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This webpage reproduces a section of
Institutio Oratoria


published in Vol. IV
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. IV) Quintilian
Institutio Oratoria

 p3  Book X

Chapters 2‑4

2 1 It is from these and other authors worthy of our study that we must draw our stock of words, the variety of our figures and our methods of composition, while we must form our minds on the model of every excellence. For there can be no doubt that in art no small portion of our task lies in imitation, since, although invention came first and is all-important, it is expedient to imitate whatever has been invented with success. 2 And it is a universal rule of life that we should wish to copy what we approve in others. It is for this reason that boys copy the shapes of letters that they may learn to write, and that musicians take the voices of their teachers, painters the works of their predecessors, and peasants the principles of agriculture which have been proved in practice, as models for their imitation. In fact, we may note that the elementary study of every branch of learning is directed by reference to some definite standard that is placed before the learner. 3 We must, in fact, either be like or unlike those who have proved their excellence. It is rare for nature to produce such resemblance, which is more often the result of imitation. But the very fact that in  p77 every subject the procedure to be followed is so much more easy for us than it was for those who had no model to guide them, is a positive drawback, unless we use this dubious advantage with caution and judgment.

4 The first point, then, that we must realise is that imitation alone is not sufficient, if only for the reason that a sluggish nature is only too ready to rest content with the inventions of others. For what would have happened in the days when models were not, if men had decided to do and think of nothing that they did not know already? The answer is obvious: nothing would ever have been discovered. 5 Why, then, is it a crime for us to discover something new? Were primitive men led to make so many discoveries simply by the natural force of their imagination, and shall we not then be spurred on to search for novelty by the very knowledge that those who sought of old were rewarded with success? 6 And seeing that they, who had none to teach them anything, have handed down such store of knowledge to posterity, shall we refuse to employ the experience which we possess of some things, to discover yet other things, and possess nought that is not owed to the beneficent activity of others? Shall we follow the example of those painters whose sole aim is to be able to copy protracts by using the ruler and the measuring rod?​106 7 It is a positive disgrace to be content to owe all our achievement to imitation. For what, I ask again, would have been the result if no one had done more than his predecessors? Livius Andronicus​107 would mark our supreme achievement in poetry and the annals of the Pontifices108 would be our ne plus ultra in history. We  p79 should still be sailing on rafts, and the art of painting would be restricted to tracing a line round a shadow thrown in the sunlight. 8 Cast your eyes over the whole of history; you will find that no art has remained just as it was when it was discovered, nor come to a standstill at its very birth, unless indeed we are ready to pass special condemnation on our own generation on the ground that it is so barren of invention that no further development is possible; and it is undoubtedly true that no development is possible for those who restrict themselves to imitation. 9 But if we are forbidden to add anything to the existing stock of knowledge, how can we ever hope for the birth of our ideal orator? For of all the greatest orators with whom we are as yet acquainted, there is not one who has not some deficiency or blemish. And even those who do not aim at supreme excellence, ought to press toward the mark rather than be content to follow in the tracks of others. 10 For the man whose aim is to prove himself better than another, even if he does not surpass him, may hope to equal him. But he can never hope to equal him, if he thinks it his duty merely to tread in his footsteps: for the mere follower must always lag behind. Further, it is generally easier to make some advance than to repeat what has been done by others, since there is nothing harder than to produce an exact likeness, and nature herself has so far failed in this endeavour that there is always some difference which enables us to distinguish even the things which seem most like and most equal to one another. 11 Again, whatever is like another object, must necessarily be inferior to the object of its imitation, just as the  p81 shadow is inferior to the substance, the portrait to the features which it portrays, and the acting of the player to the feelings which he endeavours to produce. The same is true of oratory. For the models which we select for imitation have a genuine and natural force, whereas all imitation is artificial and moulded to a purpose which was not that of the original orator. 12 This is the reason why declamations have less life and vigour than actual speeches, since the subject is fictitious in the one and real in the other. Again, the greatest qualities of the orator are beyond all imitation, by which I mean, talent, invention, force, facility and all the qualities which are independent of art. 13 Consequently, there are many who, after excerpting certain words from published speeches or borrowing certain particular rhythms, think that they have produced a perfect copy of the works which they have read, despite the fact that words become obsolete or current with the lapse of years, the one sure standard being contemporary usage; and they are not good or bad in virtue of their inherent nature (for in themselves they are no more than mere sounds), but solely in virtue of the aptitude and propriety (or the reverse) with which they are arranged, while rhythmical composition must be adapted to the theme in hand and will derive its main charm from its variety.

14 Consequently the nicest judgment is required in the examination of everything connected with this department of study. First we must consider whom to imitate. For there are many who have shown a passionate desire to imitate the worst and most decadent authors. Secondly, we must consider what  p83 it is that we should set ourselves to imitate in the authors thus chosen. 15 For even great authors have their blemishes, for which they have been censured by competent critics and have even reproached each other. I only wish that imitators were more likely to improve on the good things than to exaggerate the blemishes of the authors whom they seek to copy. And even those who have sufficient critical acumen to avoid the faults of their models will not find it sufficient to produce a copy of their merits, amounting to no more than a superficial resemblance, or rather recalling those sloughs, which, according to Epicurus, are continually given off by material things.​109 16 But this is just what happens to those who mould themselves on the first impressions derived from the style of their model, without devoting themselves to a thorough investigation of its good qualities, and, despite the brilliance of their imitation and the close resemblance of their language and rhythm, not only fail absolutely to attain the force of style and invention possessed by the original, but as a rule degenerate into something worse, and achieve merely those faults which are hardest to distinguish from virtues: they are turgid instead of grand, bald instead of concise, and rash instead of courageous, while extravagance takes the place of wealth, over-emphasis the place of harmony and negligence of simplicity. 17 As a result, those who flaunt tasteless and insipid thoughts, couched in an uncouth and inharmonious form, think that they are the equals of the ancients; those who lack ornament and epigram, pose as Attic; those who darken their meaning by the abruptness with which they close their periods, count themselves the superiors of Sallust and Thucydides; those who are  p85 dreary and jejune, think that they are serious rivals to Pollio, while those who are tames and listless, if only they can produce long enough periods, swear that this is just the manner in which Cicero would have spoken. 18 I have known some who thought that they had produced a brilliant imitation of the study of that divine orator, by ending their periods with the phrase esse videatur.​110 Consequently it is of the first importance that every student should realise what it is that he is to imitate, and should know why it is good.

19 The next step is for each student to consult his own powers when he shoulders his burden. For there are some things which, though capable of imitation, merely beyond the capacity of any given individual, either because his natural gifts are insufficient or of a different character. The man whose talent is for the plain style should not seek only what is bold and rugged, nor yet should he who has vigour without control suffer himself through love of subtlety at once to waste his natural energy and fail to attain the elegance at which he aims: for there is nothing so unbecoming as delicacy wedded to ruggedness. 20 True, I did express the opinion that the instructor whose portrait I painted in my second book,​111 should not confine himself to teaching those things for which he perceived his individual pupils to have most aptitude. For it is his further duty to foster whatever good qualities he may perceive in his pupils, to make good their deficiencies as far as may be, to correct their faults and turn them to better things. For he is the guide and director of the minds of others. It is a harder task to mould one's own nature. 21 But not even our  p87 ideal teacher, however much he may desire that everything that is correct should prevail in his school to the fullest extent, will waste his labour in attempting to develop qualities to the attainment of which he perceives nature's gifts to be opposed.

It is also necessary to avoid the fault to which the majority of students are so prone, namely, the idea that in composing speeches we should imitate the poets and historians, and in writing history or poetry should copy orators and declaimers. 22 Each branch of literature has its own laws and its own appropriate character. Comedy does not seek to increase its height by the buskin and tragedy does not wear the slipper of comedy. But all forms of eloquence have something in common, and it is to the imitation of this common element that our efforts should be confined.

23 There is a further fault to which those persons are liable who devote themselves entirely to the imitation of one particular style: if the rude vigour of some particular author takes their fancy, they cling to it even when the case on which they are engaged calls for an easy and flowing style; if, on the other hand, it is a simple or agreeable style that claims their devotion, they fail to meet the heavy demands of severe and weighty cases. For not only do cases differ in their general aspect, but one part of a case may differ from another, and some things require a gentle and others a violent style, some require an impetuous and others a calm diction, while in some cases it is necessary to instruct and in others to move the audience, in all these instances dissimilar and different methods being necessary. 24 Consequently I should be reluctant even to advise a  p89 student to select one particular author to follow through thick and thin. Demosthenes is by far the most perfect of Greek orators, yet there are some things which others have said better in some contexts as against the many things which he has said better than others. But it does not follow that because we should select one author for special imitation, he should be our only model. 25 What then? Is it not sufficient to model our every utterance on Cicero? For my own part, I should consider it sufficient, if I could always imitate him successfully. But what harm is there in occasionally borrowing the vigour of Caesar, the vehemence of Caelius, the precision of Pollio or the sound judgment of Calvus? 26 For quite apart from the fact that a wise man should always, if possible, make whatever is best in each individual author his own, we shall find that, in view of the extreme difficulty of our subject, those who fix their eyes on one model only will always find some one quality which it is almost impossible to acquire therefrom. Consequently, since it is practically impossible for mortal powers to produce a perfect and complete copy of any one chosen author, we shall do well to keep a number of different excellences before our eyes, so that different qualities from different authors may impress themselves on our minds, to be adopted for use in the place that becomes them best.

27 But imitation (for I must repeat this point again and again) should not be confined merely to words. We must consider the appropriateness with which those orators handle the circumstances and persons involved in the various cases in which they were engaged, and observe the judgment and powers of arrangement which they reveal, and the manner  p91 in which everything they say, not excepting those portions of their speeches which seem designed merely to delight their audience, is concentrated on securing the victory over their opponents. We must note their procedure in the exordium, the method and variety of their statement of facts, the power displayed in proof and refutation, the skill revealed in their appeal to every kind of emotion, and the manner in which they make use of popular applause to serve their case, applause which is most honourable when it is spontaneous and not deliberately courted. If we have thoroughly appreciated all these points, we shall be able to imitate our models with accuracy. 28 But the man who to these good qualities adds his own, that is to say, who makes good deficiencies and cuts down whatever is redundant, will be the perfect orator of our search; and it is now above all times that such perfection should be attained when there are before us so many more models of oratorical excellence than were available for those who have thus far achieved the highest success. This glory also shall be theirs, that men shall say of them that while they surpassed their predecessors, they also taught those who came after.

3 1 Such are the aids which we may derive from external sources; as regards those which we must supply for ourselves, it is the pen which brings at once the most labour and the most profit. Cicero is fully justified in describing it as the best producer and teacher of eloquence, and it may be noted that in the de Oratore112 he supports his own judgment by the authority of Lucius Crassus, in whose mouth he places this remark. 2 We must  p93 therefore write as much as possible and with the utmost care. For as deep ploughing makes the soil more fertile for the production and support of crops, so, if we improve our minds by something more than mere superficial study, we shall produce a richer growth of knowledge and shall retain it with greater accuracy. For without the consciousness of such preliminary study our powers of speaking extempore will give us nothing but an empty flow of words, springing from the lips and not from the brain. 3 It is in writing that eloquence has its roots and foundations, it is writing that provides that holy of holies where the wealth of oratory is stored, and whence it is produced to meet the demands of sudden emergencies. It is of the first importance that we should develop such strength as will not faint under the toil of forensic strife nor be exhausted by continual use. 4 For it is an ordinance of nature that nothing great can be achieved in a moment, and that all the fairest tasks are attended with difficulty, while on births as well she has imposed this law, that the larger the animal, the longer should be the period of gestation.

There are, however, two questions which present themselves in this connexion, namely, what should be our method and what the subjects on which we write, and I propose to treat them in this order. 5 At first, our plebeian must be slow yet sure: we must search for what is best and refuse to give a joyful welcome to every thought the moment that it presents itself; we must first criticise the fruits of our imagination, and then, once approved, arrange them with care. For we must select both thoughts and words and weigh them one by one. This done,  p95 we must consider the order in which they should be placed, and must examine all the possible varieties of rhythm, refusing necessarily to place each word in the order in which it occurs to us. 6 In order to do this with the utmost care, we must frequently revise what we have just written. For beside the fact that thus we secure a better connexion between what follows and what precedes, the warmth of thought which has cooled down while we were writing is revived anew, and gathers fresh impetus from going over the ground again. We may compare this process with what occurs in jumping matches. The competitors take a longer run and go at full speed to clear the distance which they aim at covering; similarly, in throwing the javelin, we draw back our arms, and in archery pull back the bow-string to propel the shaft. 7 At times, however, we may spread our ails before the favouring breeze, but we must beware that this indulgence does not lead us into error. For we love all the offspring of our thought at the moment of their birth; were that not so, we should never commit them to writing. But we must give them a critical revision, and go carefully over any passage where we have reason to regard our fluency with suspicion. 8 It is thus, we are told, that Sallust wrote, and certainly his works give clear evidence of the labour which he expended on them. Again, we learn from Varius that Virgil composed but a very small number of verses every day. 9 It is true that with orators the case is somewhat different, and it is for this reason that I enjoin such slowness of speed and such anxious care at the outset. For the first aim which we must fix in our minds and insist on carrying into execution  p97 is to write as well as possible; speed will come with practice. Gradually thoughts will suggest themselves with increasing readiness, the words will answer to our call and rhythmical arrangement will follow, till everything will be found fulfilling its proper function as in a well-ordered household. 10 The sum of the whole matter is this: write quickly and you will never write well, write well and you will soon write quickly. But it is just when we have acquired this facility that we must pause awhile to look ahead and, if I may use the metaphor, curb the horses that would run away with us. This will not delay our progress so much as lend us fresh vigour. For I do not think that those who have acquired a certain power in writing should be condemned to the barren pains of false self-criticism. 11 How can anyone fulfil his duties as an advocate if he wastes his time in putting unnecessary finish on each portion of his pleadings? There are some who are never satisfied. They wish to change everything they have written and to put it in other words. They are a diffident folk, and deserve but ill of their own talents, who think it a mark of precision to cast obstacles in the way of their own writing. 12 Nor is it easy to say encamp are the most serious offenders, those who are satisfied with everything or those who are satisfied with nothing that they write. For it is of common occurrence with young men, however talented they may be, to waste their gifts by superfluous elaboration, and to sink into silence through an excessive desire to speak well. I remember in this connexion a story that Julius Secundus, my contemporary, and, as is well known, my very dear friend, a man with remarkable powers of eloquence, but  p99 with an infinite passion for precision, told me of the words once used to him by his uncle, 13 Julius Florus, the leading orator of Gaul, for it was there that he practised, a man eloquent as but few have ever been, and worthy of his nephew. He once noticed that Secundus, who was still a student, was looking depressed, and asked him the meaning of his frowns. 14 The youth made no concealment of the reason: he had been working for three days, and had been universe, in spite of all his efforts, to devise an exordium for the theme which he had been given to write, with the result that he was not only vexed over his immediate difficulty, but had lost all hope of future success. Florus smiled and said, "Do you really want to speak better than you can?" 15 There lies the truth of the whole matter. We must aim at speaking as well as we can, but must not try to speak better than our nature will permit. For to make any real advance we need study, not self-accusation. And it is not merely practice that will enable us to write at greater listen and with increased fluency, although doubtless practice is most important. We need judgement as well. So long as we do not lie back with eyes turned up to the ceiling, in the hope that sometimes will present itself, but turn our thoughts to consider what the circumstances of the case demand, what suits the characters involved, what is the nature of the occasion and the temper of the judge, we shall acquire the power of writing by rational means. It is thus that nature herself bids us begin and pursue our studies once well begun. 16 For most points are of a definite character and, if we keep our eyes open,  p101 will spontaneously present themselves. That is the reason why peasants and uneducated persons do not beat about the bush to discover with what they should begin, and our hesitation is all the more shameful if it is simply the result of education. We must not, therefore, persist in thinking that what is hard to find is necessarily best; for, if it seems to us that there is nothing to be said except that which we are unable to find, we must say nothing at all. 17 On the other hand, there is a fault which is precisely the opposite of this, into which those fall who insist on first making a rapid draft of their subject with the utmost speed of which their pen is capable, and write in the heat and impulse of the moment. They call this their rough copy. They then revise what they have written, and arrange their hasty outpourings. But while the words and the rhythm may be corrected, the matter is still marked by the superficiality resulting from the speed with which it was thrown together. 18 The more correct method is, therefore, to exercise care from the very beginning, and to form the work from the outset in such a manner that it merely requires to be chiselled into shape, not fashioned anew. Sometimes, however, we must follow the stream of our emotions, since their warmth will give us more than any diligence can secure.

19 The condemnation which I have passed on such carelessness in writing will make it pretty clear what my views are on the luxury of dictation which is now so fashionable. For, when we write, however great our speed, the fact that the hand cannot follow the rapidity of our thoughts gives us time to think,  p103 whereas the presence of our amanuensis hurries us on, at times we feel ashamed to hesitate or pause, or make some alteration, as though we were afraid to display such weakness before a witness. 20 As a result our language tends not merely to be haphazard and formless, but in our desire to produce a continuous flow we let slip positive improprieties of diction, which show might the precision of the writer nor the impetuosity of the speaker. Again, if the amanuensis is a slow writer, or lacking in intelligence, he becomes a stumbling-block, our speed is checked, and the thread of our ideas is interrupted by the delay or even perhaps by the loss of temper to which it gives rise. 21 Moreover, the gestures which accompany strong feeling, and sometimes even serve to stimulate the mind, the waving of the hand, the contraction of the brow, the occasional striking of forehead or side, and those which Persius​113 notes when he describes a trivial style as one that

"Thumps not the desk nor smacks of bitten nails,"

all these become ridiculous, unless we are alone. 22 Finally, we come to the most important consideration of all, that the advantages of privacy are lost when we dictate. Everyone, however, will agree that the absence of company and deep silence are most conducive to writing, though I would not go so far as to concur in the opinion of those who think woods and groves the most suitable localities for the purpose, on the ground that the freedom of the sky and the charm of the surroundings produce sublimity of thought and wealth of inspiration. 23 Personally I regard such an environment as a  p105 pleasant luxury rather than a stimulus to study. For whatever causes us delight, must necessarily distract us from the concentration due to our work. The mind cannot devote its undivided and sincere attention to a number of things at the same time, and wherever it turns its gaze it must cease to contemplate its appointed task. 24 Therefore, the charm of the woods, the gliding of the stream, the breeze that murmurs in the branches, the song of the birds, and the very freedom with which our eyes may range, are mere distractions, and in my opinion the pleasure which they excite is more likely to relax than to concentrate our attention. 25 Demosthenes took a wiser view; for he would retire to a place​114 where no voice was to be heard, and no prospect greeted the sight, for fear that his eyes might force his mind to neglect its duty. Then, let the burner of the midnight oil seclude himself in the silence of night, within closed doors, with but a solitary lamp to light his labours. 26 But for every kind of study, and more especially for night work, good health and its chief source, simple living, are essential; for we have fallen into the habit of devoting to relentless labour the hour which nature has appointed for rest and relaxation. From those hours we must take only such time as is superfluous for sleep, and will not be missed. 27 For fatigue will make us careless in writing, and the hours of daylight are amply sufficient for one who has no other distractions. It is only the busy man who is driven to encroach on the hours of darkness. Nevertheless, night work, so long as we come to it fresh and untired, provides by far the best form of privacy.

 p107  28 But although silence and seclusion and absolute freedom of mind are devoutly to be desired, they are not always within our power to attain. Consequently we must not fling aside our book at once, if disturbed by some noise, and lament that we have lost a day: on the contrary, we must make a firm stand against such inconveniences, and train ourselves so to concentrate our thoughts as to rise superior to all impediments to study. If only you direct all your attention to the work which you have in hand, no sight or sound will ever penetrate to your mind. 29 If even casual thoughts often occupy us to such an extent that we do not see passers-by, or even stray from our path, surely we can obtain the same result by the exercise of our will. We must not give way to pretexts for sloth. For unless we make up our mind that we must be fresh, cheerful and free from all other care when we approach our studies, we shall always find some excuse for idleness. 30 Therefore, whether we be in a crowd, on a journey, or even at some festive gathering, our thoughts should always have some inner sanctuary of their own to which they may retire. Otherwise what shall we do when we are suddenly called upon to deliver a set speech in the midst of the forum, with lawsuits in progress on every side, and with the sound of quarrels and even casual outcries in our ears, if we need absolute privacy to discover the thoughts which we jot down upon our tablets? It was for this reason that Demosthenes, the passionate lover of seclusion, used to study on the seashore amid the roar of the breakers that they might teach him not to be unnerved by the uproar of the public assembly.

31 There are also certain minor details which deserve  p109 our attention, for there is nothing too minute for the student. It is best to write on wax owing to the facility which it offers for erasure, though weak sight may make it desirable to employ parchment by preference. The latter, however, although of assistance to the eye, delays the hand and interrupts the stream of thought owing to the frequency with which the pen has to be supplied with ink. 32 But whichever we employ, we must leave blank pages that we may be free to make additions when we will. For lack of space at times gives rise to a reluctance to make corrections, or, at any rate, is liable to cause confusion when new matter is inserted. The wax tablets should not be unduly wide; for I have known a young and over-zealous student write his compositions at undue length, because he measured them by the number of lines, a fault which persisted, in spite of frequent admonition, until his tablets were changed, when it disappeared. 33 Space must also be left for jotting down the thoughts which occur to the writer out of due order, that is to say, which refer to subjects other than those in hand. For sometimes the most admirable thoughts break in upon us which cannot be inserted in what we are writing, but which, on the other hand, it is unsafe to put by, since they are at times forgotten, and at times cling to the memory so persistently as to divert us from some other line of thought. They are, therefore, best kept in store.

4 1 The next point which we have to consider is the correction of our work, which is by far the most useful portion of our study: for there is good reason for the view that erasure is quite as important a  p111 function of the pen as actual writing. Correction takes the form of addition, excision and alteration. But it is a comparatively simple and easy task to decide what is to be added or excised. On the other hand, to prune what is turgid, to elevate what is mean, to repress exuberance, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where it is lacking, and modify it where it is too emphatic, involves a twofold labour. For we have to condemn what had previously satisfied us and discover what had escaped our notice. 2 There can be no doubt that the best method of correction is to put aside what we have written for a certain time, so that when we return to it after an interval it will have the air of novelty and of being another's handiwork; for thus we may prevent ourselves from regarding our writings with all the affection that we lavish on a newborn child. 3 But this is not always possible, especially in the case of an orator who most frequently has to write for immediate use, while some limit, after all, must be set to correction. For there are some who return to everything they write with the presumption that it is full of faults and, assuming that a first draft must necessary be incorrect, think every change an improvement and make some alteration as often as they have the manuscript in their hands: they are, in fact, like doctors who use the knife even where the flesh is perfectly healthy. The result of their critical activities is that the finished work is full of scars, bloodless, and all the worse for their anxious care. 4 No! let there be something in all our writing which, if it does not actually please us, at least passes muster, so that the file may only polish our work, not wear it away. There must  p113 also be a limit to the time which we spend on its revision. For the fact that Cinna​115 took nine years to within his Smyrna, and that Isocrates required ten years, at the lowest estimate, to complete his Panegyric does not concern the orator, whose assistance will be of no use, if it is so long delayed.

The Translator's Notes:

106 The reference is to copying by dividing the surface of the picture to be copied, and of the material on which the copy is to be made, into a number of equal squares.

107 Livius Andronicus, a slave from Tarentum, was the founder of Latin poetry. He translated the Odyssey, and produced the first Latin comedy and tragedy composed in Greek metres (240 B.C.).

108 The Annales Maximi kept by the Pontifex Maximus, containing the list of the consuls and giving a curt summary of the events of each consulate.

109 Epicurus held that all sense-perception was caused by the impact of such atomic sloughs: cp. Lucret. IV.42 sqq.

110 cp.  IX.IV.73. Tac. Dial. 23.

111 Ch. 8.

112 De Or. I.150.

113 I.106.

114 An under­ground room. See Plut. Dem. vii.

115 C. Helvius Cinna, the friend of Catullus. The Smyrna was a short but exceptionally obscure and learned epic.

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