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The Interdisciplinary Teacher: Augustine's "Contra Academicos" as a Dialogue about Rhetoric

Stevie Hull

Brown University

In describing the impetus for the retreat his dialogue Contra Academicos purports to record, Augustine establishes a philosophy/rhetoric binary that appears antagonistic. He has just left his position as chair of rhetoric at Milan in order to pursue a life of Christian philosophy. At several points throughout the text, he compares the “good” philosophy he and his students are doing with the vain pursuit of rhetoric in the schools. But in fact, Augustine’s engagement with specific techniques of rhetorical training runs much deeper than the rhetorical language with which he disparages the schools he has left. It is, therefore, the purpose of this paper to situate the Contra Academicos within the context of Augustine’s training as a teacher of rhetoric. Recent scholarship has re-framed the dialogue in terms its author’s pedagogy. Contra Academicos is just as much about revealing how one should teach Augustine’s brand of Christian philosophy as it is about his personal soul-searching. Yet while scholars of this dialogue have devoted significant attention to Augustine’s philosophy of teaching, his classroom management, and his approaches to the subjects of philosophy and literature, relatively little attention has been paid to Augustine’s inclusion of subject matter directly apropos of advanced rhetorical training. In this paper, I argue that Augustine interweaves an exploration of the rhetorical practice of inventio with the central philosophical question of the Contra Academicos, viz., the possibility of finding (invenire) the truth. This interweaving reflects a deeper project of Augustine’s, in the vein of his model Cicero, to demonstrate the correct interdisciplinary application of rhetoric to philosophical training.

In the first part of the paper, I argue that the dialogue’s discussion follows the discrete sub-sections of inventio as outlined in the rhetorical handbooks of the first century BCE. Augustine signposts these sections of his dialogue, steering his students’ discussion according to the same template provided by the handbooks for the sections of inventio. In this reading, many of Augustine’s choices to pursue or leave particular lines of argument—choices which some readers have deemed “bad philosophy” or else inexplicable—can be explained by Augustine’s aim of conducting the conversation according to this rubric. For him, the possibility of knowing whether the truth can be found depends in part upon using the right techniques to find it. In the second part of the paper, I argue that this exploration of inventio does in fact deal with rhetoric specifically. Because inventio was fundamental to the practice of both dialectic and rhetoric, arts which enjoyed a great deal of interdisciplinary permeation, one might posit that Augustine’s use of inventio should be understood as part of his instruction of dialectic. Even given the interpermeation of the two arts, there is ample evidence to see a particularly rhetorical flavor in Augustine’s use of inventio. For instance, Augustine’s long speech at the end of the dialogue takes the form of a rhetorical controversia and incorporates topics the disputants have “found” via inventio. Furthermore, throughout the dialogue, Augustine engages with Ciceronian texts that are themselves concerned with the responsible inclusion of rhetoric within philosophical practice. And like Cicero before him, Augustine is concerned not only with the question of whether truth can be found—he is also interested in demonstrating the best ways to teach others to find it. Augustine’s determination to show that the best way to find truth includes methods drawn from rhetorical education is significant both because it illuminates perplexing aspects of his philosophical argumentation and because it belies his own philosophy/rhetoric binary, suggesting that Augustine’s vocal rejection of rhetoric does not extend to the use of fundamental rhetorical exercises in his literary classroom.

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Late Antique Literary Developments

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