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Confessions: Eloquently Stated

Me, however, you had already educated, in your wondrous and mysterious ways… and I had thus already learned from you that a statement shouldn’t seem true just because it’s eloquently stated, nor false, just because the symbols sounding forth from the lips are clumsy; on the other hand, I’d learned that a statement isn’t true for the sole reason that its expression is unrefined, or false merely because its style is superb.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.10

Augustine waited anxiously for Faustus to arrive because people told him that he would answer all of his doubts. However, when the long-awaited day finally came he was disappointed. Augustine, being the perceptive man that he was, realized that Faustus was not saying anything different or new from what all the other Manicheans were saying. He simply said it better and looked better, but it was none the wiser.

Why had people made such large promises about Faustus? because “the people who’d promised him to me all that time weren’t competent critics, and he seemed to them shrewd and wise simply because his speaking gave them pleasure” (5.10.2). People believed Faustus was true, not by the content of his words, but by his eloquence.

Then there was another class of people who viewed truth with suspicion if it was said eloquently. So, this was the situation: you had teachers who taught lies eloquently and were believed because of their eloquence, and then there were teachers who taught truth eloquently and were doubted because of their eloquence.

Augustine thus realizes that eloquence is peripheral. It can both lead people into lies and repel them from the truth. His conclusion is then. Eloquence is not the determining factor on whether something is true. He compares wisdom and dimwittedness to healthy and unhealthy food. Healthy food can be served in urban sophistication or rustic simplicity. it is the same with truth; it can either can be served in fancy or plain words.

Truth and wisdom do not need sophistication, it needs accuracy.

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.—Psalm 25:5

Holy One of Israel, give me the discernment to find your truth, and the words to communicate them in both sophisticated and simple words.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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