Scholars have long noted the Ciceronian eloquence of the Christian apologist Lactantius (c.250-326C.E.) and the evidence thereof in his Divinae Institutiones. In both its structure and its argumentation, Lactantius’ De ira Dei also clearly illustrates the classical rhetorical training in which its author was most experienced. Here, however, it is no longer merely Lactantius’ style that admits of Ciceronian influence, but the very structure and framing of the argument itself. Against the philosophers, namely the Stoics and Epicureans, Lactantius maintains that the summus deus experiences anger. Lactantius’ reluctance to engage with the philosophers on their terms has often been taken as evidence of his ignorance of philosophy. Yet the apologist himself (in a clearly rhetorical move) says that his opponents operate in the realm of conjecture, without reason (ratio). To ascertain the truth of the matter, he argues, one must follow a logical argument, grounded in proofs and reasoned discussion. Lactantius’ rhetorical argument represents a distinct choice on the part of the author: to formulate a theological claim in rhetorical terms. It is not just that Lactantius looked toward his training in rhetoric or to the principles of reading and articulation that he could extract from it, but rather that he presented a doctrinal matter in this manner.
This paper aims to question accepted notions about the role of both rhetoric and philosophy in third century Christian intellectual discourse. To that end, I discuss two important and overlooked facets of Lactantius’ argument in De ira Dei. In the first section, I set out the structure and rhetorical points of the treatise and examine Lactantius’ use of the term ratio. The applicability of rhetoric’s principles to philosophical (or in Lactantius’ case, theological) matters is not, however, the only way to understand the argumentation of the treatise. The deeper motivation behind Lactantius’ strategy was that he, like Cicero, saw in the proper exercise of rhetoric the pursuit of a reasoned and logical argument, particularly of philosophical or theological questions. Thus in the second section, I demonstrate that Lactantius adopted rhetorical techniques because he believed rhetoric to provide the soundest ratio for his material. Lactantius’ disillusionment with philosophy together with his training (educational and vocational) made rhetoric the most accessible and the most natural way for him to express his beliefs about the true religion. Equally importantly, rhetoric gave him a way of articulating theological arguments that allowed him to be most persuasive.
Religion, for Lactantius, is a rational choice, thoughtful and reasoned out; it is not a system of beliefs to which one dedicates himself based solely on revelation. A decision reached by such a method requires a similar method of exposition and explication; philosophical terms and thought are inadequate to the task, but the principles of rhetorical argumentation are those by which Lactantius can convince and persuade his audience. The rhetorical system and principles that Lactantius adopted for the purpose of persuasion indicate a conscious and intentional decision on the part of the apologist. We come to see that he is the “Christian Cicero” in ways that outstrip mere stylistic parallels; the similarities between the two include a greater cultural initiative. For Cicero, this involved the translation of Greek philosophical terms and ideas into Latin and the introduction thereof into Roman culture. For Lactantius, this involved the pairing of biblical ideas with familiar pagan notions and the introduction thereof into a culture educated in the Roman tradition. Rhetoric, although an ever-present and important facet of all intellectual production of the period, is the centerpiece of Lactantius’ intellectual project.