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Augustine and the Rhetoric of Roman Decline

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The rhetoric of moral, spiritual and political decline represents a recurrent rhetorical form, one that has appeared throughout history in a variety of contexts. This article takes a closer look at one episode in the history of decline rhetoric -- the fourth-century anti-Christian critiques regarding Roman imperial decline, and Augustine's responses to them in his City of God -- in order to explore the phenomenon of decline rhetoric more deeply. Augustine's response to those who blamed Christianity for the empire's decline took place on both the empirical and the interpretive levels. First, he drew on the Roman historians Sallust and Livy to argue that moral decline, if it took place at all, predated Christianity. Second, his theory of the two cities took issue with the notion of decline as a fundamental misunderstanding of historical change. The article closes by drawing out some implications of this particular study for approaching decline rhetoric in political life more generally, concluding with a consideration of the controversial remarks of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who viewed the 11 September attacks as divine punishment for American moral decline.
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Keywords: Augustine; Christianity; City of God; Jerry Falwell; Livy; Pat Robertson; Roman; Sallust; September 11; decline; rhetoric

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Asst. Prof. of Humanities and Political Philosophy, Christ College, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN 46383-6493, USA., Email:

Publication date: 2005-01-01

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