Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Progymnasmata-An Answer for Today's Rhetorical Pedagogy?

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Progymnasmata-An Answer for Today's Rhetorical Pedagogy?

Article excerpt


The ancient preliminary rhetorical exercises, called the progymnasmata, are possibly not only a contribution to writing education, but also to our aim for epistemic reflections among our students. They could be received as an introduction to, and practical exercises in a more sophistic understanding of the relation between language and reality, and in a rhetorical vein, of the paradox that tells us that language and reality are totally separate entities, and yet indissoluble united; that we are masters of the paradox since it's up to us to choose the language by which we construct our reality.


Rhetoric is an old art. So is the art of teaching rhetoric. In the earliest days of this teaching there were no established pedagogical system, every teacher had his own method. During the Hellenistic era, when the Greek culture, as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great, dominated the Mediterranean region, a need for a more formalistic educational program evolved. It was given the name enkyklios paidea, the comprehensive education. In this education the art of rhetoric was an essential part, together with dialectic and grammar. The rhetorical training was soon organized according to a set of distinguished exercises, which were called progymnasmata, preliminary exercises.

Progymnasmata are specific exercises with an increasing degree of difficulty, starting with the fable and narration, and via chreia and maxim, refutation and confirmation, koinos topos--commonplace, encomium and vituperatio (praise and blaim), ethopeiaspeech--in-character and description, ending with the thesis and proposal of a law. They are mentioned the first time, to our knowledge, in the sophistic pseudo-Aristotelian Rhetorica ad Alexandrum (1436a), written during the fourth century BCE. The Roman rhetoricians are well familiar with the exercises, Cicero as well as Quintilian mentions several of the exercises. The most well-known and spread version of a collection of progymnasmata is Aphthonius' from the fifth century CE. One of the reasons for his fame is that he not only describes the exercises, but he also gives model-texts to encourage the students, and give them something to imitate.

Each exercise follows a set of steps that the student is supposed to follow in building the argumentative text. Take the exercise chreia for example, where the student is supposed to start from, and amplify a quotation. Aphthonius' example is:

   Isocrates said: "The root of education is bitter, but its fruit
   is sweet"
   Praise the one who said the words
   Make a paraphrase
   Explain the reason
   Bring forward an antithesis
   Make a comparison
   Give an example
   Adduce testimony from others
   Conclude with a short summary

One reason talking for the progymnasmata is its inherent pedagogical theory. Implicit suppositions in that theory are that all communication takes place within a cultural context, that this context is characterized by conflicting alternatives, and that the urge to speak and write stems from the desire to affect the course of events. As a modern reader of the program you are struck by how well thought-out the increasing degree of difficulty is, and how easy it is to replace the ancient themes with more modern ones. The ancient rhetorical exercises, like modern writing education, introduces basic rhetorical skills like narration, description, argumentation, and the students are trained in how to imagine and how to picture other peoples life and character in an understanding and persuasive way. And while this happens the students are introduced to world of rhetoric and it's vocabulary.

In the renaissance the exercises were used throughout the educational systems of Europe, and numerous editions of Aphthonius were printed. If you would have asked a European school-boy in the eighteen century who Aphthonius was, you would, perhaps with a sigh, most certainly get an answer. …

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