"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


A Call for the Enthymeme and a More Civil Discourse

April 21st, 2015 by

One of the chapters in my textbook, Pretexts for Writing, goes out on something of a theoretical limb.

Yes, I wrote a textbook–for first-year writing. My main reasons for thinking that I had a textbook to write—seven years ago now—was because it seemed to me that so few teachers who taught writing drew on, or even knew much about, composition or rhetoric. I thought to provide a resource that would be classroom friendly and helpful in bringing theories of rhetoric and composition to teachers at the same time.

To a certain degree, I shaped my book around Aristotle’s rhetoric. I began with invention, what every good teaching on rhetoric does, I think. And while I brought in a few ideas that have been considered more recently, I still couldn’t imagine myself giving the depth to this subject that Aristotle does. Still, I tried to carry the importance of invention forward into the other lessons on things like organization and style. And when I got to the place where I needed to discuss writing arguments, I found myself in a peculiar spot. I found myself back on the topic of invention as I started writing one morning about what the ancient Greeks called the enthymeme. This concept is so important that, like baptism, we have refused to translate it (or we just haven’t tried to translate it).

The enthymeme is a shortened syllogism where an obvious assumption or a shared premise is not stated but implied. For example, in a political ad we might hear, “Of course Senator Filburt is going to spend money. After all, she’s a Democrat.” Implied but not stated, of course, is the major premise, which may or may not be universally true, that Democrats like to spend tax payers’ money.

Aristotle saw the enthymeme as the “soul of rhetoric,” its very lifeblood. In my textbook, I thought that I would ignore it at my peril. One of the reasons it is so highly valued is because for the savvy rhetorician, learning what peoples’ shared values are is a strong way of building consensus and agreement, and then presenting a successful argument around those shared values. Every good writer or speaker should first think about an audience’s values, what I think Aristotle meant by “the available means of persuasion.”

The reason it is so important is because it allows a speaker or a writer to find ideas and areas of thought that audiences share and agree upon. It is those areas for which Aristotle thought the speaker should aim.

How differently we think today, and I can’t help but to notice this as we hurl ourselves into another presidential election cycle. The differences and the disagreements are being forged even as we prepare our morning tea or coffee. We seem to be a country divided, and there seem to be few politicians or political advisors who seem to remember their first-year writing lessons in the enthymeme. But now more than ever, that is what we need, though it seems that what we will get will be speakers who think they have everything to gain by stressing division and exploiting areas of disagreement.

I still think we have something to learn from the ancients about civil, civic discourse. It’s right there in the fourth chapter of my textbook. If we can’t translate it, we should at least study it.

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Comment by Lynn Maudlin on April 21, 2015 at 6:59 pm

I’ve obviously never studied rhetoric because I’ve never heard of the enthymeme – thanks for presenting it with clarity, demonstrating its value, and exhorting us all to employ it appropriately! I wish for a more civil discourse, this upcoming election cycle, but I expect that hope will be dashed– :/

Comment by Tom on April 21, 2015 at 9:36 pm

Lynn, thanks for your insights. I suspect that what Aristotle–and most Greek teachers of rhetoric–was up to was something of an ideal. In his time, they had done away with torture as a way to extract confessions and set up witnesses. So Aristotle can be a bit of an idealist as he preaches reason. We all know how things go these days.

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