(From part of the introductory section, footnotes removed)
Chrysostom comes at the long tail of the impact of the Second Sophistic period in the Hellenistic world. Traditionally reckoned as the second and third centuries AD, the Second Sophistic reflects a resurgence of appreciation for the art of rhetoric, especially in the Greek-speaking world, and also correspondingly, but in an increasingly divergent manner, in the Latin-speaking West. One feature which helps us to understand the rise of the Second Sophistic is the significant shift in the political landscape in the wake of the establishment of Augustus’ Principate and its subsequent absolutising and monarchising heirs. That shift of political power was already on a trajectory before Augustus, but it reaches its end in the singular authority of Augustus. This fundamental change in the structure of power at Rome led to the dislocation of rhetorical speech from actual political decision making. Some of that transition can be seen in orations delivered to Caesar by Cicero after his rise to power, and in subsequent similar power-relations, where a rhetorical set-piece aims to offer advice or persuasion by very indirect means. For example, the overt and ostentatious flattery of an Emperor’s virtue in one respect, as a means to point out that Emperor’s deficiency in that same respect.
Tacitus is a keen observer of this phenomenon, the decline of rhetoric as a discourse for power . The Second Sophistic sees the rise of rhetoric as a self-reflexive art, rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. This blossoms especially in the East, even though rhetoric there continues for some time to have a political and deliberative role in the somewhat freer affairs of most autonomous cities. The emergence and development of declamations, even declamatory contests, reflects the disappearance of the real power of public oration to influence public affairs, and its segmentation as an elite literary pursuit.
While the Second Sophistic as a movement is dated as closing in 230 , its cultural impact is significant and has a long tail. Rhetoric is seen, well into Late Antiquity, as the art to be learnt by the elites of society, and as a means of preparation for pursuing civil service and public office in the Imperial administration. It essentially became the dominant educational paradigm, encompassing what we would today term studies in informal logic (the analysis of arguments in common language), and literary criticism and theory.
The Fourth century period reflects a second significant change, in the relationship between Christians and the Roman establishment. The end of persecution and gradual shift from marginalised to favoured status that is associated with the ascension of Constantine I leads to a more settled period, especially in terms of church leadership, reflected in the significant theologians of the century, nearly all of whom have aristocratic backgrounds and rhetorical educations. It is noteworthy, for instance, that of the eight great Latin Fathers, five were rhetorical professors first, and the other three rhetorically trained. A similar ubiquity of rhetorical training is to be found in Greek Fathers of the period.
Such rhetorical training manifests itself in the Patristic literature in a number of ways. In terms of oratory, Christian preaching of the period shows definite traces of that rhetorical training in the rhetorical techniques employed. This is despite significant, often vehement, censure against the pagan rhetorical tradition. On a perhaps more fundamental level, the training of rhetoric in the analysis of argument (specifically stemming from judicial rhetoric and its law-court application) came to be applied in dogmatic theology and doctrinal polemic, while the refinements of literary criticism came similarly to be applied in the reading of the Scriptures, shaping Patristic methods of exegesis and hermeneutics.
In Chrysostom’s case, he was afforded the opportunity to study rhetoric under one of Late Antiquity’s indisputable masters, Libanios of Antioch. Libanios was born in Antioch, 314, and studied rhetoric at Athens, traditional and undisputed center for rhetoric in Antiquity, between 336-340. He then taught rhetoric at both Constantinople and Nicomedia, before a first, brief, return to Antioch in 353, and a subsequent and permanent return in 354. He took up the teaching of rhetoric in Antioch, and with the retirement of Zenobios, successfully competed and manouevred to take his chair and become the city’s official sophist. Libanios was a significant cultural and political figure in Antioch, his correspondents include Julian the Emperor, and Basil the Great. Libanios considered himself a contender equal, or superior, in stature to any at Athens (still first in reputation for rhetoricla centers) and certainly Constantinople (whose prominence lay in part with its status as the imperial capital). Libanios’ fairly extensive surviving works include both numerous orations and epistles and give a uniquely broad perspective on a number of facets, including the city of Antioch, the school of a successful sophist, and the declining paganism of high-cultured elites in Late Antiquity.
That Chrysostom studied under Libanios is not so remarkable, as that he flourished in this educational environment, and like many of his contemporaries took his remarkable learning into the Church. So much so, that Libanios is famously reported as saying on his deathbed, when asked who should succeed him, that it ought to have been John, except the Christians had stolen him. So, more than a part of the esteem in which Chrysostom is held is due to his mastery of the rhetorical tradition which he and his contemporaries all drew from, and a part of his appeal to other leading church figures, both then and since, was that they too were raised and trained in a rhetorically-sensitised culture which had its own refined appreciation of rhetoric as rhetoric.
In this work I do not intend to dwell overlong on a rhetorical study of Chrysostom’s preaching, whether considered as performative pieces or literary ones. Certainly such a study would be worthwhile, and studies such as Ameringer’s exemplify that worthwhile-ness. However, it is indispensible to recognise the backdrop of rhetorical culture to Chrysostom’s role as preacher as well as the influence on the content of his sermons. Part of my contention will be that Chrysostom’s analysis of John’s gospel often involves questions and methods that are drawn from and exemplify the rhetorical tradition, which forms something of the common bond between Chrysostom and other Fourth Century exegetes.
This work by Seumas Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.