Historical Rhetorics/Rhetoric's Medieval Resurgence/King, Andrew A. "St. Augustine's Doctrine of Participation As a Metaphysic of Persuasion."

Because wo(man) is estranged from God, she/he must struggle (as a mandate) to attain knowledge as active seekers studying the opaque signs, obscure symbols, ambiguous language, and figurative meanings—all “scaffolding we must climb” through a learning process to participate in universal and divine knowledge (112). King argues that while Augustine’s Theory of Signs and Guide to Interpretation are well known, what is lesser known is a “metaphysics of persuasion that undergirds these methods,” the “Augustinian doctrine of participation,” which suggests that our sources of knowledge (canonical texts, authoritative hearsay of prophets, inspired teachers) must be “assimilated, interpreted, worked through—in short, participated in—if the learner wishe[s] to encounter the truth” (112-113). Augustine’s “modified Neo-Platonic” conception of participation is the bridge across three levels of reality: 1) the corporeal, or the recognition of a veiled “reality” from an opaque world of natural and artificial signs; 2) the psychic, or the act of ordering, judging, and reading out these signs in a “coherent world text”; and 3) the divine, or sharing in God’s immutable truth (here King suggests that Augustine edits Plato to suggest that “eternal forms and ideas exist within the mind of God,” and thus in shared contemplation we can participate in being itself) (113). King then compares Augustine’s metaphysics of Participation and Persuasion to Kenneth Burke’s metaphysics of Identification and Persuasion:

  • Both are inspired by the Fall from Grace and the sense of estrangement and self consciousness that followed.
  • Human understanding and insight are crucial to both conceptions.
  • Augustine tells us that if signs were instantly intelligible, we would already be citizens in the City of God instead of sojourners in the City of Man. Likewise, Burke suggests that complete identification is impossible as it would mean “complete and perfect union with God and the end of human consciousness” (114).

Incomplete, ambiguous, and opaque signs offer resistance; they open up a “rite of passage.” “The difficulty of the passage and the uncertainty of the result heighten the learner’s sense of commitment to the message. We must struggle to feel at home in the universe. Those who undertake a personal odyssey gain a commitment to the lessons they have learned on the way. Thus a public truth is only rendered effective through a number of personal discoveries” (114).