Feb 24, 2016
When you were learning math, I bet you didn’t start by trying to solve P versus NP. When you were learning Spanish, I bet you didn’t start with creating your own translation of Don Quixote. When you were learning to write, did you start with writing thirty-page rhetorical analyses and speeches? Probably not.
The ancient Greeks thought it was probably not such a good idea to start out young rhetors on writing full speeches, so they came up with a series of exercises that teachers could lead their students through, exercises that would help students become more comfortable with language, learn the conventions of their culture and generally ease their way into the kind of speech writing they’d be doing when they became generals and politicians and whatever else they were planning on doing when they grew up. These exercises were called progymnasmata, which mean “early exercises.” You may recognize that middle part as sounding like “gymnasium,” so it’s easy to remember what progymnasmata means—exercises.
Anciently, the two most used sequences were written by Hermogenes of Tarsus and Aphthonius of Antioch. And the order in which the progymnasmata were taught were usually the same, more or less: starting with fable, students then work through, chreia narrative, proverbs, refutations, confirmations, commonplaces, encomiums, vituperation, comparison, impersonation, description and only then on to theses and defending or attacking a law.
Some of these terms you might not be familiar with but pretty much the idea was to start with simple stories and move up to arguments. But—and I think this is important—stories were an argument. We do this all the time, don’t we?
So, Eric, what’s one of your favorite fables that proves an argument?
[Eric does his thing]
These stories are deeply resonate in our society’s memory and we can use them as an argument, assuming our audience agrees with these stories’ premises.
In the progymnasmata of Aelius theon, he explains the importance of “making clear the moral character inherent in the assignments” (13). Our society values something about the morals of Romeo and Juliet and the tortoise and the hare and so when we learn them and how to use them, we are underlining things our audience already buys into.
One step more abstract than fables are proverbs: “A penny saved is a penny earned”; “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”; “If you build it, they will come.” We have many proverbs that exemplify what our society values—whether thrift, equality or building baseball stadiums for ghost players. When the ancient Greeks were educating their students about language and putting together arguments, they were also educating them in what kinds of arguments their society already believed in.
Chreias Krey-ya, which are maxims ascribed to a person, for example, not only tell the student what the society values, but also who the society values. Again, these are generally accepted societial values. For example, when people say, “When they were hanging Nathan Hale, he bravely declared, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country,’” they are not only affirming the value of patriotism, even martyerism, but they’re also saying that Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary spy, is the kind of guy that we should be listening to.
Older exercises take parts of a speech and go in depth like ekphrasis which describes something. Let’s describe this room: Go:
Another exercise, ethopoeia, takes it a step forward by encouraging students to write in someone else’s situation, “where someone is imagined as making a speech” as Hermogenes puts it, “For example, what would a general say when returning from a victory? … what would a general say to his army after a victory?” Farmer one, Dido, etc.
Encommium and invective involve praising or blaming a figure, usually someone everyone knows and on whom everyone has an opinion. Think of Gorgias’ famous “Encomium of Helen,” which tried to argue in favor of someone everyone hated, Helen of Troy, or Isocrates’ response in his own encomium. Usually, though, Encomiums and invectives were along the lines of what everyone already thought, but the rhetor’s challenge was to say something new.
Finally, students could work on thesis and antithesis Nicolaus the Sophis says that “Thesis is something admitting logical examination, but without persons or any circumstance at all being specified.” In other words, while students start with clear concrete stories and fables, they end being able to talk abstractly about frequently heard debates like “should a scholar marry?” or, to use ones more common in our day, “should we have the death penalty?” “is gun control moral?” “should abortion be legal?” or any of those other topics that you were probably assigned to debate in junior high. And just like in junior high, ancient greek students were expected to know how to debate both sides of the argument.
Once these progymnasmata were under the belt, so to speak, students could work on actual speeches with a context and an audience.
This method may seem a little old fashioned to modern pedagogies. In fact, yes, very old fashioned. These exercises continued not just in the ancient world, but into both Byzantine and Western Europe. The “themes” of the progymnasmata, argues Edward P. J. Corbett, had even more influence on “European schoolboys of the 15th and 16th centuries” than they did on Greek children. In fact, the idea that students need to first become conversant in parts before they can address the whole was later reformed into the “modes.” If you have a parent or grandparent of a certain age, you can ask them about writing modes and themes when they were growing up and they will tell you about having to write descriptions, narrations, and expositions before they were allowed to write arguments. Albert R. Kitzhaber chronicals the way that the modes became THE pedagogical tool for almost a hundred years here in the US, much as the progymnasmata dominated Europe for millennia. But Most compositionists these days say, “heck with prerequisites, get the students composing organically, making their first full attempts at a complete argument early, even if it means a short length or a superficial topic.” I’ve taught a class, for example, that begins with students ardently debating whether toilet paper should be hung over-hand or under-hand. This is probably the kind of education that you’ve had.
The progymnasmata, and in fact, the idea that there should be prerequisite writing exercises before argumentative writing, swings back and forth in pedagogy. Additionally, becaue the progymnasmata reflect societal values in their stories and common places, they can be seen as stifling individuality. George Kennedy points out that the progymnasmata “are open to criticism that they tended to indoctrinate students with traditional values “(x).
But the benefits of the progymnasmata have been appealing to modern composition scholars as well. Kennedy further says that “Nevertheless, it would be unfair to characterize the traditional exercises as inhibiting all criticism of traditional values. Indeed, a major feature of the exercises was stress on learning refutation or rebuttal: how to take a traditional tale, narrative, or thesis and argue against it. If anything, the exercises may have tended to encourage the idea that there was an equal amount to be said on two sides of any issue, a skill practiced at a later stage of education in dialectical debate."
Sharon Crowley and Deborah Hawhee point out that instead of giving students everything to do at once, the progymnasmata provide small exercises that lead to big results:” Each successive exercise uses a skill practiced in the preceding one, but each adds some new and more difficult composing task. Ancient teachers were fond of comparing the graded difficulty of the progymnasmata to the exercise used by Milo of Croton to gradually increase his strength: Milo lifted a calf each day. Each day the calf grew heavier, and each day his strength grew. He continued to lift the calf until it became a bull."
everything old is new again with the progymnasmata, and that’s a proverb that you can trust!