Breaking Down the Chreia

Chreia (the third exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window), is a pointed and brief saying or action which is attributed with aptness to some specified character or something analogous to a character, reported for the correction of some things in life.

It is called chreia (“chreiôdês”, “something useful”), not that the other progymnasma do not fulfill some use, but either because it has been especially honored with this common name as characteristic, in the way that HomerOpens in new window is called “the poet” and DemosthenesOpens in new window “the orator,” or because originally someone made use of it primarily from some circumstance and need.

It is a “saying or action” since it is found both in words and in deeds. It is “pointed” since the strength of the chreia lies in its being well aimed. It is “brief” as distinguished from reminiscences. It is attributed to some person to distinguish it from a maxim, for a maximOpens in new window is not always attributed to a person. It is reported for the correction of some things in life, since for the most part some good advice is involved.

Forms of Chreia

Generally, there are three kinds of chreias: some of them are verbal, some actional, some mixed (a combination of both). “The most general level” is added because chreias have many differences from each other, as must be learned from fuller study of the art or its material.

Verbal are those describing only saying; for example,

Actional are those describing only actions; for example,

The mixed chreia—interpreting both a speech and an action— for example,

Some rhetors admitted that some chreias are transmitted because of some utility and some only because of their charm.

A number of chreias make clear how things are, and a number of others how things should be. The following says how they are:

  • “Aesop the fablist, having been asked what is the strongest thing in human society, said ‘Speech,’” for this is the strongest thing.

The following says how things should be:

  • “Aristeides, having been asked what is justice, said, ‘Not to covet what belongs to others,’” for that ought to be the case.

To know this helps us with our division; for if the chreia makes clear how things are, after the prooemion and paraphrase we praise it as being true; but if how things should be, we praise it as being right. Furthermore, some chreias are simple, some responsive.

Chreia distinguishes from a Maxim in four ways:
  • Chreias are always attributed to a person; whereas maxims are not always.
  • Chreias can give a universal or a particular statement; maxims on the other hand, are always universal.
  • Chreias are sometimes not useful for life; maxims are always useful for life.
  • Chreias are sayings and deeds; maxims are sayings only.
However, they differ from reminiscences in two ways:
  • Chreias are brief; whereas, reminiscences are sometimes extended.
  • Chreias are attributed to particular persons; reminiscences are remembered for their own sake.

Chreias are typically short but they nevertheless can reveal a person’s characteristics. They can demonstrate that a person is witty, wise, virtuous, or any traits of like nature. The chreia can reveal the values of the speaker. This is an obvious feature in Hermogenes’Opens in new window discussion. Hermogenes says that one could elaborate on a chreia by attaching a brief encomium of the speaker, for example, “Isocrates was wise.” Theon also opines that chreias are useful for creating character “while we are being exercised in the moral sayings of the wise.”

Templates For A Composition Of Chreia

Aphthonius prescribed the following sequence of sections: “praise,” “paraphrase,” “cause,” “contrary,” “comparison,” “example,” “testimony of ancients,” “brief epilogue.” The composition is expected to begin with a brief encomium praising, and conveniently identifying, the author of the saying or performer of the action and then paraphrased the saying itself (in words with the correct connotative slant) or retold the action in expanded form. This is followed by the cause, really an explanation of why the saying was valid or the action significant. Subsequent sections providing the contrary, comparison, examples, and testimony supported the paraphrase and explanation.

The following is an example: a Verbal Chreia, offered by Aphthonius.

A Verbal Chreia: “Isocrates Said The Root Of Education Is Bitter But The Fruits Are Sweet” (Aphthonius)

(Praise) It is right to admire Isocrates for his art; he made its name most illustrious, and in his practice he showed how great the art was and proclaims its greatness, rather than having been himself proclaimed by it. Now it would take a long time to go through all the benefits he has brought to human life, whether in proposing laws to kings or in advising private individuals, but (we can note) his wise teaching about education.

(Paraphrase) One who longs for education, he is saying, begins with toils, but yet the toils end in an advantage. The wisdom of these words we shall admire in what follows.

(Cause) Those who long for education attach themselves to educational leaders, whom it is frightening to approach and very stupid to abandon. Fear comes on boys both when they are there and when they are about to go to school. Next after the teachers come the pedagogues, fearful to see and more dreadful when they beat the boys. Fright anticipates discovery, and punishment follows fright; they go looking for the boys’ mistakes but regard the boys’ successes as their own doing. Fathers are more strict than pedagogues, dictating the routes to be followed, demanding boys go straight to school, and showing suspicion of the market place. And if there is need to punish, fathers ignore their natural feelings. But the boy who has experienced these things, when he comes to manhood wears a crown of virtue.

(Contrary) If, on the other hand, out of fear of these things someone were to flee from teachers, run away from parents, and shun pedagogues, he is completely deprived of training in speech and has lost ability in speech with his loss of fear. All these considerations influenced Isocrates’ thought in calling the root of education bitter.

(Comparison) Just as those who work the earth cast the seeds in the ground with toil but reap the fruits with greater pleasure, in the way those exchanging toil for education have by toil acquired future renown.

(Example) Look, I ask you, at the life of Demosthenes, which was the most filled with labor of any orator but became the most glorious of all. He showed such an abundance of zeal that he took the ornament from his head, because he thought the ornament that comes from virtue was the best; and he expended in toils what others lavished on pleasures.

(Testimony) Thus, one should admire Hesiod’s saying (cf. Works and Days 289 – 92) that the road of virtue is rough, but the height is easy, the same philosophy as found in the maxim of Isocrates; for what Hesiod indicated by a “road” is what Isocrates called a “root,” both expressing one thought, but with different words.

(Epilogue) Looking at all this, one should admire Isocrates for his wise and beautiful speculation about education.

—An excerpt from: Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric edited by George Alexander Kennedy

In Aphthonius’s example, which is built on Isocrates’ saying, “The root of education is bitter but the fruits are sweet,” the section offering a contrary tells of the losses from fleeing education. The example cites Demosthenes, whose labor at self-improvement led to his success, and the testimony comes from Hesiod, who observed that the road of virtue is rough. The closing brief epilogue thanks the speaker and commends the saying or the action to the audience (Courtesy of: Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion.)

Further Readings:
Ronald F. Hock and Edward N.O’Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, Volume 1: The Progymnasmata (Society of Biblical Literature Texts and Trans. 27; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 7.
Theon, Progymnasmata 1; Hock and O’Neil, “Aelius Theon of Alexandria: On the Chreia,” in The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 82 – 83.
Silver Rhetoricae: Chreia, or AnecdoteOpens in new window
Further Readings:
Kennedy, George Alexander, Progymnasmata: Greek Texbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Leiden, The Netherlands: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Selby, James “The Vertical Integration of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata”
Selby, James “Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata as a Means to Preparing Innovative Communicators”
Selby, James “The Characterization Stage of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata in Light of Hermogenes’ On Style: Exploring the Border between Contemporary and Ancient Classrooms”
Silver Rhetoricae: ProgymnasmataOpens in new window