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The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: "De Doctrina Christiana" and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric (review)

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 43, Number 1, 2010
pp. 86-90 | 10.1353/par.0.0050

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Is De doctrina christiana (DDC), by Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, a narrow appropriation of the rhetorical tradition to serve the limited purposes of sectarian religion? Or does DDC extend and expand the rhetorical tradition in a transitional historical moment? One is often led to different conclusions when reading about Augustine than when actually reading Augustine, even in translation. The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: "De Doctrina Christiana" and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric offers students of rhetoric an opportunity to do both: to read Augustine, in Latin and in English translation and to locate Augustine definitively within the scholarly tradition of rhetoric and philosophy. The volume offers formative essays by Charles Sears Baldwin and James J. Murphy, introduces basic arguments about how Augustine's rhetoric emerged amid the turbulence of the late Roman Empire through the work of Ernest Fortin and Michael Leff, and offers more recent engagements with DDC in essays by Gerard Watson, David W. Tracy, and John D. Schaeffer. However, what makes the volume indispensable for students of philosophy and rhetoric is the reproduction of the complete work of Sister Theresa Sullivan on DDC, book IV (DDC IV)—the Latin text, her translation, her notes, and the front matter of her original version (Sullivan's English translation and notes were anthologized in both the first and second editions of The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Hezberg).

Every generation needs examples of good scholarship that does not take shortcuts. Sullivan's work captures the careful craft of close work with an ancient text. Thanks to Enos and Thompson et al., Sullivan's impressive scholarship anchors this fine volume. I first review Sullivan's contributions in the book, then comment briefly on the essays that contextualize her work within the broader sphere of rhetorical scholarship on DDC IV. Why is Sullivan's work indispensible? First, the Latin text set beside the translation is unique to English translations of DDC IV currently in print. The quality of Sullivan's translation is evident. The Latin text also reminds us to consider the text as it might sound to Latin/Roman ears and foregrounds the enigmatic process of translating an ancient, complex text. Second, the commentary elevates the significance of DDC for philosophy and rhetoric. Sullivan dispenses with a great deal of nonsense about DDC in a few simple lines. For example, she demonstrates Augustine's deep knowledge and reliance on a broad spectrum of the received philosophical tradition in rhetoric. The notes correlate Augustine with Cicero in ways obvious in the Latin but opaque in translation and similarly show how DDC IV incorporates rhetorical theory from Aristotle, the Ad Herrennium, Quintilian, and Plato (e.g., see notes on 130–35). Third, Sullivan's front matter presents impressive research on textual authenticity of the Latin text of DDC as well as translation and publication histories for DDC IV and the book as a whole. She fixes the date and occasion of the writing of DDC IV with precision. The sources and parallels from Greco-Roman rhetorical theory are unmatched in the literature. These features alone are worth the cost of The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo.

The remainder of the volume presents a faithful account of a received rhetorical tradition: Augustine's DDC preserves the tradition of rhetoric and philosophy into and through the Middle Ages. Most of the essays correspond with Sullivan's work, featuring DDC IV, which could give the impression that the place to find Augustine's rhetoric is in DDC IV. However, Enos and Thompson et al. do not seem to fall into this trap. Rather, the book suggests that DDC IV is a door to fuller engagement with Augustine. Some indices within the rhetorical tradition do read Augustine and DDC IV reductively—as the first and last word from Augustine on rhetorical theory. The short version of this story presents Augustine as a Christian facsimile of Cicero; DDC IV on this account shows little originality and dedicates itself to the foolishness of preaching. The story ends by dismissing DDC IV as a specialized treatise on an obsolete form of oratory, a treatise...

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