Classical Writing Progymnasmata

The Progymnasmata

The ancient Progymnasmata are  the basis for the Classical Writing curriculum.

The word progymnasmata is Greek for "preliminary exercises." These exercises were taught in ancient Greece and Rome to educate boys in the art of speech writing. To the ancient Greeks the progymnasmata were foundational for the education of a free citizen, who was expected to participate in the public debate in the assembly. Free men were also expected to make speeches to defend themselves in court. Public speaking was thus held in extremely high regard in ancient Greece, and mastery of language, mastery of speech making, was the thrust of ancient Greek education.

First, boys would master the fourteen progymnasmata. As they progressed through the series, they would be asked to use their skills to write their own speeches. Training in virtue was part of this process, since a free citizen had a responsibility to uphold the good and the right of the community.
These fourteen writing exercises are just as crucial for modern students as they were for ancient students. Virtuous, clear, and persuasive communication is critical to being a free citizen in the free world today.

Within the structure of the progymnasmata, Classical Writing students learn to use proper grammatical constructions as the basis for their sentences. They learn to arrange their writing in a logical and clear way, and finally, they learn to express their ideas in the style best suited to a given audience and occasion.

The table below lists each of the fourteen progymnasmata with a short definition and the Classical Writing text which covers it.

Progymnasmata Definition Covered in:
Fable retell a fable Aesop
Narrative retell a short story Homer
Maxim amplify a saying Diogenes: Maxim
Chreia amplify an anecdote about a wise person Diogenes: Chreia
Refutation argue against a particular version of a narrative story Herodotus
Confirmation argue for a particular version of a story
Commonplace elaborate on, praise, or blame a certain type of person, or a certain virtue or vice
Encomium praise a person Plutarch
Invective blame a person
Comparison compare a given subject with another subject
Description describe an event or place vividly Shakespeare
Characterization invent a monologue which a person might have made on a specific occasion
Thesis inquire into a debatable question that argues a general point Demosthenes
Law argue for or against a legislative proposal in general terms

The progymnasmata can help prevent writer’s block among students in that the assignments are well defined, the topics are given, and so the student who struggles to choose a subject, let along write, will be able to delve into the writing immediately, rather than spending hours agonizing over what to say in a given essay.

We teach writing systematically, one concept building on the previous concept learned. All writing is taught in the ancient Greek style by having the students excerpts from speeches, letters, stories, and essays from great writers. It is from those writers that the students identify what makes a good speech or what makes a persuasive letter. It is with the challenging thoughts that those writers offer that the students learn not only to write well, but also to think well.

The progymnasmata begin (for beginners of all ages) with a retelling of fables and short narratives. As our students master that material, they  begin exercises in simple exposition and persuasion. Each exercise in the progymnasmata has a fixed outline and specified subject matter, such as a fable to retell, a quote to defend, a person to praise.

The advanced exercises combine elements of the earlier exercises to create more complex compositions. By the time our students have completed the advanced progymnasmata, they have are equipped with a battery of writing techniques--persuasive, expository, and creative--and are able to compose essays or speeches on any topic they might be given.

If you wish learn more about the classical progymnasmata, here are some resources to get you started:

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