Friday, November 22, 2013

Thoughts On the Progymnasmata

Today I thought I would talk about the progymnasmata.    I am all set with my geeky Jack Benny glasses and having read various things to refresh my memory.

My geeky glasses are so cool that they even have one of those chains  attached to their ends like librarians wear, so when I take them off they dangle like a necklace, and I can never (well, hardly ever) lose them.  With them, I am prepared for anything.

Back to the progym:

Here is Brandy at Afterthoughts' series on the progymnasmata.
Here are a couple of posts I wrote a long time ago:

Here's a review I wrote about Classical Writing:  Aesop a looong time ago.

For this post I'm going to use:
Ever since I first heard about the progym, I was excited about it.   There is something so beautifully neat about the way the exercises build upon each other.   It reminds me of those Russian nesting dolls.

You start with narrative or fable (I've seen it started either way, though the fables are more common with modern curricula).   The advantage to starting with fables is that they are short self-enclosed stories neatly tied up with a moral lesson.   In earlier days, when boys did the progym in Latin, it was easy to find simple Latin versions of Aesop.  

The advantage to doing fables second is that because of their moral tag, they lead nicely into the chreia and maxim which are developments of moral maxims and anecdontes.

Either way, narrative traditionally allows you to deal with condensation and expansion.   In other words, if you have a narrative at hand, you can compress it into its shortest form (thus preparing it to fit into a longer writing, say as an example in an essay) or you can expand it by adding description and dialogue.  

I usually start with fable at least until the students get the hang of how the exercises work.   Narratives can be parables, short instructive stories about great men (you can find many of these at Baldwin Project), or short parts from a book you are reading aloud to your kids.

Story seems to me to be the first precursor to thought past the earliest concrete hands-on age.   Children respond to a story way earlier than they are able to understand factual information.    In rhetorical persuasion, story in the form of example and anecdote and analogy still has a huge part to play.    Most of us learn from example, analogy and story better than we do from just abstract statement.   

The exercises in the early parts of the progym can go either towards essay-type writing or towards creative writing.  My children enjoyed expanding and retelling traditional stories.   We also "translated" poems into stories (never the other way around, though that would be fun).   You can change the characters of the story to see how that affects the plot -- make the moral different from the original one --- all kinds of things.

The next step is chreia and maxim.  Chreia means useful and represents an instructive anecdote.  A maxim is like the moral of a fable separated from the story.    So a chreia would be something like: 
Diogenes, seeing a youth misbehaving, struck the boy's slave attendant and said, 'Why do you teach such things?' 
A maxim would be:
 'Each man is like those in whose company he delights.'
Somewhere in this part of it you start developing a sort of essay.   With a chreia or anecdonte, Aphthonius recommends  (one paragraph for each part)
encomium, paraphrase, cause, converse, analogy, example, testimony of ancients, brief epilogue
You can see more information about this here, and an example.  

Perhaps you can see how already you have the makings of a short essay.   The format of the progym allows you to develop your points along a theme.    It is more organized and logical than the typical 5-paragraph essay but has things in common with it.

When the student starts working on chreia and maxim, it is a good time to have him or her start a commonplace book.    This is described in The Living Page by Laura Bestvater, or you can find information here and here.    I think this is sort of a preparation for the rhetorical canon of memoria,   You could not just google when you were writing a speech or paper, in historical days, so most writers and speakers kept books full of references and quotes arranged under topics so they could use them in support of their points.  

The main advantage to me of the progym is that it focuses on developing wisdom and virtue along with the techniques of writing.   This was so thrilling to me when I first heard about it.    Some writing programs for homeschoolers focus on creative writing; others focus on factual writing, like reports and research papers.  The progym can be adapted to these but its natural territory is traditional wisdom.    To me, that meant that a progym exercise was also something of a contemplation on an excellent story/ subject.  

I am not going to go past the chreia and maxim in this post because honestly, we never did in our homeschool, at least not officially.  My oldest son used a book called Composition in the Classical Tradition and he did get most of the way through the book but he worked independently, and it was the year I had two medically fragile little ones,  so I don't remember much about it.   He used to use his own stories that he was writing as a basis for the exercises, and that seemed to work very well because they were stories and themes he was already thinking about very closely.

At any rate, it seems to me that a student solid in chreia and maxim won't have much trouble writing the infamous SAT essay.  I do want to get past there with my youngest student, though, if only for the fun of it.    Probably if you get up to Thesis, you would be basically fine writing a college research paper.

I think that you can also do a lot of this orally -- at least, that is what we do.   When we discuss a book or philosophical topic, we tend to go by statements of agreement/disagreement, anecdotal or authoritative support of points, and so on.    This allows us to keep our discussions solid rather than just repeating what we last said, and it's sometimes surprising to hear the connections and analogies the children come up with.  In its basic form, most writing is also thinking, so the progym is a good way to approach analysis of excellent essays (say, CS Lewis's, Chesterton's, etc) as well as develop our own thinking through discussion and writing.   So I think the progym is a sort of preparation for analytical skills as well as a mode of learning by imitation..  

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