“Found” by Mark Clavier

To Publicus, Augustine sends greetings.

1. You have written me concerning the matter of how Christians ought to respond to the hearings in your national assembly to confirm a judge to your highest court. You observed in your letter the extreme anger and animosity your fellow countrymen feel for one another and your deep concern about the passion these hearings have inflamed. These passions, you say, affect the Church as well, making it difficult to know how one ought to witness to Christ in a society seemingly bent on its own destruction.

2. As a long-dead North African bishop, I cannot possibly comment on the processes of your government, nor have I any knowledge of the details concerning the accuser and the accused. But observing the past few days, I have been struck by how much your time resembles the days of that man of eloquence, Cicero, when factions warred publicly with each other in courtrooms, assemblies, and the Senate. Often these debates seemed to be about goods like truth and justice but in reality were for the consumption of the crowds, to inflame their passion, feed their anger, and thus gain their support.

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3. These rhetorical spectacles were all much alike. According to the rhetorical conventions of the time, the speakers must first establish their credibility to the crowds. They would make much of their own virtues, especially those they perceived to be under attack. If one thought them weak, they would show their strength; if corrupt, they would weep about their innocence; if ignorant, they would flourish their knowledge and learning like a peacock its feathers. In so doing, they would appeal less to the minds of their audience than to their hearts. Tears, anger, defiance, timidity, outrage, and even flashes of kindness would be used by turns to draw out the compassion, moral outrage, or whatever was needed to induce the crowd to side with the speaker.

4. Next, speakers must denounce their opponents, portraying them in the worst possible ways so that the crowds are convinced that sympathy toward such loathsome people can only be a vice. In the same way that speakers exaggerate their own virtues while remaining silent about their vices, now they present their enemies’ worst qualities without any mention of their excellent virtues. If admiration is the goal of the first, then hatred and scorn are the goals of the second. In both cases, however, the object is for the audience to let go of its rational judgement, weighing right and wrong carefully and thoughtfully, so that it desires what it finds delightful and abhors that which it finds repugnant. The crowd comes to want the speaker to be victorious and the opponent to be humiliated and destroyed.

5. Then there is the case. The man of eloquence wrote that even here the best course for a speaker is not to present the truth of the matter. The case at hand may be too complex for the crowds to perceive truth from falsehood, or it may even propose that which is false. No, to persuade the crowds, once again their passions must be stirred by the spectacle. The object is not to appeal to the minds of the audience — that is the work of philosophers — but to hearts. Flattery is a typical tool for such speakers. Tell the crowds that they are too wise, too circumspect to fall for falsehoods and not to see what is really happening. People can easily be convinced of even the most unlikely of stories if it conforms to what they wantto believe. Another tool is to present the case in such a way that the crowds can feel morally superior for agreeing with the speakers and consenting to what they will. “How wise and upright we are,” they say, “for agreeing with these virtuous speakers and denouncing those they oppose.”

6. Finally, having achieved these three things, speakers can easily persuade the crowds to do as they please. Cicero described this well when he wrote, “I think nothing is more admirable than being able, through speech, to take hold of people’s minds, to win over their inclinations, to drive them at will in one direction, to draw them at will from another.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “The method employed in the art of oratory … relies entirely on three means of persuasion: proving that our contentions are true, winning over the audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand.”

7. All of this requires two things to work. First, the matter at hand must be made public. There must be a crowd. A speaker is impotent without a crowd, and ineffective without the rightcrowd. Thus, a crowd must be gathered around the speakers. In my day, this was done by conducting such rhetorical contests in designated places — the marketplace or an auditorium — often with entertainment, gifts, and favors to attract supporters. I see things are not so different in your day. Your forms of communication — I believe you call them television and the Web — use entertainment to gain their audiences and frequently interrupt proceedings to parade goods for people to desire. Indeed, I note how hard it is for people in your day to escape the crowd or the performance — they are ever being displayed on your flashing screens. I presume this need for a crowd drives your senators to conduct their proceedings in public.

8. The other prerequisite for these rhetorical spectacles is to use factions. People love almost above all else to be at war.If there are no external enemies then they will quickly find or even create internal ones. Because of this, people are primed to hate others and, therefore, delight in contests against those they despise, like opposing crowds at gladiatorial games or at one of your sporting events. Human delight in violence runs deep and takes many forms.

9. When all these elements are in place, it is easy for the speakers to play on people’s emotions and almost impossible for people of virtue to engage in reasonable discussion. I experienced this early in my career when I naively attempted to debate a Manichaean bishop. I later described this in a letter:

But after we had settled down in his home, no small crowd assembled because of the rumor spread about. We, however, saw that there were very few in that whole crowd who desired that the issue be treated in a useful and salutary manner and that so important a question on so important an issue be discussed with wisdom and piety. But the rest had assembled for the spectacle of our quarrel, as it were, in a manner of the theatre rather than for instruction toward salvation with Christian devotion.

We had to quit our discussion because the crowds, long inebriated with factionalism, would not allow for reason. That was when I realised that despite their protestations to contrary, the crowds care little about the subject of the debate as long as it allows their passions to be stirred against each other. What they want above all else is to feel righteous in themselves and hatred for their neighbors.

10. And so, Publicus, you ask what a Christian ought to do in these situations. In my day, as I have said, I warned Christians against attending such fractious debates. That is not so easy in your day when there is seemingly no escape from the public square. Your rhetors abound in ways ours never did, and their poisonous rhetoric taints even your private lives.

11. The remedy for that poison, however, is both simple and potent. It is briefly, our Lord’s command: “Love your enemies.” This command permits no factionalism, scorns hatred, and humbles pride. Christ’s command to love our enemies also allows for no exceptions. And note that he does not say, “Love your friends.” That is a simple love that even the pagans achieve. Rather, the Lord’s special command to those who follow him is to love your enemies. Moreover, he demonstrated that love by dying for us who, in our sins, were God’s enemies. Loving our enemies is, therefore, the high calling of Christians, one that if we take seriously earns us the scorn of the world, which despises peace and embraces violence. This the martyrs knew.

12. In your land, this means that God calls you to love the people you otherwise wish to hate and despise. Do their words and actions horrify you? Love them. Do their goals and plans frighten you? Love them. Do your friends and those you respect urge you to denounce and revile your enemies? Resist their promptings and instead love the ones they hate. Only in this way can you avoid diabolical pride and self-righteousness and receive the antidote to the world’s poison. And if you then must suffer alongside those whose ways you abhor, God will bless you.

13. The world’s poison shrinks hearts and dims vision. The more you drink of that poison the colder your heart becomes and the less you can envision and understand. Such poisoned hearts cannot perceive the humanity of others or understand how this world can and should be different. But, Publicus, God has poured his Spirit into your heart. That Spirit is none other than God’s love, which has the power to expand even the most shrunken hearts and reveal new horizons of understanding. By such grace, the eloquence of God overcomes the malignant rhetoric of this world, turning those with ears to hear away from hatred and factionalism toward the peace and unity of God’s city.

14. May that happy love enter ever more strongly into your heart so that by God’s grace you can resist the evil rhetoric of your times and be a faithful Christian in the midst of this fallen world. Your holiness will then be an example to others who are seeking goodness and by that example they will be led to God’s love. I pray for you and all the faithful of your land in these troubled times.

 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales, with primary responsibility for pastoral care, community engagement, and formation.

Mark has published three books: Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (SPCK), Eloquent Wisdom: Rhetoric, Cosmology and Delight in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo (Brepols), and Stewards of God’s Delight: Becoming Priests of the New Creation (Cascade).

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