Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.61

Christian Tornau, Zwischen Rhetorik und Philosophie. Augustins Argumentationstechnik in De civitate Dei und ihr bildungsgeschichtlicher Hintergrund.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2006.  Pp. 466.  ISBN 978-3-11-019130-1.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Karla Pollmann, St Andrews University, Scotland (
Word count: 1616 words

Despite its daunting length, Augustine's De civitate Dei (De civ. Dei) has been at the centre of scholarly attention for a long time; indeed, besides the Confessions, the De doctrina Christiana and the De Trinitate it is Augustine's most famous and arguably most influential work. Due to its encyclopaedic scope, scholarship has tackled aspects of this work severally, viz., the political, the anti-Roman, the philosophical, the historical, the theological and the biblical-exegetical. More often than not these issues have been investigated in isolation, both regarding their content and their place within this gigantic work. In his book, Tornau (T.) attempts, in an exemplary way, to investigate the overall argumentative technique of this work, or, in other words, to examine how Augustine used his considerable rhetorical ability and exploited the function rhetoric had in his time in order to make his apologetic argument convincing and persuade his readers of the superior qualities of Christianity in contrast to all other religions. Despite some previous scholarship on the structure of the work, T. rightly claims that more needs to be done here, as the logical sequence of arguments in De civ. Dei is not always immediately transparent (7f.). T. is the first to use rhetoric as a means of analysis taking into account the role it played in late antique society at large (9-11). In order to make his approach both transparent and convincing he embeds his analysis in a wider examination.

In Part I (13-105) he portrays Augustine's attitude towards the contemporary practice of learning and the role education played in his time. Augustine's attitude towards rhetoric and education can be described as ambivalent: on the one hand he accepts their limited validity in order to promote the Christian cause successfully in certain pagan circles, on the other hand he accuses the educational system of his time of ruining the human soul as it aims at secular ambition and glory. Thus, he uses rhetorical-literary conventions in order to communicate effectively with his educated correspondents but makes it constantly clear that he uses them for a protreptic cause outside the pagan system of values, replacing them with what he considers to be true Christian ideals (19, 73). Indeed, Augustine seems to see in an "amoral, educated person" (413 amoralischer Bildungsmensch) a typical enemy of Christanity. T. contrasts Augustine's attitude with that of Jerome, who, because of his higher social origin and different life occupation (especially the lack of pastoral duty), had a different approach, a fact that lies at the bottom of many of their controversies. Jerome accepted the notion of late antique education as a marker of the social elite, used it to establish contact with and to convert this elite to Christianity, and regarded this education in connection with an ascetic lifestyle as the highest Christian ideal (73-105).

In Part II (106-340) follows a close and very detailed analysis of Augustine's technique of argumentation, concentrating predominantly on Books 1 to 5. By looking at the topic of the chastity of raped nuns (De civ. Dei 1), at Augustine's discussion of the concept of the res publica in Sallust, Cicero and Virgil (De civ. Dei 2), at Augustine's interpretation of Virgil (De civ. Dei 3), and at his analysis of Roman virtues and the success of the Roman Empire in history (De civ. Dei 4, 5, and 19), and at his ideas on providence, freedom and ill will (De civ. Dei 5), T. demonstrates that Augustine proceeds by arguing from the less complex to the more complicated (413), from the more specific towards the more general (125). For example, Augustine's interpretation of the Roman heroine Lucretia contains many aspects that will become relevant again later in De civ. Dei (192f.). Augustine can use a certain idea, like the problem of pagan virtue (294ff.), and develop it to a certain degree to make a convincing point as demanded by its specific place within De civ. Dei. At some later point in De civ. Dei Augustine can return to this topic which he had previously dealt with in an incomplete fashion (341 Aussparungsstellen) in order to add a further, more important and decisive point. This technique is complemented by the tripolar structure of De civ. Dei, which follows the forensic tradition as established for Christian apologetics by Tertullian, where (A) the speaker (the defending 'lawyer') directs his speech at (B) an addressee who is the judge, by attacking (C) his opponents. T. shows that the opponents, fictitious pagan critics of Christianity, are always dealt with in the third person (with the exception of rare apostrophes, where the real addressee is neglected for a moment), whereas the Christian addressee is always directly addressed in the second person (389). He makes the excellent observation that this structure is also maintained throughout the second part of De civ. Dei, Books 11 to 22 (420), in contrast to an opinion sometimes encountered that Books 1 to 10 have an addressee or method different from that of the later books. T. rightly pleads repeatedly and with different arguments for the unity of De civ. Dei (e.g. 155f., 419), although he acknowledges the increase in biblical quotations in the second part of De civ. Dei Generally he highlights the nature of De civ. Dei as a universal or super-apology (114, 186, 409, 413).

In Part III (341-409) T. offers some more contexts for Augustine's strategy in De civ. Dei. Despite some thematic similarities, De civ. Dei differs markedly in its argumentative constellation from, e.g., De Trinitate which displays a bipolar structure of (A) author/teacher and (B) pupil/addressee (345-353). Following Quintilian's advice, Augustine in De civ. Dei 6-10 moves from side issues to the central problem at stake (365). With Cicero's forensic speeches Augustine shares the argumentative technique of gradation, moving from the more specific to the more general; in both cases the rhetorical characterisation of the opponent and his interventions are crucial for the overall success of the argumentation which is more concerned about convincing the addressee than finding the truth (380f., 386). Finally, T. conducts an intelligent survey of the main characteristics of major Latin apologetic writers before Augustine and what he has in common with each of them: the tripolar structure with Tertullian, the pastoral goal with Cyprian, the universal approach and the intention to instruct with Lactantius, the free construction of the opponent's arguments with Minucius Felix and Ambrose (388-409).

A Summary (410-21), an extensive Bibliography (422-443) and Indices Nominum, Rerum et Locorum (444-66) complete the book.

The most important achievement of this book is that it indeed succeeds in its aim of improving our understanding of Augustine's rhetoric-based technique of argumentation (6). In order to understand the aim and tenor of De civ. Dei correctly, one has to take into consideration Augustine's overriding pastoral intentions (11, 186, 189, 398). In De civ. Dei, as so often, Augustine is the critical diagnostic[??] of his opponents (195, 118). T.'s sharp distinction between the pagan opponent and the Christian addressee (e.g. 110, 114), dubbed as judge at De civ. Dei 2.1 (115, 412), in De civ. Dei is important, but maybe a bit more could have been said about the differences between the intended, the fictitious and the real readers of De civ. Dei. E.g. Augustine's remarks at the end of De civ. Dei 5.26 seem to show that De civ. Dei was indeed read by educated pagans as well, as T. hints at occasionally himself (e.g. 412). T. is right in highlighting Augustine's technique of creating fictitious objections which one cannot necessarily assume to have been actually expressed by someone: Augustine intends to create a web of counterarguments that are able to defeat any criticism of Christianity one can possibly imagine, a technique which he explicitly recommends in his hermeneutical treatise De doctrina Christiana (354-7).

T. concludes that Augustine does not stand between rhetoric and philosophy but uses rhetoric to present and defend his specific Christian philosophy (421). It is a fault often deplored but rarely avoided by scholarship that there is a tendency when reading Augustine to take his statements out of their original context and thus distort their aim, function and intended meaning. Because of the enormous authority Augustine accrued through the ages this has often had disastrous consequences, and at the very least often led to a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of his arguments. With his very detailed and careful analysis of selected topics T., in critical dialogue with scholarship before him, convincingly manages to refute many such misguided interpretations. His diligent argumentation, using lots of primary and secondary material, is worthy of a commentary. Indeed this virtue may be called the only disadvantage of the book: in a commentary the wealth of material will be more easily accessible at the places where it matters. In this book the reader may find it difficult to access it if s/he does not want to read the book cover to cover, although the Indices are helpful. Numerous individual instructive observations can be found in this book: see e.g. T.'s remarks at 134 n. 98 (contrary to scholarly statements, Augustine uses not only the phrase terrena civitas, but also civitas terrena, albeit far less frequently), at 141 n. 119 (in Augustine beatus/beatitudo and felix/felicitas are used interchangeably), or at 161f. (the expression at De civ. Dei 1.4 nobilitate veritatis historicus for Sallust denotes here Sallust's historical reliability but is not necessarily proof of Augustine's particular 'affection' for this author). Despite the interdisciplinary importance of De civ. Dei, a modern commentary on the work is still missing. T. is part of an international team aiming to fill this gap (see website). This book leads one to expect the very best quality for this commentary as well.

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