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Classical Progymnasmata

Nada AbiSamra's Progymnasmata
Edward Pate's Progymnasmata

Textbook: Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student
by Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors

I- Progymnasmata:

What does this word mean?

* Preliminary exercises: relatively simple forms of composition.

* A set of rudimentary exercises intended to prepare students of rhetoric for the creation and performance of complete practice orations (gymnasmata or declamations). A crucial component of classical and renaissance rhetorical pedagogy.

* A series of exercises in composition called 'preliminary exercises' (gymnasmata or - the term generally used by modern scholars - progymnasmata). These exercises introduce the student to a variety of techniques and concepts which would be fundamental in more advanced work, and give him the opportunity to practice separately skills that would have to be combined when doing more advanced exercises and composing real speeches.

The sequence and recommended treatment of these exercises varied between different rhetoricians.
Classical progymnasmata contains 14 assignments ranked by degree of complexity. We are going to study 12 only:
-- Deliberative: Fable, Tale, Chreia, Proverb, Thesis, Legislation
-- Judicial: Refutation & Confirmation, Commonplace      (Topics: Book p. 486)
-- Epideictic (Ceremonial): Encomium, Impersonation, Comparison, Description

branch of oratory time purposes special topics
of invention
deliberative future exhort or dissuade good / unworthy
advantageous / disadvantageous 
judicial past  accuse or defend  justice / injustice 
epideictic present praise or blame virtue / vice

Note: The 2 most famous sets of progymnasmata were those of:

- Hermogenes of Tarsus (2nd century A.D.)
- Aphtonius of Antioch (around 400 A.D.)

II- Refutation:

Here the student is expected to take a narrative and argue that it is untrue.
The topics of refutation provide a checklist of criteria against which one assesses a narrative: is it plausible, consistent, decent etc?

Refutation is the overturning of some given fact. One should use refutation not on things that are perfectly obvious, nor on those that are completely impossible, but on intermediate matters.

Refutation is an attack on an opposite view, typically attacking the credibility of a myth or legend. It is a companion to the following exercise: confirmation.

Directions for Composition

Attack the credibility of a myth or legend employing these steps:
  • Blame the teller of the story- Discredit
  • Give a summary of the story- Expose
  • Attack it as being:
  • obscure- unclear
  • incredible- impossible
  • implausible- illogical
  • inconsistent
  • improper (not in accord with propriety, modesty, good manners, or good taste)
  • unfitting, and unprofitable.
  • Finally adduce inexpediency (inadvisability)
  • Example

    III- Confirmation:

    Confirmation is the securing of some given fact. One should use confirmation not on things that are perfectly obvious, nor on those that are completely impossible, but on intermediate matters.

    Confirmation, the opposite of the previous exercise, is the simple attempt to prove a given view, typically by arguing the credibility of a myth or legend. It followed a similar pattern as refutation.

    Directions for Composition

    Argue for the credibility of a myth or legend employing the following steps:
  • Praise the teller of the story
  • Give a summary of the story- Expose
  • Confirm the story as being:
  • manifest- clear
  • probable- possible
  • plausible- proper
  • logical- consistent
  • fitting, and profitable
  • Finally adduce expediency (advisability)
  • Example

    IV- Commonplace:

    The preceding exercises have concentrated on demonstrating the truth (or falsity) of a position. The other basic technique an orator needs is amplification; that is, the orator must be able to take a given fact and enhance its perceived significance in the eyes of the audience. In this exercise the student is taught to elaborate on generalisations (e.g. against murderers, tyrants etc.). This technique would later be useful (e.g.) in the epilogue of judicial speeches: having proved that the defendant committed murder, the common topic against murderers can be used to reinforce the jury's sense that murder is a terrible crime and should be punished severely. (c.f. Book p. 486)

    Commonplace is "a composition which amplifies evil attributes" (originally described as an amplification of either a virtue or vice, but in practice more the latter). A preparation for the  encomium exercise, the commonplace differed from it by taking up a general virtue or vice, rather than the specific qualities of a single person. Subjects included gambling, theft, adultery, etc. Sometimes it took up the virtues/vices of specific kinds of persons; e.g., tyrants, traitors.

    Directions for Composition

    Argue for or against a general (common) fault or virtue of human nature (or a type of person), using these steps:
  • Begin with the contrary or a contradiction
  • adduce the exposition - not in order to explain, since the facts are known, but to provoke the audience
  • Introduce a comparison, comparing something better to what is attacked
  • Introduce a proverb that upbraids (criticizes severely) the motivation of the doer of the deed, discrediting his/her intent.
  • Employ a digression with a defamatory conjecture (conclusion deduced by guesswork) as to the past life of the person accused
  • Repudiate/reject the idea of taking pity on such a person
  • Consider the following headings in discussing this virtue or vice:
  • legality- justice
  • expediency
  • possibility
  • practicability
  • decency- honor
  • consequences
  • Example

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    Page Created on April 23, 2000
    Last updated on April 3, 2001
    Copyright © 2000-2001 by Nada AbiSamra.

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