Utilitatis Aliquid: A Literary Syllabus for Eloquence and Erudition

Quintilian 1.8

“For comedy—which can provide a great deal to eloquence since it works through every character and feeling—I will explain soon what purpose I think it serves for students in its own place. For, once characters are safely formed, comedy is among the most important things to read. I am speaking of Menander, but I will not bar the others, for the Latin authors also provide some utility.

Students must first read texts which especially nourish the intelligence and strengthen the character. A long life will give them time for the rest of the works which are good mainly for intellectual reasons. The older Latin poets, moreover, who are mostly effective for their innate ability rather than their skill, can offer a lot—especially for building a great vocabulary. One can find a seriousness in their tragedies and in their comedies an elegance and a certain Attic nature. Their compositions are more considered, too, than modern authors who think that the only virtue of writing is its “quotability”. A high register and, if I may say, a kind of power must be found in these authors since we have now stumbled into the vices of pleasure in our manner of speaking too. And, finally, we should lean on the best orators who take from the poems of the ancients to strengthen their claims or decorate their speaking”

Comoediae, quae plurimum conferre ad eloquentiam potest, cum per omnis et personas et adfectus eat, quem usum in pueris putem paulo post suo loco dicam: nam cum mores in tuto fuerint, inter praecipua legenda erit. De Menandro loquor, nec tamen excluserim alios, nam Latini quoque auctores adferent utilitatis aliquid; sed pueris quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda: ceteris, quae ad eruditionem modo pertinent, longa aetas spatium dabit. Multum autem veteres etiam Latini conferunt, quamquam plerique plus ingenio quam arte valuerunt, in primis copiam verborum: quorum in tragoediis gravitas, in comoediis elegantia et quidam velut atticismos inveniri potest. Oeconomia quoque in iis diligentior quam in plerisque novorum erit, qui omnium operum solam virtutem sententias putaverunt. Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia deliciarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus. Denique credamus summis oratoribus, qui veterum poemata vel ad fidem causarum vel ad ornamentum eloquentiae adsumunt.

File:Robinet Testard32.jpg
Portrait of Matthaeus Platearius d.c.1161 writing “The Book of Simple Medicines”, c.1470 (Wikimedia Commons)

Building Ships, Feeding Minds: Reflections on Teaching in Latin and Greek

Today I teach the final classes of the semester, closing out a decade since I earned my PhD. For the first time in that span, I am not eager to have the semester end. So, here are some random Greek and Latin passages reflecting on teaching.

Teaching is of no minor import

Plato, Laws 803

“We should speak next about the teaching and communication of these subjects: how to do so, who should do it, and when it is right to apply each of them. In the same way that a shipwright anticipates the outline of his creation at the beginning in laying out the keel, I seem to be outlining the whole, trying to imagine the shape of lives based on the habits of their minds and in actuality then laying out their keels, by seeking out precisely through what method and with what habits we might best navigate through this journey of life.”

τούτων δὲ αὐτῶν διδασκαλία καὶ παράδοσις λεγέσθω τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο, τίνα τρόπον χρὴ καὶ οἷστισι καὶ πότε πράττειν ἕκαστα αὐτῶν· οἷον δή τις ναυπηγὸς τὴν τῆς ναυπηγίας ἀρχὴν καταβαλλόμενος τὰ τροπιδεῖα ὑπογράφεται <τὰ> τῶν πλοίων σχήματα, ταὐτὸν δή μοι κἀγὼ φαίνομαι ἐμαυτῷ δρᾷν τὰ τῶν βίων πειρώμενος σχήματα διαστήσασθαι κατὰ τρόπους τοὺς τῶν ψυχῶν, ὄντως αὐτῶν τὰ τροπιδεῖα καταβάλλεσθαι, ποίᾳ μηχανῇ καὶ τίσι ποτὲ τρόποις ξυνόντες τὸν βίον ἄριστα διὰ τοῦ πλοῦ τούτου τῆς ζωῆς διακομισθησόμεθα, τοῦτο σκοπῶν ὀρθῶς.

How does it balance with innate skills and character? It’s complicated.

Quintilian, 2.19

“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”

Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.

How important is education?

Plutarch, Can Virtue Be Taught 439f

“ ‘If people are not made better through education, their teacher’s pay is wasted’  The teachers are the first to guide children after they leave their mother and, just as nurses help shape the body with hands, teachers shape their character: with their habits they put children on the first step toward excellence. This is why the Spartan, when asked what he accomplished through teaching, said ‘I make noble things appealing to children.’ ”

“εἰ μὴ γίνονται μαθήσει βελτίονες ἄνθρωποι, παραπόλλυται ὁ μισθὸς τῶν παιδαγωγῶν”; πρῶτοι γὰρ οὗτοι παραλαμβάνοντες ἐκ γάλακτος, ὥσπερ αἱ τίτθαι ταῖς χερσὶ τὸ σῶμα πλάττουσιν, οὕτω τὸ ἦθος ῥυθμίζουσι τοῖς ἔθεσιν, εἰς ἴχνος τι πρῶτον ἀρετῆς καθιστάντες. καὶ ὁ Λάκων ἐρωτηθεὶς τί παρέχει παιδαγωγῶν, “τὰ καλά,” ἔφη, “τοῖς παισὶν ἡδέα ποιῶ.”

,Image result for Ancient Greek teaching vase

Hmmm, how do you do this?

Suetonius, On Grammarians 37

“Marcus Verrius flaccus, a freedman, became especially famous through his manner of teaching. For he was in the habit of matching students with their equals in order to encourage learning. He would not merely specify the subjects they would write about, but he would offer a prize which the winner would earn. This prize was some pretty or rare old book. For this reason, Augustus chose him as tutor to his grandsons….”

Verrius Flaccus libertinus docendi genere maxime claruit. Namque ad exercitanda discentium ingenia aequales inter se committere solebat, proposita non solum materia quam scriberent, sed et praemio quod victor auferret. Id erat liber aliquis antiquus pulcher aut rarior. Quare ab Augusto quoque nepotibus eius praeceptor electus

No course of learning is without some regrets….

Letters of Cicero, Fragments. (Suet. Gram. 26)

On Lucius Plotius Gallus,

“I still have a memory from my childhood when a certain Plotius began to teach in Latin for the first time. When crowds circled him and everyone was eager to study with him, I was upset because it was forbidden to me. I was restricted by the advice of the most educated men who used to believe that minds were better fed by training in Greek.”

Plotius Gallus. de hoc Cicero in epistula ad M. Titinium sic refert: equidem memoria teneo pueris nobis primum Latine docere coepisse Plotium quendam. ad quem cum fieret concursus et studiosissimus quisque apud eum exerceretur, dolebam mihi idem non licere; continebar autem doctissimorum hominum auctoritate, qui existimabant Graecis exercitationibus ali melius ingenia posse. (Suet.Gram. 26)

Back to School, Fools: You Were Made For Learning!

“Who would not be made dull if he had to bear a single teacher of a single science throughout the entire day?”

Quis vero non obtundatur, si per totum diem unius artis unum magistrum ferat?

-Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione, chp. 95


Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione cp.6

“We encounter few, however, who are unteachable by nature. For just as birds (as Quintilian notes) are born for flying, and horses for running, and beasts for savagery, so too are cunning and mental activity the proper sphere of humanity. Dull and ineducable people are therefore born no more according to nature than are prodigious and remarkable bodies are in monsters. And though one person might excel another in natural talent, there is no one to be found who cannot attain something with a bit of application.”

“Pauci tamen reperiuntur quibus natura indocilis est. Sicut enim aves ad volatum (Quintilianus ait), equi ad cursum, as saevitiam ferae gignuntur, sic hominis propria est agitatio mentis atque solertia; hebetes vero et indociles non magis secundum naturam quam prodigiosa corpora et insignia monstris eduntur. Et quamvis alius alium praestet ingenio, nemo tamen reperitur qui nihil sit studio consecutus.”


Quintilian, Institutio 1.1.1-3

“It is a false complaint that the faculty of understanding what is taught is granted to only a few, and that most people waste their time and energy due to the slowness of their intellect. Just the opposite: you can find many who have an easy time with thinking, and are ready to learn. Certainly, this is natural for humans, just as birds are born to fly, horses are born to run, and beasts are born for savagery; similarly, the activity and ingenuity of the mind is peculiarly our own.

Slow and ineducable people are no more the product of human nature than are giants and wondrously deformed people, but these have been but few. A proof of this is the fact that the hope of many things shines forth in children: if it passes away with age, it is clear that the fault lay not with human nature, but with our lack of care. One might object, ‘But nevertheless, some people are superior in intellect to others.’ I readily concede that point; but that will do more for some than for others. However, no one will be found who has pursued nothing with effort.”

Falsa enim est querela, paucissimis hominibus vim percipiendi quae tradantur esse concessam, plerosque vero laborem as tempora tarditate ingenii perdere. Nam contra plures reperias et faciles in excogitando et ad discendum promptos. Quippe id est homini naturale, ac sicut aves ad volatum, equi ad cursum, ad saevitiam ferae gignuntur, ita nobis propria est mentis agitatio atque sollertia: unde origo animi caelestis creditur. Hebetes vero et indociles non magis secundum naturam hominis eduntur quam prodigiosa corpora et monstris insignia, sed hi pauci admodum fuerunt. Argumentum, quod in pueris elucet spes plurimorum: quae cum emoritur aetate, manifestum est non naturam defecisse sed curam. “Praestat tamen ingenio alius alium.”  Concedo; sed plus efficiet aut minus: nemo reperitur qui sit studio nihil consecutus.

Martial, 5.58

“Lupus, you ask long and anxiously to what teacher you should entrust your son. I advise you to avoid all teachers and professors: don’t let him have anything to do with the books of Cicero or Vergil. Let him leave Tutilius to his own reputation. If he writes verses, you will disown him as a poet. Does he want to learn a more… pecuniary skill? Make him learn to be a lute player or a flute player; if he seems a bit on the untalented side, just make him an auctioneer or a builder.”


Cui tradas, Lupe, filium magistro
quaeris sollicitus diu rogasque.
Omnes grammaticosque rhetorasque
deuites moneo: nihil sit illi
cum libris Ciceronis aut Maronis;              5
famae Tutilium suae relinquat;
si uersus facit, abdices poetam.
Artes discere uolt pecuniosas?
Fac discat citharoedus aut choraules;
si duri puer ingeni uidetur,              10
praeconem facias uel architectum.

Plutarch, Alexander 8.1-2

“Aristotle, more than others, seems to me to have fostered in Alexander a love of healing. For he delighted not just in talking about medicine but he even used to help his sick friends and assign to them certain therapies and treatments, as one can see from his letters. He was by nature a lover of language, a lover of learning and a lover of reading. Because he believed and named the Iliad the roadmap of military excellence, he took a copy corrected by Aristotle which they called the “Box-Iliad” and he always had it with his knife lying under his pillow, as Onesikritos recounts. And when he did not have other books deep in Asia, he ordered Harpalos to send him some. Harpalos sent him the books of Philistos, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and the dithyrambs of Telestos and Philoxenos.

In the beginning, Alexander revered Aristotle and said that he loved him no less than his father because he was alive thanks to one and living well thanks to the other. Later, he was rather suspicious of him, not so much that he harmed him at all, but his attachment and attention were not as eager as before—and this was a sign of their alienation.”

Alexander and Aristotle
Alexander and Aristotle (Artist Unknown)

Δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ τὸ φιλιατρεῖν ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ προστρίψασθαι μᾶλλον ἑτέρων ᾿Αριστοτέλης. οὐ γὰρ μόνον τὴν θεωρίαν ἠγάπησεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ νοσοῦσιν ἐβοήθει τοῖς φίλοις, καὶ συνέταττε θεραπείας τινὰς καὶ διαίτας, ὡς ἐκ τῶν ἐπιστολῶν λαβεῖν ἔστιν. ἦν δὲ καὶ φύσει φιλόλογος καὶ φιλομαθὴς καὶ φιλαναγνώστης, καὶ τὴν μὲν  ᾿Ιλιάδα τῆς πολεμικῆς ἀρετῆς ἐφόδιον καὶ νομίζων καὶ ὀνομάζων, ἔλαβε μὲν ᾿Αριστοτέλους διορθώσαντος ἣν ἐκ τοῦ νάρθηκος καλοῦσιν, εἶχε δ’ ἀεὶ μετὰ τοῦ ἐγχειριδίου κειμένην ὑπὸ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον, ὡς ᾿Ονησίκριτος ἱστόρηκε (FGrH 134 F 38)· τῶν δ’ ἄλλων βιβλίων οὐκ εὐπορῶν ἐν τοῖς ἄνω τόποις, ῞Αρπαλον ἐκέλευσε πέμψαι, κἀκεῖνος ἔπεμψεν αὐτῷ τάς τε Φιλίστου βίβλους καὶ τῶν Εὐριπίδου καὶ Σοφοκλέους καὶ Αἰσχύλου τραγῳδιῶν συχνάς, καὶ Τελέστου καὶ Φιλοξένου διθυράμβους. ᾿Αριστοτέλην δὲ θαυμάζων ἐν ἀρχῇ καὶ ἀγαπῶν οὐχ ἧττον, ὡς αὐτὸς ἔλεγε, τοῦ πατρός, ὡς δι’ ἐκεῖνον μὲν ζῶν, διὰ τοῦτον δὲ καλῶς ζῶν, ὕστερον ὑποπτότερον ἔσχεν, οὐχ ὥστε ποιῆσαί τι κακόν, ἀλλ’ αἱ φιλοφροσύναι τὸ σφοδρὸν ἐκεῖνο καὶ στερκτικὸν οὐκ ἔχουσαι πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλοτριότητος ἐγένοντο τεκμήριον.

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Learning to Speak, Write and Read are Critically Interdependent: Quintilian

It has been some time since Quintilian graced this page. But he has some good reminders for those of us returning to the classroom.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratorio 10.1

“But these rules of rhetoric, even though they are critical to understanding, are not on their own enough to instill power of speech unless that certain quality is also strong, the one  the Greeks call ἕξις [“self-possession”?]. I know that many have deliberated whether this is best developed by writing, reading or speaking—and it is a question meriting very serious consideration, if we could ever be content with only one of the three. But, truly, they are so interconnected and dependent on each other that if one is lacking, then the others are pursued in vain. For eloquence will never be forceful or flourishing unless it acquires strength from practice by writing; such practice bereft of the lessons of reading wanders like a ship without captain; and whoever knows what should be said and how to say it—if he does not also have eloquence practiced for combat and every outcome—will recline on a locked-up treasure.”

Sed haec eloquendi praecepta, sicut cogitationi sunt necessaria, ita non satis ad vim dicendi valent nisi illis firma quaedam facilitas, quae apud Graecos hexis nominatur, accesserit: ad quam scribendo plus an legendo an dicendo conferatur, solere quaeri scio. Quod esset diligentius nobis examinandum [citra] si qualibet earum rerum possemus una esse contenti; II. verum ita sunt inter se conexa et indiscreta omnia ut, si quid ex his defuerit, frustra sit in ceteris laboratum. Nam neque solida atque robusta fuerit umquam eloquentia nisi multo stilo vires acceperit, et citra lectionis exemplum labor ille carens rectore fluitabit, et qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.
Full Latin text.

Full translation.

How to Persuade the Judge: Quintilian, 3.7.24-5

“In Sparta, literary pursuits will win less honor than they would in Athens, while endurance and bravery will earn more. Some people think it a fine thing to live by plunder, while others are more inclined to consider the law. Frugality might be hateful to the Sybarite, but among the old Romans luxury was the gravest charge which one could level against another. The same difference holds among individuals. A judge will be most favorably inclined to someone with whom he thinks he agrees.”

Minus Lacedaemone studia litterarum quam Athenis honoris merebuntur, plus patientia ac fortitudo. Rapto vivere quibusdam honestum, aliis cura legum. Frugalitas apud Sybaritas forsitan odio foret, veteribus Romanis summum luxuria crimen. Eadem in singulis differentia. Maxime favet iudex qui sibi dicentem adsentari putat.

Tibullus, 1.1-6: Poverty is Better than Gold

“Let someone else pile up gleaming gold
And hold as many lots of well-plowed land,
Let constant labor frighten him when an enemy’s near
As war’s clarion blasts send his sleep to flight.
But may my poverty guide me through a settled life
as long as my hearth shines with a tireless light.”



Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
Et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
Quem labor adsiduus vicino terreat hoste,
Martia cui somnos classica pulsa fugent:
Me mea paupertas vita traducat inerti,               5
Dum meus adsiduo luceat igne focus.

Yeah, I am still a sucker for Tibullus. But Quintilian agrees with me. And with recent fluctuations in the commodity market, who’s to say that leisure might not be worth more than gold? (It is certainly more pleasant than war…)