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A “Quint”-essential Education | Why the loss of The Good also leads to the loss of The Orator

Education is a terribly abstract thing. You can neither see it nor hear it. It's existence, rather, is adjectival -- it serves to imbue some real object (a person) with a certain set of characteristics or attributes (educated). Education is also an artificial quality. To be educated can only be said of man, but not man in his original state. Education enhances the original product.

Consequently, we may look to the perfectly educated man to help define this term, education, by example. Classical writers almost universally referred to this man as the orator. So let us seek to know this orator.


CHAEREPHON: What shall I ask him?

SOCRATES: Ask him who he is.

CHAEREPHON: What do you mean?

SOCRATES: I mean such a question as would elicit from him, if he had been a maker of shoes, the answer that he is a cobbler. Do you understand? [1]


We should probably answer simply that the orator is one who delivers public speeches (and usually lengthy ones at that). But Socrates would certainly not be satisfied with such a rubbish definition as this, and neither shall we.

Webster (1828) defined the term orator as one who exercises eloquence. Classical writers seem to have this in mind as well, adding that he also be wise.

Webster's definition betrays a longstanding deficiency in the term orator. Cicero, for example, specifically criticizes those who have “separated the science of wise thinking from that of elegant speaking” (74). Ideally, says Cicero, if the terms are properly understood, the philosopher and the orator ought to be interchangeable terms (79). Quintilian echoes this, desiring that the “ideal orator then be such as to have a genuine title to the name of philosopher” (108). The idea here seems to be that wisdom and eloquence ought to coexist.

The knowledge and experience which contributes towards wisdom is cultivated and refined by philosophy, but one is truly wise only when one can convey that wisdom winsomely through language to the general public. Quintilian elaborates on this further, requiring also some “actual practice and experience of life” (123). Similarly, Seneca adds that “virtue is an incomplete and feeble good when wasted […] without activity, never displaying what it has learned” (97).

To summarize, the orator has the intellectual shrewdness of a philosopher and enough life experience to lend him credibility, combined with a capacity to communicate both to ordinary people. The equation might look like this:

knowledge + experience = wisdom

wisdom + eloquence = orator

wisdom – eloquence = hermit

knowledge – experience = young whipper snapper

Doubtless this is a significant undertaking, and we do not expect the same level of mastery of craft from every practitioner. Seneca writes that, “Wisdom is a large and spacious thing. It needs plenty of free room. One must learn about things divine and human, the past and the future, the ephemeral and the eternal; and one must learn about Time” (103).

Nevertheless, Vitruvius believes that it is reasonable to expect the student to master both, writing that “the observation that all studies have a common bond of union and intercourse with one another, will lead to the belief that this can be easily realized. For a liberal [arts] education forms, as it were, a single body made up of these members” (89). In other words, it's a package deal, as the one who has truly attained wisdom will recognize.

Yet Seneca reminds us that this is a worthy and noble undertaking. “It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile” (98).

Most importantly, says Quintilian, the orator is a good man (107) . We use the term good here in its full moral sense for, says Vitruvius, “no work can can be rightly done without honesty and incorruptibility” (88). Seneca tells us that we ought not to desire that men say of us, “What a learned mean you are!” but rather, “What a good man you are!” (104, italics mine).

Quintilian further addresses this in the context of choosing the academy or private tutor: the moral development of the child ought to be the primary consideration (113). The orator must not merely be acquainted with virtues (prudence, temperance, etc.), but must ably divide virtue from the corresponding vice. Similarly, he must display in action the handmaidens of virtue, such as “distinguishing truth from falsehood and judging the logical consequences of given premises” (82). Indeed, Vitruvius tells us that “it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to the test” (87). After all, eloquence depends, says Quintilian, “on the state of the mind” (116).

Why all this emphasis on being good? Because, as Cicero notes, “...eloquence is so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the state, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style” (77).

In other words, no one else wields the kind of influence over virtually every aspect of human existence as does the orator. Consequently, the absence of goodness, (or worse, outright badness) can only ensure that goodness is removed from the laws, the city, the commonwealth, or indeed removed in the broadest sense imaginable, because one can only convey to others what one already possesses for oneself.

For the Christian, it goes without saying that this goodness is of a certain ilk. In the midst of all this searching after wisdom and eloquence, wherever that which is “noble and praiseworthy” may be found (Pearl 5), we acknowledge that the Bible serves to integrate all truth, all knowledge, all experience, and all language into a unity, because alone “facts have no eyes” (Pearl 8). But then the classical thinkers were on to this all long, decrying the artificial division of something so plainly in union. The advantage to the Christian is that he understands why it is in union. And he further knows something specific of the character of the God who unified it.

Peter Kreeft, speaking at Oxford, remarked that,

“There are three things that shall never die: truth, and goodness, and beauty. These are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need, and know we need absolutely. Our minds want not only some truth and some falsehood, but all truth without limit. Our wills want not only some good and some evil, but all good without limit. Our desires, imaginations, sensibility, feelings, our hearts want not some beauty and some ugliness, but all beauty without limit. For these are the only three things we never get bored with, and never will for all eternity, because they are three attributes of God, and therefore of all God's creation.” [2]

The orator, then, is the man who best exemplifies this. He, being good, speaks the truth, beautifully. And in doing so, is a reflection of the Great Orator: a God who is Truth, speaking into existence a creation that is good, beautifully.

All page number citations, unless otherwise noted, from The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being (2nd ed.) Richard Gamble, ed. ISI Books. 2009.

1 From Plato's Gorgias, Benjamin Jowett (trans.) via Project Gutenberg:

2 Kreeft, Peter. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Oxford, England 7/28/05.

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