Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria Book XII, A Brief Summary

Quintilian says that this part is, for him, the hardest.

So, Quintilian writes, let the orator be a good person who is skilled in speaking, as Cato says. “But this view of mine has further implications. I am not only saying that the orator must be a good man, but that no one can be an orator unless he is a good man” (12.1.3). Rhetoric lets us see things on many sides of a question, so one who can see both good and evil wouldn’t be intelligent if he or she chose evil over good—that person would be a fool.

“Moreover, the mind is never at liberty even to study this noble art unless it is free of all vices: first, because virtue and vice cannot coexist in the same breast, and a single mind can no more harbor the best thoughts and the worst than the same man can be both good and bad” (12.1.4-5). An evil mind is essentially torn apart by itself. What room is there in this mind for goodness? What room is there in this mind for literature, art, or culture, for anything uplifting or edifying?

But what of those imperfect people who spoke so well, like Demosthenes and Cicero? Neither was perfect, but they were good men. Even Pythagoras sought not to be called a wise man, but a lover of wisdom (i.e. a philosopher). Cicero, too, was a great orator, yet he also never claimed to be wise. And even if there were a bad person who persuaded many people, Quintilian would deny that this person was an orator. Good speaking doesn’t mean just persuading a lot of people to do something. It means influencing people to do what is right.

The best person to persuade others of what is good is the person who has first persuaded himself or herself of what is good and has acted on it. The bad person is inconsistent and may speak and act in a way that is other than what he or she really feels or believes, while good people “will never lack for honourable words or an Invention that provides honourable matter” (12.1.30). 

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria Book VI, A Brief Summary

Book VI
Here, Quintilian discusses how the peroration, a part of a speech, consists of both the factual and emotional and how facts and emotions are used and appealed to. Both speech and action can provoke tears, but attempting to arouse tears shouldn’t be done by the unskilled because the reward is either tears or laughter. And laughter when a speaker wants tears is failure. [We’ve all seen movies like this. I wonder if this is why movies sometimes seem cheesy: a director wants viewers to be moved to tears or some other tender emotion but fails and the audience is instead moved to laughter. I am suddenly reminded of Monuments Men, a movie I once saw during which I felt the director was trying to force me to be emotional. Have you experienced this? What media were you watching or reading?]

Quintilian continues by saying that while proofs may make people think something, emotions make them want a thing. Emotions are effective in persuasion because people tend to believe the things that they want. Quintilian writes, “For as soon as they [listeners of a speech] begin to be angry or to feel favourably disposed, to hate or to pity, they fancy that it is now their own case that is being pleaded, and just as lovers cannot judge beauty because their feelings anticipate the perception of their eyes, so also a judge who is overcome by his emotions gives up any idea of inquiring into truth; he is swept along by the tide, as it were, and yields to the swift current” (6.2.6). But emotions function on the part of the speaker as well as on the audience. A speaker who is dry and shows no emotion is no fun to listen to, just as an audience who doesn’t feel much emotion may not be as persuaded as one that does. Hence, Quintilian writes, “The life and soul of oratory, we may say, is in the emotions” (6.2.8). Without emotion, everything else is dull, pale, and dry.

There are two kinds of emotion: pathos and ethos. Some say ethos is permanent, while pathos is temporary, and this belief is somewhat right for Quintilian. Ethos is whatever is said and done about what should be done or what is honorable. The ethos we want to see in a speaker is goodness. A “speaker’s character shines through his speech” (6.2.14).


A speaker who wishes to arouse emotions must be aroused by them also. Yet emotions are not completely in our own power. Speakers who have the greatest power have cultivated what the Greeks call phantasiai, which could be called “visions.” It is like the imagination, where one can see before one’s eyes things that aren’t present. So, to some degree speakers can will emotions via imagination and practice. [Isn’t this also what actors do?]

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, A Brief Summary of Book XI

While appropriateness is often discussed in oratory, what is it? It has to do with seeing what is both expedient and becoming, both of which generally go together. “What is always and in all circumstances becoming for everyone is to act and speak in an honorable way; conversely, it is never becoming for anyone ever to act or speak dishonorably in any circumstances” (11.1.14).

Don’t boast. Demosthenes: “it becomes us to blush, even when we are praised by others” (11.1.22).

Don’t be disorderly.

Different styles are appropriate to different people. Like clothes.

“In the orator himself, the most attractive qualities are humanity, approachability, moderation, and kindness. There are also some very different characteristics which become a good man: hatred of the wicked, emotional involvement in the public interest, readiness to punish crime and injury, and, as I said at the beginning, everything that is honourable” (11.1.42).

To say is to do:“Pronuntiatio is called actio by many people” (11.3.1). Cicero calls actio “a sort of language” in one passage, and “a kind of eloquence of the body” in another. Actio is voice and movement. People are affected by what they hear, and emotions languish unless they “are kindled into flame by voice, face, and the bearing of virtually the whole body” (11.3.3).

Quintilian then goes on to discuss stage actors and belief, quality and use of voice. Aspiring orators should practice passages learned by heart and learn passages that vary, which involve different situations and require different inflexions of the voice. Then Quintilian discusses delivery, singing, and gesture. Also the head, the face, including eye lids, cheeks, eyebrows, nose, and lips. Neck, shoulders, arms. And our hands—they seem like a common language of humanity. Hence, hand gestures. Finally, dress.

Objects of delivery: conciliate, persuade, and move. Pleasure is corollary. Conciliation comes from acceptance of character or charm of style. Persuasion comes from proofs; movement from emotions.

Orators can even allow pauses for reflection. 

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratorio, A Brief Summary of Book X

Writing, speaking, and reading are inseparably connected. If we want to be good speakers, we should also try to imitate, listening to and reading the best authors. No one author is perfect, so we should read a variety of the best. We should also read poetry, imitating what is good. Then, we should seek to excel and be even better than those we are reading. Those expert writers were different in their day than we are in ours, of course, so we shouldn’t try to imitate them perfectly.

The pen is the best teacher of eloquence. Great difficulty precedes true excellence, but we shouldn’t try to perfect every tiny little thing in every sentence—meaning we can’t be perfectionists. Quintilian says he doesn’t know who’s worse: those who are pleased by everything they write, or those who are pleased by nothing they write. How can we perform our duty to the public if we’re always trying to perfect everything and revise what we’re writing instead of doing our best in the time allotted and then publishing it? We can only write and speak according to our ability, so we shouldn’t become annoyed with ourselves. We must not be idle; nor must we make excuses to not study until our minds are fresh or we are “feeling like it.”

In short, there’s no value in an orator who takes too long to produce something.

Translating is also useful. So is meditation. And memory.