The Progymnasmata

Readers and writers may wonder what the term progymnasmata means–its origins and how this connects with writing today. These are excellent questions.

To answer, the progymnasmata (pronounced pro-gym-naz’-mah-tah; the g is pronounced like the Greek letter gamma /γ/ and the accent is on the penultimate syllable) was a series of elementary and sequential exercises that, according to Silva Rhetoricae, was designed to “prepare students of rhetoric for the creation and performance of complete practice orations.” These oratorical exercises were incorporated into the pedagogy of composition and were integral to the classical tradition through which masters of writing, such as Shakespeare, were educated.

These ancient Greek exercises are not at all outdated; to the contrary, according to Frank D’Angelo, in his text Composition in the Classical Tradition, they “connect rhetoric to literary study [and] history . . . [they] serve the purpose of moral instruction . . . [and] help speakers and writers develop the rhetorical skills needed for participation in a civil society” ( 2). Many of the exercises are designed to pass along the culture and morals of a civil society, through the medium of rhetoric, to the next generation.

Visitors to this website describing the progymnasmata may wonder why I have chosen a theme that connects canoeing, lakes, and the Common Loon to these ancient Greek rhetorical exercises.

First, I grew up in Minnesota and spent many summers in northern Minnesota with my family, fishing and canoeing on the beautiful northern lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area–now known as Voyageurs National Park. It is a breathtaking wilderness area that begs for exploration. I believe that learning how to write eloquently requires exploration through curiosity and a desire to develop those skills. Secondly, the Common Loon is the Minnesota state bird and provides a good model for the role parents play as they teach their children how to write. Loons are excellent parents; they carry their chicks on their backs until they become more independent and eventually learn to take off on their own. Parenting and teaching writing follow a similar progression: first by modeling good writing at the beginning, then guiding children through the steps of the writing process as they become more independent, until they are ready to become confident and eloquent writers in their own right. For those who are interested, you may read more about Common Loons at Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.