[journal entry] on Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory (part 2)

Quintilian was nothing if not thorough.  In this line, he’s referring to the practice of imitation, but it seemed to epitomize his whole pedagogy: “If we gain a thorough conception of all these matters, we shall then be such imitators as we ought to be” (403b). The detail with which he outlines the teaching of oratory is mirrored by the broad knowledge he requires of “good” orators.

As I was reading, I kept wondering how much of his model combining “the good man,” eloquence, and very-broad learning could be applied to today.  When it comes to broad learning, on one hand, it could be argued that it was easier to be a “renaissance man,” or in this case, a “classical man” during the first century than it is today, with all our specialties. On the other, a liberal arts education probably pretty well accomplishes what Quintilian requires.  Then again, maybe Quintilian isn’t advocating quite the extensive knowledge that he sometimes sounds as if he’s advocating. He emphasizes that the orator can handle “any subject whatever” (400a), and he is more than once concerned to answer those who think that he requires too much (for example, 399a). But he also makes it clear that, even though the orator must be knowledgeable about whatever he speaks, he can pick and choose his topics (399b).

As for his definition of the “good” orator, I was at first disturbed by his willingness to allow the orator to deceive his audience (usually a judge) if such deception would suit moral ends (412ff). It’s the old the-ends-justifies-the-means argument. But then it occurred to me that perhaps in his time orators could not rely much on higher authorities (like judges) to take the big picture into account when he makes a judgment, and that perhaps that is why Quintilian gives more moral responsibility/authority to orators. In other words, he figured the orator ought to be the one to decide that this guilty person ought to be portrayed as innocent because he is good for society in these other ways, because the orator can’t count on the judge to lessen the sentence or change the ruling for that reason. It’s as if Quintilian sees the orator as the strongest moral force in society.

The whole issue of philosophy and rhetoric – whether they ought to be together or remain separate – is interesting, too. In two or three places, Quintilian almost laments the separation (see especially 419). I had to cheer when I read “Would that there may be some day come a time, when some orator… may vindicate to himself the study of philosophy… and by a reconquest as it were, annex it again to the domain of eloquence!” (419b).  Amen, brother! Quintilian would be disappointed but not surprised that here at OSU his educational model is split between two departments:

PHL 121 REASONING AND WRITING (3) Develops critical thinking skills to increase clarity and effectiveness of student writing; uses writing experiences to teach critical thinking skills. Subjects include identifying and evaluating arguments, analyzing assumptions, justifying claims with reasons, avoiding confused or dishonest reasoning, applying common patterns of reasoning in everyday contexts, and writing cogent complex arguments.
WR 121 ENGLISH COMPOSITION (3) Introduction to critical thinking, the writing process, and the forms of expository writing. Intensive writing practice, with an emphasis on revision.

I read somewhere that the separation will be worsened in the 16th century by Ramus when he assigns the first two canons, invention and arrangement, to philosophy and the last three, style, memory, and delivery, to rhetoric. But it’s interesting that the rift is deeper than that, going back much further.

Some favorite quotes:

We ought not to revise a piece before some time has passed “lest our writings, like newborn infants, compel us to fix our affections on them” (408a).

“we must not bestow more time than what is too much for sleep” (406b). Amen!

“…let thought secure for herself privacy” (407a)

“let the silence of the night, the closed chamber, and a single light, keep [student orators] as it were wholly in seclusion” (406b). I guess Quintilian was not into collaborative writing!

“for all our thoughts please us at the time of their birth” (404b)

“… by writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.  But after this facility has been attained, we must then, most of all, take care to stop and look before us, and restrained our high-mettled steeds with the curb; a restraint which will not so much retard us, as gives us new spirit to proceed” (404-05).  I wonder what Quintilian would have thought of free-writing.


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