Friday, May 14, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata III - Chreia

We come to our third exercise in Biblical progymnasmata, the chreia. Here is what Aphthonius says,

"Chreia (khreia) is a brief recollection, referring to some person in a pointed way. It is called a chreia because it is useful (khreiodes). Some chreias are verbal, some active, some mixed. One that makes the utility clear by what is said is verbal; for example, Plato said the twigs of virtue grow by sweat and toil. An active chreia is one signifying something done; for example, when Pythagoras was asked how long is the life of men, he hid himself after appearing briefly, making his appearance a measure of life. A mixed chreia consists of both a saying and an action; for example, when Diogenes saw an undisciplined youth he struck his pedagogue, saying, "Why do you teach him such things?"

He then goes on to elaborate on the different treatments the chreia can take:

"This is the division of the chreia, and you should elaborate it with the following headings: praise, paraphrase, cause, contrary, comparison, example, testimony of the ancients, brief epilogue."

Aelius Theon considers the treatments of the chreia a bit differently, but we'll stick with Aphthonius for simplicity's sake. Chreias are very similar to maxims, but differ in several respects, which I'll point out when we get to maxims. For now it is best to understand that a maxim can be a chreia, but not all maxims are chreias. The chief distinction of the chreia is its usefulness as an application for life.

Example: Proverbs 26:4-5

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."


This pair of verses form a riddle clothed in paradoxical expression. How can one answer and not answer a fool? It would be self-contradictory if the pair was intended to indicate the same thing in the same manner, but it doesn't. The first phrase intends that we not answer the fool according to the fool's own manner of understanding and expression--in other words, don't use the same assumptions and manner that a fool does. In apologetics, this would mean not granting the fool the assumption that God must be proven before He can be accepted as true. The second phrase intends that we answer the fool by pointing out his folly, in order that he not remain confident in his self-estimation. In apologetics, this would mean demonstrating the folly of the fool's assumptions and/or manner of reasoning. Thus, the saying has great import for life because it recommends in a very memorable expression how we are to engage with those who deny God by their words and actions--which is the Biblical definition of foolishness.

Summary & Use:

The treatments of a chreia in the progymnasmata are different inventions: different ways of inserting the chreia into a larger speech in order to lend credibility, garner praise, or highlight some idea, or add support to an argument. Aphthonius takes the several treatments and combines them into one example following the order: praise, paraphrase, cause, contrary, comparison, example, testimony, epilogue. Here is what our present example might look like given the same order.

Praise: It is just that Solomon is praised as the wisest of all men, for his facility with words is excelled only by his acuity of thought. His recorded sayings as as numerous as they are illustrious, and we would do well to consider each of them with keenness like unto themselves.

Paraphrase: Don't play the fool, he says, unless we wish to be foolish ourselves, but rather make play of the fool, in order that his foolishness be made evident to even himself.

Cause: It is a fearful responsibility to possess the truth, but it ought to cause men more fear to be in want of the truth. It is because of this twofold nature that truth-bearers must be ever ready to neither forsake the truth, nor let it be trampled upon by the slack-jawed ignorant--for the former is to become a semblance of ignorance, which is a betrayal of the truth, and the latter is to allow ignorance to be paraded as truth, which is also a betrayal of the truth. Therefore we see the truth-telling is both manner and means: its clothing must be both well-fit and visibly displayed.

Contrary: For if the fool is answered in foolishness, what can be the outcome but like for like? And if the fool is left to boast in his folly, what can come of it but compounded corruption? Therefore we must forsake neither the silencing of the folly within ourselves prior to our speaking, nor in our neighbor who speaks folly in his haste or ignorance.

Comparison: For it would be as though a father wished to correct his son's childishness in pitching a fit by engaging in a fit himself, or otherwise allowing the son to pitch his fit and feel no sting of guilt or remorse for having succumb to such madness.

Example: Consider Paul, who did not count it above himself to speak to the learned Greeks upon the Areopagus, nor below himself to teach them of their own ignorance. Yet in speaking of their religious beliefs, he neither failed to point out their ignorance of the One True God, nor did he speak to them by adopting their own philosophy, but openly proclaimed the resurrection of the dead, which to their ears was nonsensical.

Testimony: In doing likewise we agree with Elijah's words from the top of Carmel to the people of Israel:
"How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him," for what Elijah demands of Israel Solomon demands of us: to flee foolish duplicity and speak singularly on behalf of the truth.

Epilogue: Now then ought we seek obedience to Solomon's words and thereby fulfill what he also says: "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles."


The chreia are quite versatile for amplification of the teaching they contain. Nor should we necessarily limit our search for them to the Scriptures, but ought also include the pious sayings of our forefathers in the faith. For example, Augustine's famous theme of the Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Although I didn't do so here, the New Testament also makes great use of Old Testament references in ways that resemble the chreia, or at least are easily adaptable into chreia.

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