Questions about Quintilian

Having now read Quintilian, I realize how much our contemporary practices of writing instruction are indebted to the classical rhetoricians whose practices Quintilian synthesized in his Institutes of Oratory, and also how much we could learn from them. One practice that Quintilian advocates seems completely opposite from our standard process writing pedagogy. Here’s a reminder of the gist of what he says (from pp. 404-5):

  • By writing carefully we can develop our ideas more deeply, which will provide us with a store to draw on as needed when speaking.
  • How we should write: “Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate. Let us search for what is best, and not allow ourselves to be readily pleased with whatever presents itself.” As we write we should judge our thoughts, attend to the organization, and weigh each word and its placement carefully as well as the rhythm of each phrase. Just as an archer pulls back the bowstring, so also should we go back as we’re writing to evaluate what we’ve written.
  • By this method we will write “very few verses in a day” as was Virgil’s practice.
  • Eventually we will be able to write faster, but we must first learn to write slowly: “By writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.”
  • Some people are happy with everything they write and some with nothing.
  • Not only practice will help improve writing but also method. Instead of “looking at the ceiling, and trying to kindle our invention by muttering to ourselves wait[ing] for what may present itself” (doesn’t that sound familiar?), we should consider the subject, the occasion and purpose, and the audience.
  • It is better to write carefully at first than to produce a rough copy. (Quintilian calls a rough copy a silvam or forest because the trees in the forest are arranged in no particular order. Interesting.)

It seems that Quintilian would be in disagreement with our practice of having students talk about their ideas before writing and encouraging them to write quickly with little concern for structure or word choice, just to get the ideas down. So do you think that Quintilian just needs to read some of the research on writing process, or are his ideas worthy of consideration?

The topoi and the writing process

I found the ideas in Frank D’Angelo’s article “The Evolution of the Analytic Topoi: A Speculative Inquiry” to be fascinating. D’Angelo outlines three broad stages (the global, the analytic, and the synthesis stages) in the development of human cognitive abilities and relates these stages to the development of the topoi. But he doesn’t stop there. He says that his main purpose in developing this history is “to provide a conceptual framework for a better understanding of invention and the composing process” (51). So, according to D’Angelo, how we humans developed ways to come up with ideas and organize them is mirrored on a small scale in our students, and we as teachers can help students as they move from the global stage, to the analytic, and finally to the stage of synthesis. “In this view, the composing process is analogous to universal evolutionary processes in which an original, amorphous, undifferentiated whole gradually evolves into a more complex, differentiated one” (51). As students move through the recursive process of writing, they reenact the development of the topoi. Cool insight.

From a historic perspective, the global stage is the most intriguing to me. It’s so hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that preliterate people had fundamentally different thought processes: “The singer of tales and the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers thought differently about the world than we do” (68). I’m intrigued to know how not being able to read and write would influence my thinking. Many days, when I’ve stayed up too late and the alarm goes off when it’s still dark and cold, I justify staying in my cozy bed by thinking, “I’ll plan my class/write my paper/figure out what to do about such and such in my head.” And so I begin my “thinking like an ancient person” experiment: how long can I sustain a cogent series of thoughts in my mind? It goes okay for a while: “Okay, first we’ll discuss this, and then we’ll do this activity,” or “Okay, I’ll start with this point, and don’t forget to use that word. Yeah, that’s good….” But soon I’m having thoughts like, “Wait, what did I just think? I need to not forget that…” etc. And so I’m forced to get up and find a pen and write down my ideas, and my experiment is over. Maybe Einstein or Mozart or Coleridge could have shown succeeded in being brilliant even as a preliterate person (although Coleridge certainly exaggerated his facility of composing in his mind), but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to cogitate nearly as well (or at least the same) without a way to write. D’Angelo claims that “preliterate man was apparently unable to think logically” (52), and after my early morning experiments, I’m inclined to agree. And that certainly seems to characterize my students in their early versions of their essays! But as D’Angelo points out, during the global stage the analytic topoi were “embedded in oral performance” (54), an observation that lends credence to teachers’ use of small group discussions to help students generate ideas.

The topoi of the analytic stage (at least of early Greek thought) are characterized by polarity and analogy, according to G. E. R. Lloyd (55). This seems to be much like the early pro/con orientation of my students to any controversial topic (polarity) and their tendency to start analyzing an issue by using their experiences as a lens through which to understand it (analogy). D’Angelo also posits that the topoi of the analytic stage (the enthymemes of Aristotle, for example) still bear a close connection between commonplace material (maxims, proverbs, popular sayings). My project with my students at this point in the quarter is to help them move from unquestioning reliance on commonplaces to a more analytic approach. Again, I can definitely see the parallels between the historic development of the topoi and the way that individual students develop their ideas.

During the stage of synthesis, D’Angelo contends that rhetoric and the topoi shifted “from tradition to theory” (61). According to S. M. Halloran, “The goal of the classical rhetorician was to prepare others to speak in conformity with the established rhetorical conventions. The goal of the modern theorist is to achieve an abstract understanding of the rhetorical process, and thereby to be able to predict the outcome(s) of a given rhetorical transaction” (62). This seems to correlate to the stage of composition where the student steps back and considers how various ways of approaching the topic will affect his/her audience, where the student tries to see the subject from others’ perspectives.

So besides the historical overview and theoretical understanding that D’Angelo’s article gave me, I also came away with an interesting way to look at my students’ composing process. As teachers we have to allow them to flounder for a while (the global stage), and allow them to rely on clichéd and polarized arguments for a while (the analytic stage), before they will be able to achieve a more mature and nuanced position (the synthesis stage) where they have a better understanding of the rhetorical situation.