The uses of rhetoric

Daily Reading for August 28 • Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and Theologian, 430 and Moses the Black, Desert Father and Martyr, c. 405

If the listeners are to be moved rather than instructed, so as not to become sluggish in acting upon what they know, and so as to give a real assent to things they admit are true, more forceful kinds of speaking are called for. Here what is necessary is words that implore, that rebuke, that stir, that check, and whatever other styles may avail to move the audience’s minds and spirits. Some people, of course, do it all in a dull, unattractive, and cold sort of way, while others do it with wit, elegance, and feeling. In any case, those who can speak and discuss things wisely, even though they cannot do so eloquently, must now undertake the task we are concerned with in such a way as to benefit their listeners. Beware, on the other hand, of those whose unwisdom has a flood of eloquence at its command, and all the more so, the more their audience takes pleasure in things it is profitless to hear, and assumes that because they hear them speaking fluently, they are also speaking the truth. . . .

Precisely this is eloquence, then, in the matter of teaching: to ensure, not that what was thought repellent should be found to be pleasing, or that something disliked should still be done, but that a point that was obscure or simply missed should be indicated and cleared up. If this is done, however, in a disagreeable way, only a few listeners will get any profit from it, and those the most serious, who are eager to know what there is to be learned, however dismally and crudely it is expressed. When they have attained this object, they feed enjoyably on truth itself; it is indeed the characteristic trait of good minds and dispositions to love in words what is true, not the words themselves.

What, after all, is the use of a golden key if it cannot open what we want, or what is wrong with a wooden key if it can, since all we are looking for is that closed doors should be opened to us? But yes, there is a certain similarity between feeding and learning; so because so many people are fussy and fastidious, even those foodstuffs without which life cannot be supported need their pickles and spices.

From The Uses of Rhetoric by Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Richard Lischer, ed., The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

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