Quintilian’s Advice: Read, Write, Excel

Our Classical writers on rhetoric for this week have much sound advice for those who seek to become skilled orators, as well as to those who would instruct them. For the aspiring rhetorician, Aristotle’s detailed cataloging of the intricacies of engaging and exciting human emotion seem beyond exhaustive.  Cicero makes important connections between the maintenance of a free society and the flourishing of accomplished orators; the preservation of civil rights is a cause well-served by those who can express wise thoughts in eloquent and forceful language. These Greek and Roman writers have sidestepped Plato’s earlier worries about whether rhetoric can or cannot represent truth to present functional instruction on its practice.  They aim to develop rhetorical skills in those who would use such abilities in public life, always remembering that the great power of rhetoric and oratory to sway listeners entails moral responsibility upon speakers.

Quintilian, especially, offers many gems of pedagogy that mark him as man with great insight into the teaching profession.  In Book Two, Chapter Four, he begins his discussion with advice for those instructing young or beginning learners in the arts of oratory and rhetoric: Give children time to develop and correct them according to their age and abilities.  Apply praise and encouragement because “study is cheered by nothing more than hope.”   And Quintilian’s word for the would-be teacher should never be forgotten: “A dry master is to be avoided.”

The Roman sage also advocates copious reading of well-written literature and plenty of practice writing.  From the students’ habit of reading will come a wellspring of  quality language, vocabulary, and style, so that “they will have at command. . . an abundance of the best words, phrases and figures, not sought for the occasion, but offering themselves spontaneously, as it were, from a store treasured within them” (Bk 2 Ch 7). Echoing Quintilian, his countryman the satirist Petronius wrote in the Satyricon that “a mind simply cannot conceive and bring to term its offspring unless it is flooded with an immense river of literature.”

As one with a lifelong habit of reading, I believe them.  And my experience during my years in college has further emphasized to me the truth of this venerable advice.  The more I have spent time with great literature, the more I find myself drawing upon that resource for present use. And the crucible which combines and recombines the treasures of literary tradition with the moments of topical concern is writing.  There in my own writing, the language I have absorbed resounds in my brain, not as conscious phrases I remember from this author or that, but as cadences, as rhythms, as frameworks for thinking, as whispers of their inspiration into my invention. The trick, then, one that Quintilian acknowledges, is to build one’s own voice from the raw material of one’s education.

According to Quintilian, one who strives to be a great orator—or even a well-rounded citizen—must follow his or her pen to that end: “In writing are the roots [and] foundations of eloquence,” and meditation upon one’s thoughts is the field to till for personal growth as a writer, thinker, or orator (Bk 10 Ch 3, 6).  We live in a time when writing is rapidly being reduced to a reflex response that fits into a textbox limited to 140 characters.  Can eloquence survive the Internet, the text message, and Twitter?  Time will tell, but with attention spans being fragmented into ever more scattered directions, those who want to see the big picture need Quintilian’s advice as much now as did his fellow citizens two thousand years ago.

1 comment for “Quintilian’s Advice: Read, Write, Excel

  1. Alex Janney
    March 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I like how in your last response, as well as this one, you point out things that these ancient philosophers discuss that are still relevant to today’s society. Good reading and writing skills often go hand in hand. One thing you wrote got me thinking though, “The more I have spent time with great literature, the more I find myself drawing upon that resource for present use.” It made me wonder, what qualifies as “great” literature? Twilight, Harry Potter, Shopaholic takes Manhattan? Or is it more like Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet? Does what a person reads impact how they write? If all we’re reading are things like Twitter, Text Messages, and Facebook Posts, does it impact our writing? Will our voice be built on “raw materials” of the internet world?

    I really like your perspective though and how you incorporate so many interesting ideas. I completely agree with you that Quintilian is a voice to be listened to.

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