It is a strange experience to read the Confessions while also being a professor of rhetoric. I teach many of the techniques–or “tricks,” as Augustine calls them–that Augustine taught in Thagaste. And though we share concerns about the ethics of rhetoric, I have chosen to keep being a rhetorician. Augustine left the profession and became a saint.

From age 19 to 28, Augustine led a public life of “being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving” (4.1.1). He was part of an artistic and intellectual community whose desires for applause and pleasure constantly sabotaged their attempts at intimacy. He employed his tongue to enchant and use people he would rather have known and loved. Augustine knew well that our honest search for companionship is often thwarted by our penchant for lust and lies.

Looking back, Augustine realizes that his teaching of rhetoric participated in this world of seduction and deception. “Conquered by a lust for money, I sold a conquering eloquence” (4.2.2). He sought out students who possessed what passed for virtue in the common surmise—students with ‘marketable skills,’ we might say—and “taught them tricks without trickery” (4.2.2). He taught them to be genteel and ambitious servants of the popular appetite, under the guise of teaching them to be free. Outside the classroom, he strove in contests and dedicated a book to an orator he didn’t really care for (4.14.21). All this falseness did not sit well, and eventually, he left the profession.

I stayed. I worship in the faith he helped build, and yet I labor in a guild he scorned on principle. And look, I’m not comfortable here. I sell rhetoric. I tell my students and my superiors how profitable it is to study the liberal arts. (A professor tells me that, some days, it feels like all he does is teach the privileged to maintain their privilege.) Outside the classroom, I’m as obsessed with winning “a garland of mere grass” as Augustine ever was (4.1.1). I have also considered leaving.

But there is a moment in Book IV when a better mode of relationship, a better rhetoric, flashes onto the page.

Augustine has a friend—sort of. He feels a sort of manipulative dependence on this man: “Because of me he erred in spirit, and my spirit could not be without him” (4.4.7). The friend falls ill. He wakes up and learns that, in his haze, he has been baptized. Augustine, hoping to steal him from God, dares to mock the baptism.

Then, the friend responds mirabili et repentina libertate, “with amazing and unexpected candor,” that Augustine must “stop speaking to him in this way” (4.4.8).

Mirabili et repentina libertate. The phrase has theological, social, and rhetorical significance. The friend is free from the idolatries of the artistic and intellectual set. He is free from the domineering manipulations of Augustine. He is free to speak the truth in love. The dying friend confronts the cynicism, the double talk, the posturing, the sarcasm that mark the rhetoric of Augustine’s time and ours. Augustine speaks artificially for selfish gain. The friend speaks from the heart even though it may cost him something. He has touched the hem of eternity and, though sick, he is stronger than Augustine. Though brief, he is more eloquent.

This moment of honesty stuns the rhetorician. He decides to avoid his friend until he is well. But the friend slips from his grasp and leaves him to grieve.

Augustine would eventually learn this eloquence, not through a fever, but the hard way, by writing the Confessions. Speaking before the face of God for thirteen books, searching and searching for the real Augustine, realizing that he is without form and void apart from the stabilizing presence of the Word, Augustine learned how rhetoric can operate within a Christian economy.  

Three years after completing the Confessions, a deacon asked Augustine how to tell the Christian story to interested newcomers at his church. In On Instructing Beginners in Faith, the bishop once again plays the rhetorician, but a transformation is evident. He once sold eloquence. Now, he is “a cheerful giver” (De catechizandis rudibus 2.4). He once sought profit. Now he owes a debt of love to everyone he meets, a debt he pays in language (1.1). He once spoke behind a facade of sophistication. Now he speaks so that “each of us comes to dwell in the other, and the listeners as it were speak in us what they hear, while we in some way learn in them what we teach” (12.17). This is an eloquence based on plenitude and care. It launches from divine love, bores through all fakery, and seeks genuine contact.

I will spend my life trying to teach and practice this new rhetoric. Sometimes, I can feel it working in me, the warmth, the desire to say what people need and not what will ingratiate them to me, the invitation to cut through the moment’s noise and hear the eternal music. I can’t sustain it long. I often fall back into seduction and deception. Then, I pray, and pick up my Confessions. Watching him struggle by grace is what pushes me back into the classroom.