An introduction to a new series on the figures, tropes, and techniques of Classical Rhetoric.
While writing a post for this blog last week, I had a lightbulb moment (while writing about not neglecting ideas) that I decided not to ignore. That idea has led to me start this ongoing series on classical rhetoric. I am very much still learning about it but would like to share with you some of the information I have found in the hopes that it will help you as much with your writing as it has with mine.
I stumbled upon classical rhetoric as part of an assignment set during the first semester of my Master’s Degree. The assignment was to construct a polemic. The polemic was to be constructed from the structure, figures, and techniques of classical rhetoric. We were supplied with a basic overview of the subject and left to construct the best argument we could. Long story short, I did pretty well with both the construction and delivery of the piece. It was this short foray into classical rhetoric that really piqued my interest. Rather than being another thing I’ve learnt, it has become something I wish to explore further. I hope that some of you want to come along on this journey with me.
So, what exactly is classical rhetoric? It is easiest to explain as a set of classical systems – explored and taught since ancient Greece – that are used to combine argumentation and persuasion into solid, effective writing. It was a major component of classical education for a long, long time. Now, however, it seems to have fallen by the wayside. I myself was not taught anything about classical rhetoric at school and – although I knew how to use some of the devices (tricolon, diacope, anadiplosis) – it wasn’t thanks to any early teaching I received. It was instead thanks to the essays, speeches, and polemics I had read and listened to.
But I digress. Classical rhetoric is a system that is often associated with public orators such as lawyers, academics, and politicians (most of them, anyway.) So why on earth is rhetoric important to writers who aren’t writing a speech? Surely these techniques are of no consequence? And yet, in these opening paragraphs, I have utilised several rhetorical techniques such as alliteration, anaphora, parenthetical asides, tricolon, and rhetorical questions. These are techniques that writers use constantly, many without even knowing what it is they are doing.
When constructing an argument, report, essay, or anything else in that vein writing, using a classical structure to organise the work can be incredibly beneficial. The most common scheme of constructing an argument in classical rhetoric is to divide the discourse into five sections. These sections are as follows:
This is the introduction of the piece, it should lead into the main text. There are several ways one might approach this. Starting, for example, with a concise overview is a very strong way to open a text. If appropriate, the introduction provides a platform for a writer to inform the audience why they should listen, why the writer is qualified, or why the text is even being written in the first place.
One could open with a joke, or a humorous anecdote, to put readers or listeners at ease. However, it is important to not turn the whole introduction into a joke if you wish to tackle a serious subject.
Begin with a rhetorical question. This may seem cliché but, used properly, it can be an effective way to engage inquisitive listeners. My favourite way to open an argument is with a declamatory statement ‘education is lacking!’ Opening with an exclamation is a short, sharp, and potentially shocking way to grab the audiences’ attention. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few examples before my more detailed posts drop in the coming weeks.
My favourite way to open an argument is with a declamatory statement ‘education is lacking!’ Opening with an exclamation is a short, sharp, and potentially shocking way to grab the audiences’ attention. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few examples before my more detailed posts drop in the coming weeks.
One thing my Master’s lecturer taught me is that ‘the most powerful positions for individual words, thoughts and concepts are at the beginning and the end: of clauses, of sentences, of paragraphs, of whole books. Don’t waste these positions.’
This is the part of the piece where some background facts, historical context, or an overview of the basic knowledge needed for the reader to understand the argument are contained.
Two ways of organising this section:
- Chronologically. Especially when talking about historical facts, a chronological ordering of the narratio could be helpful.
The energy of the writer can really come to life in this section. The use of similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical schemes can help to keep the readers engaged while one divulges the background information necessary to understand the text. Another important factor to consider is the brevity of this section. Just enough information is generally desired. Just enough information keeps readers engaged while being able to follow your argument perfectly.
Like it sounds, this is the confirmation of the text. This is the main body of the argument, the meat of the text. By this point, the reader will understand what the author is writing about. There are no real rules as to how to structure this point, only that it must be logically structured.
Once again, this part is like it sounds (by now I’m wrestling with the automatic spell checker which is chastising me for missing out a load of n‘s from my titles.) This is the part where the writer will refute other arguments. The idea of this section is to add weight to the argument while showing that thought and careful reading has been conducted.
There are several ways to counter an opposing argument: by appealing to reason, emotion, ethics, or by making fun of an opponent’s views. The last in the last is perhaps the hardest to successfully implement as, at this stage of an argument, humour is more likely to fail than succeed.
This is the conclusion. Often an area for recapitulation, a conclusion to a piece could contain a summary of points, a call to arms, or attempt to create an emotional effect in an audience.
Some argue that it is not necessary to write a conclusion at all. In some cases, such as fiction, the structure of a piece may not lend itself to a conclusion. Other writers may feel that they have dealt with everything after finishing the main argument and refutatio, and wish to not laboriously repeat the point.
There are a few ways to end a piece: inspire the reader with a favourable opinion of the writer or piece, amplify the main points of the piece, to create an emotional call to arms in the audience, or to recapitulate. It is important to close the passage of writing in a satisfactory manner, and this can often be achieved with a succinct conclusion.
These five sections, when put together (not necessarily in this order), help to create an efficient train of logical thought that readers will be able to follow. Whether you are a student writing an essay, a teacher writing a report, or a politician crafting a speech, classical rhetoric is an indispensable tool for sharp writing.
That’s it for the first post in this series. I hope you have enjoyed this short introduction into Classical Rhetoric and Rhetorical structures. Like I said, I am still learning about this. So, if you have anything to add, or indeed you think I missed out, please drop me a comment below.
Another post on classical rhetoric (focusing on techniques) is coming next week.
Thanks for reading.