for this, he also concedes that religious orthodoxy influenced what was and was not taught (9). He, personally, is “convinced that even from the beginning [the Jesuits] saw a correlation between the pietas beloved of the Humanists and the kind of personal conversion and transformation that were the traditional goals of Christian ministry,” thus the Jesuits could also align themselves with the “absolutely fundamental… faith in the almost limitless potential for the individual and for society… preached by Renaissance Humanists” (8,9). As long as this potential was Christian in nature, of course.


I read this as an apologist view of the colonization of Europe via the Roman Empire by Christianity, where the two (Jesuit education and Renaissance studia humanitatis) are in alignment with one another. This seems to be justified by the assertion that “the Italian Humanists were Christian,” thus their rhetorical and philosophical traditions (if such a distinction is valid during that time) likewise were built upon similar moral/religious warrants as the Jesuit mindset and subsequent educational practices. I am not so convinced of this seamless narrative and unproblematic situating of these two traditions, as there are many histories and perspectives that it leaves out. What of those traditions that were not Christian, which would have been most of the Empire at various points in time? What of those who desired educational and literacy access, for obvious socio-economic reasons?


To me, both of these articles leave out many perspectives regarding the ethics of these types of rhetorical “conversions,” and while I understand that not every article can articulate most, much less everything, there is to say on a topic, I found these omissions particularly noteworthy as they were repeated at two separate sites.


Works Cited:

Sheehan-Johnson. “Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion: Ancient Irish Rhetoric.”


O’Malley, John W. “How Humanistic is the Jesuit Tradition? From the 1599 Tation Studiorum to Now.” Jesuit Education 21: Conference Proceedings on the Future of Jesuit Higher Education. Martin. R. Tripole, SJ, Ed. Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s UP, 2000. 189-201.


One comment on “Rhetoric and Christian Colonialization

  1. I agree that both of these articles assume a “narrative of progress” — only in this case the assumed “progress” is a Christian progress rather than a different kind (e.g., progress of science, progress of American democracy). We don’t see a challenge to this narrative *inside* the traditional canonical works, and not in this week’s reading, but it’s coming later in the course.

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