Thought for the Evening: Progymnasmata and Language-Learning
A comment by Cristina on the evening note about developing a treasury of ideas led me to think about the possibility of adapting classical rhetorical pedagogy to language-learning -- or, to be more exact, to learning of language fluency (since the basics would have been covered by grammar rather than rhetoric). It makes considerable sense, actually, if you think about it, since rhetoric is concerned with speaking and writing well.
Classical rhetoric is constituted by the five canons -- inventio or heuresis (discovery of appropriate things to say), dispositio or taxis (organizing what is said in a coherent way), elocutio or lexis (style in which it is said), memoria or mneme (vocabulary, patterns of discourse, and the like), pronuntiatio or hypokrisis (which includes pronunciation but is more broadly the whole acting-out of what is said, so would include things like gestures and tones, or punctuation in writing). These can operate more or less simultaneously in actual speaking and writing, so they can be considered the elements of speaking or writing well, and together constitute the goal of rhetorical pedagogy.
Actual classical rhetorical pedagogy usually broke up into two parts: progymnamsata and gymnasmata. Gymnasmata were full-scale rhetorical declamations on any topic, and thus practice for advanced students. Progymnasmata were more rudimentary exercises designed to focus on specific skills needed for the more advanced work, and thus slowly to get you to the point where declamation was a real possibility. They could vary, but there were twelve or thirteen that were traditionally standard. (There could be some overlap, but they were broadly speaking in sequential order.)
(1) Mythos: Students would be given a fable, usually from Aesop, and would have to adapt it -- both summarize it in simpler terms and expand upon it by adding descriptions. One can see the advantage of doing this in language-learning: the fable provides a sort of frame that the student can rely on while exercising their skills. They can use the same patterns of speech, the same phrases, and like, but have to modify it to new use.
(2) Diegema: This exercise would go a bit further by having the students tell a complete story, and would be varied by telling the whole story from the beginning, or starting from the middle, or starting from the end.
(3) Chreia: Students would start with an anecdote with a precise point -- a specific action or saying, or the like; a wide variety of different kinds of anecdotes would be used, and they would be varied in different ways (rephrased as praises or condemnations, given brief explanations, or compared to other anecdotes). While the story would be simpler, the skill would be more advanced, since it requires both concision and precision, as you would have to do strictly what was required to fulfill the various tasks.
(4) Gnome: This would work the same way, but with proverbs and maxims.
(5) Anaskeue: Students would be given a myth or legend and argue that it was absurd, or doubtful, or useless, etc.
(6) Kataskeue: Students would take the other side and argue in favor of the myth or legend, that it was reasonable, or probable, or practically valuable, or the like.
(7) Koinos topos: Students would talk about general virtues or vices, qualities, or characteristics, or talk about general types of people.
(8) Enkomion: Students would go beyond (7) by praising virtues, abstract qualities, specific people, places, or all sorts of other things in close and varied detail.
(9) Psogos: This would work the same way, but from the opposite side, criticizing things in detail.
(10) Ethopoeia: Students would construct a speech for a historical or mythological character, speaking from that person's point of view, and in a way appropriate to that person. This would start getting quite advanced, because you would need to consider things like how polished or concise or florid a person's style might be, and, of course, you would have to change it up with different characters.
(11) Ekphrasis: Ekphrasis is basically word-painting, in which one uses all the resources of language to describe something (often a work of art, like a literal painting, or a sculpture) to give people who had not seen it a vivid imaginative picture of it.
(12) Thesis: With thesis one would develop precise, specific arguments for this or that being the correct answer to a general question (like whether it was beneficial to marry, or whether the world is spherical. At this level the exercises are starting to take the same form as the later declamations, with introductions, descriptions, arguments for and against, and conclusions. The exercises would be varied not only by questions but by different kinds of argument -- whether things were legal, or just, or useful, or beneficial, or possible, and the like.
(13) Nomou eisphora: While (12) is at a general level, this exercise (which literally means 'proposal of law') would go further by dealing with specific questions (specific laws, specific policies). At this point, the student is taking the first steps in full-scale declamation.
Throughout every stage, there would be a lot of imitation and borrowing -- full creativity would be one of the things that would distinguish progymnasmata from gymnasmata -- as well as detailed analysis of examples to see how they worked so that the student could do the same. One sees this to some extent in ordinary language-learning -- think of all the endless dialogue-fragments one gets in standard language textbooks -- but, of course, language textbooks tend to focus on grammar; rhetorical proficiency is another level of language-learning on its own.
Various Links of Note
* Samizdat is a form of political resistance involving the self-publishing of works to get around state censors. One of the more notable samizdat publications is the very long-running periodical, The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, also known as the LKB kronika, which ran from 1972-1989 and kept track of the oppression of the Catholic Church (as well as related oppressions) in the Lithuanian SSR. Copies would be handtyped and then smuggled around, and then out to where they could be read over Vatican Radio (thus giving it a much larger audience than most samizdat did). It makes interesting reading. Very grim, but also there are regular sparks of hope -- a poem smuggled around, a report of Catholics being confirmed despite Soviet inquiries, and the like. And, of course, it kept going and going and going. You can read a number of the issues translated into English online.
* Lydia Moland, Friedrich Schiller, at the SEP.
* Joe Gibes, How to Make Nazi Doctors
* James Hannam, Medieval Science in Medieval Fiction
* Andrew Loke, The resurrection of the Son of God: a reduction of the naturalistic alternatives
* An English translation of the Suan shu shu, which I believe is currently the oldest extant Chinese mathematical text, dating from about the second century BC.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Donald Ainslie, Hume's True Scepticism
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Michael Flynn, Eifelheim