Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 10 - Chapter 5

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What sort of composition we should practice; of translating Greek into Latin, § 1-8. Of putting the writing of eminent authors into other words, 9-11. Of theses, commonplaces, declamations, and other species of composition and exercise, 12-20. Cases for declamation should be as similar as possible to real cases, 21-23.

1. THE next point is to decide on what we should employ ourselves when we write. It would be a superfluous labor, indeed, to detail what subjects there are for writing and what should be studied first, second, and so on in succession, for this has been done in my first book, in which I prescribed the order for the studies of boys, and in my second, where I specified those of the more advanced. What is now to be considered is from where copiousness and facility of expression may be derived.

2. Our old orators thought translating Greek into Latin to be a very excellent exercise. Lucius Crassus, in the well known books of Cicero's De Oratore, says that he often practised it, and Cicero himself, speaking in his own person, very frequently recommends it and has even published books of Plato and Xenophon translated in that kind of exercise. It was also approved by Messala, and there are several extant versions of speeches made by him so that he even rivalled the oration of Hyperides for Phryne in delicacy of style, a quality most difficult for Romans to attain. 3. The object of such exercise is evident, for the Greek authors excel in copiousness of matter and have introduced a vast deal of art into the study of eloquence. In translating them, we may use the very best words, for all that we use may be our own. As to figures, by which language is principally ornamented, it may be necessary for us to invent a great number and variety of them because the Roman tongue differs greatly from that of the Greeks.

4. But the conversion of Latin writing into other words will also be of great service to us. I suppose no one has any doubt about the utility of turning poetry into prose. This is the only kind of exercise that Sulpicius is said to have used, for its sublimity may elevate our style, and the boldness of the expressions adopted by poetic license does not preclude the orator's efforts to express the same thoughts in the exactness of prose. He may even add to those thoughts oratorical vigor, supply what has been omitted, and give compactness to that which is diffuse, since I would not have our paraphrase to be a mere interpretation, but an effort to vie with and rival our original in the expression of the same thoughts. 5. My opinion therefore differs from those who disapprove of paraphrasing Latin orations, on the pretext that, as the best words and phrases have been already used, whatever we express in another form must of necessity be expressed worse. But there is insufficient ground for this allegation, for we must not despair of the possibility of finding something better than what has been said, nor has nature made language so meager and poor that we cannot speak well on any subject except in one way. Indeed, are we to suppose that while the gestures of the actor can give a variety of turns to the same words, the power of eloquence is so much inferior that when a thing has been once said, nothing can be said after it to the same purpose? 6. But let it be granted that what we conceive is neither better than our original nor equal to it; yet it must be allowed, at the same time, that there is a possibility of coming near to it. 7. Do not we ourselves at times speak twice or more often, and sometimes a succession of sentences, on the same subject, and are we to suppose that though we can contend with ourselves we cannot contend with others? If a thought could be expressed well only in one way, it would be but right to suppose that the path of excellence has been shut against us by some of our predecessors. But in reality, there are still innumerable modes of saying a thing, and many roads leading to the same point. 8. Conciseness has its charms, and so has copiousness; there is one kind of beauty in metaphorical, another in simple expressions; and direct expressions become one subject, and those varied by figures another. In addition, the difficulty of the exercise is most serviceable. Are not our greatest authors studied more carefully by these means? For in this way, we do not run over what we have written in a careless mode of reading, but consider every individual portion, look from necessity thoroughly into their matter, and learn how much merit they possess from the very fact that we cannot succeed in imitating them.

9. Nor will it be of advantage to us only to alter the language of others. It will be serviceable also to vary our own in a number of different forms, taking certain thoughts for the purpose and putting them, as harmoniously as possible, into several shapes, just as different figures are molded out of the same wax. 10. But I believe that the greatest facility in composition is acquired by exercise in the simplest subjects, for in treating a multiplicity of persons, causes, occasions, places, sayings, and actions, our real weakness in style may readily escape notice amidst so many subjects which present themselves on all sides, and any one of which we may readily take up. 11. But the great proof of power is to expand what is naturally contracted, to amplify what is little, to give variety to things that are similar and attraction to such as are obvious, and to say with effect much on a little.

To this end indefinite questions will much contribute, questions which we call θέσεις (theseis), and on which Cicero, even when he had become the first orator in his country, used to exercise himself. 12. Next in utility to these are refutations and defenses of sentences, for as a sentence is a sort of decree and order, whatever questions may arise regarding the subject of it may also arise regarding the decision on the subject. Next stand commonplaces on which we know that accomplished orators have written. For he who shall succeed in treating fully on questions that are plain and direct, and do not involve any complicated inquiries, will be still better able to expatiate on such as admit of excursive discussion and will be prepared for any cause whatever. 13. All causes, indeed, rest on general questions, for what difference does it make, for instance, whether "Cornelius, as tribune of the people, is accused of having read to the people the manuscript of a proposed law," or whether we have to consider the general question, "Is it a breach of the dignity of office, if a magistrate reads his own law to the people in his own person?" What difference does it make whether the question to be tried is, "Did Milo lawfully kill Clodius?" or "Ought a lier-in-wait to be killed, or a mischievous member of the commonwealth, even though he be not a lier-in-wait?" What is the difference whether the question is, "Did Cato act properly in giving up his wife to Hortensius?" or "Does such a proceeding become a respectable man?" Decision is pronounced concerning the persons, but the dispute concerns the general questions.

14. Declamations like those usually pronounced in the schools, if but adapted to real cases and made similar to actual pleadings, are of the greatest service, not only while our education has still to reach maturity (for the exercise is alike both in conception and in arrangement), but even when our studies are said to be completed and have obtained us reputation in the forum. Eloquence is thus nurtured and made florid, as it were, on a richer sort of diet and is refreshed after being fatigued by the constant roughnesses of forensic contests. 15. Hence, also, the copious style of history may be tried with advantage for exercising the pen, and we may indulge in the easy style of dialogues. Nor will it be prejudicial to our improvement to amuse ourselves with verse, as athletes, relaxing at times from their fixed rules for food and exercise, recruit themselves with ease and more inviting dainties. 16. It was from this cause, as it seems to me, that Cicero threw such a glorious brilliancy over his eloquence that he used freely to ramble in such sequestered walks of study, for if our sole material for thought is derived from law cases, the gloss of our oratory must of necessity be rubbed off, its joints must grow stiff, and the points of its wit be blunted by daily encounters.

17. But though this feasting of eloquence refreshes and recruits those who are employed and at war in the field of the forum, young men ought not to be detained too long in fictitious representations and empty semblances of real life to such a degree, I mean, that it would be difficult to familiarize them, when removed from such illusions, to the occupations of the forum. The danger stems from the effect of the retirement in which they have almost wasted away their life that they should shrink from the field of action as from too dazzling sunshine. 18. This is said indeed to have been the case with Porcius Latro, who was the first professor of rhetoric of any eminence, so that, when he was called on to plead a cause in the forum, at the time that he bore the highest character in the schools, he used earnestly to entreat that the benches of the judges might be removed into the hall, for so strange did the open sky appear to him that all his eloquence seemed to lie within a roof and walls. 19. Let the young man, then, who has carefully learned skill in conception and expression from his teachers (which will not be an endless task if they are able and willing to teach) and who has gained a fair degree of facility by practice, choose some orator, as was the custom among the ancients, whom he may follow and imitate. Let him amend as many trials as possible and be a frequent spectator of the sort of contest for which he is intended. 20. Let him set down cases also in writing, either the same that he has heard pleaded or others, provided that they be on real facts, and let him handle both sides of the question. And as we see in the schools of gladiators, let him exercise himself with arms that will decide contests, as we observed that Brutus did in composing a speech for Milo. This is a much better practice than writing replies to old speeches, as Cestius did to the speech of Cicero on behalf of Milo, though he could not have had a sufficient knowledge of the other side from reading only the defense.

21. The young man will thus be sooner qualified for the forum if his master has obliged him to approach his declamations as nearly as possible to reality and to range through all sorts of cases, of which teachers now select only the easiest parts, as most favorable for exhibition. The ordinary hindrances to such variety in cases are the crowd of pupils, the custom of hearing the classes on stated days, and, in some degree, the influence of parents, who count their sons' declamations rather than judge of the merit of them. 22. But a good teacher, as I said, I believe, in my first book, will not encumber himself with a greater number of pupils than he can well undertake to teach. He will put a stop to all empty loquacity, allowing everything to be said that concerns the question for decision, but not everything, as some would wish, within the range of possibility. He will relax the stated course for speaking by granting longer time or will permit his pupils to divide their cases into several parts, for one part carefully worked out will be of more service than many only half finished or just attempted. 23. Such desultory behaviors causes nothing to be put in its proper place in a speech, and what is introduced at the beginning does not keep within its due bounds, as the young men crowd all the flowers of eloquence into what they are just going to deliver, and from a fear of losing opportunities in the sequel, they throw their commencement into utter confusion.

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Lee Honeycutt (honeycuttlee@gmail.com) Last modified:1/15/07
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