Roman Rhetoric and “Right Angle” Apologetics

In picking that title for this post, I am consciously aware of a double-meaning. Ultimately I am doing my series of posts on “Christian culture and classical rhetoric” for larger purposes than merely pointing out to many Catholic polemicists that they very often miss essential contexts to the patristic and Medieval writings they prooftext to serve causes like “papal primacy” (abstractly and anachronistically considered). But larger purposes or no, one smaller purpose of the series is to show that offhand remarks I’ve made in the past about “rhetoric” in the Church Fathers simply cannot be properly understood outside of some actual acquaintance with the classical discipline of rhetoric. In the apologetics wars that take up so much bandwidth on the Internet, one can quite frequently find members of all sides complaining about the “rhetoric” of their opponents. It’s an odd complaint, since most of the time those complaining have very little, if any idea what “rhetoric” actually is–much less how to detect and analyze it in ancient texts. Charge them with not understanding “epideictic rhetoric” in old texts and you just might find yourself being counter-charged with having made an “ad hominem” attack on them or of somehow surrendering to “postmodernist” criteria of hermeneutics, and so on. No wonder conversations break down so frequently.This is why, to some extent against my better judgment (since I know this post will be ripped to shreds by amateur apologists), I have written this post. Here is a brief (and by no means complete or polished!) account of why I have in the past spoken of some patristic utterances about the glories of “Peter” and the Roman Bishop as being instances of “rhetoric”. The following is a selection from a piece of epideictic rhetoric (designed to praise or blame, and motivate action in its hearers) issued in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 289, and directed to the Roman Emperor Maximian:

Most sacred Emperor, all feasts should be celebrated in your honor as in divine honor. But especially on this most festive and most joyful day, under your rule, should the veneration of your divinity be joined with the solemn worship of the Holy City. At this hour when your piety celebrates the birth of the immortal mistress of the nations, it is fitting and proper that we sing, before all, your praises and render you thanks, invincible Emperor. Indeed one can rightly speak of you and of your brother as the founders of Rome, since it is to you that she owes her restoration, so very like to her foundation. And if this her natal day marks the origin of the Roman people, the first days of your reign preeminently mark her deliverance.

Where shall I begin? Shall I recall the obligations of the Republic to your fatherland? For who doubts that if Italy is by antiquity the glory of the Sovereign of peoples, it is Pannonia which is Sovereign by valor? Or shall I rehearse the divine origin of your race, to which you bear witness as well by immortal deeds as by your adoption of the name? Shall I recount how you were educated and trained on that great frontier, that home of the bravest legions? Of Jove are such things invented, whereas of you they are true, O Emperor. Or shall I attempt to enumerate your exploits? But he who would wish to include all these themes, must hope to have innumerable years, aye centuries–a life as long as you deserve.

When you were summoned to restore the Republic by your kindred divinity, Diocletian, you were more the benefactor than the benefited. When all the barbarian nations of Gaul united, threatened destruction, and when not alone the Burgundian Goths and the German Alemanni but as well the Chaibones and the Herulians–even these, who are chief of the barbarians in might and remotest distance–would have invaded these provinces in impetuous attack, what god would have brought us hope in such despair, had you not been at hand? What need of a multitude, since you in person contended, you yourself fought to a decisive issue everywhere, all along the line? So fiercely did you rush upon the enemy, that neither they nor our soldiers deemed you were but one. They could not follow you even with their eyes. Truly you were so carried away all through the battle, as a mighty stream enhanced by winter showers and snows is wont to invade the field on every side…

I pass in silence over your numberless contests and victories in all of Gaul. Indeed what discourse would suffice for the multiplicity and grandeur of such achievements?….[Source: Harry Caplan, “The Latin Panegyrics of the Empire”, in Of Eloquence: Studies in Ancient and Mediaeval Rhetoric (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 34-35]

This is a paradigm example of Roman Imperial panegyric designed to praise its object. Were this piece of writing to be examined in detail, several rhetorical devices, commonplaces designed to structure words and express arguments in ways that please the ears, would be uncovered–and moreso in the original Latin text than in the English translation. For example, the last phrase I reproduce above is an example of the rhetorical device called “praeteritio“, which involves claiming to “pass over” a subject but dealing with it anyway.

A similar example of an epideictic composition, also from an Imperial context–though about eight centuries later (A.D. 1076)–but designed to blame its object, is this selection from Letter 12 of the correspondence of King Henry IV of Germany (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) against Pope Gregory VII:

Henry, King not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not Pope, but false monk:

You have deserved such a salutation as this because of the confusion you have wrought; for you left untouched no order of the Church which you could make a sharer of confusion instead of honor, of malediction instead of benediction.

For to discuss a few outstanding points among many: Not only have you dared to touch the rectors of the holy Church–the archbishops, the bishops, and the priests, annointed of the Lord as they are–but you have trodden them underfoot like slaves who know not what their lord may do. In crushing them you have gained for yourself acclaim from the mouth of the rabble. You have judged that all these know nothing, while you alone know everything. In any case, you have sedulously used this knowledge not for edification, bur for destruction, so greatly that we believe Saint Gregory [the Great], whose name you have arrogated to yourself, rightly made this prophesy of you when he said: “From the abundance of his subjects, the mind of the prelate is often exalted, and he thinks that he has more knowledge than anyone else, since he sees that he has more power than anyone else.” [Pastoral Rule II.6].

And we, indeed, bore with all these abuses since we were eager to preserve the honor of the Apostolic See. But you construed our humility as fear, and so you were emboldened to rise up even against the royal power itself, granted to us by God. You dared to threaten to take the kingship away from us–as though we had received the kingship from you, as though kingship and empire were in your hand and not in the hand of God.

Our Lord, Jesus Christ, has called us to kingship, but has not called you to the priesthood. For you have risen by these steps: namely, by cunning, which the monastic profession abhors, to money; by money to favor; by favor to the sword. By the sword you have come to the throne of peace, and from the throne of peace you have destroyed the peace. You have armed subjects against their prelates; you who have not been called by God have taught that our bishops who have been called by God are to be spurned; you have usurped for laymen the bishops’ ministry over the priests, with the result that these laymen depose and condemn the very men whom the laymen themselves received as teachers from the hand of God, through the imposition of the hand of bishops… [Source: “The Letters of Henri IV”, in Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, trans., Theodor E. Mommsen and Karl F. Morrison (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 150-151]

Particularly evident in this selection is the rhetorical device known as “parallelism“. For example, in the second sentence the words “a sharer of confusion instead of honor, of malediction instead of benediction” paint a striking, parallel contrast. The Latin words “maledictio” and “benedictio” placed in antithesis like this would be particularly striking to a Latin reader. Another device I see, which structures the entire third and fourth paragraphs (at least) is “diatuposis“–a vivid recitation of charges worded with obvious amazement or anger for the purpose of stirring the emotions of the audience to agree with the speaker. Still a third device is “climax“, which is a progressive building of weight supporting the speaker’s point (seen here in the fifth and sixth paragraphs). The fifth paragraph may also contain some examples of “anadiplosis“, which involves repeating words at the end of one clause at the beginning of the next (”to money; by money to favor; by favor to the sword. By the sword you have come to the throne of peace, and from the throne of peace you have destroyed the peace.”).

These terms are rhetorical devices created by ancient orators over several centuries for the purpose of creating pleasing speech that would persuade their hearers to embrace the cause being defended, or to reject the cause being attacked. “Rhetoric” for the ancients (and the Medievals) simply did not mean what it seems to mean today (”meaningless bandying of substance-less words”), and it was, in fact, a major part of the “mental landscape” of every educated person. To be unaware of this central feature of the minds which produced texts we evaluate today is to set ourselves up to mis-evaluate those texts, and even to press them into the service of agendas that may very well have been foreign to the minds of their authors. Understanding “rhetoric” is, when dealing with many ancient texts, actually one key to understanding authorial intent.

At any rate, it is significant that the above “epideictic” form of rhetoric can be found frequently in Christian sources, particularly saints’s lives, political speeches, polemical writings–and even writings which we would like to characterize as somehow plainly “theological” but which have many concrete sociopolitical overtones beyond (seemingly) abstract “doctrine”. In other words, it is not automatically the case that a piece of fine prose lauding someone (say, the Bishop of Rome) to the sky is a piece of prose preaching propositions. Enthusiastic effusions about pontifical perfections may, in fact, be more rhetorical rhapsodizing than vivifying verities. (By the way, alliteration is also a classical rhetorical device. I may perhaps have just overused it, but then, I am trying to make a point about missed contexts of old texts).

I had hoped to provide a piece of similar length and style to the above which directly praises the virtues of the Roman Bishop, in order to demonstrate that what we are looking at in such pieces of writing is a classical “form” of composition, one of many that could rightly be expected of the discourse between educated persons. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet located anything more than a handful of references to Latin sources that are so obscure that I can’t even get them at the two university libraries I usually use and which are usually so helpful. The best I’ve found so far are a couple of translated phrases from these works, which call the Bishop of Rome such grandiose titles as “lord of the whole universe” and “master of the entire sub-lunary sphere”. I will keep looking to see if I can find the whole works in translation, or at least where I can get at them in the Latin and extract the more relevant portions.

At any rate, I assume that some of you out there have seen such things cited by various Catholic apologists, complete with triumphalist “Aha! See! Rome has always had the primacy from Jesus Christ Himself!” announcements. The first thing you should think when you see such outbursts from apologists is “Do they know anything about classical rhetoric?” Remember that many times when you see grandiose, formal, highly stylized language in ancient texts, extolling the virtues (or denouncing the vices) of someone for the purpose of gaining your support for his social / political agenda, you may very well be looking at an instance of “epideictic rhetoric”, a classical “form” of discourse used to move your emotions and spur you to action, not to convey some abstract “propositional truth”, some “timeless” and rigidly “objective” syllogism.

I can’t prove this rigorously, but I suspect that given the prevalence of rhetoric in Greek discourse, epideictic effusions may be part of the explanation for why the Greek Church was simply flabbergasted when it finally discovered that Rome had been for a couple of centuries drastically wrongly interpreting many of the Greek Fathers’s utterances as being “literal” acceptances by the Greek Church of “papal primacy”. And it may be significant for this speculation of mine that the discipline of rhetoric, along with classical and liberal education in general, greatly declined in Rome for several centuries–only coming back into its own at roughly the same time as the final disastrous split with the East occurred in the late 11th century. If Roman movers and shakers “forgot” about rhetoric, it would stand to reason they wouldn’t recognize it for what it was when they saw–or more importantly, heard– it.

The point here is that epideictic rhetoric is not to be read “literally”, nor accused of being a “lying” mode of discourse. Falsehoods can be eloquently stated in epideictic rhetoric, but often enough such compositions are exercises in arguing both sides of a case–or else are instances of “Sophistic” rhetoric (which does not care about truth, anyway) in action. In fact, in the hands of dishonest persons epideictic rhetoric was in the ancient world often used to tell falsehoods for the purpose of manipulating an audience. At one point in his Confessions St. Augustine indicates that as a teacher of rhetoric prior to his conversion, he once composed an epideictic passage that was deliberately full of manifest falsehoods. In such cases rhetoric was not joined to truth, and the best of the rhetorical tradition was misused. This is also why in Book IV of his On Christian Doctrine Augustine labors eloquently to convince us that truth is not really truth if it is not beautifully expressed, and that Christians must be acquainted with rhetoric so that the truth will not be “upstaged” by falsehood.

Nevertheless, abuses aside, it is true that for the most part epideictic discourses are simply not meant to be taken “literally” as we moderns usually understand that term. Sometimes they are simply meant to paint vivid mental pictures, as with the first author’s laudatory exclamations about Diocletian’s battlefield prowess. Was Diocletian “literally” all over the place in the battle, moving so fast that his soldiers could not follow him and virtually fighting the entire battle himself? Of course not. Was the author thus “lying” about Diocletian’s battlefield activities? Only if someone reading such a piece of writing approaches it, and human language and discourse in general, in a “right angle” fashion. The purpose of epideictic compositions is not, in fact, didactic, but moralistic. If you find someone reading and interpreting such passages in a “literal” or “wooden” fashion, you should consider the possibility that you may be dealing with someone who has no idea how to read an ancient text in the first place. This means you should exercise caution in trusting much of what they say about what the ancient text “clearly” means.

Finally, it should be understood that the point about epideictic rhetoric is not a universal one. That is, I am not claiming that any time and without exception that a passage speaking highly of the bishop of Rome is found it is an example of rhetorical excess for a moralistic purpose. I am merely speaking of one essential context (the prevalence of classical rhetoric in the ancient and Medieval worlds) for understanding many ancient texts–a context which, significantly, like a number of other contexts, you will be very hard pressed to find your average Catholic apologist taking note of in the construction of the cultural cul-de-sac of “all or nothing” apologetics for the “divine truth” of Catholicism.

Given that such apologists so often speak of “clear” texts that bear so-called “face value” meanings in favor of developed Roman Catholic doctrine, it would seem to be relevant that it is “clearly” the case that just as the Roman Emperor did not “literally” rule the entire universe, neither did (or does!) the Roman Bishop “literally” fill such offices as were sometimes ascribed to him in epideictic rhetorical speeches–offices such as “king of the whole universe” and “master of the whole sub-lunary sphere”. To read such things “literally” and then make the claim that they “clearly” teach some abstract point of “doctrine” that is universally applicable in all ages is simply outlandish. It is “right angle” apologetics, and as such it cannot handle the subtleties of real history, real human discourse, and real faith.

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