Quintilian – Selections from Institutes of Oratory

  • Despite existing in the Imperial era, Quintillian’s rhetoric did serve a civic purpose – especially as used in forensic and epideictic oratory.
  • Instruction in rhetoric – for Q. – is the art of speaking “well” – meaning both effectively and virtuously.  This is also known as the “strong” defense of rhetoric wherein truths are defined by the social theatres in which rhetoric is deployed toward the “good.”  The “weak” defense of rhetoric is the justification of “truth” as the ultimate goal of persuasion (Platonic position).  These defenses also come up in Lanham’s work and harkens back to Isocrates’ position that moral values can be cultivated through the creation of rhetorical compositions that engage and advocate for civic and ethical virtues.    Yet Quintillian differs from the Greek educator by noting that natural ability and learning can contribute equally to the creation of an orator.  (taken up at length in Book II, Chapter XVII and Book XI)
  • The morals of the teacher must be considered when enrolling a student in rhetorical education – this will safeguard a young man from corruption and licentiousness.
  • Q. recommends that the pedagogue act as a parent to the student and that there should be a strict separation of students based on age not ability.
  • In Chapter III Q. notes that the instructor of a rhetorical education must “also be a mance of sense, not ignorant of teaching, and lowering himself to the capacity of the learner; as any fast walker, if he should happen to walk with a child, would give him his hand, relax his pace, and not go on quicker than his companion could follow.”  More on pedagogy (III, sec. 12).
  • We get a similar take on the value of reading “great works” here by Quintillian as we heard from Crassus in Cicero’s de Oratore.  These classical precedents anticipate the belletristic turn that comes into full swing during the 18th century.  (Book II, Chapter V)
  • Q. recognizes the importance of style; however, he also feels that overly dramatic ornamentation is overwhelming for neophyte students whose “taste” is unformed.
  • Q. agrees with Cicero’s Crassus that a student who will be a “public speaker” must strive to attain knowledge “not merely in one accomplishment, but in all accomplishments that are requisite for that art, even though some of them may seem too difficult for him when he is learning them” (Book II, Chapter VIII).
  • A nice definition, “for rhetoric would be a very easy and small matter, if it could be included in one short body of rules, but rules must generally be altered to suit the nature of each individual case, the time, the occasion, and necessity itself; consequently, one great quality in an orator is discretion, because he must turn his thoughts in various directions, according to the different bearings of his subject” (Book II, Chapter XIII).
  • Q. divides rhetoric into the artist (the person whose business it is to speak well), the art (that which ought to be attained by study – the knowledge to speak well), and the work (what is achieved by the artist – good speaking) (Book II, Chapter XIV).
  • Rhetoric is the “science of speaking well” and “includes also the character of the true orator, as he cannot speak well unless he be a good man.” (Book II, Chapter XV).
  • Quintillian argues against the charge that rhetoric doesn’t have a “particular subject.”  He also notes that the end goal of rhetoric is not to persuade per se, but to persuade toward the good and through speaking well; hence, if this is done and the audience is not persuaded, then the act of oratory hasn’t failed.  In other words, this art is concerned and constituted by the act itself, not the end result.  For Q., everything comes back to motives and character.
  • Q. endorses the enthymeme over the syllogism (Book II, Chapter XVII, sec. 34).  PROBABILITY
  • For Q., oratory is not necessarily an art because that definition allows for the deployment of rhetoric toward bad ends; hence, rhetoric operates as a virtue used by the good man speaking well.
  • Division between logic and rhetoric: rhetoric is continuous while logic is concise.
  • For Q. and Socrates (via Plato) rhetoric is “everything that may come before an orator for discussion . . . . the matter of oratory is not in words but in things” (Book II, Chapter XXI, sec. 4).
  • Q. collapses the domain of philosophy and rhetoric by noting that oratory has long laid claim to the province of the pursuit of the good; hence, rhetoric can speak to those things that are truthful and right.  Here we see one of the first unifications in a way that is likely going to be useful for Christian theologians trying to figure out the usefulness of rhetoric for syllogistic/absolute arguments.  (Book II, Chapter XXI, sec. 13 – Book XII).
  • Q. agrees with Cicero that writing is key to the production of a good orator.  He advocates slow writing and constant revision toward better compositions (but he’s not as keen on a really “rough draft”; rather, we should write as polished as possible the first time around then revise to make even cleaner).
  • The revision process is constituted of adding, taking away, and altering.  Don’t take too long revising or else a text will become irrelevant (if it is dynamic and responding to some historical exigency).
  • Q. takes up a really good question toward the end of the dialogue: If an orator is only a good man why would he need any of the skills of rhetoric in the first place. . . isn’t he speaking the truth? (Book XII, Chapter I, sec. 33).  What happens we he must defend someone who has done wrong?
  • A recognition of the social nature of commonplaces/topoi: “no man will ever be thoroughly accomplished in eloquence, who has not gained a deep insight into the impulses of human nature, and formed his moral character on the precepts of others and on his own reflection” (Book XII, Chapter II, sec. 4).
  • Philosophers don’t engage real life. (Book XII, Chapter II, Sec. 7).


1.        Do we still value a lot of the instruction that Q. provides as pedagogues of a rhetorical education?  Why/not?

2.       There are a couple of places in this piece where I feel like Q. is criticizing the lack of civic rhetoric (Book II, Chapter X for example contains a discussion about pedagogy but seems to really be about the lack of particular spaces/occasions for valuable rhetorical performances).  Is there a criticism of Q. throughout the Institutes of the Imperial condition?

3.       Do we get an early criticism of the value of “grand thoughts” without rhetorical considerations [i.e., New Criticism or Current-Traditional pedagogy or Philosophy] in Book II, Chapter XI/XII or is Q. just criticizing blog-hard sophists?

4.       Where does Q.’s notion of the good come from?  Is it inside the orator, conditioned from without, or somewhere in between?

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