Feb 10, 2016
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements,
and people who shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren.
Quintilian was a transitional figure of rhetoric. Born in a Roman province of Spain to a Spanish
family at around 35 CE, he lived both geographically and temporally at the peripheries of the
Roman Empire. Quintilian was, as everyone was, influenced by Cicero and the Greek instructors,
Progymnasmata, which we've talked about in an earlier episode. He was deeply concerned with
questions about the education of rhetoric. As a teacher of rhetoric, his students were mostly
historians, like Tacitus, or authors, like Juvenal, instead of politicians. In fact, his student Tacitus
will later argue that there wasn't much space for rhetoric as the Roman Empire became more
authoritarian. Who's going to argue with an Emperor? But Quintilian was deeply interested in not
just creating better rhetoric, but better rhetors. The most famous idea from Quintilian is probably
his insistence that the rhetor will be a good person all around. Educated, kind, refined. As Bruce
Herzberg and Patricia Bizzell say in their introduction, "Quintilian's insistence on the moral
element may bespeak his own quiet desperation about what sort of leader would be needed to
galvanize the corrupt Rome of his day." Whatever Quintilian's motivation, he explains in detail,
hundreds of pages of detail, how rhetors are to be educated.
>> That's right, Mary. To illustrate Quintilian's preoccupation with the intersection of ethics and
the art of oratory, it's worth noting that his definition of rhetoric is "a good man speaking well.”
Without good words and good morals, there cannot be good rhetoric. There can be no divorce
between the content and the form of statement. The reverse was also important for Quintilian,
that training in rhetoric could have some sort of moral impact on the student. Quintilian hoped
that people would be more moral for their rhetorical training. Although he was teaching at a time
when rhetoric and Roman society was at "no longer a severe discipline for training the average
man for active citizenship." Good citizenship depends, not just on speaking technically well, but
also morally well. How does the student develop this kind of technical and moral excellence in
speaking? Primarily, through the impact of good examples. Nurses, classmates, and especially
the teacher should "all be kept free from moral fault" or "even the suspicion of it." Classmates
can have good effects on students. Instructors should also frequently demonstrate because now
that we teach, examples are more powerful even than the rules." This sort of reminds me of the
kind of scaffolding that Lev Vygotsky, Ridley, and Carroll talk about. When students are
surrounded by students doing work that is just a little bit more difficult than what
they're accustomed to, they can see how their near peers rise to the problems and learn how
to imitate those strategies as well.
>> So teachers, classmates, instructors, you can tell from all of these influences that Quintilian is
so worried about, he believes in the little sponges model of pedagogy. Some influences like
nurses and classmates maybe accidental, but Quintilian also emphasizes the conscious use of
imitation exercises to strengthen the student. In fact, Quintilian declares that "an orator ought to
be furnished, above all things, with an ample store of examples." The things that
Quintilian recommends imitation, though, vary from the standard Progymnasmata.
The Progymnasmata gave students topics like kidnappers and smugglers. Standard Hardy Boy
stuff. But Quintilian believed that students should imitate the sort of things they're actually going
to be writing. Real life writing. In this sense, you can see how Quintilian would be comfortable
with some of the scholars who emphasize learning to write in the disciplines. All of this is sort of
a social-constructed view of good rhetoric, even something a little pre-writing in the disciplines.
Quintilian talks about how every species of writing has its own prescribed law, each to its own
appropriate dress. So this sort of emphasizes the idea that there's not just one type of good
writing and you can't teach somebody just good writing or good rhetoric. He saw that you needed
to practice in the types of forms that you're actually going to be doing. This is really kind of
revolutionary stuff and it's surprising that it didn't get picked up earlier until in the past, about
100 years has been a real emphasis on beginning to teach writing not just was a transferable skill,
but something that is really specific to a specific task. But at the same time, Quintilian believed
that his students should be generalists, because eloquence "requires the aid of many arts." So
even things like gymnastics, to improve lung capacity and posture, and geometry should be
taught to the would-be rhetor. A sort of balance between the liberal arts and sort of like a specific
kind of technical training. But especially, you have this reading, writing, listening all being
taught at the same time, because they influence each other, and Quintilian says that they are
so inseparably linked with one another and that they should be taught, not as separate skills, but
as sort of one fluid type of learning about language.
>> That's right, Mary. Quintilian saw speaking, writing, and reading as important skills of
course, but not things that could be separated from the human experience as a whole. In fact,
Quintilian saw it as his duty as a teacher to cultivate not just good rhetors, but the whole person.
That might sound a little authoritarian, but just because Quintilian believed that students should
write real-life exercises, doesn't mean he didn't think that they should have fun. Rhetoric, in
varying forms appropriate to age, surrounds the student's cradle to the grave. Little children and
babies could be given alphabet blocks as toys, and young students should be allowed to play with
their own writing and the student should be daring, invent much, and delight in what he invents.
Practice alone, though, won't lead automatically to greatness. "Talent does matter, but he who is
honorably inclined will be very different from the stupid or idol," Quintilian says, "and the wise
instructor will give matter designed as it were beforehand in proportion to the abilities of each,
and the teacher will help them to find their strengths and apply chiefly to that in which he can
succeed." Help make students succeed. The students should be happy with what they are
producing even if it isn't what a professional writer would write. Not everyone has to become a
famous writer but any skill in rhetoric will pay dividends for the wealth, honor and friendship,
greater present and future fame," Quintilian writes, "No matter how much or how little you
obtain or feel you use."
>>Unlike many other teachers of rhetoric, Quintilian rejected stylistic anachronisms and effects.
"Language is excellent, perspicuous and elegant and should have the public stamp like currency.
Current practices matter so much that custom in speaking, therefore, I shall call the agreement of
the educated just as I call custom in living the agreement of the good." There's an obvious
influence here on enlightenment rhetors like Hugh Blair who similarly reject the idea that you
should speak in an old timey way and that you need to consider what the modern style is for your
own region. Incidentally, Blair thought that Quintilian was the best of all the rhetoricians.
Overall, students should develop fasilitas, the readiness to appropriate language for any situation.
To be fluid with understanding what the social conventions are and how you can apply language
to it. And after a good career, Quintilian even advises the rhetor to bow out gracefully, not full of
reunion tours and botox, but to leave at your peak, "Because it becomes him to take care that he
speak not worse than he has been in the habit of speaking." That's not to say that retired people
are off the hook. They're still expected to study like Marcus Cato who learned Greek in his old
age. But Quintilian definitely sets out a line of the entire rhetor's life, from their earliest years
playing with blocks to when they retire at an old age.
>>So Quintilian clearly would have been no fan of Rocky V and VI, is what we're saying there
>>How many people were? [laughs]
>>I think only a few perhaps. If all of this seems like a lot of work to raise the writer, then you're
absolutely right. Quintilian describes such an involved pedagogy from cradle to grave, that the
relationship is less like a teacher and more like a parent. The focus in Quintilian's pedagogy is
less quick and dirty tricks, and more the formation of a rhetorical character. He feels that
learning rhetoric will help make you a better person. The good man speaking well and because of
that he passionately promotes a study of rhetoric. In fact, we can't put it any better than he does,
so we'll end with his inspiring words and if these don't make you excited about studying rhetoric,
I just don't know what will. "Let us then presume with our whole powers the true dignity of
eloquence then which the immortal gods have given nothing better to mankind and without
which all nature would be mute and all our acts would be deprived alike of present honor and
commemoration among posterity and let us aspire to the highest excellence for, by this means,
we shall attain the summit and if it does not ring great advantage to studious youth it will at least
excite in them what I desire even more, a love for doing well."