Autobiography and Parrhesia: Modelling the Self in the Writings of Rather of Verona

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis focuses on the autobiographical writings of the tenth-century bishop Rather of Verona. It argues that, for him, writing about himself was intimately connected to writing in his own defence and in admonition of others. His chequered ecclesiastical and political career – he was deposed as a bishop four times – obliged him frequently to write in this way. In doing so, he drew upon the antique tradition of parrhesia (frank speech) that, as a result of his prodigious scholarship, he was able to find modelled in a wide array of authors, whether classical, biblical or patristic. Christian thinking, evident in the writing of Gregory the Great, expressed concern about bishops veering into self-conceit when speaking out in such a way. Exponents of parrhesia were encouraged to examine themselves closely before censuring others, in order to ward off the sin of pride. Hence autobiographical self-examination formed a significant element in Rather’s works of outspoken admonition. He looked to earlier authors for literary models of self-presentation that combined self-scrutiny with self-assertion and the chastisement of others. For the most part, in spite of his many political reverses, Rather should be considered broadly successful in this endeavour, given he managed to regain ecclesiastical office almost as often as he lost it.

Having first assessed the extent of Rather’s scholarship in general terms in Chapter 1, this thesis then provides an outline of his eventful political career in Chapter 2: a clear picture of his political insecurity and vulnerability is a necessary background for the proper understanding of his autobiographical works. In the remaining chapters, the thesis then considers in detail the influence of the specific literary models Rather drew upon in seeking to speak out successfully. In each case, it also considers the ways in which these models helped Rather address the problem of self-conceit to which parrhesiastic admonition might give rise and, in so doing, seeks to demonstrate the extent to which autobiography and parrhesia were intimately combined in his literary practice.

The body of the thesis follows a broadly chronological development, starting, in Chapter 3, with the Roman verse satirists, Horace and Persius. It focuses particularly on the noted element of autobiography in their verse, on their use of self-irony to cultivate a rhetorical ethos of self-deprecation and on their use of the dialogue form as a means of literary self-examination. Rather styles himself as a satirist on a number of occasions and incorporates the models afforded by these authors into his own self-presentation. Chief among these, I argue, are the figures of the doctor ineptus and the scurra, which allow Rather to deflect accusations of self-conceit through humour and self-irony.

Chapter 4 considers the influence upon Rather of the autobiographical elements of Paul’s epistles. The rhetorical ethos Paul presents is one of Christian humility, which emphasises personal human weakness much more than the Roman verse satirists’ ethos of self-deprecation. Key to Paul’s influence upon Rather’s self-presentation, beyond an apparent shared cantankerousness, is his disavowal of his own rhetoric and a paradoxical ‘boasting in his weakness’ – both useful antidotes to accusations of self-praise that writing about oneself could incur in the ancient world and to similar accusations of self-conceit that attended the exercise of parrhesia. The Pauline models that Rather incorporates into his own self-presentation are those of the prophet, the wise fool and the suffering sage, each of which helps to cultivate the desired ethos of humility. Ultimately, however, it is the imitation of Christ’s humility, which Rather again shares with Paul, that disarms any anticipated criticism for speaking out.

Chapter 5 considers the influence of Augustine upon Rather. I argue that, although the evidence is inconclusive, it is likely that Rather had read Augustine’s Confessions and that we can recognise its influence upon his self-presentation in his own writings. Chief among the stylistic influences is the use of soliloquy and the dialogue form. In terms of self-characterisation, Rather and Augustine share a tendency to examine themselves critically in their writings, often presenting themselves as taking undue and excessive pride in their learning, as being too beguiled by the praise their learning attracts and too bound by the toils of habit to amend their faults. Equally, they share a strong tendency to engage in writing for controversial purposes, feeling obliged to speak out frequently and forcefully in their own defence. Once again, in both Augustine and Rather, we find a Christlike ethos of humility and an intimate connection between autobiography and parrhesia.

Chapter 6 considers Jerome’s influence upon Rather. Again, we recognise a similar shared peevishness or cantankerousness in their self-presentation as we found in Paul. This peevishness, I argue, is as much a function of frank speech as it is representative of the personalities of any of these authors. Beyond this, Jerome and Rather share a profound engagement with the classical tradition, seeking to legitimate themselves by portraying themselves as Christian men of letters. Most specifically, Jerome styled himself as a prose satirist who, like Rather, drew heavily upon Roman verse. His incorporation of this tradition into his own work helped legitimate and direct Rather’s own use of it. The classical tradition informed their frequently combative polemics, but their relationship with it was often uneasy. Concerns about indulgence in classical rhetoric parallel once again that vexed negotiation between self-assertion and humility that Christian parrhesia enjoined. Where Jerome differs from Rather is in the notable absence of self-examination. Where he talks about himself autobiographically, it is often, as it is in Rather’s self-writings, to present himself as a first-person exemplum, but he displays little of Rather’s tendency towards self-deprecation.

Chapter 7 considers the influence of Gregory the Great. Gregory’s general influence upon the Christian practice of parrhesia, encouraging self-examination and the use of plain language to avert self-conceit, informs the thesis as a whole. In this chapter, I turn to look at his specific influence upon Rather’s self-presentation. They share similarities in common, both stylistically, in their use of classical rhetoric, including a penchant for nautical metaphors, and, in terms of their self-characterisation, in their assumption of the role of the reluctant holder of office. Ultimately, in each of them we find a similar, if differently inflected, emphasis in their self-presentation upon an ethos of humility, in regard to the exercise of authority and to the exhibition of learning. For both also, the act of self-revelation within their writing serves a predominantly pastoral and political function. Gregory modelled for Rather ways in which to use his political vulnerability as a rhetorical tool. Indeed, it was self-revelation – specifically, the exposure of their vulnerability, once again finally in imitation of Christ – that secured them the authorization to speak out against their opponents. Autobiography and frank speech are again intimately linked in their works.

I conclude by arguing that Rather’s use, in his numerous autobiographies, of literary models afforded by his wide reading, far from limiting him in his self-presentation, in truth acted as a springboard from which to launch a highly individualised series of self-portraits. Rather’s use of the personae he adopted was highly dynamic, not slavish. This use of prior models in one’s autobiographical self-presentation appears to be common to all of the authors considered here, except Augustine. This may point to a very different conception of autobiography from that generally understood in the modern West. It may also explain why Augustine, who wrote his Confessions in the manner more closely aligned with modern Western expectations, is renowned today as an autobiographer, while early medieval exponents of self-writing have until recently been overlooked. The use of models in shaping one’s self-presentation should not be taken to mean that such autobiographies are insincere. Rather’s autobiographies, for all their irony, intertextuality and literary playfulness, should be taken to include elements of genuine self-examination, for Rather knew that his audience was not simply temporal. Aware that an all-seeing, all-knowing God knew all that he said and did, and that his salvation depended in part upon justifying his autobiographical and parrhesiastic self-assertion before this highest judge, Rather would ultimately have felt compelled to examine himself with an honesty that was as frank as his speech.
Date of Award1 Jul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAlice Rio (Supervisor) & Julia Crick (Supervisor)

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