I. Origins of the Progymnasmata
1. Emerged as a pedagogical program for upper-class Greek boys during the late empire (4th Century).
2. Contains fourteen exercises, which proceed from simple to complex:
a. Fable, Narration, Anecdote, Maxim, Refutation, Confirmation, Common Topics, Encomium, Invective, Comparison, Speech in Character, Description, Thesis, Introduction of a Law
3. Expectations of the student
a. It was expected that the student of progymnasmata would have a good working knowledge of Greek mythology, important works of literature (especially Homer), and the highlights of Athenian history.
b. Each exercise develops particular composition skills, which would eventually serve as elements in more advanced exercises or complete speeches.
II. Progymnasmata within the Classical program
a. Progymnasmata were originally the grammar stage of rhetoric.
b. They were exercises designed to help young people learn different tools of speaking that would aid them in assemblies, courts of law, and public addresses
c. Fables, narratives, anecdotes, and maxims are the simplest and require the most amount of repetition through variation—changing of perspective, alternation of tense or time period, reversal of outcome, change of starting point, and so on. The idea is to get children familiar with as many ways of manipulating language by using short and enjoyable “building blocks.”
a. Some progymnasmata involve tacitly logic-stage skills, such as finding the best arguments on both sides.
b. Refutation, Confirmation, Commonplace, Encomium, Vituperation, and Comparison are the most logic-stage in nature, for they emphasize argument-making and logical arrangement and progression. The students should be challenged to identify as many possible valid claims as well as invalid and logically fallacious claims.
c. However, most, if not all, progymnasmata exercises can be used in a logic-stage fashion. For example, the maxim exercises could be turned into a debate of competing maxims, where the exercises are followed and then a discussion ensues as to when each maxim seems more applicable than the other.
a. When mastery of the progymnasmata has been accomplished, larger writing or speaking assignments should be made that require the progymnasmata categories to be used in producing a persuasive address.
b. Characterization, Description, Thesis, and Introduction of a Law are the most naturally suited for the rhetoric stage because they require the most extensive use of rhetorical figures, imaginative thinking, and reality-based application of arguments and claims.
c. As with the logic-stage, all of the progymnasmata elements may be used in a rhetoric-stage manner. An essay or speech may require the student to use three or four of the progymnasmata to convey their thought or defend their thesis in a way that is persuasive, beautiful, and engaging on a level both thoughtful and winsome.
III. Progymnasmata within the Christian program.
1. The progymnasmata are, like rhetoric, built upon observation of how lived communication functions in culture. One doesn’t need to know what an “antimetabole” is in order to use one: for who doesn’t know the phrase, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”?
2. In the same way that rhetorical figures are universal patterns of human communication, so too progymnasmata are imbedded in the human world. They need not follow the specific patterns of the Greek system, but the general concepts and typical patterns of development may be found in any culture across time and place.
3. Therefore they fit within the Christian program of education as an example of God’s natural revelation to man, as much as the techniques of tiered irrigation or building construction.
4. Moreover, we find the progymnasmata within the Scriptures, whether explicitly in the maxims quoted by Paul, or implicitly in the Biblical writers’ characterizations of historical figures such as Pharaoh or Ahab.
IV. What are the desired outcomes of the Progymnasmata?
1. Given the natural progression of the exercises and their being part of God’s natural revelation, the progymnasmata have at least three desirable outcomes for our children.
2. First, if used well, they ought to produce more versatile well-rounded writers, both in terms of style, (through gradual incorporation of rhetorical figures of style) and perspective, and compositional structure.
3. Second, if used well, they ought to produce more versatile and well-rounded readers, who have grown attentive to the inescapable selectivity of communication and the various consequences of the choices made in writing or speaking.
4. Third, if used well, they ought to produce a fuller sense of God’s grandeur, insofar as children recognize that these skills are God’s gift to men both good and evil, in the same way that mathematics, physics, or any other part of creation ought to enhance our sense of wonder and thanksgiving for God.