"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, June 22, 2015

Word of the Day: Progymnasmata

I just came across this word.  You won’t find it in a dictionary.  I’m not even sure on how to pronounce it. 

pro - gym - nas - ma - ta

It’s a Greek etymology and comes from the ancient world.  From Richard Nordquist at the About.Com’s Grammar and Composition site comes this definition: 

The progymnasmata are a series of exercises that introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. Instructors looking for effective approaches to teaching composition or speech might find some fresh ideas in these assignments, even though they were developed over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.

I had never heard of this, and so I looked it up in various dictionaries.  Nothing to be found, but have no fear Wikipedia had an entry on it.  (The people who put down Wikipedia are all wrong; it’s a great site, and unless you’re dealing with a very controversial issue it’s very accurate, even more so than standard encyclopedias.)  Here’s the history

Composition was not a primary subject taught in schools until the fifth century. In fact, the term “progymnasmata” first appeared in Chapter 28 of Rhetoric to Alexander, most likely written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus in the late fourth century. This work is preserved alongside those of Aristotle, yet he never mentions the use of preliminary exercises. But Aristotle does touch on the rhetorical forms, which became an aspect within the nature of progymnasmata. The use of preliminary rhetorical exercises is discussed briefly in some Greek and Roman dialogues, but all handbooks from that time remain lost today. There are only four known surviving handbooks of progymnasmata. The earliest one is that of Theon, written some time during the first century A.D. In his introduction, Theon addresses teachers rather than students and criticizes students who skip out on these preliminary exercises. The second handbook is attributed to one of the most influential rhetoricians of the second century, Hemogenes of Tarsus. But there is no preface to his work and the exercises are brief; therefore, many doubt its authenticity.[2] But the third handbook is attributed to Apthonius of Antioch, student of the great sophist Libanius during the second half of the fourth century. This is the most widely used and referenced handbook that became the standard on the practice of progymnasmata. His treatises were combined with rhetorical treatises of Hermogenes on stasis theory and style to create the “Hermogenic Corpus.” The final handbook is attributed to Nicolaus of Myra, who taught rhetoric in Constantinople during the late fifth century.

Now I find this fascinating.  I may be in a minority on this, but I believe the ancient and medieval world had better approaches to writing and rhetoric than we do in the modern world.  Progymnasmata is a process on which a student goes through a series of exercises to develop his writing and oratory skills.  Both Nordquist’s post (you can sign up for email delivery of Grammar and Composition links, and they are excellent) and Wikipedia’s entry describe the list of exercises.  Here is the list preserved from Aphthonius of Antioch book, per Nordquist.

1. Fable, or retelling of a folk tale.
2. Narrative, either fiction or nonfiction.
3. Chreia or anecdote, a story based on amplification of a famous statement or action.
4. Proverb, which asked students to amplify by arguing for or against some maxim or adage.
5. Refutation, which disproved the persuasive point of a narrative.
6. Confirmation, which proved the persuasive point of a narrative.
7. Commonplace, which amplified on the moral qualities of some virtue or vice, often as exemplified in some common phrase of advice.
8. Encomium or praise, which expanded on the virtues of some person or thing.
9. Invective, which censured some evil person or thing.
10. Comparison, which compared two people or things and explored their comparative merits and shortcomings.
11. Personification, the characterization of some fictional person by the use of appropriate language.
12. Description, which created intense and graphic depictions of a subject.
13. Argument, which created and supported a thesis or some general question, such as, "Is town life superior to country life?"
14. Legislation [or deliberation], in which the student argued for or against the goodness of a law.

I feel deprived not having had these exercises in school.  What the heck do they teach in High School to develop writers?  I don’t remember a single exercise, except once where we had to write a makeup news article.  I wrote a baseball article of a fictionalized game, and the teacher thought I had copied it out of a newspaper.  He accused me of plagiarizing.  Ultimately he retracted and gave me a good grade.  I have nothing but bad memories of pre-college writing.  We need to go back to classical writing!


  1. I shall wait until they make "Progymnasmata" into a movie and see it then.

    You really have a great intellect Manny. Have you ever thought of entering Mastermind? I don't know if you have the TV program in the USA.

    It.s a high powered quiz program where top brains like yours answer ever so complicated questions about everything against the clock. Ususally a series is made up of 13 half hour shows broadcast once a week. During a whole series I usually manage to answer one question. So I'm a little clever really.

    God bless.

    1. I've never heard of the show, so I don't think we have it here. We have a show called Jeopardy here that really tests one;s mind. I used to play along when I used to watch it regularly but I don't think I would have done exceptional. Thank you for the compliment. You're too kind. :)

    2. There are 4 contestants per show. First they answer quick fired questions on their specialist chosen subjects for 2 minutes; then they answer general knowledge questions. The winner goes on to the next show. After 13 shows we have a champion.

      See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePtoXkZ1k80

      God bless.

    3. That was really cool. They should bring that show to the US. Thanks Victor.