Perspicuity (<<— Note the concision of my title)

Perspicuity — The art of speaking clearly and concisely in a manner that is easy to understand is, according to Quintilian, “the chief virtue of eloquence” (368). His belief in the merits of clarity in speaking comes through in his writing style, which though highly descriptive, avoids long, confusing passages, obscure language, or difficult to follow metaphors. This propensity to speak clearly can also be imagined to affect his pedagogy, especially in his teaching of small children, making his later claims about the methods of doing this easier to imagine. Whereas Plato or Cicero might have spoken in too verbose or abstract a style for a young person to follow, Quintilian’s pedagogy is congruent with his privileging of clarity of style in language diction, making it believable that he might teach to both children and adults who have a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. According to Quintilian, “the eloquent professor must also be a man of sense, not ignorant of teaching, and lowering himself to the capacity of the learner,” which demonstrates his belief that speaking must be geared toward one’s audience’s ability to grasp, and that this is especially important when it comes to teaching children or others whose abilities are just emerging (368).


Pedagogy and the Ethos of Quintilian


“Let him adopt, then, above all things, the feelings of a parent towards his pupils, and consider that he succeeds to the place of those by whom the children were entrusted to him” (366).


Quintilian’s focus on the practice of teaching rhetoric to children is striking in its detail and focus upon the care, concern, and love he shows towards students. He proposes that though there are “plenty of examples for their imitation, yet the living voice, as it is called, feeds the mind more nutritiously, and especially the voice of the teacher, whom his pupils, if they are but rightly instructed, both love and reverence. How much more readily we imitate those whom we like, can scarcely be expressed” (367).  This focus on love and connection as a pedagogy is in contrast with punitive models, or the near to total exclusion about these issues amongst other rhetorical theorists studied. Teaching is clearly important to Quintilian, and this focus is in alignment with his beliefs about what a good orator is and how one is constructed/instructed.


Quintilian also upholds the idea that the initial or early compositions of students not be corrected or judged harshly, as this may inhibit future learning or enthusiasm for the subject. Rather than the “red mark pedagogy” popular even in modern times, Quintilian notes that “the power of boys sometimes sink under too great severity in correction; for they despond, and grieve, and at last hate their work, and, what is most prejudicial, while they fear every thing, they cease to attempt any thing” (370).  Instead, he notes that “study is cheered by nothing more than hope” and promotes a methodology for assessment and critique that “ought to praise some parts of his pupils’ performances, to tolerate some, and to alter others, giving his reasons why the alterations are made” (370). This pedagogy, which eschews harsh criticism or merely pointing out errors, is considered a more empowering approach to teaching, though despite that, many instructors today continue to focus on what is “wrong with” student compositions, rather than utilizing the more positive aspects of instruction supported by Quintilian.


This pedagogical approach lends credence to his later claims that rhetoric should be undertaken by the moral man, that persuasion is only ethical when done in the spirit of moving others to act in ways which are of benefit to them and to society. For Quintilian, the “perfect orator, whom I would have, above all, to be a good man” is an ideal, but one that is not out of reach as a potential manifestation in reality (389). Quintilian postulates that both birth and learning are integral to creating a successful orator. His pedagogy, then, connects to this idea that “the perfect orator” can be instructed to support and encourage the natural abilities of the student, thus placing pedagogical considerations at the forefront of his theory. Quintilian asserts that “in the pursuit of oratory, not only will the learned excel the unlearned, but the more learned will excel the less learned… This ought to be acknowledged by every one, and especially by me, who allow the attainment of oratory only to the man of virtue” (395).


In this way, Quintilian’s ideas of pedagogy correspond to his belief that the orator must be a moral, upstanding, “good” man. His teaching methods work to promote this idea, and this idea supports his proposals for the methods of teaching. Additionally, the love, consideration, and respect that Quintilian shows toward students is in congruence with his belief that the character of the orator is of a strong moral nature, that he actually be an upstanding citizen, rather than just appear as such in order to persuade. He increases his sense of ethos in the reader as a “good man” himself in his approach to students, showing that this is a genuine concern to him, that he actually cares about the happiness, success, and fulfillment of others, even or especially children. In one sense, this is a means by which to prepare them for the possibility of becoming an orator, of inspiring them to incorporate virtuous behaviors into their characters in order that they might use this virtue to inspire others through their oratory. On the other hand, it establishes Quintilian as the “good man” he promotes as the only true orator, increasing his credibility and authority as both an orator and a pedagogical theorist.


2 comments on “Perspicuity (<<— Note the concision of my title)

  1. Note that (and why) perspicuity becomes a dominant principle of style in the 18th century Anglo-Scottish rhetorics (e.g., George Campbell).

  2. I’m glad you picked up on the importance of “love of students” — love in the sense of care (what later feminist theorists would call an ethic of teaching care). I think this ties in with the love of other (philos), that we see in Phaedrus, that is at the core of rhetoric.

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