Quote. Rafał Toczko. The [Augustine’s] Definition of a Martyr. 2018.
The Definition of a Martyr
Among the standard techniques of early Christian polemical literature is rebuttal based on locus finitionis. It served the purpose of persuading the audience that one’s opponent is getting things wrong because he gets words wrong, i. e. definitions. The Roman state persecuted the Donatists, and the Donatists worshipped the victims of the persecution as martyrs. This was a hard issue to deal with; hence Augustine on and on repeats that the Donatists do not understand the concept of martyrdom. They seem to understand it as suffering death in times of imperial legal actions against a religious group: if one dies in such circumstances then one is a martyr. According to Augustine, however, true martyrdom involves the right cause for suffering, which the Donatists lack. He goes on to say that he fails to see the reasons in the Donatists claims to martyrdom. This mockery often accompanies accusations of boastfulness and a hint at their intellectual deficiencies, as in Epistula 89:
Quid autem infelicius atque perversius, sicut Donatistae faciunt, qui se persecutionem perpeti gloriantur, quam de cohercitione iniquitatis suae non solum nescire confundi, sed etiam velle laudari ignorantes caecitate mirabili vel animositate damnabili se scire dissimulantes, quod martyres veros non faciat poena sed causa?
The phrasing is typical for the heretic-denigrating context, whether we look at the adjectives and adverbs (infelix, perverse, ignorans), verbs (gloriari, dissimulare) or nominal phrases (caecitas mirabilis, animositas damnabilis). It is obviously used to raise negative emotions. Once again, however, Augustine does not only aim at indignation, but also at mocking his opponents as people who obviously lack good sense. Similar tactics may be observed in yet another example of such a rhetorical question:
Quae est ista dementia, ut, cum male vivitis, latronum facta faciatis et cum iure punimini, gloriam martyrum requiratis?
In Epistula 108 Augustine again rejects mockingly the Donatists’ claims to martyrdom. He puts his mockery in the form of a synkrisis between the Donatist allegedly persecuted by the Catholics and Catholics factually killed by the Donatists. The irony is once again conveyed by a rhetorical question:
Quid ergo nobiscum de tolerata persecutione confligitis, qui vobiscum ista non aequo iure divisimus? Cum enim non semper, qui persecutionem sustinet, perveniat ad passionem, sic inter nos composuerunt clerici et Circumcelliones vestri, ut vos persecutionem, nos passionem sustineremus. Sed, ut dixi, cum Maximianistis de ista laude certate.
The violence of the Circumcellions is a commonplace in Augustine’s anti-Donatist rhetoric. The irony is well felt in the phrase vos persecutionem, nos passionem sustineremeus. This feeling can be only increased by the ironical suggestion he serves the Donatists with: he urges them to compete on the field of sustained persecution with the Maximianists. When this group separated itself from the rest of the Donatists, the mainstream group asked the state for help in taking the churches away from them. This decision caused some violence and hence added weapons to Augustine’s arsenal. He reaches for it in another comparatio in Epistula 76. It serves him to show that even if one allows for the fact that their definition is not wholly wrong, their claim to martyrdom is unjustified nevertheless. The reason is that they themselves have persecuted the Maximianists through earthly powers:
Si propterea iusti estis, quia persecutionem per imperatores passi estis, iustiores vobis sunt ipsi Maximianistae, quos per iudices ab imperatoribus catholicis missos vos ipsi persecuti estis.
Mention of the Maximianists often occurs in the context of exposing the iniquity suffered by Caecilianus. If it does not matter why one suffers persecution, but suffering is as such the sufficient condition for martyrdom, then Caecilianus has to be considered a martyr.
Nos enim dicimus ideo illum [sc. Caecilianum] ad veram ecclesiam pertinuisse, non quia persecutionem patiebatur, sed quia propter iustitiam patiebatur; illos autem ideo fuisse abalienatos ab ecclesia, non quia persequebantur, sed quia iniuste persequebantur. Nos itaque hoc dicimus; illi vero si non quaerunt causas, quare quisque faciat persecutionem vel quare patia-tur, sed hoc putant esse signum veri Christiani, si persecutionem non faciat, sed patiatur, sine dubio Caecilianum in ea definitione constituunt, qui non faciebat, sed patiebatur; maiores autem suos ab ea definitione foras mittunt, qui faciebant, non patiebantur.
Through these comparisons with the Maximianists and Caecilianus Augustine clearly aims at reductio ad absurdum, as he shows how ridiculous and damaging a conclusion one can draw if one simply applies definitions that Donatists insist on. Their inability of defining crucial words proves their intellectual incapacity.
Rafał Toczko. “The Ways of Ridiculing the Opponents in Augustine’s Letters. The case of the Donatists”. Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity | Volume 22: Issue 1, pp. 103-105. De Gruyter. 2018.
Corresponding author: Rafał Toczko, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Faculty of Languages, Classics Department, Fosa Staromiejska 3, 87–100 Toruń, Poland, e-mail: raftocz[@]umk.pl