Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.03.13


R.P.H. Green, (ed. and trans.), Augustine: De Doctrina Christiana. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xxvi, 293. ISBN 0-19-826334-1.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Augustine's handbook on the interpretation of scripture, designed for the Christian rhetorician in a pulpit, is a book of genuine originality and long-lasting impact. It was one of the first things written by Augustine after his elevation to the ambivalent position of bishop in the church of Hippo. He evidently planned four sections or books: one on the content of Christian instruction, one on strategies for dealing with "unknown signs", one on "ambiguous signs", and one on modes of rhetorical presentation. In more ways than one the text evokes Cicero's Orator, especially in the fourth book, and the deployment of a Ciceronian model to Christian purpose itself recalls Ambrose's De officiis ministrorum of the previous decade. The ambivalence of his episcopal position arises from the way he and a few others like Ambrose were busily transforming a charismatic ministry into a public office (Neil McLynn's Ambrose of Milan (Berkeley 1995) is richly instructive in this regard.)

But Augustine did not finish the book he started when he started it. In his last years, he tells us in his Retractationes, he found it incomplete in his library (broken off in the middle of the third book) and carried it forth to completion. (There is palaeographical evidence to suggest that the first two books had a circulation in Augustine's lifetime before he came back to complete the work.) I am not sure that if he had not told us, any wise scholar would have detected the discontinuity of more than 30 years in the work's composition.

The work's reputation in our times depends on its curious anticipation of some of our concerns. With its abstract discussion of "things" and "signs" it holds an important place in the history of semiotic theory, while its application of theory to biblical texts gives it a shaping place in the history of allegorical interpretation generally and medieval culture specifically. The last widely disseminated translation of the text was made in the 1950s by D.W. Robertson, Jr., the American Chaucerian who held that this text was a key to the interpretation of virtually all of medieval vernacular literature and so sought a broader distribution for it. It does indeed offer a twofold interpretation of texts that might as well be called "literal" and "allegorical". Most readers have accepted Augustine's assertion that the literal sense is prior to the allegorical, but the most unsettling thing about the book is the way it really suggests the exact opposite: that figurative use of language is natural, and the desire to take figurative language literally is a disordered interpretation conditioned by seeing texts on a page, where irony and metaphor can leak away. Read with that optic, the De Doctrina Christiana is a landmark in the history of the naturalization of the written word as a bearer of culture. The ease with which we understand even the parts we disagree with is a sign of its success, and its ability to mislead.

R.P.H. Green is well known for work in fourth century Latin, especially for his magisterial edition of Ausonius' works (Oxford, 1991). He has produced a serviceable text and translation in a compact volume which deserves to be widely available in paperback. The text has been reviewed against the manuscripts, but is still based on the Green and Martin editions of a generation ago. The translation is fresh and represents Green's most substantive contribution. The introduction is brief and makes no original contribution, while the annotation is quite thin and appears to arise out of a preoccupation with this particular text and whatever puzzles present themselves rather than any long frequentation of the Augustinian corpus. The translation is remarkably accurate as far as Latinity goes, but falls down, when it does, on the interpretation of substance. The first sentence of the text (pp. 2-3) is instructive:

Sunt praecepta quaedam tractandarum scripturarum quae studiosis earum video non incommode posse tradi, ut non solum legendo alios qui divinarum litterarum operta aperuerunt sed etiam ipsi aperiendo proficiant.

Green: There are certain rules for interpreting the scriptures which, as I am well aware, can usefully be passed on to those with an appetite for such study to make it possible for them to progress not just by reading the work of others who have illuminated the obscurities of divine literature, but also by finding illumination for themselves.
One Latin sentence produces on English sentence, whose back might break for some readers around the phrase "to make it possible". It would be possible to quarrel with "as I am well aware" (the point is not that others would hold this position but that Augustine would assert it: "video" is closer to "I think" or "I would suggest"), but in the last phrase there is a real breakdown. "Aperire" in this context (as in the previous phrase) is clearly used of exposition of a text and the striking ("etiam") conjunction lies in the claim that illumination comes not only from reading but even from the act of interpreting for others itself. One might think of the character in Forster who said she didn't know what she knew until she heard what she had to say, or one might think of Augustine himself, "egoque ipse multa quae nesciebam scribendo me didicisse confitear" (Aug. de trinitate 3, pro. 1: "and I would confess that there are many things I did not know that I have learned in the course of writing"). (Robertson had this point right, but a selective comparison reveals that indeed this version is superior in accuracy on numerous points.) The error here is not so much Latinity as sense: failing to get Augustine's point. The few other similar points of disagreement I have found all lend themselves to the same explanation.

This volumes comes on the heels of the recent De doctrina Christiana : a classic of western culture (edited D.W.H. Arnold and P. Bright: Notre Dame, 1995) and its companion volume Reading and wisdom : the De doctrina Christiana of Augustine in the Middle Ages (ed. by E. D. English: Notre Dame, 1995). The two are products of a conference held in South Bend several years earlier and present a variety of quite valuable papers. There is also a concise commentary in Italian by Luigi Alici and others, a study of the text's relation to Ciceronian rhetoric by Peter Prestel, and a recent Konstanz Habilitation by Karla Pollmann that offers promise but does not yet appear in the RLIN catalogue. One comes away feeling that the text has not yet given up its secrets with an open hand, but for it to do so would require a fuller and deeper study of Augustine's exegetical theory and practice than we yet possess. In the meantime, this volume may (and should) stimulate investigation in that direction and will find a wide and grateful readership among patristic and medieval students.