Quintilian, Orator’s Education, Books I-II

This is an ongoing response to Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education. It is twelve books long in five volumes in the Loeb edition, so I’ll be taking a few entries to get through it all.

Quintilian wrote his opus on Roman rhetorical education at the end of his life, in the late 1st century C.E, thus his ideas on what consists of a good education are pretty much set. Such an education must start early (the proper age for this sustained rhetorical training seems to be 13-18) and consist of programmatic exercises increasing in difficulty – from fable-writing to declamations – and be coupled with a rather thoughtful rhetor/teacher who sounds almost like Donald Murray at times. This teacher writes and works the students, and provides moral as well as a textual example on a regular basis. He doesn’t beat them or humiliate them unnecessarily, and is gentle but firm when correcting work. Q. does believe in natural talent in rhetoric, but also he believes that an education enables talent to reach its full potential. Above all, though, he links rhetoric to virtue – this is no pragmatic, relativistic rhetoric he’s teaching.

Q’s precepts are presented more thoughtfully than prescriptively, even though he clearly believes in them and recommends them. When he examines what he believes to be the key questions in rhetorical theory (a major point of interest for me), he gives everyone else’s opinions before stating and defending his own. In this light he is more of a pleasant read than Cicero – the ego is absent, and replaced by a more subtle art of instruction. This work is more than a rhetorical treatise – it is rhetorical in of itself. Q is always trying to work in minor, almost invisible examples of argument to underscore various points, and it is a joy to watch, as he is simultaneously illustrating and using the principles he is discussing

Those key questions I mentioned earlier (all presented at the end of Book II, paraphrased and helpfully indented by Russell, the editor) are as follows:

1) What is rhetoric, its divisions, and its purposes?

2) Is rhetoric useful?

3) Is rhetoric an art?

4) If an art, where should rhetoric be placed in the other arts?

5) What matters more, nature or teaching?

6) Is rhetoric a virtue?

7) What is the subject matter of rhetoric?

Q’s sensible answers (paraphrased):

1) Rhetoric is “the science (art) of speaking well.” Q prefers this definition over Aristotle’s because A’s does not include virtue – Q requires the rhetor to be a good man. In that light, “to think and speak well” isn’t bad, either. Thus he agrees with Plato, more or less. He fails to define good or well, of course, but pretty much everyone who has ever held his position fails to do so.

2) Well, of course. “…if we have had no better gift from the gods than speech, what else should we think so deserving of careful cultivation?” One might as well say generals, magistrates, doctors, or philosophers are not useful. This leads to one of Q’s best jokes about fearing rhetoric because it might be deceitful – “Let us never go indoors: the roof sometimes falls on the people inside,” as well as, “Let us have nothing to do with food – it causes illness.”

3) Arts consist of theory and practice; rhetoric has both, so it is an art. Next! (Q doesn’t think much of objections to this).

4) Of the theoretical, practical, and poetic arts, rhetoric is most practical – it is “active” or “administrative,” but it has elements of all three.

5) An irrelevant question: “Nature is the raw material of teaching – the one forms, the other is formed.”

6) The rhetoric I teach is virtuous, though not all speech acts are.

7) Everything submitted to it. This and the answer to 3) and 4) suggest that rhetoric is the art to rule all the other arts.

Q’s views on these old-school questions (he’s 400 years out from the Greeks) confirm a few things for me. One, these questions are still under debate. Two, the Greeks asked almost all the interesting questions on rhetoric, though they did not have all the answers.

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