Historical Rhetorics/Should We Read Quintilian?

Chapter Seven: Is Quintilian Worth Reading? (Or, Should We Just Read More Cicero?)

  • Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Books One, Two, Ten, and Twelve

Kennedy (representing a dominant historical tradition in Rhetoric and Composition historiography) sees Quintilian as simply regurgitating the Greek tradition. Similarly, Ong preferences the Greek tradition and treats the Romans as little more than editors annotating "rhetoric's greatest hits" (Logie 358). However, others read in Quintilian robust intellectual work that, while borrowing from Greek philosophy and rhetoric, differs significantly (especially in its goals) from Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and the rest of the Greek tradition(s).

Quintilian famously echoes Cato's description of the ideal orator as vir bonus dicendi peritus. While commonly translated as the "good man speaking well," it might also be read as the "good man expressing expertly."

Rhetoric and Philosophy


Quintilian is explicit in his opposition to philosophy as the sole ethical art (although later approves of Socrates's martyrdom) and to philosophy's disdain for rhetoric (see preface, paragraph 11). As with Isocrates and Cicero, Quintilian's "perfect orator" is a judge and citizen, one who is equally concerned with his private person and public duties (and recognizes that these are not two distinct things to be taught by different arts). Philosophy, through its disciplinary turf wars, claims sole possession of something that rightly belongs to many disciplines. See particularly 2.21 for Quintilian's portrayal of philosophers as "trespassers."

From Book 11, on Socrates, dealing with ethos, kairos, to prepon, and becoming and appropriateness/expedience :

Too much insistence cannot be laid upon the point that no one can be said to speak appropriately who has not considered not merely what it is expedient, but also what it is becoming to say. I am well aware that these two considerations generally go hand in hand. For whatever is becoming is, as a rule, useful, and there is nothing that does more to conciliate the good-will of the judge than the observance or to alienate it than the disregard of these considerations. 9 Sometimes, however, the two are at variance. Now, whenever this occurs, expediency must yield to the demands of what is becoming. Who is there who does not realise that nothing would have contributed more to secure the acquittal of Socrates than if he had employed the ordinary forensic methods of defence and had conciliated the minds of his judges by adopting a submissive tone and had devoted his attention to refuting the actual charge against him? 10 But such a course would have been unworthy of his character, and, therefore, he pleaded as one who would account the penalty to which he might be sentenced as the highest of honours. The wisest of men preferred to sacrifice the remnant of his days rather than to cancel all his past life. And since he was but ill understood by the men of his own day, he reserved this case for the approval of posterity and at the cost of a few last declining years achieved though all the ages life everlasting. (11.1.8-10).

Of interest, too, is the division Quintilian makes between oratory and rhetoric: "For although the orator's task is to speak well, rhetoric is the science of speaking well"

Quintilian on Philosophy and its role in education:

But we must use the same critical caution in studying the philosophers that we require in reading history or poetry; that is to say, we must bear in mind that, even when we are dealing with the same subjects, there is a wide difference between forensic disputes and philosophical discussions, between the law-courts and the lecture-room, between the precepts of theory and the perils of the bar. (10.1.35)

This is ultimately the grounds upon which he condemns Isocrates--that while he agrees with Isocrates's theories, he cannot approve of his style or practice:

Isocrates was an exponent of a different style of oratory: he is neat and polished and better suited to the fencing-school than to the battlefield. He elaborated all the graces of style, nor was he without justification. For he had trained himself for the lecture-room and not the law-courts. He is ready in invention, his moral ideals are high and the care which he bestows upon his rhythm is such as to be a positive fault. (10.1.79-80).

Quintilian's Strong Defense


One of the more interesting passages in Quintilian, an implicit response to Socrates's exchange with Gorgias:

Doctors have been caught using poisons, and those who falsely assume the name of philosopher have occasionally been detected in the gravest of crimes. Let us give up eating, it often makes us ill; let us never go inside houses, for sometimes they collapse on their occupants; let never a sword be forged for a soldier, since it might be used by a robber. And who does not realise that fire and water, both necessities of life, and, to leave merely earthly things, even the sun and moon, the greatest of heavenly bodies, are occasionally

capable of doing harm. (2.16.5)

The big line, from Cato, comes in Book XII: "Vir bonus dicendi peritus" (12.1.1). A good man skilled in the art of speaking / skilled man speaking well. a good man speaking with expertise. In the following explication, we learn that the "vir bonus" is intelligent and prudent. There is dedication not to self-interest, but to the commonweal (an excellent citizen)(12.1.14). The vir bonus is explicated further at the close of chapter 9:

But whether we have to improvise a reply, or are obliged to speak extempore by some other reason, the orator on whom training, study and practice have conferred the gift of facility, will never regard himself as lost or taken at hopeless disadvantage. 21 He stands armed for battle, ever ready for the fray, and his eloquence will no more fail him in the courts than speech will fail him in domestic affairs and the daily concerns of life: and he will never shirk his burden for fear of failing to find words, provided he has time to study his case: for all other knowledge will always be his at command. (12.9.20-21)

Let us take pause to read, here, Burke's description of rhetoric from the opening of The Rhetoric of Motives:

“Insofar as the individual is involved in conflict with other individuals or groups, the study of this same individual would fall under the head of Rhetoric. . . . The Rhetoric must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War.” (23)

Rhetorical Training


In 2.12, Quintilian is skeptical of hard and fast systems of rhetoric--it is not that easy. Rules are suggestions, but the rhetorician knows when and how to break them. This is echoed in his later critique of Aristotelian topoi, for Quintilian, the rhetor is s/he who attunes herself to reading the possibilities of a situation, rather than one who memorizes a priori formulae suitable to any situation (see Byron Hawk's discussion of kairotic techne and specific occasions in A Counter History of Composition, 206, 258).

Perhaps in response to the Socrates of Plato's Gorgias, Quintilian reminds us that "there is no such thing as eloquence if we only speak with one person" (p55).

As with Cicero, we find in Quintilian a passage dealing with the pedagogical advantages of writing:

For, when we write, however great our speed, the fact that the hand cannot follow the rapidity of our thoughts gives us time to think, whereas the presence of our amanuensis hurries us on, at times we feel ashamed to hesitate or pause, or make some alteration, as though we were afraid to display such weakness before a witness.



Quintilian is skeptical of Cicero's "Asiatic" style; I believe this relates to his stern manliness and opposition to anything effeminate (see specifically 1.8.2 and 1.10.3, p175). Quintilian is also critical of Aristotle's lack of attending to style, or of recognizing style as epistemic. So, we might conclude that he is a goldilocks when it comes to style:

Thus the works of the orator will be great not extravagant, sublime not bombastic, bold not rash, severe but not gloomy, grave but not slow, rich but not luxuriant, pleasing but not effeminate, grand but not grandiose. It is the same with other qualities: the mean is safest, for the worst of all faults is to fly to extremes. (12.10.80)

Quintilian's Metaphors


Insipid students:Barren Soil

There is however one point which I must emphasise before I begin, which is this. Without natural gifts technical rules are useless. Consequently the student who is devoid of talent will derive no more profit from this work than barren soil from a treatise on agriculture. (p 20)


Reasoning comes as naturally to man as flying to birds, speed to horses and ferocity to beasts of prey: our minds are endowed by nature with such activity and sagacity that the soul is believed to proceed from heaven. (p21)


So too the teacher of geometry, music or other subjects which I would class with these, will not be able to create the perfect orator (who like the philosopher ought to be a wise man), but none the less these arts will assist in his perfection. I may draw a parallel from the use of antidotes and other remedies applied to the eyes or to wounds. We know that these are composed of ingredients which produce many and sometimes contrary effects, but mixed together they make a single compound resembling no one of its component parts, but deriving its peculiar properties from all: 7 so too dumb insects produce honey, whose taste is beyond the skill of man to imitate, from different kinds of flowers and juices. Shall we marvel then, if oratory, the highest gift of providence to man, needs the assistance of many arts, which, although they do not reveal or intrude themselves in actual speaking, supply hidden forces and make their silent presence felt. (1.10.6, p163)


Change of studies is like change of foods: the stomach is refreshed by their variety and derives greater nourishment from variety of viands. (1.12.5- p195).


Again, their epigrams, the sole objects of their quest, seem all the more striking because of the dreariness and squalor of their context, since flashes are more clearly seen against a background, not of mere "shade," as Cicero22 says, but of pitchy darkness. Well, let the world credit them with as much genius as it pleases, so long as it is admitted that such praise is an insult to any man of real eloquence. 8 None the less it must be confessed that learning does take something from oratory, just as the file takes something from rough surfaces or the whet-stone from blunt edges or age from wine; it takes away defects, and if the results produced after subjection to the polish of literary study are less, they are less only because they are better. (II.12.7-8)(p287)


We must therefore write as much as possible and with the utmost care. For as deep ploughing makes the soil more fertile for the production and support of crops, so, if we improve our minds by something more than mere superficial study, we shall produce a richer growth of knowledge and shall retain it with greater accuracy. For without the consciousness of such preliminary study our powers of speaking extempore will give us nothing but an empty flow of words, springing from the lips and not from the brain. (10. 3.2)


Now, though my reply to these critics will in the first place be a defence of my own work, it will also explain what I consider to be the duty of a good man on occasions when circumstances have caused him to undertake the defence of the guilty. For it is by no means useless to consider how at times we should speak in defence of falsehood or even of injustice, if only for this reason, that such an investigation will enable us to detect and defeat them with the greater ease, just as the physician who has a thorough knowledge of all that can injure the health will be all the more skilful in the prescription of remedies. (12.1.34)


And just as the trainers of the wrestling school do not impart the various throws to their pupils that those who have learnt them may make use of all of them in actual wrestling matches (for weight and strength and wind count for more than these), but that they may have a store from which to draw one or two of such tricks, as occasion may offer; 13 even so the science of dialectic, or if you prefer it of disputation, while it is often useful in definition, inference, differentiation, resolution of ambiguity, distinction and classification, as also in luring on or entangling our opponents, yet if it claim to assume the entire direction of the struggles of the forum, will merely stand in the way of arts superior to itself and by its very subtlety will exhaust the strength that has been pared down to suit its limitations. 14 As a result you will find that certain persons who show astonishing skill in philosophical debate, as soon as they quit the sphere of their quibbles, are as helpless in any case that demands more serious pleading as those small animals which, though nimble enough in a confined space, are easily captured in an open field.

Is Quintilian a Stoic?


Arthur Walzer informs us that, “The Stoics taught that living morally, which was a matter not of will but of understanding, was the only good.” The Stoic is quiet, unassuming, reserved, virtuous, and implacable: an introvert. In opposition, the Sophist is boisterous, didactic, outgoing, and the consummate word performer: an extrovert. Though these positions appear to be at odds, Walzer makes the case that Quintilian is both. How can these diametrically opposing views be rationalized in the ideology of the same person?

Walzer explains that scholars such as Kennedy and Atherton are reluctant to attach a fully stoic view to Quintilian’s ethics for two reasons: “The stoic emphasis … on achieving a rational and moral equilibrium by freeing oneself from a concern with the unpredictable aspects of life”, and secondly, “The stoic view of rhetoric … as part of logic … shared the values and limitations of dialectic” where, “the only difference … is that rhetoric is monologic and continuous”, whereas “dialectic is a rule-bound exchange,” considered by philosophers to be far more prestigious than rhetoric.

As to style the stoics view coincided with that of the philosophers. Both agreed on the five excellences of correctness, lucidity, conciseness, appropriateness, and distinction. But the stoic view was limited and reserved and burdened with an introverted style, whereas the rhetoricians view was extroverted and akin to theatrical performance. Walzer states: “Even more dramatic is the differences between what Cicero means by a distinguished style and what the Stoics mean by stylistic distinction”.

Because on moral grounds Stoicism was impressive and because Quintilian held the same view as Cicero they were both, “increasingly attracted to Stoicism … as the most courageous and truest philosophy”, though Quintilian, very much like Cato, “took from Stoicism that which it had to offer, but he learned to speak from masters of speaking and trained himself in their methods”. Walzer continues,” Cicero’s praise of Stoic morals and his criticism of their performance … inspired Quintilian”. And here is where Walzer makes his main argument saying, “I submit that Quintilian intended to ground a notoriously ungrounded neutral art of rhetoric in Stoic ethos but then liberate Stoic rhetoric with a large dose of Cicero.”

Addressing chapters 15 - 20 of the Institutes, Walzer notes that, “The Stoic view that Quintilian offers in these chapters provide the justification for what appear to be amoral rhetorical tactics … in maintaining that rhetoric is a science and a virtue …”, juxtaposed with, “The Stoics taught that living morally, which was a matter not of will but of understanding, was the only good …”, so without virtue, “it is appropriate for him [man] to depart from life.” Walzer continues: “ The Wise Man, who the Stoics sometimes treat as an ideal and sometimes but a rarity, understands these principles perfectly and is infallible in living according to them…. According to the Stoics, the Wise Man and only the Wise Man is in complete possession of a science.”

Walzer continues his argument: “In the preface to Book I of the Institutes, Quintilian offers his version of the Ciceronian account of the divorce of rhetoric and philosophy. Philosophy and oratory, once a single art, split into two, to the detriment of both arts for orators became so enamoured of ‘making a living’ that they were willing to make ‘bad use of the good gifts of eloquence’ and ‘abandoned moral concerns’ while the ‘weaker minds’ who failed as orators took up ‘the business of forming character …’, assuming to themselves an exclusive claim to being ‘students of wisdom’”. Thus Walzer suggests that, “By uniting Cicero’s conception of the ideal orator with the Stoic ideal of the Wise Man, Quintilian hoped to fill voids in each discipline.”

Fall 2011: Richard Lanham's "The Q Question"

Relevant Secondary Sources