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.


The recent editorial in the NYT about the war is bluntly realistic. I like the idea of using the Kurdish lands as a staging area, but I think the Army and the Marines are up to the task of securing the southern route – if that was all they had to do. Essentially the forces there will have to transform themselves back into an army, instead of an entrenched peacekeeping force, and then reverse the invasion. By either route, it’s a logistical nightmare.

The GOP is still dragging its feet about withdrawal because they would really, really like to hand any retreating, defeated imagery ala Saigon to the incoming Democratic president, instead of having Obama, Clinton, and Edwards presiding over the withdrawal during the primaries.

As the article says, many Americans gave up on Bush – maybe half his base – earlier this year. I continue to wish they’d come to that conclusion in 2002, but we must deal with what we have. There is still no real movement toward partition; failing that, I’ll take withdrawal.

Rhetoric Ad Herennium

The rest of the coming week will be spend reading Quintilian’s Orator’s Education, Aristotle’s Poetics, and other such classical goodies.

But for Sunday, I finally got around to reading the Ad Herennium, the second-oldest Latin text around, and argubly the first “complete” rhetorical manual. It used to be attributed to Cicero (the Loeb edition I have has Cicero in brackets on the dust cover to represent this) but probably was written in rough parallel with Cicero’s De Inventione, around 86-82 BCE, by a youthful, even boastful lawyer/rhetor, perhaps mostly from class notes. In the 5th century, Jerome apparently rescued this text from obscurity and paired it with De Inventione as the “rhetorica secunda,” Cicero’s sequel to the more crude “rhetorica prima.” It’s possible Cicero and this fellow has the same teacher, because many of the posited examples for the various figures and part of rhetoric are identical or very similiar.

RAH (who I will call the anonymous author for lack of a better term) has an odd idea of authorship. The start of Book IV, on style, is a rant against Greek authors who dictate rules of rhetoric but provide examples from others; he thinks it better that authors on rhetoric compose their own examples to prove the validity of the precepts. A nice thought – too bad he doesn’t follow it himself, with at least half the examples in the treatise of Greek or some identifiable Latin origin. He also declares he is the first to deliniate the possible kinds of subtle introductions, as well as a theory of delivery, but both claims are highly dubious (De Inventione has the first, and Theophrastus had much older, if lost, treatises on delivery). At the very least, he was a very, very free borrower, and something of a hypocrite on authorship; but textbooks still steal glibly from each other even today. If this was a person-to-person composition, as it defines itself, one student helping another, then it is the equal of passing your notes along to the semester’s next batch of students – again, a common practice.

Those issues aside, it’s a very concise introduction to rhetoric, and very little of it has gone out of date, so to speak. His understanding of metaphor and many of the assorted figures is shallow, but his command of the judicial sphere suggests that like Cicero, he probably went on to be a pretty good lawyer. It would be interesting to further define who he was, but the sparse clues arrayed in Caplan’s intro suggest such an effort has yet to bear results. Perhaps I’ll learn more of this when I read Jerome.

Robert Reid’s 2005 use of RAH to suggest that Paul used the “complete argument” in Book II in 1 Cor seems less plausible to me now, given that Quintilian, born roughly at the time of the historical Jesus’s death, never refers to it (and he is pretty good, unlike RAH, at referring) and even claims, in his Book V, of the epicheireme that “the majority of sources” think, as he does, that it only has three parts – major premise, minor premise, conclusion – a sort of exploded deduction. Cicero says it has five parts in De Inventione, but his five parts are not the ones in RAD. But more on that later after I’ve finished rereading Quint.

Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire – Averil Cameron

I don’t have a summary of this set of six lectures on early Christian discourse in mind as much as a quick response. At the very end of the book, in the Envoi, is a statement that throws the article I just wrote into question – I’ll quote it in full – “The sign system of early Christianity did not, suprisingly perhaps, form itself either around eating (as in the Last Supper) or death (as in the Crucifixion) but, encouraged by the need to explain the union of bodily flesh and divinity in the Incarnation, around the body itself, and especially the mechanics and avoidance of carnal knowledge and procreation.”

This threw me for a loop initially, but then I remembered a few things. I have a lengthy argument suggesting that it IS eating, out of the possible sets of imagery which Goulder nicely summarized from Matthew. And near the end of drafting I added a short consideration of other metaphors, with the body being the top pick for further systematic conceptual hunting.

My response, I think, is this. If you look at Christian rhetoric 4th century and after, Cameron is right. Growing obsession with the Virgin and sexual mores only gets more and more convoluted. The metaphors of that era focus undoubtably the body, and imagery takes over from text as the rhetorical heavy lifter, taking the personification that the Lives, Acts, and other pious forgeries offer to something the eyes of the unwashed masses can passively absorb. Excuse my colorful language.

But, and a big but, in the late 1st century/early 2nd, all that theological baggage hasn’t piled up yet. A Christian sense of metaphor is still developing, and SHARED FOOD and BODY are linked pretty closely together. The Ignatius quote she uses for support when she starts discussing “figural” language is, well, leaven ‘n salt, and the Ignatius quote I used (he gets around) from his depiction of his upcoming martyrdom, uses both bread-making and body-rending.

Ah well. I suppose this is something for a revision. Like I’ve said before, the second I finish something, the more I discover that I didn’t include or consider properly. There’s also a very recent article on translating NT metaphors – with the plant parables and current metaphor theory very prominent – that I didn’t know about. Grrr. Well, better late than never.

On a completely different note, to cheer me up, I like Cameron’s assessment of early Christian “pious forgeries” (post-2nd century, mostly) as something that defies traditional genre. They’re not fiction, though they have some romantic elements. They’re certainly not scripture, and even Eusebius didn’t think they were histories. And their varying quality makes calling them literature, even popular literature, a bit dodgy. If anything, the Infancy gospels are probably closest to fan fiction, with some of the virgin-epousing material, with its erotic undertones, bordering on slash.

The Formation of College English by Thomas Miller

Moving right along – I have a backlog of summaries – I recently worked my way through Miller’s account of the eighteenth-century rhetorics coming out of Scotland, Ireland, and the academies of the dissenters. Miller is at times a difficult read, but compared to Nan Johnson, whose book on the same period I found difficult to deal with, he’s a cakewalk.

Miller’s global argument is thus: with the rhetoric of Anglican-approved schools completely stagnant and classical, the real cutting-edge rhetorical theory appeared in the cultural provinces of the British empire – the Scots in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the Irish ala Sheridan, and the dissenters such as Priestley. Ironically enough, the men who wrote the new rhetorics, which served to establish the hegemony of “correct” English, were either not English or not Anglican – and their status as the ministers of culture between the high and low classes lead to an obsession over style (Hugh Blair, front and center) and correctness, with invention falling by the wayside as induction and Campbell’s scientific rhetoric took hold. Miller lies the blame fairly evenly – his chapter on Adam Smith is probably the highlight of the text, where Smith’s conservative economic concepts end up producing a rather flawed “spectatorical” rhetoric that Blair takes and runs with.

Furthermore, what we know today as literature studies does not originate in the 19th century, but with Blair in the 18th. The rhetoric and bellistristic chairs transformed into the professorships of literature as the trend toward making gentlemen of taste rather than civic agents continued. Less shockingly, what we today call composition can be traced to the mechanism of Bain, who had his head-start from Campbell and the whole tired faculty psychology mess.

Miller’s last chapter explores how this analogy could be continued even further – if the provinces are where change happens culturally, then the rapid spread of rhetoric and composition programs in land-grant universities (the new provincial areas), but not at Harvard and Yale or in Britain (the Oxford and Cambridges of the 18th), suggests a rather dire future for English literature, in that it could become what classics departments are now, if it does not do what rhetoric and composition is doing – defining itself in practical modern terms, rather than insisting on the old liberal arts mission. Blair, Campbell, Smith, Priestley, etc had their faults, but they gave the students what they wanted – instruction in style and correctness.

This is an extraordinarily pragmatic agrument. He seems to be saying that historical context drives trends in instruction and rhetoric, not the other way around, in a manner similiar to Conley; and futhermore, perhaps, he hints that English literature can choose to sink under the cultural waves of new media while rhetcomp succesfully separates itself from English, or cling to rhetoric as a kind of disciplinary life preserver.

Now I wouldn’t mind teaching in a Department of Rhetoric and Composition, but then again, I kind of like the big-tent English department here at Memphis, and I have nothing against English literature (well, maybe against an insistence on realism, but that’s another subject). I would certainly think it a serious loss if literature went the way that Miller describes, but I don’t think it will; something else strange and unpredictable, most likely – for all I know, some rhetcomp centers will flee and merge with communications, dissolve like Fred Newton Scott’s efforts, or break off and declare independence ala Speech, but the fate of the Oxford/Cambridge teaching of the 18th century seems, to me, to be dependent on Greek and Latin being foreign languages. English Lit doesn’t have that problem.

It does, however, have its Blair legacy of consumption of texts rather than composition. This could be repaired by some kind of peace treaty between rhetcomp and literature, an arrangement that would give more status not only to faculty but to the concept of invention, but I think the benefits of such a deal are more apparent to the first party than the second.

Another problem with Miller’s huge analogy is that history is happening a little more quickly now. The trends in instruction may change no more quickly (it’s astounding to me that Harvard has no rhetoric program, and a 100+ years of Bolyston professors of rhetoric and oratory that are all poets – not that I have anything against poets, but they should rename the endowment already, c’mon) but the media of five years ago is completely different than today’s. Creaky academia still takes forever to publish research that is obsolete before it is even greenlighted – the web’s collaborative, exponential efforts at knowledge-making continue to scare me. Past historical patterns of cultural and educational development, I fear, are not necessarily applicable. The old charts may only be curiosities compared to where we are going.

Booth, Elbow, Dewey, Jones

Catching up on summaries:

I commented earlier on Elbow’s note that no one had responded to his “doubting and believing” appendix in WWT. There seem to be two notable responses since – a 2002 article in RR by Donald C. Jones, and a back-and-forth between Wayne Booth and Elbow in CE in 2005.

Jones compares Elbow’s stance quite favorably to John Dewey’s pragmatic rhetoric, which centers around decisions based on probability, and challenges the picture of Elbow as an “expressivist” – even a Platonist – via Berlin’s taxonomy. This miscategorization, Jones claims, is due to a serious case of “either/or” thinking – namely, between the extremes of Platonistic truths and Foucault’s postmodern prison. Elbow’s rhetoric and pedagogy is an attempt at a middle ground – pragmatism, the philosophical insistence on making practical decisions without getting too depressed or preachy about reality, and further that neither the individual or the social realm alone creates knowledge. Given that I was reconsidering Elbow’s expressivist label while I read WWT, I read with this essay, definitely.

Pragmatism is sometimes difficult for me to separate from social constructivism. These days I try to think of pragmatism in a sophistic sense of being active in making meaning – that is, being an agent of aggressive power rather than a passively constructed construct. We can talk all day about how our culture and context shapes us, but at the end of the day, we have to make choices, and rhetoric, if it is allowed to keep invention, allows those choices. And if we take Conley’s two-part definition of rhetoric – 1) a wish toward what rhetoric should be and 2) a creation of a historical context – then social construction is built-in to rhetoric.

Bleh. Anyway, Booth and Elbow in 2005 practically fell over each other in embracing this kind of middle-ground, all-encompassing, pragmatic rhetoric. They have their private terms – Booth’s “listening-rhetoric” and Elbow’s “doubting and believing,” but it’s all the same side of the same coin.

I tend to think of skepticism as the middle-ground between positivism and relativism, but Booth pits skepticism against dogmatism, and I found some of his arguments criticizing skepticism to be, well, fallacious, given my definition of it – he seems to have had in mind a sort of absolute, no-holds-barred skepticism that never changes its mind, where mine is much more fluid. Why would anyone be a skeptic if not to find a good reason for changing their mind? The purpose of being skeptical is to find the surest footing (or rather, what is probably the surest footing), not to look haughty and sniff at the air.

Elbow follows suit, though with more of an emphasis on pedagogy and what he calls safety. I haven’t called safety by safety before – maybe “comfort” or “comfortable,” but he’s got a finger on yet another key problem with composition. It’s very difficult to get students into a mindset where they feel comfortable to talk in a classroom environment. Alone, it’s rarely a problem. I can get almost any student to pontificate at length about their writing one on one. In groups, it’s also relatively easy. But in front of the class, it’s a crapshoot, something I can never take for granted, and something that either seems to develop over the semester or becomes stillborn. Some of it is peer pressure. Some of it is confusion over expectations. Some of it is waiting me out, an active resistance. But over all of those, it’s a hesistance to embrace the idea of critique, and that is rooted in an ever deeper problem – the inability to read with the texts in the first place. I’ve still to find a class that does particularly well with my summarization exercise. I’m beginning to think I should re-focus FYC the next time I teach it to focus even harder on understanding texts (in Elbow’s terms, “believing”) before we even attempt to criticize them.

If it is not apparent that I am drifting quite steadily in the direction of this pragmatic, all-emcompassing rhetoric, then I’ll say it: I am. I have some problems with the dismissal of what I think are some useful elements of classical rhetoric, which I think is a huge resource that should continue to be mined extensively – various treatments of arrangement and style in particular. But all in all, I’m finding a home to put my thoughts in.


I watched the Transformers movie last night with H in the theatre. This morning I read a few reviews; I should probably stop reading them. They only make me angry.

The reviewers don’t get it. They understand the basics – that the Transformers were first a popular line of toys back in the 1980’s (oh, how ancient one must have been to be alive in such a storied time!) and the film’s success is dependent on adults recalling fond childhood memories as much as new generations.

The reviewers also understand, usually, if they haven’t formed an impenetrable adult shell that is unable to transform back into a child on occasion – that the combination of giant robots and cars/planes sells itself. Who wouldn’t want to have a car that turned into a robot? And there is, of course, the glee inherent in wanton destruction by said robots.

And the reviewers may even understand, if they’re really lucky, why Optimus Prime is so popular. Prime’s first appearance got solid cheers from the audience I was in (so did Bumblebee, of course). This is despite the fact that in a film filled from end to end with every piece of equipment currently operated by the U.S. military, Prime, true to all his comic and TV depictions, is about two inches away from being a pacifist. He is from the era of Knight Rider, the A-Team, and the Equalizer, where the good guys actually bothered to try and avoid killing, maiming, and torturing civilians, and used force only when necessary. This is why despite Jon Voight doing his best Donald Rumsfeld impression, and the inclusion of plenty of patriotic imagery, the movie was completely unable to associate the Autobots with the Iraqi war. The comics used to explore the consequences of Prime’s compassionate leadership style; I’m glad to see it is still around.

Still, generally what all the reviewers tend to do is use the film for target practice. It is lowbrow, suitable only for 5 to 8 year olds (which are always boys, strangely – H likes Transformers), lacking any plot, and essentially a long commercial for GM products and the toy line.

They do not note more subtle points – that Bumblebee and the Autobots, for all their good vibes, are clearly aliens, and that the Decepticons are even more alien, with Megatron almost completely so. Yet all of them are just human-looking enough for empathy. The special effects people did a great job on all of them.

The reviewers may or may not note that the movie doesn’t explore the Decepticons much (beyond Blackout’s hilarious “Hail Megatron!”) perhaps assuming there is no depth there anyway. Fans of their previous portraits will know that they’re a well-developed, backstabbing bunch of moral defectives (Starscream springs to mind), but that portrait needed to be painted again.

Why? Because in the end the Transformers is a highly effective morality play – sensible good vs. unrestrained evil, teamwork vs. selfishness, positive worldview vs. negative worldview. We get some of this in the movie in the conflicting attitudes toward humans, but I sensed much had been cut from an already long piece. Optimus and Bumblebee in the film are good role models for outlook and behavior. Prime can be incredibly cheesy, but if you’re a 40+ foot robot that turns into a Peterbilt and regularly decapitates evil robots of similar size, I say you get to be as cheesy as you want. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” with sentient beings encompassing sex, race, creed, and species, is a more advanced morality and philosophy than most humans ever achieve, and kudos to the man for being able to say it calmly while being throttled by Megatron.

The “boy and his car” angle was inspired – the humor was pretty good, too. In the sequel, though, let’s see more moral quandaries, something that introduces real tension. The Transformers are ideally suited for such stories, especially when Megatron is usurped by the other Decepticons (every five minutes or so) and has to change his behavior. More backstory, such as how Megatron and the Decepticons became corrupted, would be fun. A longer tussle between Prime and Megatron would be good, too. They used to really go at it in the TV series; Prime would have brushed off all the other Deceptions by himself (or Megatron would have brushed off all the other Autobots) just before.

The first half of the movie was better than the second. Some of the plot became strained. Why did they flee with the MacGuffin into a heavily inhabited city? Why not use the MacGuffin on Megatron BEFORE he woke up? For that matter, why didn’t Prime keep the MacGuffin so he could use it as he saw fit? In other words, there were some MacGuffin problems. I was also mildly dissatisfied with the fast editing and the amount of robot fighting; less editing, more robots, I say (H said this was to cover up bad CGI, but I’m not so sure). And for a movie that seemed to be about Bumblebee and his pet human, they were separated for the last 15 minutes or so.

But I’d see it again.

the paper is away

There’s a scene from The Empire Strikes Back, during the attack on Hoth, when the ion cannon fires and the first ungainly Rebel transport, accompanied by fighters, scoots past the helpless Star Destroyers. Immediately, the rebels in the base hear over the intercom, “THE FIRST TRANSPORT IS AWAY. THE FIRST TRANSPORT IS AWAY,” and they start cheering. They’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s a welcome bit of good news.

The gospel metaphor paper is finally away and submitted. I don’t really feel like cheering, though – actually, I’m a little numb. I don’t remember this particular sensation when I submitted the CE one a little over a year ago; maybe it’s the lack of sleep. In an intellectual sense, I know I just finished a lot of work, but my body is unimpressed.

I’ve read another half-ton in the last week, but I’ve been too busy finishing the paper and doing some web work to write my usual summaries. Those will return soon.