Quintilian and L’Oréal: a commonplace book entry

This term I am teaching a series of classes on broad themes relating to the contexts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (e.g. Renaissance humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the Civil Wars). We are doing various fun things like listening to songs by Henry VIII and looking at pictures of places around Cambridge where important events took place. One thing I am asking my students to do is to compile a “commonplace book”.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, commonplace books were typically notebooks in which students and others collected proverbial sayings and striking quotations under a range of topical headings (e.g. ambition, love, war, liberty), with a view to using or imitating them in their own writing. The concept of a commonplace book subsequently broadened somewhat to include other kinds of information (e.g. recipes, reflections and reading lists).

I am adapting this idea slightly for my students by asking them to choose a quotation from a primary source relevant to the topic we will be discussing for each class and then to write a personal reflection of 200-250 words on this quotation. These are not being marked (“graded” for US readers) by standard essay criteria and can range from more conventionally scholarly observations (e.g. “What Luther says about allegory here helps us understand what Milton is doing in Paradise Lost”) to more personal/subjective  responses (e.g. “Erasmus’s sense of humour is a bit weird”, or “I want to lead an Elizabethan fashion revival”). I’m trying to take my own medicine by doing the same thing myself. Below is my reflection on a quotation from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian for our class on Renaissance humanism and rhetoric:

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My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such a one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but of all the excellences of character as well.

(Quintilian, The Education of an Orator, I Preface)

Quintilian says that it is essential for the orator to be a “good man” with “all the excellences of character”. But is this really true? Do we have to be good to be persuasive? Or do we just have to seem to be good? Might it not be the case that being a skilful speaker enables a person more effectively to deceive others, or to persuade them to do evil? Wasn’t Hitler a persuasive orator? A lot of advertising is rhetorically effective, but I’m not sure it necessarily has a positive effect on the ethical formation of its audience. Am I only worth it if I use L’Oréal?

But stepping back, perhaps we can understand what Quintilian is saying a little differently. Perhaps he isn’t saying that every effective speaker is virtuous, but rather that, for rhetoric to be used as it should, the orator ought to be virtuous as well as eloquent. Is it necessary to be a good person to be a good orator? I think it depends what we mean by “good”. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”

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