Religion, Ethics, Philosophy, and Culture

One of the chief things that one notices about Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine , particularly in contrast to Aristotle, Plato and Cicero, is that he is speaking explicitly about teaching the Bible, rather than the idea of rhetoric in general. 

St. Augustine
One of the earliest known images of St. Augustine of Hippo, from about 100 years after his death.

This is largely because the Greek writers, like Aristotle, Cicero, and Plato, were all pagans (through no fault of their own, obviously, but ignorance was clearly no defense to Theodosius) and their writings were therefore verboten to the Christian peoples of 4th-century Holy Roman Empire. 

As part of his edict to eliminate paganism from his godly empire, Theodosius also cut off all state funding from centers of rhetoric. This meant that Christian preachers needed guidance, a new text that would help them execute their task to preach the Word of God to all peoples. Enter: Augustine of Hippo. 

Born in around 350 in modern-day Algeria, Augustine began his life as something of a playboy. His long-suffering mother, St. Monica, prayed fervently for his conversion. While she may have hoped simply that he’d occasionally go to church with her, she got much more. Not only did he convert, he went on to become one of the most important thinkers in Christian history, and his Confessions are often thought to be one of the earliest examples of memoir. 

So, his books On Christian Doctrine have an explicitly and unapologetically religious aim. Nonetheless, he brings up many interesting points about rhetoric and teaching that not only echo some of what Aristotle and Cicero had to say, but many of Augustine’s observations seem applicable today, even in a non-religious setting. 

Q1: What bearing does Augustine’s faith have on the applicability of his insights to secular spheres? 

Activity with the coins.

Q2: Augustine distinguishes between the Bible and the writings of humans in how we are to accept the truth of the former and teach it accordingly, whereas the latter must be weighed with care. Is there any such branch of learning or “holy” text in our current culture? Or are all texts, beliefs equally subject to skepticism? 

Religion and Politics: Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated…?

This leads into the second point. One surmises that Socrates was the type of guy who didn’t like his peas to touch the gravy or his barbecue sauce to get on his mashed potatoes; he liked each thing in its proper place. (And the place for rhetoric was wherever he wasn’t likely to be.) 

There is a widespread contention that the venerable American practice of maintaining separation of church and state means that politicians ought to leave church for Sunday. To quote a representative article, published 6 years ago on HuffPo: 

In a democracy such as ours, each candidate must be judged based on his or her individual position and abilities. No doubt there are valid issues involving the role of religion in public life to be debated and discussed, including the appropriateness of faith-based government programs. And candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters and commenting about how their own religious beliefs shape their policy perspectives. But they should be cognizant that there is a point where an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse nation.


To be fair, this author is arguing heavily against the line of thought that says, “this candidate is a Christian, therefore I’m going to vote for her without asking more questions.” But he also assumes that religious people have convictions independent of their faith life. The founding fathers (though many of them were deists) recognized that this nebulous deity in which they had some measure of faith acted as a guarantor of rights. This meant that “God” was the source of their morals

Q3: Can a distinction be made between a person’s ethical convictions and their religious beliefs, if (as most religions are) that belief system is what shapes their morals? 

In his excellent book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Dr. Yoram Hazony points out that contemporary readers, like Emperor Theodosius, draw an artificial and misleading distinction between pagan philosophy and Judeo-Christian philosophy, treating one as purely humanist and the other as “divinely inspired.” This becomes a stumbling block in a secular world, when people are unwilling to recognize (just as Theodosius did) genuine wisdom in the bible, simply because it is attributed to a god in whom they do not believe. 

This conflation of source with content not only defies logic (recall the coin experiment) but it also ignores the fact that many of the so-called “pagan” philosophers themselves wrote in a fervor of religious inspiration; he points out that Parmenides offers some of his central philosophical musings as having been delivered to him “by ‘the daughters of the sun’….[who take hime to] the palace of an unnamed goddess who takes his hand and promises to inform him of ‘everything.’ And indeed, everything we have of Parmenides’ philosophy consists of words of this goddess as she revealed them to him” (7). Empedocles has a similar experience of divine inspiration; even Socrates, the paragon of rationality and open-minded inquiry, confesses to being guided by a divine voice, saying:

I have a divine or spiritual sign…. This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks turns me away from something I am about to do…. [M]y familiar prophetic power, my spiritual manifestations, frequently opposed me, even in small matters, when I was about to do something wrong…. [I]n other talks it often held me back in the middle of my speaking, but now it has opposed no word or deed of mine.

(Taken from Plato’s Apology. Quoted on page 9 of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.)

Q4: Does Augustine’s focus on the bible and Christian theology impact how you view his writing? 

James Berlin: Rhetoric and Ideology in the Working Class

Q5: What does he mean when he says that rhetoric no longer acts as “the transcendental recorder or arbiter of competing ideological claims” but has become itself “always already ideological”? 

Q6: Is there any overlap between Berlin’s contention that “no position can lay claim to absolute, timeless truth, because finally all formulations are historically specific” (668) and Martin Bernal’s reliativism of history? 

Berlin is concerned with hegemony, and says that within a given society, while various competing ideologies may coexist, the “overall effect of these permutations tends to support the hegemony of the dominant class” (669). He then breaks out several different types of rhetoric: Cognitive (“the heir apparent of current-traditional rhetoric”); Expressionistic (which “democratized” the gift of writing and placed “the existent….within the individual subject”); and Social-Epistemic (the interaction between the “observer, the discourse community [social group]….and the material conditions of existence”). 


He also states that the “mental processes of writing” consist of three stages: 

Berlin’s Three Stages of Writing.

  1. Planning
    1. Generating
    2. Organizing
    3. Goal Setting
  2. Translating (thoughts put into words)
  3. Reviewing stage (evaluating and revising)

Q7: How do Berlin’s differ from Aristotle’s 5 Canons of Rhetoric? Why does the distinction matter?

Aristotle’s Five Canons of Rhetoric: 

  1. Invention
  2. Arrangement
  3. Style
  4. Memory
  5. Delivery

Bonus: Poorly-Recorded CGI Illustration of James Berlin

What Do You Think?