The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme

The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme
Author(s): Jeffrey Walker
Source: College English, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 46-65
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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College English.
he generallyprevailing
or theonemostfrequent
conceptof the enthymeme,
in the world of rhetoric and composition studies, tends to define it either as
a kind of elliptical, informal syllogism based on probable rather than certain
premises and on tacit assumptions shared by audience and rhetor, or as a kind
of "Toulmin argument," or as a general mode of intuitive reasoning representable
in syllogistic or Toulminian terms, or, most simply, as the juxtaposition of any idea
with another that is offered as a reason for believing it. All such thinking starts
from Aristotle's famous dicta that the enthymeme is a "kind of syllogism" or
"rhetorical syllogism," and that rhetoric is a "counterpart" of dialectic (Rhetoric
1.1 [1355a]; 1.2 [1356b]; 1.1 [1354a]).' This prevailing definition, however, has
recently been put in question (see in particular Conley, "Enthymeme"; Gage,
"Theory"). And, as we will see, it is inadequate.
In what follows, we will first reexamine the primary (and not exclusively
Aristotelian) ancient sources from which a more adequate concept of the enthymeme can be derived. Then, we will consider the relevance of that concept to
the analysis of modern discourse-specifically, to the analysis of Roland Barthes'
"The World of Wrestling" and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," both of which appear in popular anthologies used in composition
courses, and both of which provide good examples of modern-but unrecognized-enthymeming.
The prevailing definition has, of course, some very real advantages. Chief
among them is its tendency to emphasize the dialogic relation between writer and
audience by requiring the writer to include the audience's thinking in the invenJeffrey Walker has just returned from a Fulbright Lectureship in Athens, Greece, where this article
was completed. He is Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at Penn State
University. His publications include two previous articles in CollegeEnglish, and a book, BardicEthos
and the American Epic Poem: Whitman, Pound, Crane, Williams, and Olson (LSU Press, 1989). He is
coauthor, with Glen McClish, of the anthology InvestigatingArguments:Readingsfor College Writing
(Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
tion process, rather than merely "adapting"the discourse to an audience considered after the fact, or considered only as an external "other" to be manipulated
or accommodated by the writer's unilateral, monologic action (Gage, "Epistemology" 162-165). Such an approach to enthymematic rhetoric emphasizes both the
ethics and the techniques of persuasion, as well as the epistemological and ideological nature of rhetoric by requiring the writer to examine carefully the system
of presuppositions underlying any given line of reasoning. And since it is the
epistemology/ideology of an audience that is in question, and not merely that of
a romantically isolated individual, this approach then leads to some form of
cultural criticism or to something like the ancient sophists' skeptical mode of
inquiry into conventional belief.
It is also the case, however, that the currently prevailing notion of the
enthymeme as a "rhetorical syllogism" is problematic in several ways, especially
as we find it too often oversimplified in English handbooks currently in use in
composition classes. First, it all too easily permits an appropriation of the concept
that takes inadequate account of what "syllogism" might mean in a rhetorical
context or what it means in ancient Greek apart from (or before) the technical,
specialized significance developed in Aristotle's treatises on logic and dialectic.
Plato, for example, appears to have used the term syllogismos"to mean, simply, add
up the results" (Quandahl 133). Similarly, we find the great sophist Isocrates
using the word syllogisamenoiin reference to the way an "ordinary person" intuitively derives an inference or judgment from a bundle of observations (Against the
Sophists7-8). This intuitive syllogizing, moreover, is set in opposition to what
Isocrates calls "eristics," the logic-chopping verbal combat of professional dialecticians who claim to have precise or exact knowledge. Even Aristotle, at the
beginning of the Topics,adopts a casual, informal definition of the "syllogism" as
a logos, a "reasoning" or "discourse" in which "certain things having been laid
down, other things necessarily derive from them" (1.1 [100a]). At this point he is
probably drawing on a commonly received conception, one that would be familiar
for the audience of an introductory lecture. In the same place, dialectical syllogizing is defined as reasoning from doxa, "generally accepted opinions," or more
specifically as reasoning from doxa granted or accepted by one's interlocutor(s),
one's audience (1.1 [100b]).
My point is that the nontechnical meaning of "syllogism" in ancient Greek
seems to be nothing more than ordinary, informal reasoning and inference, and
that, in the context of discussion and debate, this meaning includes informal (as
well as formal) reasoning/inference from probable assumptions granted by one's
audience. If, then, "syllogism" can be used in such a sense with reference to
everyday thought and discourse, why use "enthymeme" to name the same thing?
By carelessly invoking "enthymeme" as "the rhetorical syllogism," we may be
making a distinction without a difference.
What, then, if we take seriously (as indeed we should) the Aristotelian view
of enthymemes as "the body of persuasion" (Rhetoric1.1 [1354a]) and enthymematic skill as the heart of skill in rhetoric? We may be confined to a narrow
concept of argumentation, and of rhetoric generally, by tending to subsume it
under "logic" of one kind or another, either syllogistic or Toulminian (on the
inadequacy of this subsumption, see Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 13-62;
Perelman, Realm 1-20, New Rhetoric:Essays25, and "Rhetoricians" 195). Or, the
enthymeme may be seen as merely one among many possible "devices" for
persuading, possibly not even a very important one, rather than as a central
principle for rhetoric. These are, of course, the outcomes we do in fact find in the
rhetorical tradition of the Middle Ages and in the large majority of argumentation
and composition textbooks today-insofar as either the enthymeme or argument
is taught at all.
But the notion of "enthymeme" does not in fact make a distinction without
a difference. Or it need not. As Lawrence Green has recently pointed out in his
essay "Aristotelian Rhetoric," Aristotle's grand premise that rhetoric is the antistrophosof dialectic (Rhetoric1.1 [1354a]) has, over the centuries, been the locus of
interpretive controversies all too easily masked by the convenient, vague compromise used in most English translations, namely that rhetoric is the "counterpart"
of dialectic. "Counterpart"suggests a loose equivalence, a loose analogy. Antistrophos, however, means something more specific: perhaps, as Green suggests, "a
reciprocal and rule-governed transformation" (27). Rhetoric and dialectic are
indeed related to each other, as are the enthymeme and syllogism, but the relation is
one of systematic difference as well as similarity.The enthymeme, in short, is to the
syllogism (or to Toulmin logic, for that matter) as rhetoric is to dialectic:not merely
its "counterpart,"its loose equivalent, but its antistrophos,its differing sister.
What, then, is an enthymeme? It may be, as Thomas De Quincey once
declared, "mad to ask" (Conley, "Enthymeme" 168). I believe that we can, however, construct at least the outlines of a fuller concept of the enthymeme, one that
may not commit us to the problems of the currently prevailing view while
preserving its advantages. To do this, we will need to draw from non-Aristotelian
as well as Aristotelian thought, for it is against the background of earlier uses of
the term "enthymeme" (and its cognates) that Aristotle's appropriation can be
most fully understood. This investigation, then, is our immediate job-after
which we turn from theory-talk to practical application and to an assessment of
the relevance that our fuller notion of the enthymeme has today.
As others have pointed out (Miller and Bee 201ff.), the root of the word enthymema is thymos, "heart," meaning the seat of emotions and desires, or of
motive, of the sometimes uncontrollable forces of desire and wish that drive
human intentionality. Thymosis, moreover, often linked to both the production
and the reception of passional thought and eloquent, persuasive discourse. Pindar, for example, tells how the crafty Hippolyta strove "with all her heart"
(thymos)to seduce the ever-virtuous Peleus with "beguiling words" and "falsely
inventing wove a tale" to persuade her husband that Peleus had tried to seduce
her (Nemean 5, lines 26-31); Hesiod in the prologue of Worksand Days (line 27)
tells his addressee, Perses, to "lay up these things in your heart" (thymos).
The word enthymemaand its relatives clearly are grounded in such a field of
meanings. As Miller and Bee have noted, for example, the verb enthymeomaihas
a semantic range that includes such meanings as lay to heart, considerwell, reflect
on, think deeplyabout, be hurt or angry at, form a plan, infer, conclude(202). "Enthymeming," then, would appear to include both the inference-making of the
heart and the strategic intentionality of "forming plans." In the case of rhetoric,
moreover, this strategic intentionality includes what I will call "kairoticinventiveness"-that is, an inventiveness responsive to what ancient rhetoricians called
kairos,"the opportune" at any given moment in a particular rhetorical situation.
For a pre- or non-Aristotelian notion of the "enthymeme" in rhetoric, our
best sources are probably Isocrates and the otherwise unknown writer of the
Rhetoric to Alexander, Anaximenes of Lampsacus. For Isocrates, enthymememaking is not only a matter of kairotic inventiveness, but is also linked to matters
of style. In the Panegyricus,for example, he tells us that to suit the kairos of a
discourse with "fitting enthymemes" and with "wordswell arranged"is the special
gift of "those of good intelligence" (9-10). In Against the Sophists,likewise, he
portrays the ability "to see what kairos demands, and speak a discourse wholly
wrought with fitting enthymemes and words both rhythmic and musical" as the
essence of rhetorical skill (16-17). These statements are fairly typical (see, for
example, Evagoras 10-11 and Antidosis46-47, 319). In Isocrates, a mention of the
enthymeme is seldom without, and seldom far from, a reference to stylistic
matters; and indeed they often occur together in the same sentence.
Isocrates' notion of the enthymeme, then, appears to include, or to be linked
to, passional thought, kairotic inventiveness, and style-and it clearly occupies a
central place in his conception of rhetorical skill. But Isocrates will not give us
the satisfaction of a rigidly precise or systematic account of the enthymeme, since
in general he denies the possibility or usefulness of "exact knowledge" and does
not consider rhetoric reducible to techne(for a discussion of this denial, see Cahn).
For more explicit codification, we must turn to Anaximenes' Rhetoricto Alexander,
a sophistic technewritten probably in the generation after Aristotle (and for many
centuries incorrectly attributed to Aristotle). What Anaximenes offers is the
fullest surviving presentation of a sophistic notion of "enthymeme" that is generally taken both to precede and to follow Aristotle's Rhetoric,and that with a long
survival in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine treatises appears to be the dominant tradition in antiquity (see Grimaldi, Studies 67-82; Conley, "Enthymeme").
According to Anaximenes, enthymemes are "oppositions" or contradictions
"not only in words or in actions.., .but also in anything else." Enthymemes, he
says, are to be invented by inspecting an opponent's discourse or an action for
anything that is contradictory either with itself or with "the principles of justice,
law, expediency, honor, feasibility, facility or probability," or with "the character
of the speaker or the usual course of events." The speaker is then to make his own
case by showing that his words or actions are "exactly contrary to those that are
unjust, unlawful and inexpedient, and to the usual conduct of bad men, in brief
to whatever is deemed evil," phrasing his enthymemes or oppositions as briefly
and economically as possible (10 [1430a]).
Anaximenes expands this account by noting that one invents and deploys
enthymemes by following the methods of what he calls "exetastic" discourse,
meaning what we might call inquiry, investigation, or critique. Exetasis, for
Anaximenes, is an "exhibition" of inconsistencies in someone's intentions, deeds,
or words (5 [1427b]), and is not a separate genre but a general method that is used
in every kind of public discourse (37 [1445a]). The actual deployment of exetasis
is to go as follows: first, one introduces "plausible pretexts" for proceeding to an
examination; then, one examines the actions, words, or intentions in question,
exposing the contradictions into which they fall. Finally, Anaximenes advises the
speaker, "when you have carefully examined everything and have amplified your
points, conclude by giving a concise repetition, recalling what you have said to
your hearer's memory" (37 [1445a-b]).
For Anaximenes, then, it would appear that an enthymeme is, or is like, the
argumentational cap that finishes an exetastic movement: a concise, emphatic
statement of an emotionally charged opposition, one that serves not only to draw
conclusions but also to foreground stance or attitude toward the subject under
discussion and to motivate the audience to strongly identify with that stance (this
is "identification" as Kenneth Burke uses it [Rhetoric17-29, 55-59]). The audience is to feel not simply that the speaker's claims are true or probable, but that
both speaker and claims are good and admirable, and the very opposite of what is
false, bad, and detestable.
Like Isocrates, Anaximenes appears to link stylistic with enthymematic concerns. Only seven of the thirty-eight chapters in the Rhetoricto Alexander are
directly concerned with style, or with what Anaximenes calls the sources of
"urbanity,"but, significantly, he begins with reference to the enthymeme: "Urbanity is achieved in this way--you state half an enthymeme, so that the audience
may understand the other half for themselves" (22 [1434a]). Moreover, of the ten
sources of "urbanity" Anaximenes discusses, seven seem highly relevant to the
concise and emphatic statement of emotionally charged oppositions: brevity,
adapting "the ethos of the words" to that of the audience, methods of framing
"twofold statements," clarity, antithesis, and parallelisms of structure and of
sound. Moreover, while the other three sources of "urbanity"do not seem clearly
related to the statement of brief, emphatic enthymemes-these are "lengthening"
(by creating and multiplying divisions within a topic and dwelling on each),
speaking at moderate length, and "composition" (the choice and arrangement of
words)-they do seem relevant to the build-up of an exetastic movement and may
perhaps also be seen as variant strategies for the statement of elaborated enthymemes. Anaximenes's discussion of style, in sum, seems mainly (though certainly
not exclusively) concerned with the methods of effectively stating enthymemesthat is, with the methods of enhancing an enthymeme's prominence and
memorability or what Perelman would call its "presence" in its audience's mind
(New Rhetoric115-120, 144-148).
There are, however, important differences between Anaximenes and
Isocrates, and a failure to note them will commit us to an excessively narrow
concept of the enthymeme. Anaximenes, after all, is the kind of sophist Isocrates
most despises: one who considers rhetoric reducible to techne(and has therefore
written a manual), and who, moreover, focuses his teachings chiefly on the
methods of winning lawsuits (for Isocrates' disapproval of such rhetoricians, see
Against the Sophists19-20 and Antidosis47-50). This emphasis is what explains the
rather prosecutorial, inquisitorial nature that Anaximenes gives to both the enthymeme and the exetastic: he sounds very much like the eristical or combative
kind of sophist, always "on the watch for contradictions," whom Isocrates takes
to task. For Isocrates, enthymemes are used not only in the rhetorical combats of
courts and assemblies, and not only in eristics, but also in poetry and what he calls
the "philosophical" and panegyric kinds of discourse that he himself practices and
teaches; and indeed the enthymemes in these latter genres he considers most
"lofty and original" (Evagoras10-11; Antidosis46-47, 319). It is difficult to see how
one could generate enthymemes in such genres exclusively by indicting the flaws
and inconsistencies of an opponent. In a famous passage of the Panegyricus,one
can see Isocrates exploiting oppositions in a noninquisitorial way to motivate
identification, or what Perelman calls "adherence" (New Rhetoric 1-44, 49-54,
104-110), with his vision of Pan-Hellenism:
Athens... has honored eloquence,which all desire in the wisely skilled;for she
realizedthat by this alone we areuniqueamongall creatures,and that becauseof
this advantagewe have surpassedthem altogether;and she saw that in other
pursuitsfortuneis so capriciousthat often the wise fail and the foolish succeed,
whereaswordspossessingboth beautyand art are not the fool'sbut are truly the
work of an intelligent soul, and in this respect the wise and the ignorantmost
completelydifferfrom each other;and she knew,furthermore,that whethermen
havebeen liberallyeducatedfromthe startis shownnot in their courageor wealth
or such advantages,but is most certainlymademanifestin speech,which is of all
suchsigns the surestproofof culturein everyone,andthatthosewho use discourse
well are not only influentialamong their friendsbut also are truly held in high
esteemby others.Andso farhas our city outpacedall othersin thoughtandspeech
thather studentshavebecomethe teachersof the rest,so thatthe word"Hellenes"
suggestsno longer a racebut a way of thought,and the title "Hellenes"appliesto
those who share our culture ratherthan to those who share a common blood.
In this enthymeme of great persuasive force and enormous cultural power,
Isocrates establishes the vision that defined the Hellenistic ideal of paideia for
centuries to come. Its power derives not only from a syllogistic marshaling of
evidence to justify a conclusion (the claim that Athens has become the school of
all Hellas because it has most honored eloquence is, in truth, weakly supported
here, though earlier passages do give it some evidential ground). Rather, this
enthymeme's power lies in its use of emotively significant oppositions (human/animal, wise/foolish, cultured/ignorant, achievement/luck, etc.), defining
eloquence as the distinguishing feature of human-ness and the distinctive sign of
an accomplished and wise intelligence, to motivate the audience's admiration and
desire-the wish that Athens should indeed be the school of Hellas-a desire that
drives (or simply is) adherence with Isocrates' vision of a cosmopolitan cultural
identity defined by thought (the distinctly human, the discursively constructed)
rather than by blood (the animal and accidental).
In considering the differences between Anaximenes and Isocrates, moreover,
we should recall Isocrates' emphasis on the kairotic aspect of enthymemes, in
particular his notion that the best enthymemes will be what he calls apotomos,
"abrupt" (Evagoras 10-11). Abruptness may signify, from one point of view,
simply the concise, emphatic quality that Anaximenes attributes to the enthymeme, or the idea that in public speaking enthymemes should be plain-spoken
and to the point. But the adjective apotomosand the verb apotemnofrom which it
derives have other kinds of significance also, including "cut off" or "sever," and
in the adjective a sense of precipitousness, or metaphorically of surprise, as in the
feeling of coming suddenly upon the edge of a cliff. What this suggests is that, as
opposed to Anaximenes' somewhat mechanistic picture of an exetastic movement
grinding out an inquisitorial "investigation," which is then pithily summed up by
an enthymeme, for Isocrates the best and most effective enthymemes will in some
sense come as a surprise and stand apart from or go beyond what precedes them.
They will seize the kairos of the moment to move the audience to a decisive
recognition that is or seems "lofty and original," while at the same time "cutting
off" or shifting into the background other possible recognitions that may be latent
in the buildup.
This is what we see, again, in the passage from Isocrates' Panegyricus.The
culminating vision or stance of that passage, while motivated and made persuasive
by the preceding exetasis, does not inevitably follow from it and certainly does
not summarize it. Isocrates might, for example, turn to blaming Athens' disastrous failure in the recently ended Peloponnesian War on failure to "honor
eloquence" and a consequent descent to politics determined by wealth, bloodloyalties, and brutal force. Such a turn would not serve his purpose in the
Panegyricus,but it is latent in his exetasis; and it is pushed into the background by
what he foregrounds. (In the following passage, he explicitly confronts this point
by declaring that he does not want to seem to be praising Athens' cultural
achievement "because I lack grounds for praising her conduct in war" [51].)
Isocrates' enthymeme, in sum, arrives (for its audience) as a brilliant, inspirational
stroke of insight, a decisive turn that brings suddenly into focus and gives memorable presence to a particular turn of thought the kairosof its moment has made
possible; it is indeed apotomos.
Between Anaximenes and Isocrates, then, we might derive a reasonably full
picture of a sophistic, non-Aristotelian notion of the enthymeme that is pervasive
in the Hellenistic rhetorical tradition: the enthymeme is a strategic, kairotic,
argumentational turn that exploits a cluster of emotively charged, value-laden
oppositions made available (usually) by an exetastic buildup, in order to generate
in its audience a passional identification with or adherence to a particular stance,
and that (ideally) will strike the audience as an "abrupt" and decisive flash of
insight. To be most effective, this enthymematic turn will exploit a range of
stylistic schemes (antithesis, parallelism, and compactness in particular) to intensify its impact and enhance its presence and memorability in the audience's
psyche. As such, the enthymematic turn is the rhetorical move par excellencefor
guiding an audience's inference-making and attitude-formation in a particular
From this perspective, we can understand why the ability "to see what kairos
demands, and speak a discourse wholly wrought with fitting enthymemes" figures
so prominently in Isocrates' account of discursive skill, and why, after Isocrates,
the enthymeme would figure so prominently in Aristotle's account of rhetoric.
For if the function of rhetoric is to guide an audience toward a particular
recognition or stance or a choice of actions, then the setting-up and deployment
of impressive enthymemes is indeed the essence and sum of what an effective
rhetor does. All else is, as Aristotle says, "accessory"to enthymeming (Rhetoric1.1
Aristotle's appropriation of the term enthymemamust, I think, be considered
to presuppose all that we have reviewed thus far. It is significant, for example, that
the so-called "common material topics" for enthymematic invention in Rhetoric
2.19-the possible and the impossible, past fact and future fact, and largeness and
smallness (of goods and evils)-are largely matters of opposition or contrast. It is
significant, too, that the famous catalogue of twenty-eight "formal topics" in 2.23
begins with "opposites," and that, though not all of the remaining twenty-seven
are clearly matters of opposition or contrast, most of them are (seventeen, by my
count). Even those that are not obviously matters of exploiting oppositions tend
to be illustrated with examples that do just that, as in topic #5, "looking at the
time" (from Iphicrates' speech against Harmodius): "If, before accomplishing
anything, I asked to be honored with a statue if I succeeded, you would have
granted it. Will you not grant it now when I have succeeded? Do not then make
a promise in anticipation but refuse it in realization" (1397b).
All this is consistent with the picture we get from Anaximenes and Isocrates.
The same is true for Aristotle's statements that the normal language of enthymemes is compact, antithetical utterance (2.24 [1401a]) and that opposites stand
out more clearly when juxtaposed (3.27 [1418b]); or his discussion of the advantages of periodic style, rhythm, antithesis, metaphors, and "bringing-before-theeyes" for enthymemes (3.9-10); or his advice that the proof section of a speech
should not consist of a continuous string of enthymemes, but rather that the
enthymemes should be "mixed in" (3.17 [1418a]). As Thomas Conley has observed, these kinds of remarks suggest that Aristotle is thinking of enthymemes
as "nicely turned sentences or [elenctic, rhetorical] questions raised at climactic
points" ("Enthymeme" 171). Further, Aristotle's inclusion of pathos and ethos
among the enthymematic sources of persuasion in 2.2-17 suggests that, like
Anaximenes and Isocrates, he considers enthymemes to be "something more than
an act of... reason" (Grimaldi, Studies 82) and to carry affective force-although
he also says that enthymemes should not be used when one is trying to arouse
pathos or project ethos, in which he seems to differ from his sophistic colleagues.
One might, however, resolve the seeming contradiction by noting that it is mainly
the exetastic buildup that will generate the affective charge and ethical posture
that an enthymeme will then exploit; and one might note, as Kennedy does in his
translation of the Rhetoric[123], that Aristotle does give examples of emotional
appeals that take the form of enthymemes. (For discussion of this issue, see
Grimaldi, Studies 147-151 and Commentary349-356; Fortenbaugh 11-18; Conley, "Patheand Pisteis";Wisse 20-29; Walker, "Enthymemes of Anger.")
Aristotle's contribution to the notion of "enthymeme" is, of course, his
insistence on its underlying rationality-his crucial and enormously productive
recognition that, like the dialectical syllogism, the enthymeme relies on a basic,
intuitive capacity for deriving inferences and forming judgments from relationships between ideas-so that condensed, antithetical expression alone does not
make an enthymeme (Rhetoric 1.1 [1355a], 2.24 [1401a]). Aristotle's dialectical
syllogism is, in effect, a kind of explanatory metaphor, a simplified one, for the
kind of inferential process on which enthymemes depend for their effects. But, as
Aristotle is careful to note (1.1 [1355a]), the enthymeme and syllogism are not the
same, and the differences are more than matters of probability vs. truth or explicit
vs. implicit premises or reasoning from shared presuppositions, all of which are
characteristic of both rhetoric and dialectic and are for the most part confined to
the realm of propositional reasoning. We must, I think, consider Aristotle's
account of the dialogic rationality of enthymemes as an addition to and emendation of a sophistic notion of "enthymeme" that he has inherited from his predecessors. The enthymeme, in sum, shares with the dialectical syllogism an
underlying rationality grounded in the psychology of inference-making and of
reasoning in a conversational exchange; but it is also, and distinctively, what
Anaximenes and Isocrates describe.
We can argue that the ancient concept of "enthymeme" has a direct bearing on
contemporary discourse. One might, for example, point to John E Kennedy's
famous "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your
country" as an enthymematic turn of Isocratean elegance; or one might point to
Lloyd Bentsen's memorable gutting of Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential
debate-"I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine; and believe
me, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"-as an enthymematic zinger worthy of
Anaximenes. But probably some reservations and qualifications need to be kept
in mind. The most obvious is the fact that very few modern writers (or speakers)
have had a training in argumentation centered on, or even including, an explicit
theory of the enthymeme, and thus are unlikely to be self-consciously turning
enthymemes, though they may in fact be turning them. We should not then
expect contemporary enthymeming to take the conventional stylistic form of
ancient enthymeming. But as Aristotle points out, it is ultimately not any particular stylistic form that makes an enthymeme an enthymeme.
What remains characteristic of the enthymeme today, I think, is that it is a
stylistically intensified argumentative turn that serves not only to draw conclusions but also, and decisively, to foreground stance and motivate identification
with that stance. And, further, its motivating force will derive not simply from a
propositional logic (the kind that can be analyzed with syllogistic or Toulminian
diagrams), but from what Perelman has called a "web" or network of emotively
significant ideas and liaisonsthat may or may not appear as a structure of valueladen oppositions.
A good example of modern enthymeming-without-knowing-it is Roland
Barthes' sophistical performance in the lead-off essay of Mythologies,"The World
of Wrestling" (reprinted in Waysof Reading [ed. David Barholomae and Anthony
Petrosky] and in InvestigatingArguments [ed. Jeffrey Walker and Glen McClish]).
Barthes, is, of course, aware of the classical rhetorical tradition, or a certain
neoclassical interpretation of it, and of the enthymeme as well. In S/Z he calls it
the "foundation of all proof' (201, LXXXI/5 10). But for Barthes the enthymeme
is only an "imperfect syllogism" or "deduction," being fallacious, incomplete, or
"merely probable," and founded on "a current opinion, an endoxa,"rather than "a
scientific verity." He consistently presents it-along with that other "old rhetorical deity," example/"induction"-as a "lure" by which Balzac's Sarrasine deludes
himself, a lure made of "social discourse" that ultimately constitutes his "blindness" and "conducts ... the subject to the final castration" (S/Z 153-154, LXIII;
see also 172-173, LXXII). As Barthes portrays it, the enthymeme is a tool or form
of false consciousness, an instrument of ideological domination. It seems unlikely,
then, that Barthes conceives himself as one who argues enthymematically.
But in "The World of Wrestling," Barthes does exactly that-although the
enthymeme as he actually uses it is not what he thinks it is; indeed, it is more like
what Anaximenes and Isocrates describe. Here, for example, is the enthymeme
with which Barthes ends his essay (it is, in fact, his final sentence):
In the ring, and even in the depthsof theirinvoluntaryignominy,wrestlersremain
gods becausethey are, for a few moments,the key which opens Nature, the pure
gesturewhich separatesGood from Evil and unveilsthe figureof a Justiceat last
This flourish of enthymematic eloquence clearly functions in its context as a
"stylistically intensified argumentative turn" that is meant to stand forth as an
"abrupt" and culminating flash of insight, and clearly serves also to project a
stance-opposing the wrestler's actual (if momentary) glory to his apparent ignominy-a stance with which the reader is asked to identify. Whatever power this
enthymeme has to motivate adherence derives not only and indeed not primarily
from its quasi-syllogistic structure of claim-because-premise,which taken in isolation seems more than a little unpersuasive, but chiefly from its exploitation of a
network of oppositions and what Perelman would call liaisons, which are established in the preceding discourse. The chief (though not only) constituents of this
network are a linkage of wrestling to the associative cluster of spectacle/theater/Greek theater/religious ritual, and an opposition of the supposed ignobility
of professional wrestling as "fake sport" to the nobility of theater as sacred
spectacle. (There is also an opposition of the greater nobility of theater to the
lesser nobility of athletic contests.)
These liaisons and oppositions are themselves set up, early on, by a number
of minor enthymemes such as in the first paragraph,"Even ... in the most squalid
Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek
drama, and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion
without reserve," or in the second paragraph, "There are people who think
that wrestling is an ignoble sport; it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to
attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of
Arnolphe or Andromaque" (15). These two enthymemes themselves are opportunistic turnings of comparisons and linkages set up in preceding sentences such
as "Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres"
(15). Insofar as the reader is willing at least to entertain Barthes' opening enthymemes, they form the kernel of the entire suasive procedure that follows.
This procedure consists, for the most part, of an extended amplification and
elaboration of the wrestling/spectacle/theater/ritual nexus, chiefly by way of an
exetasis in which the wrestling match and the wrestlers themselves are examined
as a system of signs representing the grand mythologies of "Suffering, Defeat, and
Justice" (19) for its lower-class public. This exetasis, which takes up virtually all
but the last two paragraphsof the essay, is itself punctuated by a number of minor
enthymemes that serve to establish and foreground its major points. Most appear
as pseudo-syllogistic inferences, announced usually with a "therefore," that invoke an insight (or what is meant to be seen as one) arising from the paragraph
or paragraphs preceding them, and that are given what might be called syntactic
prominence by being placed at the beginning (or sometimes the end) of their own
paragraphs. What then follows usually takes the enthymeme as its point of
departure, amplifying or extending the idea and leading to the next enthymematic
Much of what Barthes presents through this procedure is quite simply entertaining and cajoles the reader into granting the notion of wrestling as theater
while giving Barthes himself the sympathetic ethos of an interested, witty observer who is not a culture-snob. But the major function of this web of enthymemes and amplifications is to foreground and give presence to the nobler
implications of the wrestling-theater nexus, as in this enthymeme: "But what
wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice.
The idea of 'paying' is essential to wrestling, and the crowd's 'Give it to him'
above all else means 'Make him pay"' (21). At the same time, the persistent, varied
amplification of such ideas also serves to keep well out of sight opposite arguments that could plausibly be drawn from the same topological nexus-for example, the argument that considering wrestling as theater reveals what shabby
theater it is.
By means of this exetasis interspersed with "fitting enthymemes," Barthes
gives himself the opportunity to declare, with another enthymematic flourish in
his penultimate paragraph,
This grandiloquenceis nothing but the popularand age-old imageof the perfect
intelligibility of reality. What is portrayedby wrestling is therefore an ideal
understandingof things; it is the euphoriaof men raisedfor a while above the
constitutiveambiguityof everydaysituationsand placed before the panoramic
view of a univocalNature, in which signs at last correspondto causes,without
obstacle,without evasion,withoutcontradiction.(25)
Barthes is here drawing on Aristotelian notions of catharsisand the "philosophic"
function of dramatic mimesis (representation of experiential universals), notions
that are linked, at least for the educated reader his essay presupposes and requires,
to the theater/Greek theater/ritual nexus. From the position established in this
enthymeme Barthes can move, in his final paragraph and closing enthymeme, to
the transmuting of wrestlers-who have now become the figures of a transcendent rite-into momentary gods. Barthes' penultimate and final enthymemes,
then, are kairotic, opportunistic exploitations of argumentative potentials available from a cluster of value-charged, emotively significant ideas already made
"present" to the reader's thought by the strategic deployment of oppositions and
liaisons, amplifications, and paragraph-level minor enthymemes in the preceding
discourse. And from this cluster, a virtual chord of adherence-motivating notions,
Barthes' culminating enthymemes derive whatever suasive force they have.
What we find in Barthes we see more clearly still in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
"Letter from Birmingham Jail." Unlike Barthes, of course, King is a modern
writer who quite explicitly conceives himself as a rhetor. Some of his enthymemes
clearly manifest the ancient paradigm, as in:
Just as Socratesfelt that it was necessaryto create a tension in the mind so that
individualscould rise fromthe bondageof mythsandhalf-truthsto the unfettered
realm of creativeanalysisand objective appraisal,so must we see the need for
nonviolentgadfliesto createthe kindof tensionsin societythatwill help men rise
from the darkdepths of prejudiceand racismto the majesticheights of understandingand brotherhood.(?110)
One can, of course, see this enthymeme as a Toulminian datum-so-claim kind of
movement; which, again, is Aristotle's point. But clearly it is more than that. Its
real adherence-motivating power lies in its exploitation of a web of oppositionsbondage/freedom, myth/creative analysis, half-truth/objective appraisal, dark
depths/majestic heights, racism/brotherhood-and the relation of this web to
ideas and liaisons established in the immediately preceding passages, such as
King's alignment of himself with the Apostle Paul, the implicit opposition of
Paul/Socrates and their persecutors, and King's narration of the frustrations and
injustices that have impeded his campaign (and behind all this, perhaps, the grand
mythic narratives these oppositions organize). This web is what lends salience and
significance to the enthymeme's controlling opposition of Socrates to society, the
alignment of "as Socrates felt.. . so must we see," and the varied repetition of
"individuals could rise.. . help men rise." The elaborately schematized and figured style, moreover, makes the enthymeme stand out from what precedes it as a
moment of high-spoken, impressive, and even aesthetically suasive eloquence.
This enthymeme, in short, exploits the kairos of its moment to present a stance
with which the reader is given a complex chord of rational and passional reasons
to identify.
Not all of King's enthymemes, however, are so clearly classical-as in the
"garment of destiny" passage:
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in
Birmingham.Injusticeanywhereis a threatto justice everywhere.We are caught
in an inescapablenetwork of mutuality,tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whateveraffectsone directly,affectsall indirectly.Never againcan we affordto
live with the narrow,provincial"outsideagitator"idea. (?4)
or, likewise, the enthymeme consisting mainly of King's one-page litany of when
you have seen, which I can quote here only in abbreviated form:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers
and fathersat will and drownyour sistersand brothersat whim;when you have
seen... then you will understandwhy we find it difficultto wait. There comes a
time when the cup of enduranceruns over, and men are no longer willing to be
plungedinto the abyssof despair.I hope, sirs,you can understandour legitimate
and unavoidableimpatience.(?14)
I do not propose to offer a detailed analysis of these familiar (to many) passages,
but only to note that what makes them enthymematic is, once again, a groundsclaim kind of movement, in which the "claim"is not simply a proposition but an
inferential and attitudinal complex-a stance-and the "grounds" consist not
simply of a quasi-syllogistic premise but, more fully, of a cluster of emotively
significant ideas (or images) that work to motivate a passional identification with
that speaker's stance. Both enthymemes, moreover, arise from and respond to an
exetasis in the paragraphs preceding them and are given prominence and
memorability by means of striking figuration-the metaphors and parallelisms in
the first, and the insistent anaphoras of the when you have seen passage in the
second. What makes these passages seem less obviously enthymematic is the
absence of an explicitly invoked set of oppositions. (A careful look, however,
would make evident what kinds of oppositions are implicit, such as Providence,
destiny, and God's elect vs. provinciality, the damned, and what one "cannot
afford.") Moreover, both enthymemes are, aside from their key middle parts,
somewhat loosely structured: the second, for example, finishes off with what
Aristotle would call a maxim and an epilogue (Rhetoric2.21 [1394b]).
King's argumentation can be seen, like that of Barthes, as a process of setting
turning enthymemes. This is especially evident in the first part of the
"Letter" (?11-22), as King responds point-by-point to the criticisms that have
been lodged against him. Each segment is, in effect, an Anaximenean exetasis
leading to an enthymeme. Significantly, King's enthymematic turns, like the two
I have quoted above, include what are for most readers the most potent and
memorable moments in the text. Further, they include not only those passages
conventionally taught as examples of "logical appeal," such as the enthymemes in
the segment on just and unjust laws (?115-22), but also those taught as examples
of emotional appeal. A fuller concept of "enthymeme" makes evident that such
distinctions are to a large degree meaningless: the three traditional sources of
persuasion-ethos, logos,pathos-are not separate kinds of "proof' but simultaneous dimensions of the enthymeme. As Aristotle, modern philosophical psychology, and Chaim Perelman all affirm, reason and affect are inseparably interwoven
(Aristotle, Rhetoric2.1-11; Perelman, New Rhetoric140, 149-150; the rationality
of emotion is discussed at length in Fortenbaugh, Solomon, de Sousa, Rorty, and
Finally, King's argumentation well exemplifies the kairotic aspect of the
enthymeme, its ability to seize the possibilities available at any given moment and
to give those possibilities a particular realization and salience. We see this clearly
in the two major enthymemes that conclude the "Letter." The first is the culminating moment of a lengthy exetasis (?12 3-44) in which King has been criticizing
the failure of white moderates and the white church to actively support his cause:
If the inexpressiblecrueltiesof slaverycould not stop us, the oppositionwe now
face will surelyfail. We will win our freedombecausethe sacredheritageof our
nation and the eternalwill of God are embodiedin our echoing demands.(144)
This is immediately followed by the major segment of King's peroration
(1?45-47), an additional exetasis in which he chides his white critics for commending the restraint of the Birmingham police in dealing with the demonstrators, and then turns the second of his concluding enthymemes:
One day the South will know that when these disinheritedchildrenof God sat
down at lunch counters,they were in realitystandingup for what is best in the
Americandreamand for the most sacredvaluesin ourJudeo-Christianheritage,
therebybringingour nation backto those great wells of democracywhich were
dug deep by the foundingfathersin their formulationof the Constitutionand the
Declarationof Independence.($47)
Clearly, and as every careful reader of the "Letter" recognizes, both of these
culminating enthymemes are capitalizing on the many liaisons and oppositions
that the argumentation of the "Letter" has accumulated and made present to the
reader-and giving that reader a powerful "chord"of motives for identifying with
King's position. My point, however, is that each of these concluding enthymemes
turns the argument differently, the first foregrounding the inevitability of victory,
the second foregrounding the ethico-political nobility of the demonstrators.
Each, in short, exploits a different kairotic possibility inherent in the structure of
ideas that King has built, bringing the force of the adherences/identifications
established earlier to bear in different ways. Neither enthymeme is a summing up
or a restatement of the whole argument of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," nor,
like Barthes' concluding enthymemes (or Isocrates'), is either fully predictable or
made inevitable by what precedes. King, for example, might have ended with
denunciations of his detractors; and indeed such a denunciation is implicit, but
left tacit, as part of the immediate background (or the flipside) of the enthymemes
he turns. King's culminating enthymemes are, as Isocrates would say, apotomos,
"abrupt,"decisive and fitting exploitations of the kairosof their particular discursive moments.
For both King and Barthes, argumentative or suasory procedure is very much
what it was for Anaximenes and Isocrates, that is, a matter of setting up and
turning enthymemes-or, in a large and complex argument, a progression from
enthymeme to enthymeme to enthymeme, building up an accumulated fund of
value-laden, emotively significant ideas (oppositions, liaisons, etc.) that are variously brought to bear, forcefully and memorably, in the rhetor's final enthymematic turns. The enthymeme remains, in sum, a vital principle in modern
discourse, even when an adequate conception of the enthymeme is unavailable.
And indeed, as Aristotle says, it could hardly be otherwise (Rhetoric1.1 [1354a],
1.2 [1356b]). Enthymeming is simply what people do, whether they think of
themselves as doing so or not, whenever they attempt to persuade by means of
Can we then say, with Aristotle and (perhaps) with Isocrates, that enthymematic skill is the essential or crucial skill in rhetoric, or at least in argumentation?
If, as rhetoricians, we are to conceive virtually all discourse as rhetorical and
therefore suasory-and thus as either explicitly or implicitly argumentationalthen I think we can. But with some qualifications. One is that enthymemes or
enthymematic procedure may be different in different kinds of discourse such as,
for example, fiction or poetry, or the belletristic essay, or the various kinds of
scholarly, scientific, technical, and administrative prose. We need to consider
what enthymemes are like, and how they work, in these discursive realms and at
different points in history.
Another important qualification is to say that, while enthymematic skill may
be the crucial skill in rhetoric (or argumentation), Aristotle's notion that all the
other skills of rhetoric are supplementary or "accessory"to enthymeming may be
looking at the matter backwards. Can we not say as well that enthymematic skill
depends on all the other skills? For all the means of persuasion available to
rhetoric are brought together by, and contribute to, the enthymematic turn. As
Isocrates says, to speak (or write) a discourse "wholly woven with fitting enthymemes," one must be able to "choose from the elements of discourse those things
that should be used for the case in hand, and the tropes for joining and arranging
them," be able to see "what kairos demands," and be able as well to speak (or
write) in words "rhythmically and musically arranged" (Against the Sophists 1617). In more contemporary terms, one must must know well enough the topoi of
a discursive field (such as those that Aristotle lists for political, juridical, and
epideictic argument in Rhetoric 1.3-14) to select "what should be used" for the
particular case in hand; one must know the various discourse-level gambits,
schemes, and strategies by which a discourse using and combining those topoi can
be plotted as an argumentative progression (as opposed to merely "arranged"
according to some static outline); one must be able to analyze one's rhetorical
situation as well as recognize the shifting demands and possibilities of the immediate discursive moment (arguments arise in response to preceding arguments, or
in anticipation of arguments to come or audience responses); and one must have
a fluent command of the stylistic resources of the language in which one writes
or speaks. All this, Isocrates suggests, is needed for genuine mastery of the
strategic, kairotic skill of setting up and turning eloquent, powerful enthymemes.
No wonder he thinks such mastery "requires study, and is the work of a vigorous
and thoughtful mind" (Against the Sophists17).
This is not to say that enthymeming is an "advanced" skill that cannot be
learned before other, more "basic"ones, for as Isocrates and Aristotle recognize,
everyone turns enthymemes. But it is to say that a trained excellence in enthymeming requires what Isocrates would call an extensive "discourse education"
that cultivates not only advanced literacy but also phronesis(judgment and intelligence) and sophia(wisdom, skill) through critical, argumentative engagement with
the argumentation of others in many discursive genres and in many fields of
thought. This is the sophistic kind of discourse education we see represented in
Plato's Protagoras,both in the symposiastic debate on issues of ethical and political
philosophy and in the critique of an argument in a poem by Simonides. A genuine
understanding of enthymematic art cannot be acquired from simplified, prescriptive recipes and formalistic models, but only from analytical and critical study of
actual argumentation and from one's own accumulated experience as a producer
of argumentation (in symposiastic debate, in declamation exercises, etc.) over an
extended period of time. There is, in sum, a great deal more to skillful enthymeming, or to argumentation, than knowing something about Toulmin logic, Venn
diagrams, or the basic forms of the syllogism-though such models might be
presented (with the reminder that they are ultimately inadequate) as simplified,
approximate analogies for the kind of inferential process that underlies the enthymeme and gives it its persuasive force. Such reductions may be helpful for the
novice, but they eventually must be discarded.
The view of enthymemes that we have taken in this essay is not, in fact,
incompatible with what has been the conventional view. Effective argumentation
that is ethically and intellectually responsible is indeed a matter of dialogic
reasoning that seeks to incorporate the audience's knowledge and beliefs as well
as the rhetor's, and an enthymeme is still a figure-any figure- that connects an
idea with reasons for believing it and that relies on its audience's inferential
powers. But that is not all it is and does. The enthymeme is also, and distinctively,
a stylistically striking, kairotically opportunistic, argumentative turn that not only
presents a claim but also foregrounds an inferential and attitudinal complex, a
stance; that invokes not only a premise (or warrant) as justification but a "chord"
of value-charged, emotively significant ideas to motivate a passional adherence or
identification with its stance; and that is not only a form of passional reasoning
but also an architectonic principle for both the invention and structuring of
suasive discourse (for a similar view, see Gage, "Theory").
This way of looking at the enthymeme seems richer, more complex, and
more flexible than the conventional view, more consistent with modern theories
of persuasion and argument-particularly those of Kenneth Burke and Chaim
Perelman-and more descriptive of actual argumentational practice. We have, in
sum, a double view of enthymemes: "enthymeme" as a complex structure of
intuitive inference and affect that constitutes the substance of an argument; and
"enthymeme" as a structural/stylistic turn that caps an exetasis, gives the inferential/affective substance a particular realization with a particular salience for a
particular discursive moment, and by doing so constructs or shapes its audience's
perception of just what "the argument" is. The latter is what Anaximenes and
Isocrates describe; the former is what Aristotle tries to analyze. The enthymeme
is both, and is in both senses truly the "body of persuasion."
1. For recent discussion of the enthymeme, see Michael Hood's bibliography. The most
relevant sources for the present study are: Lloyd Bitzer, "Aristotle's Enthymeme Revisited"; George
P. Boss, "The Stereotype and Its Correspondence in Discourse to the Enthymeme"; Thomas Conley,
"The Enthymeme in Perspective"; Jesse G. Delia, "The Logic Fallacy";John T. Gage, "A General
Theory of the Enthymeme" and The Shape of Reason;Lawrence Green, "Enthymemic Invention";
William M. A. Grimaldi, Studies in the Philosophyof Aristotle'sRhetoric53-82; and James Raymond,
"Enthymemes, Examples, and Rhetorical Method." The arguments of Conley and Gage are the
closest to the position that I take here.
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