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Virtue requires imagination. – Quintilian on education aims & means

The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being is a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era, the writings that have informed the development of western civilization and classical education.

I’ve been slowly (very slowly) making my way through this book and sharing little bits as I go. I’d love to get some discussion going about what it means to be carrying on this tradition as homeschooling mothers.

CH069: Imagination & Expectation: Quintilian on Education

I’m currently in the section of Quintilian excerpts. He lived in Spain in the first century AD, where he wrote one of the greatest treatises on education (so says the editor, Richard Gamble) in twelve volumes and developed the first “Great Books” program for the education of not just any orator, but the perfect orator.

Education combines both thinking & doing, both knowing & being.

Quintilian writes that his aim – the correct aim for an educator – is a “perfect orator.” By that he does not mean merely one who can speak well. The two categories in his day were philosophers – those who cared about morality – and rhetoricians – the pragmatists who just wanted to effect their desired change in the world.

What Quintilian wants is for these two streams to be reunited. He wants those concerned with morality and virtue and honor to come out of their hole and do something in the world. And he wants those active in the community to actually care about whether or not what they are doing is right.

Is that so much to ask?

One reason both these streams need each other is that the rhetorician is the one with metaphors and stories at hand, while the philosopher contents himself with abstractions.

However, points out Quintilian, one who would teach virtue to himself and others needs imagination:

courage, justice, self-control […] every one of them requires illustration and consequently makes a demand on the imagination and eloquence of the pleader.

We can’t simply demand character out of a person, nor can we explain it with abstract and theoretical definitions and expect that to be sufficient. We have to illustrate – model, tell stories, practice, make analogies – if we want to help people (ourselves, our children) change.

And doing so is demanding. It’s hard work. It’s good work. It’s necessary work.

Let’s stretch toward the goal in hope:

Even if we fail to reach it, those whose aspirations are highest will attain to greater heights than those who abandon themselves to premature despair of ever reaching the goal.

I’d love for you to share either another implication you draw from this quote or your thoughts on my own musings.

Learning what classical education really means from primary sources.

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  1. I am just about to finish the chapter on Christian paideia in Norms and Nobility (I think pages 99-100 might be the mountaintop of the whole book!), and I love seeing the reconciliation between belief and practice in the person of Christ. When I read that Quintilian quote, I’m quick to think of my own ideals (or the Ideal Type of the pagan)–I want so badly to transcend to those greater heights. But too often, my greater heights are ideals of my own choosing and are not engaged with imitatio Christi. No wonder I despair! This Hicks chapter has resolved a lot of things for me with regard to what we are trying to achieve with classical Christian education–that virtue and integrity that is wisdom working itself out through action and behavior.

  2. This is probably completely at a tangent to your thoughts here, Mystie, but you made me think of Chesterton’s words: “There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable…Facts and history utterly contradict this view…Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.”

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