Historical Rhetorics/Rhetoric's Medieval Resurgence/Camper, K. M. (2013). The stylistic virtues of clarity and obscurity in Augustine of Hippo's De doctrina christiana.

The Source

Camper, K. M. (2013). The stylistic virtues of clarity and obscurity in Augustine of Hippo's De doctrina christiana. Advances in the History of Rhetoric, 16(1), 58-81. doi: 10.1080/15362426.2013.764832

The Summary

In addressing the Wikibook’s question “To what extent does Augustine promote rhetoric?”, Camper’s article argues that Augustine’s contributions to rhetorical theory extend beyond traditional assertions that Augustine merely reinscribes Cicero and most directly confronts issues of rhetoric only in Book 4 of On Christian Teaching. Camper focuses on Augustine’s detailed discussions of clarity and obscurity as a stylistic concern to be considered in the differing rhetorical situations of preaching and interpreting the scriptures. Beginning his discussion by tracing the value of clarity in speech from Aristotle to Cicero (via Theophrastus) to Quintilian, Camper foregrounds an essentially stable, but increasingly rigid perspective that clarity/good and obscurity/bad. Camper then asserts that Augustine’s position on “modulated perspicuity” deviates from this lineage. For Augustine, he posits, both clarity and obscurity have a place in the discovery/interpretation of scripture, and, although clarity maintains primacy in preaching scripture, his stylistic commitment to clarity deviates from other Neoplatonist like Plotinus and Porphyry. He argues that, throughout all four books, Augustine sees modulated perspicuity as serving the “diverse spiritual needs” of the interpreter (67): clarity for spiritual fulfillment, and obscure passages to “combat boredom” (see Book 2.6.8) by enriching the interpreters enjoyment of the texts. Further, where the Latin tradition is rigid regarding clarity in speech, Camper notes that Augustine’s stylistic concern for clarity is even more radical in that it accommodates colloquial and common Latin (see Book 4.10.24).

In doing this, Augustine not only further advances the modulation of perspicuity as a function of rhetorical situation, but challenges the Neoplatonic position that metaphysical passages in scripture speak to the unspeakable nature of the divine and that only the educated can hope to apprehend this mystery. Camper’s assertion is that Augustine’s position on the relative on modulated perspicuity is rhetorically, not metaphysically grounded in the needs of the audience—whether that audience is interpreting or auditing a sermon.