BMCR 2021.01.33

Crimen Obicere: forensic rhetoric and Augustine’s anti-Donatist correspondence

, Crimen Obicere: forensic rhetoric and Augustine's anti-Donatist correspondence. Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte, volume 120. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Verlag, 2020. Pp. 233. ISBN 9783525567227


In 388 CE, Augustine of Hippo returned to North Africa after a turbulent few years in Italy which had culminated in an energetic self-dedication to Christianity. At that point, he expected to establish a little community in his home town of Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras in Algeria) and to pursue a sort of Christian otium liberale. He probably had little idea that the majority church in Africa at that moment was not the one into which he had been baptized in Milan the previous year; he could certainly have had no idea that he would be drawn into a battle with that African church which would consume copious amounts of his time for the next quarter of a century.

The trouble with Donatism—the label for the African church remorselessly repeated by Augustine—was that its beliefs were largely identical to those of the ecclesiae transmarinae, in one of which Augustine had been baptized. The schism in Africa went back to an argument about how specific bishops had behaved under persecution in the early years of the fourth century. Had they handed over sacred texts—or not? (Much was made of the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word traditores.) Thereafter, were those who had handed over the texts entitled to consecrate other bishops? Was the baptism offered by these bishops and their successors valid? The argument was ultimately about purity of descent. As such arguments are wont to do, it turned vicious, precisely because of the indefensible nature of the notion of purity itself. For the same reason, those on the side of purity were vulnerable to further schism.

Toczko remarks on the lack of “theological burden” of Donatism (80-81). As a result, the battle between Donatism and the sect that became recognized in Africa, largely thanks to the prodigious efforts of Augustine himself, as orthodox Christianity was played out primarily in the interminable retelling of convoluted stories of succession. Anyone who has waded through the whole of Augustine’s anti-Donatist correspondence—there can’t be many of us—will know how confusing and wearisome these retellings tend to be. We can therefore be grateful to Toczko for wading in with us, disentangling the thematic threads, itemizing the conventions of forensic rhetoric to which they are severally indebted, and laying the results before us with the utmost clarity. Such clarity is only what we might expect from one of the chief architects of Scrinium Augustini, the admirable website that amasses and systematizes topics of discussion in Augustine’s epistolary corpus as a whole. Even so, the way in which Toczko uncovers Augustine’s polemical strategies is remarkable.

Toczko starts by surveying the anti-Donatist letters and the ways in which one might classify them (by addressee, function, or—problematically, as he says—by date). He then arrays the different aspects of forensic rhetoric that he sees Augustine mobilizing in the letters, observing that Cicero and Quintilian “constituted much of his rhetorical arsenal” (64). The meat of the book, and where it will be most useful, comes in Parts 2 and 3, entitled respectively “Accusation” and “Defence.” Here it becomes baldly apparent how impoverished the charges in play actually were. “Accusation” encompasses the charge against the Donatists of schism as such—Augustine generally referred to the pars Donati, which built factionalism into the very name—and of rebaptism; “Defence,” the charge made by the Donatists that Augustine’s party was persecuting them, and that it was they who had betrayed the purity of the church by handing over the sacred books, becoming traditores. The juxtaposition of the intellectual poverty of the charges with the intellectual ingenuity of the discussions around them is truly extraordinary, and well exposed by Toczko with the help of his rhetorical handbooks.

The disadvantage of this systematizing and classificatory approach is that we lose sight of the recipients of the individual polemics—and after all, forensic rhetoric is fundamentally about persuading its audience. Why did Augustine direct a specific set of arguments to a specific person? Perhaps more puzzling, why did he often seem to think the arguments needed to be laid out at such length? Part of the answer must be the one to which Toczko alludes, but which he doesn’t really develop: that the letters were often written with an oblique audience in mind, “stage-managing communications with the emperor” (in Noel Lenski’s phrase, quoted on p. 31) in hope of the imperial intervention into the dispute that finally came. One doubts that many people, least of all the emperor, would have followed the arguments closely: what Augustine was doing was creating a certain climate of conviction in which his opponents would have lost before they began to argue.

Augustine was doing something similar with the repeated challenges to debate that he issued to prominent Donatists. For him, this was a win-win situation. If they accepted, then Augustine—former rhetor at the court in Milan, now the most accomplished speaker in North Africa—would probably humiliate them utterly. If they didn’t, they looked cowardly. Not surprisingly, his opponents generally chose discretion over valor and risked the charge of cowardice. This does not, however, address two oddities on which Toczko remarks but which he does not explore. One is that Augustine increasingly preferred epistolary to live debate (38). Perhaps that goes back to “stage-managing”: letters could be circulated. But then, the stenographic records of live debates could be circulated too—and were, in other contexts. The second is that, when an opponent had been drawn to live debate, Augustine complained that the audience had, for the most part, convened “more for the spectacle of a sort of squabble between us (spectaculum quasi altercationis nostrae) … than for salvific instruction (instructionem salutis)” (ep. 44.1, quoted at 35 n. 60; see also Augustine’s doubts about audience motivation cited at 40 n. 79). And yet spectaculum might well be considered to be just as important to forensic rhetoric as instructio—possibly even more so. The accomplished rhetor would have solicited a crowd response and played upon it; such a debate was not just an occasion for the delivery of information. This shows, I think, both the strengths and the limitations of Toczko’s approach. Augustine was indeed an accomplished rhetor. He was also deeply ambivalent about the uses to which forensic rhetoric could be put.

This will be a useful work of reference for those already curious about Augustine’s anti-Donatist strategies. It would not be a helpful introduction to the issues, nor (I infer) is it intended as such. What Toczko’s book does not give us is a sense of the intense passions involved in the fight, and without this, the sheer amount of time and energy expended is incomprehensible. The letters are only a small part of the anti-Donatist corpus: a full account would take in the many, many hours of anti-Donatist preaching and the extended records of debates both written and spoken, as well as the sheaves of conciliar records culminating in the proceedings of the Council of Carthage of 411, whose purpose was to end the schism once and for all. (Needless to say, it didn’t.)

I had assumed that these anti-Donatist passions were long buried. I was wrong. In 2016, I attended a conference at Badji Mokhtar University in Annaba—the modern name of Hippo—in Algeria. One of the speakers, a theologian from the conservative Islamic school at Constantine, referred to “Saint Donatus.” Immediately, an aged French priest exploded from his seat at the back of the vast auditorium and delivered a jeremiad against the notion of Donatus as a saint. It was some time before regular proceedings resumed. An impromptu intervention? Or was this a moment as repeatedly staged as Augustine’s own anti-Donatist encounters? It didn’t matter. The passion still burned.