Quintilian’s Guidelines For Boys’ Reading


The Roman rhetorician and teacher Quintilian (c. A.D. 35-100) is a rich source of tutelage for the student of proper speaking and writing.  His Institutio Oratoria explores hundreds of subjects related to rhetoric and educational techniques.  He remains a master of melioration.  One section of his treatise (I.8) discusses guidelines related to reading habits for boys.

1.  Reading, says Quintilian, should in the first place be “manly and dignified” and should “show a certain seriousness” (virilis et cum sanctitate quadam gravis).

2.  The boy should be able to understand the basics of the text.  That is, it should not be on such an advanced level that it leaves him bewildered.  He might not know everything, but he should have enough to keep his attention.


3.  Young minds are very impressionable.  Care should be taken regarding what is put in front of them.  Reading material must, therefore, be morally improving.  I’ve written about this before in various places (i.e., in my book Thirty-Seven), and will say it again:  the formation of character in young men is where the modern educational system shows itself to be woefully deficient.

4.  Quintilian recommends the epic poets Homer and Virgil as good places to start.  Of course, the youth will not be able to process all that is happening, but at least he will be exposed to the very best right from the beginning:

Ideoque optime institutum est ut ab Homero atque Vergilio lectio inciperet, quamquam ad intellegendas eorum virtutes firmiore iudicio opus est; sed huic rei superest tempus, neque enim semel legentur. [I.8.5].

(“Therefore it is the best method that one begin with reading from Homer and Virgil, even though a more experienced judgment is needed for comprehending the virtues of these books; but there will be time enough for this, since these books are not read only once.”)

The point here is to expose the young mind to good things at a time when they will be able to shape consciousness.

5.   Tragedy and lyric poetry is very good and can be used for instruction, but care must be used in its selection.  There is much licentious material in these Greek poets, and in Horace also, our strict schoolmaster Quintilian cautions (Nam et Graeci licenter multa e Horatium nolim in quibusdam interpretari).

6.  Overt erotic poetry should be reserved only for later years.  Young boys have no business being exposed to such material.

7.  Comedy is very good for instruction, as it teaches boys to stay on their toes and cultivate their rhetorical abilities.

8.  In all things, the texts selected should be those that “nourish the mind and character (quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda).”  Academic scholarship must take a distinct back seat to the shaping of character.  Character first, everything else second.

9.  Very often, the older material is better than the newer literature, since the older material has stood the test of time.  Older writers took greater care in stylistic formation and precision.

10.  Quintilian valued “a high moral tone” and “manliness” in his writers for young men.  Has anyone ever given us better guidance than this, in our modern era of complete neglect of these virtues?  He says:  Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia delicarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus.  And this means the following:

Truly, a dignity and, if I may say, a manliness, must be sought from them [writers], since we have degenerated into moral vices even in our way of speaking.

12.   We should also read the speeches of the great orators, and use their verbal agility as a guide in forming our own writing and speaking skills.

All in all, this is admirable advice.  If I had a son, this is the kind of general guidance I would want to see applied in his studies.  Character first, knowledge second.  Unfortunately, it is wisdom that has been nearly forgotten.


Read More:  The Wisdom Of Thomas a Kempis