Saint Augustine: Rhetoric Student (and Teacher) By Aaron Denlinger
Arma Dei Academy students entering the Rhetoric stage of their education are walking, perhaps unbeknownst to them, in the footsteps of Augustine of Hippo (354-420 AD), a.k.a. Saint Augustine, arguably Christianity’s best known theologian of all time. Having completed his early education in Madauros (a small town in present-day Algeria), Augustine moved to Carthage as a teenager to study formal Rhetoric. He proved rather apt at the discipline, and shortly after completing his studies, became a Rhetoric teacher, first in Carthage, and then in Milan.
Upon moving to Italy, Augustine attended sermons by Milan’s famous Bishop Ambrose, not because he entertained much sympathy for the Christian content of Ambrose’s sermons, but because he admired Ambrose’s rhetorical skill. Ambrose’s preaching, combined with the kindness that Ambrose extended to young Augustine, proved to be an instrumental piece in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.
Following that conversion, Augustine pursued a career in the church, where he was able to put his own understanding and mastery of rhetoric to good use. Contemporaries flocked to Augustine’s sermons (which regularly exceeded an hour in length!). Augustine’s writings, which championed the astonishing grace of God that results in the salvation of sinners through Jesus Christ’s person and work, were equally celebrated by contemporaries, and they are still read and studied today.
In Augustine’s famous work De doctrina Christiana (a manual for Christian preaching and teaching), he discussed the need for others to employ formal Rhetoric (i.e., the art of communication) in defense of Christian truth. Augustine’s words, quoted below, resonate deeply with Arma Dei Academy’s vision to equip Rhetoric level students to love and serve God and others by “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to a world desperately in need of both truth and genuine, sacrificial love.
Augustine wrote: “Now, the art of rhetoric being available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood, who will dare say that truth in the person of its defenders is to take its stand unarmed against falsehood? [Who will dare say] that those who are trying to persuade men of what is false are to know how to introduce their subject, so as to put the hearer into a friendly, or attentive, or teachable frame of mind, while the defenders of the truth shall be ignorant of that art? That the former are to tell their falsehoods briefly, clearly, and plausibly, while the latter shall tell the truth in such a way that it is tedious to listen to, hard to understand, and, in fine, not easy to believe it? That the former are to oppose the truth and defend falsehood with sophistical arguments, while the latter shall be unable either to defend what is true, or to refute what is false? That the former, while imbuing the minds of their hearers with erroneous opinions, are by their power of speech to awe, to melt, to enliven, and to rouse them, while the latter shall in defense of the truth be sluggish, and frigid, and somnolent? […] Since, then, the faculty of eloquence is available for both sides, and is of very great service in the enforcing either of wrong or right, why do not good men [and women] study to engage it on the side of truth, when bad men [and women] use it to obtain the triumph of wicked and worthless causes, and to further injustice and error?”
May God bless Arma Dei Academy’s efforts to equip students not only with rhetorical skill, but also with faith in God’s promises and love for God’s truth, and so the ability and desire to defend and advance God’s truth in this world.