Classical Writing: The Progymnasmata

Classical education terms have a way of scaring the bravest of us, and a word commonly thrown around in discussions of Classical-style writing instruction is one of the worst culprits—progymnasmata. But it immediately becomes less scary (as a word, anyway) when its definition is made known.

Progymnasmata simply means "preliminary exercises," and refers to the 14 steps from the grammar to the rhetoric stage as taught in the Classical and Renaissance eras. The word is Greek (pro means "fore", and gymnasmata means "exercises"), and this is fitting since it is the Greeks who originally developed this style of education, though the Romans perfected it.

One of the fundamental tenets of the Classical education philosophy is that students must be taught structure before content, and content before expression. In other words, the three stages of the Classical curriculum—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—are used to teach first the form, then the content, then the articulation of each subject.

This process is most intuitive when it comes to writing instruction. Students begin by mere imitation, writing exactly what they see on the page, and end up crafting their own essays which express their own ideas. The trouble with much writing curriculum is that it expects students to do the final steps without adequately teaching those prior to it.

The way the progymnasmata works becomes obvious when its 14 steps are explained:

  1. Fable—students retell a fable of the Aesop variety, using an existing version as a model.
  2. Narrative—students retell a short story in their own words.
  3. Maxim—students amplify a saying.
  4. Chreia—students amplify an anecdote about a wise or virtuous person.
  5. Refutation—students present an argument against a particular written narrative.
  6. Confirmation—students present an argument in defense of a particular written narrative.
  7. Commonplace—students write a descriptive essay, discussing a person's virtues or vices.
  8. Encomium—students praise a person in writing.
  9. Invective—students accuse a person in writing.
  10. Comparison—students write a comparative essay.
  11. Description—students write a descriptive essay.
  12. Characterization—students write a fictional monologue from a historical person's perspective.
  13. Thesis—students compose an arugmentative essay, defending a specific position.
  14. Law—students analyze a law or legislative proposal, arguing either for or against.

It may be easier to think of this fourteen-step process in terms of jazz. Good jazz musicians don't start by just playing whatever they want on their instruments. They begin by practicing endless scales, learning chords, and reading music. Then they practice as much as possible for as long as possible, perfecting their knowledge and technique. Finally, they graduate to improvisation, able to craft their own compositions as well as to play the compositions of others.

Classical writing follows the same pattern. Students learn the structure of good composition by imitation and revision, instruction in clear reasoning, and using rhetorical tropes to make communication more entertaining and forceful. By looking at examples of good writing, students learn how to produce original work in the same vein.

Is this the best method of writing instruction? It's certainly a good one, though the insistence on the part of many of its chief proponents that the original terminology be retained seems a bit hardheaded. What matters most is that students are shown what good writing looks like, made to imitate it and to think clearly, and then trained to compose their own essays.

The progymnasmata was codified formally in various Greek texts and later Renaissance imitations, though few of them are still in existence. Modern curricula using this method are based on these older forms, but necessarily update some of the methodology and terminology for teachers and students in the 21st century.

Kids are not going to learn how to write on their own, simply by osmosis. They must be taught, and they ought to be taught from the masters, using texts that exemplify the kind of writing students should be striving to imitate. The progymnasmata is a regimented approach to such instruction, one that won't work for everybody but which at least provides a universal format for what many consider to be the most important academic discipline.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Classical Writing: The Progymnasmata