Rhetoric and Revelation
No less significant than the invasion of the church by philosophy and mysticism was the victory of rhetoric in the preaching of the word. Again we must turn to the schools if we would find the culprit. By the time the church was ready to adopt the teachings of the schools, they were no longer following the way of philosophy but had become wholly rhetorical. It was rhetoric that conquered and destroyed ancient education.1 In St. Augustine's day rhetoric had won complete control of all education. When the emperor established the great state University of Constantinople in 425, just when Augustine's work of introducing secular education into the church was at its height, he provided for one chair in philosophy, two in law, and twenty-eight in grammar and rhetoric.2 Augustine himself we are told "studied it [rhetoric] for ten years, taught it for fifteen, and practiced it all his life."3
What was rhetoric? Aristotle defines it as the "art of persuasion," the technical skill by which one convinces people—convinces, that is, everybody of anything for a fee, according to Clement of Alexandria. It is the training and skill by which one can make unimportant things seem important, according to Plato, or, to quote Clement again, "make false opinions seem true by means of words."4 With the rise of the so-called second sophistic movement in the middle of the second century B.C., an army of brilliant and high-powered talkers, having caught the public fancy as traveling virtuosi, opened schools which in short order got a monopoly of public and private education. Their method of procedure in talking everyone else out of the picture followed a well-defined pattern. The first step was to choose some object of science or art upon which society placed a value and for which it was willing to pay in cash and glory. The subject chosen was immaterial, the teacher of rhetoric boasted, since rhetoric is equal to anything. Having chosen his "field" the student was then introduced to the broad and general aspect of the thing—the skopos; detailed knowledge was not the object but only a good grasp of the main idea, the prothesis. In a very short time, a matter of weeks, the student would find himself in the happy position of being able to meet the public with a plausible imitation of real knowledge which if it was lacking depth and solidity enjoyed certain added features that more than made up for the obvious defects in his learning. These added features, which were guaranteed to make the imitation product more appealing than the genuine, were simplicity, brevity, and glamor.5 Clement of Alexandria, following Aristotle, says that rhetoric "abstracts in a specious manner the whole business of wisdom, and professes a wisdom which it has not studied."6 But that sort of thing paid: Boethus of Tarsus, who advertised that he could speak extemporaneously for any length of time on any subject in the world, became the most powerful man in his city and one of the richest in the Empire. Rhetoric, "the queen of the world," was simply super-salesmanship; and the rhetorician sought in the end to sell not goods but himself, in the words of Seneca, who repeatedly advises the youth of the land to study nothing but rhetoric since it alone holds the key to success. If you can impress people, rhetoric taught, the world is yours.7
The ancients attributed the founding of this wonderful techne to Empedocles. After he had reached the conclusion that life is too short to be seeking truth the hard way, that brilliant impostor, in his hunger for quick and sensational success, saw his way clear: Wealth, fame, and even divinity, he discovered, are the gift if not of heaven, certainly of the general public for the man who knows how to talk it out of them. Empedocles' pupil Gorgias, like himself a born showman, enjoyed a sensationally successful career teaching rhetoric, which he frankly describes as the secret of winning success by cultivating appearances. In the dialogue named after him, Gorgias is flatly charged by Socrates with propagating a mock philosophy whose aim is not knowledge but the appearance of knowledge. Socrates also foresees that honest study has no more chance of competing with this sort of thing than a conscientious doctor would have of keeping his child patient, in competition with a pastry cook who prescribed nothing but dessert. As if to prove this point, old Strepsiades in Aristophanes' delightful comedy the Clouds leaves Socrates' "Thinkatorium" in disgust when instead of being taught how to get rich by "out-talking every other man in Athens by ten stades" he is put to work on the problems of Ionian science. What he was looking for was education for success, the very thing that the rhetoricians guaranteed to supply. Lucian tells us that the public simply laughed at the hard courses of the philosophers and went across the street to the rhetorical schools that advertised the same knowledge available in quick and effortless courses with positive assurance of a good job and big pay. Rhetorical education eliminated from its curriculum everything that the student would not put to direct use in the social situation. Lucian illustrates this with the story of a youth who came to consult the foremost flutist of the day, Harmonides, about taking lessons. A serious preliminary discourse by the master on the work, sacrifice, and hardship entailed in mastering his difficult instrument was interrupted by the young man, who hastened to explain that he was not interested in being a good flute player, but only in becoming a successful one.8 The flute was not his passion, but a career was, to which the flute was merely a tool to aid him.
As their courses became ever simpler, shorter, and spicier (by the time of the Neoplatonists Proclus and lamblichus little remains but a violent spicing), the rhetoricians supplanted content with glamor, which they cultivated with great skill. Psychologists by avocation, they saw that if the lost, witless world of declining antiquity hungered for intellectual and spiritual guidance, it was simply mad for entertainment. So with their wonderful art the Sophists, the great traveling orators, supplied everything at once. Performing foxes, a tightrope artist, a fifteen-minute domestic skit, a couple of clowns telling dirty jokes, and a famous traveling rhetor would make up an afternoon in the theater. In the schools they were sensational. No ambitious youth would think of studying in their time with anyone but Polemon or Stilpo. Topnotch rhetors amassed immense fortunes by fabulous gifts and fees; their sons and daughters married into the imperial family; they ruled their communities like little tyrants, while great cities eagerly bade for their services, and the whole world zealously followed every detail of their private lives.9 Never had an educational project succeeded so well as theirs once the resistance of philosophy had been broken by their imitation philosophy. Their schools became the state schools, and all private instruction was officially prohibited. Every town in the empire kept its own staff of high salaried grammarians and Sophists, and boasted of being a little Athens in its own right. And it was all just show: the deliberate cultivation of appearances as the surest road to money and success. "It is astounding," writes Professor Schanz, "with what silly stuff the public was fed." But the public asked for no better, and the rule of rhetoric was: Give people what they want, and you have them where you want them.10
Why have we dwelt at length on this unhappy theme? Because this rhetoric as we have been describing it was adopted lock, stock, and barrel by the church at the same time it embraced philosophy and mysticism. To become a world church, according to Raby, the Christians had to come to terms with the public schools, with the result that "the influence of the schools of grammar and rhetoric is apparent in every page of Tertullian, of Jerome, and of Augustine," and he cites Norden on how "Augustine could pile rime upon rime in an array of parallel phrases, and use all the resources of rhetoric in tasteless profusion."11 In the early church, according to Zellinger in his study of Christian rhetoric, rhetoric was avoided like the plague; "content was everything while its verbal presentation counted for nothing." But when the church became the Imperial Church, then the "pampered ear demanded of the preacher the same language which it was used to hearing in the lawcourts and from the rostrum. And the church gave in, in spite of all theoretical insistence on preserving the old simplicity of the gospel."12 In the fourth century, says this authority, "the simple language of the primitive Christian sermon had to compromise with the idiom of the sophistic rhetoric." The process began, according to him, with our old friend Origen, and reached its full development under the great Christian orators of the fourth century. The first and foremost qualification for the office of bishop from then on was eloquentia. "In the middle of the fourth century a complete revolution took place in the language of the Christian sermon," he writes. "The earliest Church had preached in exceedingly plain and simple language, and . . . scrupulously avoided any contact with the ill-reputed rhetoric of the imperial age." But all this was suddenly taken over by the church, and, says Zellinger, "along with hellenistic rhetoric and its ear-tickling refinements there were smuggled into the churches the established techniques of applause. Approval was expressed by noisy shouts, hand-clapping, stamping of feet on the floor, jumping up and down, and the waving of handkerchiefs. The sermons were interrupted by resounding shouts of 'True Believer!' 'Teacher of the Universe!' 'Thirteenth Apostle!' 'Anathema to whoever disagrees!'" and so forth.13
Augustine's plays on words, says Norden, the foremost authority on the subject of ancient rhetoric, were eaten up by the general public, and those sermons of his that seem "tasteless and contrived to us . . . enchanted the congregation"; 14 by the middle of the fifth century, he says, Christian rhetoric had reached a permanent state of "absolute inanity." Augustine and all the great orating fathers knew that what they were doing was wrong, and often confessed it, but it was what the public expected, and no rhetorician ever denied the public that. "The age of preachers had begun," writes Raby; the speech-hungry crowds everywhere "waited in tense excitement for the pointed epigram or for the rimed periods which were worthy of their applause." 15 The Christian preachers adjusted their style to their audience, like true salesmen, or true rhetoricians.16 The classic charge brought against the rhetoricians throughout antiquity—one that Socrates never tires of repeating—was that their whole search is not for truth but for success: their trade was fundamentally dishonest. Of the orating bishops, the glory of the fourth century, Gibbon says, "the true size and color of every object is falsified by the exaggerations of their corrupt eloquence,"17 a verdict fully confirmed and illustrated by the works of Zellinger, Norden, Rhode, Raby, and others.
The bequest of pagan rhetoric was part of the permanent Christian heritage. "The education of Augustine was," according to Marrou, "that of a lettered man of the decadence, formed by the grammaticus and the rhetor, with dialectic thrown in. Grammar and dialectic! But these are actually the foundations of scholasticism!"18 Rhetoric was in to stay; and in two ways the rhetorical school fatally undermined the Christian society that embraced it. The first was by its strong note of unveracity, the second by the tyranny of numbers. As to the unveracity, even the great Cicero had announced that facultas and copia must take precedence over veritatis forma in rhetoric, 19 and Augustine says rhetoric is the more praiseworthy the more fraudulent it is.20 This falseness was, as Rhode has pointed out, inevitable. One was trained to give speeches on great occasions, and to be proficient one had to practice. The rhetorical philosophy of education took to heart the admonition of Aristotle in the eighth Book of the Metaphysics that "we learn to do by doing." Accordingly, month after month and year after year in the school-room and in their field trips to the forums and lawcourts, armies of students addressed imaginary nations on the brink of legendary wars or shed real tears for a mythical Hecuba.21 Augustine recalls that his first assignment in school was to declaim the words that Juno would have spoken when she realized her failure to keep Aeneas away from Italy—to put real feeling into a totally unreal situation, to pour out his soul in a fictive and artificial crisis.22 And in such exercises the secret of success was before all else to convince one's hearers that one was "sincere." Drilled endlessly in this sort of thing, the rhetorical mind becomes incurably trivial; it takes the wrong things seriously; a neat manipulation of words passes as thought; hackneyed and extravagant declamation goes for feeling. Because of rhetoric, says Dio, words have lost their meaning and all things are thrown into confusion. 23
Equally dangerous and equally persistent in the heritage of the rhetorical school is its second gift to civilization: the tyranny of numbers. During those same childish speeches in which he feigned the whole gamut of emotions, the youthful Augustine was, he tells us, in a very real panic of anxiety, knowing the slightest slip on his part might well mean the ruin of his whole career. For the rhetorician the bottom of the world falls out and everything goes black when an utterance fails to "go over." A mortal fear of failing to please; a morbid dread of being out of line; an anxious, hair-trigger attention (so often betrayed by Cicero) to the exact volume and direction of applause are the ingrained product of such training. By definition the success of the rhetor is directly proportional to the applause he receives: the greater the cheering, the greater the authority and glory of the one cheered. This goes even for God, described by Augustine as the Great Orator, whose glory is defective as long as a single voice fails to acclaim him.24
This idea of gloria saturates the world of late antiquity, which was to an astonishing extent preoccupied with theatrical demonstrations designed to proclaim the power and perfection of some earthly or heavenly leader. It receives its fullest expression in the panegyric orations of the fourth and fifth centuries in the grandiose, monumental architecture of the period, both of which were adopted whole-cloth by the church. And why? Why was this ruinous thing which wrecks all values and confounds reason, which is constantly denounced as a snare and a delusion by the very fathers that use it most, so completely triumphant in the church? "Those modest orators," wrote Gibbon with his usual touch of irony, "acknowledged that, as they were destitute of the gift of miracles, they endeavored to acquire the arts of eloquence."25 That is the answer: like philosophy and mysticism, rhetoric was a substitute. The synthetic glory of the panegyrist is, St. Augustine declares, most welcome to the church, which needs a spice and vigor in its doctrine that only rhetoric could give26—so far had the church come from the day of Pentecost! For St. Augustine the Christian orators, properly trained in the schools, speak with the voice of God; they are angels mediating between heaven and earth; they are the tongue of Christ, the doctors of the soul, the mountain of refuge, sheltering clouds, nurses of the church, the feet of the Lord; they, in short, are henceforth what the prophets and Apostles once were to the church.27 To speak in tongues, says Chrysostom (whose own title means Golden-mouth), is not as great as to prophesy, since prophecy is the interpretation of tongues; but a greater thing than prophecy even is to be able to give a good oration!28 This was in answer to people who kept asking Chrysostom why the church no longer had the gift of prophecy: The answer is an enlightening one, namely that the church now has rhetoric, which is better than prophecy. John's own sermons, of which, fortunately, a great number have survived, clearly proclaim his intention of making rhetoric do the work of prophecy and revelation. The clarion voice, the waving arms, the flashing eye, the studied poses and sweet modulations, and ear- and mouth-filling words that thrilled the hearers like the clash of cymbals and had just as little meaning, the sweeping robes, the musical background (a very important adjunct of church-rhetoric)—what spells could they not weave? What multitude could resist them? St. Augustine himself reports that he listened spellbound to the electrifying sermons of the immortal Ambrose without paying the slightest attention to what the man was saying; carried away by his words; as he puts it, he remained indifferent or even contemptuous of their content.29
Since the fourth century the Christian church has talked with strange voices, the voices of philosophy, mysticism, and rhetoric, coming to us from the decadent schools of late antiquity. The third of these voices, that of rhetoric, was designed for the manipulation of the masses, and has been the guiding voice of the churches throughout the centuries. Like the others, it is a substitute for the voice of prophecy. But even more conspicuously than they, its artificial vocabulary and studied delivery, not to mention its fully documented history, proclaim its true origin and its sad inadequacy. If the cerebrations of the philosophers and the fervid sighs of the mystics fall pitifully short of anything resembling true revelation, the careful sound- and stage-effects of the rhetorician are the ultimate declaration of bankruptcy. After attending the discourses of the greatest Christian orators, we can only repeat what we have said before: there is no substitute for revelation.
1. An excellent treatment in Franz Eggersdorfer, Der heilige Augustinius als Pädagoge (Freiburg, 1907), 1ff.
2. Wilhelm Schmid, and Otto Stählin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur (Munich: Beck, 1924), II, ii, 949ff.
3. Gustave Combès, Saint Augustin et la culture classique (Paris: Plon, 1927), 49.
4. For these and other definitions, Hugh Nibley, "The Unsolved Loyalty Problem: Our Western Heritage," Western Political Quarterly 6 (1953): 652—53.
5. F. Schemmel, "Die Hochschule von Alexandria in IV. und V. Jahrhunderten," Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische altertum Geschichte und deutsche Literatur und für Pädagogik (1908), 494—513.
6. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata I, 8, 376, in PG 8:736.
7. Eggersdorfer, 2. On Boethus of Tarsus, see Strabo, Geography, Horace Jones, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1970), XIV, 5, 14.
8. Lucian, Harmonides. Lucian attacks the rhetoricians in many writings.
9. Walter August Müller, "Studentenleben im 4. Jahrhundert nach Christus," Philologus 69 (1910): 249, 308.
10. M. Schanz, Geschichte der römischen Literatur (Munich, 1914), Pt. IV, 515, cf. 502ff, 514—20, 527—37, etc. Combès, 54—55; Augustine, De Ordine II, 9, in PL 32:1007—8.
11. F. J. E. Raby, Secular Latin Poetry (Oxford, 1934), 1:7, 49.
12. Johannes Zellinger, "Der Beifall in dem altchristlichen Predigt," Festgabe A. Knopfler (Freiburg, 1917), 403.
13. Ibid., 404.
14. Eduard Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa (Leipzig: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1898), 2:623.
15. Raby, 1:48.
16. Schanz, Pt. IV, 500.
17. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. 27, n. 101.
18. Henri Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (Paris: Boccard, 1938), 275; cf. 54—59, 85—89, 237ff; 354—55.
19. Cicero, Orator 69:231.
20. Augustine, Confessions III, 3, in PL 32:685; "hoc laudabilior quo fraudulentior"; cf. V, 3; De Doctrina Christiana II, 36, in PL 34:55.
21. Augustine, Confessions VI, 9, in PL 32:726—27; Petronius, Satyricon I, 3; IV, 1; VI, 1.
22. Augustine, Confessions I, 17, in PL 32:673.
23. Dio Chrysostom, Orationes XXXVI, 18; XXXVIII, 40.
24. Augustine, Ennaratio in Psalmum LXVIII, in PL 36:865.
25. Gibbon, ch. 20, n. 125.
26. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana IV, 18, 35—37, and 26, 56—58, in PL 34:105—6, 117—18.
27. For references, see PL 46:544—45.
28. John Chrysostom, In Epistola I Corinthios Homilia 35, in PG 61:297—98.
29. Augustine, Confessions V, 13, in PL 32:717.