Better Living through Prose Composition:
The Moral and Ethical World of Greek Progymnasmata

Craig A. Gibson

From the cradle to the stage, Greek education in the imperial period advanced a moral and ethical agenda.  Students were expected to absorb the values of elite society as reflected in Classical literature, then to acknowledge, expound upon, and defend those truths in a graded series of written compositions, and finally to play the part of a historical, mythological, or comic character in a fictitious trial situation in which defense of these same values was often paramount.  In this paper I argue that the authors of the Greek progymnasmata treatises (taken as representative of ancient teachers of rhetoric) presume not only that their composition exercises are incidentally capable of teaching moral and ethical values, but that the teaching of such values is in fact integral to their purpose.  As I demonstrate, students in this curriculum progress from passive absorption of values, to affirmation and elaboration of positive value statements, to criticism of negative examples, analysis and relative ranking of competing goods and evils, and finally to the construction of arguments addressing moral and ethical dilemmas.  The progymnasmata treatises have never before been analyzed in precisely this way.

             In my paper I will focus on four of these exercises: fable, anecdote, commonplace, and comparison.  Fable (mythos) is characterized as an unapologetically fictitious story that provides a useful semblance of truth, produces harmony in the minds of the young, and exhorts them to pursue good and avoid evil.  The exercise in anecdote (chreia) recalls a famous saying or deed that is useful and helps to instill good character by persuading its hearers to choose the nobler course of action.  One may choose to argue against a positive moral claim found in a fable or anecdote, not by rejecting that moral claim (e.g. honor your teachers), but rather by giving preferential support to an alternate moral priority (e.g. but honor your parents first).  The exercise in commonplace (topos) features persuasive discourse on general evils, involving stereotypical figures such as tyrants, murderers, and physician-poisoners.  In this exercise students are encouraged to focus on the nature and consequences of the moral choices that the evil person has made.  Progressing beyond simple encomium and invective (whose moral and ethical dimensions are obvious), the exercise in comparison (synkrisis) asked students to rank two goods or two evils relative to one another, and to defend that ranking.

No audiovisual equipment is needed.  Delivery time will be 15 minutes or less.

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