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What are the “progymnasmata”?

In modern homeschool circles, you may run into people throwing the fancy word “progymnasmata” around.  Modern publishers love things like this because they’re always looking for something novel to spin into new products.  We will find, for example, homeschool publishers introducing young children to the “progymnasmata” as some kind of “classical” writing exercises that are the magic remedy for modern writing problems.

Total nonsense.

The “progymnasmata” are nothing more than “practice exercises” for older students who have progressed through classical Grammar studies, into Reasoning and are getting ready for the study of the art of Rhetoric.  In Rhetoric, they will learn about sources for different kinds of arguments.  If/when they ever write an essay or speech they will need to come up with arguments and these sources of proof help them to do so.  (Aristotle discusses these at the end of Book II in his “Art of Rhetoric”.)

For example, to prove a moral point, one can use a fable, which tells an imaginary story with a moral lesson.  One can quote a proverb and explain how it relates to a certain situation.  One can share the example of a famous person from history (i.e., an anecdote).  These are some of the sources proofs to be studied in Rhetoric.

The “progymasmata” are exercises that allow students to learn about and practice with these different sources of proof as they begin the study of Rhetoric.  There are 14 of these exercises:

  1. Fables
  2. Narratives
  3. Anecdotes
  4. Maxims
  5. Refutations
  6. Confirmations
  7. Commonplaces
  8. Encomiums
  9. Invectives
  10. Comparisons
  11. Characterizations
  12. Descriptions
  13. Theses
  14. Laws

Those are the “progymnasmata”, so there’s nothing to marvel at when you see this fancy word and, to be fair, students who are not studying the classical liberal arts have nothing to do with them.

Now, you may wonder, “If you know all about these, why haven’t you taught them in the CLAA?”.  The answer is that there is really no need to talk about these if students actually study the classical Catholic curriculum. They’re already built into the curriculum and run throughout our courses. 

For example, CLAA students are studying Aesop’s Fables and reading the parables of Jesus in the Gospels: that’s progymnasmata #1.   Students in English Composition learn how to write narratives, and we’re reading model narratives in our history and literature classes: that’s progymnasmata #2.  In the historical books of Sacred Scripture, we read of many characters whose lives encourage us to practice virtue or discourage us from vice:  that’s progymnasmata #3.  In the Wisdom books of Sacred Scripture, we learn proverbs: that’s progymnasmata #4.  So, students who actually devote themselves to a real (not fake) classical Catholic education will be familiar with all of the “progymnasmata” without ever using the fancy word. CLAA students don’t need to fake it.

Nevertheless, if you’re really interested in learning about these “practice exercises”, I’ve arranged the study materials in a new course on the Study Center — TRV-362 Progymnasmata, which is open to subscribed students of all ages (though useful only to older students). I’ll provide some assignments for students when time allows, but you can study what needs to be studied.

So, let there be no confusion about the “progymnasmata” and don’t be duped by any snake oil homeschool book-sellers trying to get you to buy useless study materials for young children. It’s just a money-grab.  Stay focused on the core Academy courses and these things will be provided for.

God bless your studies,
Mr. William C. Michael, O.P.
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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