Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 10 - Chapter 3

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Of writing; utility of it, § 1-4. How and what we should write; necessity of correction, 5-14. Judicious exercise requisite, 15-18. Objections to dictation, 19-21. A retired place desirable for composition; of writing at night, 22-27. But retirement cannot always be secured, and we must do our best in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, 28-30. Further remarks, 31-33.

1. SUCH, then, are the means of improvement to be derived from external sources. But of those which we must secure for ourselves, practice in writing, which is attended with the most labor, is attended also with the greatest advantage. Nor has Cicero without reason called the pen the best modeller and teacher of eloquence, and by putting that opinion into the mouth of Lucius Crassus in his dialogues on the character of the Orator, he has united his own judgment to the authority of that eminent speaker.

2. We must write, therefore, as carefully and as much as we can, for as the ground, by being dug to a great depth, becomes more fitted for fructifying and nourishing seeds, so improvement of the mind, acquired from more than mere superficial cultivation, pours forth the fruits of study in richer abundance and retains them with greater fidelity. For without this precaution, the very faculty of speaking extempore will but furnish us with empty loquacity and words born on the lips. 3. In writing are the roots, in writing are the foundations of eloquence. By writing, resources are stored up, as it were, in a sacred repository, from where they may be drawn forth for sudden emergencies or as circumstances require. Let us above all things get strength, which may suffice for the labor of our contests and may not be exhausted by use. 4. Nature has herself appointed that nothing great is to be accomplished quickly and has ordained that difficulty should precede every work of excellence. She has even made it a law, with regard to gestation, that the larger animals are retained longer in the womb of the parent.

5. But as two questions arise from this subject—how and what we ought principally to write—I shall consider them both in this order. Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate. Let us search for what is best and not allow ourselves to be readily pleased with whatever presents itself. Let judgment be applied to our thoughts and skill in arrangement to such of them as the judgment sanctions, for we must make a selection from our thoughts and words, and the weight of each must be carefully estimated. Then must follow the art of collocation, and the rhythm of our phrases must be tried in every possible way, since any word must not take its position just as it offers itself. 6. That we may acquire this accomplishment with the more precision, we must frequently repeat the last words of what we have just written. Apart from the fact that by this means what follows is better connected with what precedes, the ardor of thought, which has cooled by the delay of writing, recovers its strength anew and, by going again over the ground, acquires new force. Such is the case, we see, in a contest at leaping; men run over a certain portion of ground that they may take a longer spring and be carried with the utmost velocity to the other part on which they aim at alighting. In hurling a javelin, too, we draw back the arm, and when going to shoot an arrow, we pull back the bowstring. 7. At times, however, if a gale bear us on, we may spread our sails to it, provided that the license which we allow ourselves does not lead us astray, for all our thoughts please us at the time of their birth, otherwise they would not be committed to writing. But let us have recourse to our judgment and revise the fruit of our facility, which is always to be regarded with suspicion. 8. Thus we learn that Sallust wrote, and his labor, indeed, is shown in his productions. That Virgil wrote very few verses in a day, Varus bears testimony. 9. With the speaker, indeed, the case is different. I, therefore, enjoin this delay and solicitude only at the commencement of his course, for we must make it first of all our object and must attain that object, to write as well as we can. Practice will bring celerity; thoughts, by degrees, will present themselves with greater readiness; words will correspond to them; and suitable arrangement will follow. Everything, in a word, as in a well ordered household, will be ready for service. 10. The sum of the whole matter, indeed, is this: that by writing quickly, we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly. But after this facility has been attained, we must then, most of all, take care to stop and look before us and restrain our high-mettled steeds with the curb, a restraint which will not so much retard us as give us new spirit to proceed.

Nor, on the other hand, do I think that those, who have acquired some power in the use of the pen should be chained down to the unhappy task of perpetually finding fault with themselves. 11. For how could he perform his duty to the public who should waste his life in polishing every portion of his pleadings? But there are some whom nothing ever satisfies, who wish to alter everything and to express everything in a different form from that in which it first occurs to them. There are some again who, distrustful of themselves and paying an ill compliment to their own powers, think that accuracy in writing means to create for themselves extraordinary difficulties. 12. Nor is it easy for me to say which I regard as more in the wrong, those whom everything that they produce, or those whom nothing that they produce, pleases. For it is often the case, even with young men of talent, that they wear themselves away with useless labor and sink into silence from too much anxiety to speak well. In regard to this subject, I remember that Julius Secundus—a contemporary of mine and, as is well known, dearly beloved by me, a man of extraordinary eloquence, but of endless labor— mentioned to me something that had been told him by his uncle. 13. This uncle was Julius Florus, the most celebrated man for eloquence in the provinces of Gaul (for it was there that he practiced it) and, in other respects, an orator to be ranked with few and worthy of his relationship to Secundus. He, happening one day to observe that Secundus, while he was still working at school, was looking dejected, asked him what was the reason of his brow being so overcast. 14. The youth used no concealment, but told him that that was the third day that he had been vainly endeavoring, with his utmost efforts, to find an exordium for a subject on which he had to write. Not only had grief affected him in respect to the present occasion, but despair in regard to the time to come. Florus immediately replied with a smile, "Do you wish to write better than you can?" 15. Such is the whole truth of the matter. We must endeavor to speak with as much ability as we can, but we must speak according to our ability. For improvement, there is need of application, but not of vexation with ourselves.

But to enable us to write more, and more readily, not practice alone will assist (and in practice there is doubtless great effect), but also method. Instead of lolling at our ease, looking at the ceiling, and trying to kindle our invention by muttering to ourselves, and waiting for what may present itself, we should set ourselves to write like reasonable beings by observing what the subject requires, what becomes the character concerned, what the nature of the occasion is, and what the disposition of the judge, for thus nature herself will supply us not only with a commencement but with what ought to follow. 16. Most points, indeed, are plain and set themselves before our eyes if we do not shut them. Accordingly, not even the illiterate and untaught have long to consider how to begin, and therefore we should feel the more ashamed if learning produces difficulty. Let us not, then, imagine that what lies hid is always best. If we think nothing fit to be said but what we have not discovered, we must remain dumb.

17. A different fault is that of those who wish, first of all, to run through their subject with as rapid a pen as possible and, yielding to the ardor and impetuosity of their imagination, write off their thoughts extemporaneously, producing what they call a rough copy, which they then go over again and arrange what they have hastily poured forth. Though the words and rhythm of the sentences are mended, there still remains the same want of solid connection that there was originally in the parts hurriedly thrown together. 18. It will be better, therefore, to use care at first, and so to form our work from the beginning that we may have merely to polish it and not to mold it anew. Sometimes, however, we may give loose to our feeling, in the display of which warmth is generally of more effect than accuracy.

19. From my disapprobation of carelessness in writing, it is clearly enough seen what I think of the fine fancy of dictation, for in the use of the pen, the hand of the writer, however rapid, as it cannot keep pace with the celerity of his thoughts, allows them some respite. But he to whom we dictate urges us on, and we feel ashamed at times to hesitate, or stop, or alter, as if we were afraid to have a witness of our weakness. 20. Hence it happens that not only inelegant and casual expressions, but sometimes unsuitable ones, escape us, because our sole anxiety is to make our discourse connected. Our expressions, therefore, partake of neither the accuracy of the writer nor the animation of the speaker. If the person who takes down what is dictated proves a hindrance to us from slowness in writing or from inaccuracy in reading, the course of our thought is obstructed, and all the fire that had been conceived in our mind is dispelled by delay or sometimes by anger at the offender. 21. Besides, those gestures which accompany the stronger excitements of the mind and which, in some degree, rouse the imagination, such as waving of the hand, alteration of the features, turning from side to side, and all such acts as Persius satirizes, when he alludes to a negligent species of style (the writer, he says,

Nec pluteum c?dit, nec demorsos sapit ungues,

Nor thumps his desk, nor tastes his bitten nails,)

are utterly ridiculous except when we are alone. 22. In short, to mention once and for all the strongest argument against dictation, privacy is rendered impossible by it, and no one can doubt that a spot free from witnesses and the deepest possible silence are the most desirable for persons engaged in writing.

Yet we are not therefore necessarily to listen to those who think that groves and woods are the most proper places for study, because as the free and open sky, they say, and the beauty of sequestered spots, give elevation to the mind and a happy warmth to the imagination. 23. To me, assuredly, such retirement seems rather conducive to pleasure than an incentive to literary exertion, for the very objects that delight us must, of necessity, divert our attention from the work which we designed to pursue. The mind cannot, in truth, attend effectually to many things at once, and in whatever direction it looks off, it must cease to contemplate what had been intended for its employment. 24. The pleasantness, therefore, of the woods, the streams gliding past, the breezes sporting among the branches of the trees, the songs of birds, and the very freedom of the extended prospect, draw off our attention to them, so that all such gratifications seem to me more adapted to relax the thoughts than to brace them. 25. Demosthenes acted more wisely: he secluded himself in a place where no voice could be heard and no prospect contemplated, that his eyes might not oblige his mind to attend to anything else besides his business. As for those who study by lamplight, therefore, let the silence of the night, the closed chamber, and a single light keep them, as it were, wholly in seclusion. 26. But in every kind of study, and especially in such nocturnal application, good health, and that which is the principal means of securing it, regularity of life, are necessary, since we devote the time appointed us by nature for sleep and the recruiting of our strength to the most intense labor. On this labor we must not bestow more time than what is too much for sleep and what will not leave too little for it, 27. for weariness hinders application to writing, and daylight, if we are free from other occupations, is abundantly sufficient for it. Necessity drives men engaged in business to read at night, yet study by the lamp, when we come to it fresh and vigorous, is the best kind of retirement.

28. But silence and seclusion, and entire freedom of mind, though in the highest degree desirable, cannot always fall to our lot. Therefore, we must not, if any noise disturbs us, immediately throw aside our books and deplore the day as lost, but we must strive against inconveniences and acquire such habits that our application may set all interruptions at defiance. For if we direct our attention, with our whole mental energy, to the work actually before us, nothing at all that strikes our eyes or ears will penetrate into the mind. 29. Does a casual train of thought often cause us not to see persons in our way and to wander from our road, and shall we not attain the same abstraction if we resolve to do so? We must not yield to excuses for idleness, for if we fancy that we must not study except when we are fresh, except when we are in good spirits, except when we are free from all other cares, we shall always have some reason for self-indulgence. 30. In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings, let thought secure for herself privacy. Else what will be the result, when we shall have, in the midst of the forum, amid the hearing of so many causes, amid wranglings and casual outcries, to speak, perhaps on a sudden, in a continued harangue, if we cannot conceive the memoranda which we enter on our tablets, anywhere but in solitude? For this reason Demosthenes, though so great a lover of seclusion, used to accustom himself, by studying on the seashore, where the breakers dashed with the loudest noise, not to be disconcerted at the uproar of public assemblies.

31. Some lesser matters also (though nothing is little that relates to study) must not be left unnoticed, one of which is that we can write best on waxen tablets from which there is the greatest facility for erasing, unless, perchance, weakness of sight requires the use of parchment. Though it assists the sight, parchment causes delay and interrupts the current of thought from the frequent movement of the hand, backwards and forwards, while dipping the pen in the ink. 32. Next we may observe that in using either of these kinds of material, we should take care to leave some pages blank, on which we may have free scope for making any additions (since want of room sometimes causes a reluctance to correct, or, at least, what was written first makes a confused mixture with what is inserted). But I would not have the waxen tablets extravagantly broad, having found a youth, otherwise anxious to excel, make his compositions of too great a length because he used to measure them by the number of lines, a fault which, though it could not be corrected by repeated admonitions, was at last removed by altering the size of his tablets. 33. There should also be a portion of space left vacant on which may be noted down what frequently occurs out of order to persons who are writing, that is, in reference to other subjects than those which we have in hand. For excellent thoughts sometimes start into our minds which we cannot well insert in our pages and which it is not safe to delay noting down, because they sometimes escape us and sometimes, if we are anxious to keep them in memory, divert us from thinking of other things. Hence they will be properly deposited in a place for memoranda.

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