The Before Exercises: Composition as Training in Virtue

“O my people, hear my teaching, listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from old—what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us.”
Psalm 78: 1-2

The aim and objective of classical education is to instill in students wisdom and virtue, focusing on the ideal person we are trying to form and the models we can use to accomplish this. This central idea is nowhere clearer than in the progymnasmata, the ancient writing method utilized in Memoria Press’ Classical Composition by James A. Selby. The progymnasmata, a Greek word that translates as “the before exercises,” encompassed the pre-rhetoric study of all the educated West from ancient Greece to Paul, from Quintilian, Aphthonius, Augustine, and Aquinas up until Lewis and Tolkien. Because our Christian philosophy and expression are so steeped in this tradition, it might be better to ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” study the progymnasmata. In addition to its tradition, there are two absolutely critical reasons why the progymnasmata holds a significant place in classical education. The first has to do with the quality of virtue we intend when we set out to train a child, and the latter with the quality of mind.

The ancient Greek Stoics, founded by Zeno in the 300s B.C., hit on what I consider to be the greatest ever secular argument for the necessary morality of man: Since the things that are the most honorable and right will always lead to the best outcome, we have an obligation to strive for those things. An educated man, therefore, was not only one whose mind was crammed full of knowledge, but one whose heart had learned to adhere to the virtuous. In fact, the Stoics first proclaimed the four cardinal virtues that were later adopted into the seven Christian virtues of the Church. Quintilian stated in his Institutio Oratoria that “the perfect orator … should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech but in all of the excellences of character as well.” Indeed, a man who had been educated but remained immoral and selfish would be to the Stoics, as Paul described, a person without true love, “a clanging cymbal,” an unwelcome, brutish noise to be silenced as quickly as possible. Their perspective on the successful citizen inextricably combined a discerning mind with a strong morality, and thus no well-taught student was without appetite for the good in addition to a solid grounding in knowledge.

Enter the progymnasmata. I love Psalm 78 because it speaks of teaching good through story—that shaping the mind involves plot, action, decisions, good guys, bad guys, and just outcomes. The progymnasmata focuses constantly on developing an appetite for good and a hatred of evil while simultaneously filling a student’s “basket of writing tools,” as I call them. The Fable and Narrative stages of Classical Composition teach through the use of well-known morality tales and engaging plots. In the third stage, Chreia & Maxim, students invent characters that accept or reject wisdom, to their success or downfall. Refutation & Confirmation teaches the invention of arguments for or against an action, based on the six Heads of Purpose, one of which is solely concerned with what is honorable and praiseworthy. In Common Topic, students examine the full extent of a sinner’s decisions, which are based on faulty, selfish reasoning and a carelessness of others, and have cataclysmic consequences for himself and others. Encomium, Invective, & Comparison reaches into the background of both the virtuous and the corrupt, seeking to understand their origins and actions, and their far-reaching effects on society. Further stages employ the development of empathy for the deserving and rejection of the unworthy, the basis of “universal law.”

With Christ as our universal law we have the completed centerpiece—the cornerstone—of the design the ancients envisioned, and it truly is phenomenal to see “good” as inextricable from “reason.”

Pursuant to that, we must cultivate the mind as well as the heart, and Classical Composition thoroughly answers this challenge as well. At its most foundational, Classical Composition is successful in teaching good writing because it concerns itself first with ordering the mind. After all, writing is but a coded, visual representation of what is going on in thought, so it follows that to have good writing, one must first have good thought. One of the largest failures of “modern composition” is its inexcusable habit of putting the cart before the horse. Proponents are fixated on the formulated structure supporting the reasoning in an argument (the dreaded five-paragraph essay), but give no instruction whatsoever about how to come up with the supporting reasons in the first place. This is the equivalent of asking someone who’s new in town to pick up a gallon of milk for you at the store, but not telling him what store, or where the store is, or how to get there. The task is given, but not the means of being successful at it. Instead, after instilling both the broad and deep skills of clear description and explanation in the first three stages, Classical Composition goes on in Refutation & Confirmation to show a student, step-by-step, how to invent arguments under six different categories. A trip to the store is much easier when you have detailed directions and a map, and you are much more confident if you already know the area well and can choose the best of several routes. This is the beauty of the Heads of Purpose: They give students the ability to both invent and select the best argument to suit the needs of a position. Couple these writing stages with Traditional Logic and good, rich literature, and in a few years you will have a formidable mind—and righteous heart—to contend with! Parents often humorously lament to me that their adolescent students become more difficult to beat in an argument after Refutation & Confirmation, which is music to my ears.

In addition to teaching vivid description and boundless argumentation, Classical Composition offers students extensive practice in the areas of arrangement, style, and content through the use of models to emulate for each and every stage. The models for Classical Composition come from extant essays written by a man called Aphthonius, a teacher of rhetoric who lived in the early centuries A.D. His clear, concise writing is ideal for learning writers to imitate. Once again the progymnasmata stands above modern techniques that require students to “have something to say” before they can begin writing. Instead, it always provides students with content and allows them to explore a given topic creatively, but not ex nihilo. Also, by using models that are purposeful down to the very structure of each sentence and the ordering of each point, students learn elevated style, argument development, and expression just by writing as Aphthonius demonstrated. Students are not expected to come up with their own standard of “what sounds good to them,” but are given a good example to imitate, a “universal law” to follow, which is a profoundly familiar concept for we who seek to imitate Christ.

Whether at home in the kitchen, online at the faithful family computer, in the church basement at a cottage school, or in the halls of a private school, Classical Composition is useful for teaching all kinds of students—and is especially helpful when teaching a broad spectrum of natural abilities and ages in the same class. Because it focuses on specific skills that have infinite applications, the “natural” writer is challenged to become more fluid, subtle, and eloquent in the very same lesson that encourages the less enthusiastic student with clear steps to take and examples to follow, not leaving him to his own less-developed resources. In this way, Classical Composition provides flexibility and integration of abilities and ages in classrooms and homes, instead of breaking students into groups based on “natural ability.”

As Christians, we are not concerned just with being good citizens of Christ ourselves (though this is crucial), or with merely raising professionally successful children, but ultimately with equipping our children for every good work for the benefit of others. Our desire is to make the next generation eager and ready to labor for Christ, or as Augustine put it, to defend “the glorious City of God against those who prefer its own gods to its Founder.” This requires a firm, surefooted understanding of what is right and good and what is not, along with the ability to clearly explain and persuade others of that good—an act that draws both the speaker and the audience closer to God. Classical Composition addresses the two aspects of man’s fallen nature—the damage to the soul and the damage to the mind—which can help repair the ruin we have made of our culture and ourselves.

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