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Quintilian's Last Word: Voluntas and the Goodness of the Vir Bonus Dicendi Peritus

Mary Rosalie Stoner

PhD Student, University of Chicago

In the Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian’s success in forming the “good man skilled in speaking” (vir bonus dicendi peritus, 12.1.1) depends on his ability to bridge the gap between the idealistic education he outlines and the moral commitment of his readers. In the provocative 1993 essay “The ‘Q’ Question,” Richard Lanham hints that Quintilian’s insistence on the perfect orator’s goodness is naïve and question-begging, unable in itself to ensure the goodness of the orator through education (155). This paper argues on the contrary that Quintilian does have at least a partial notion of how to stimulate and sustain moral commitment in the student, and that this notion is focused around the use of voluntas and its cognates in Book Twelve. Both George Kennedy (1969, 129-130) and Michael Winterbottom (1998, footnote 10) have alluded to the importance of will in Quintilian but have not developed the idea at length. Surveying the most salient uses of voluntas in Book Twelve, I portray it as a fundamental moral principle that orients the orator towards goodness and helps propel him towards his goal of perfection. In so doing, I suggest a way of linking theory and practice in the Institutio and reveal the dynamism of Quintilian’s overlooked masterwork.

In 12.11.11 Quintilian names voluntas as the main quality on which being a good man (and thus being a good orator) depends (Nam id quod prius quodque maius est, ut boni viri simus, voluntate maxime constat). Further on he explains that nature’s orientation of human beings toward goodness makes learning virtue easy for those who are willing (volentibus, 12.11.12). In this passage voluntas appears as a fixed disposition that determines a person’s goodness. Quintilian corroborates the stability of voluntas in his discussion of the orator’s prerogative to lie to the judge in order to make sure justice is truly accomplished. As long as the orator’s voluntas is upright, he can legitimately “bend” his speech in order to achieve the good end he intends (Quapropter ut res feret flectetur oratio, manente honesta voluntate, 12.1.45). As the determiner of moral goodness, voluntas is an important factor in education as well. In the discussion of childhood education in Book One, Quintilian counsels a carefully balanced alternation of work and recreation in order to maximize the child’s spontaneity and productivity “because enthusiasm for learning rests on will, which cannot be forced” (quod studium discendi voluntate, quae cogi non potest, constat, 1.3.8). Again voluntas appears as something fixed, with an emphasis on the need for the teacher to handle it carefully in order to ensure that the student will love learning and embark on the curricular journey with enthusiasm. Upright voluntas is the precondition for oratorical progress at any age, as Quintilian shows in 12.1.31 (neque enim rectae voluntati serum est tempus ullum). The prospective orator’s firm commitment to oratorical-moral excellence undergirds the vigorous efforts that Quintilian’s demanding curriculum requires of him.  

As the final word of Book Twelve and of the entire Institutio, voluntas signals the role Quintilian wants his text to play in inspiring the student to embark on the educational endeavor. Quintilian’s parting words declare that his work will produce “good will,” if nothing else, in his zealous young readers (si non magnam utilitatem adferet, at certe, quod magis petimus, bonam voluntatem, 12.11.31). Quintilian’s confidence that he can stir up bona voluntasvoluntas being the main part of goodness—is a claim of success for his enterprise of educating a genuinely good speaker. The ways in which he tries to produce good will (by encouraging students' love for their teacher and providing moral exhortation to spur readers to a new way of life) impart agency to the Institutio and its author—a far cry from the quixotic old schoolmaster that his critics have sometimes portrayed.

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Ancient Ethics

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