An Introduction to the Strategic Introduction

In the Ad Herrenium, the author explains how to come up with an opening (exordium) first. He tells us that an exordium is the first part of a speech and by it the mind of the listener is constituted to listen.

How then do we achieve this end?

Being ancient, he thinks in terms of causes. Given a cause, he says, for the suitable exordium, we must consider the kind of cause. Then he practically gives us a flow chart:

There are four kinds of cause:

  1. Honorable (honestum)
  2. Discreditable (turpe)
  3. Doubtful (dubium)
  4. Petty (humile)

Now that we have identified the kinds of causes, we need to apply the theory of exordia to those causes. To do so, we first note that there are two kinds of exordium.

  1. The direct opening (Principium in Latin, Prooimion in Greek)
  2. the subtle approach (insinuatio in Latin, Ephodos in Greek)

I’m going to ignore the confusion of language that I come across when I compare texts and that you dont’ care about unless you are into the technical side of this matter and just turn to the practical path that I have found helpful.

Remember that our speech (or as I use it, essay) will be driven by one of four causes as listed above. Therefore, we should ask: how do I apply these two kinds of opening to each cause?

To that end, let’s look first at the direct opening. What is its purpose? Our author tells us: “The Direct Opening straightway prepares the hearer to attend to our speech. It’s purpose is to enable us to have hearers who are attentive, receptive, and well-disposed”

Let me interject how much more useful this is than the common approach these days of telling students they need a “hook.” I want the reader to be attentive, receptive, and well-disposed to my speech.

OK, let’s apply that:

  1. If my speech is doubtful, then I will build my exordium on achieving the good will of my listener so that when I get to the part he is less likely to accept I will have won his favorable disposition.
  2. If my speech is petty, then I need to get his attention.
  3. If my speech is discreditable, I’m going to have to use the indirect approach unless I can earn the listeners good will by attacking my opponent.
  4. If my speech is honorable, then I can use the direct opening if I want, but I don’t need to.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, because he doesn’t talk about when you need to make the audience receptive. I will assume that he doesn’t do so because you always need a receptive audience.

In any case, we now have four kinds of cause and three states of mind we need in our audience. We have applied at least two of those states to the four causes and noted that some causes require particular attention to certain states.

The question now becomes, how do I achieve each state?

First, how we do make them receptive? He presents us with a deceptively simple approach: “we can have receptive hearers,” he tells us, “if we briefly summarize our cause and make them attentive; for the receptive hearer is the one who is willing to listen attentively.”

That sounds simple enough, and it would seem open to argument. But remember that this is a direct opening, which implies that the speech is either honorable (you are preaching to the choir), petty (they just want you to get it over with), or doubtful (you need their goodwill). He’ll come back in a moment to how we can earn their goodwill.

Meanwhile, now that he has told us that we make them receptive by getting their attention, or rather, by making them attentive, he proceeds to advise us how to make them attentive, giving us three basic options:

  1. Make a promise (I’ll come back to this)
  2. Tell them to pay attention (think Marc Antony: Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears)
  3. Enumerate your points, which means, as I understand, simply tell them how many you have. At first this seems trivial, but I find this makes it much easier for an audience to listen for the simple reason that the first question any audience has is “How long is this going to take?” If you say, “I want to make three points,” you have given them bearings. It makes it much easier to pay attention.

So let’s talk about the first option, making a promise. The promise, of course, is about what you are going to talk about. You can promise that you will discuss one of the following:

  • Something important
  • Something new
  • Something unusual
  • Something concerning the commonwealth (the city, state, country, etc.)
  • Something concerning the hearers themselves
  • Something concerning religion and the immortal gods

For example, you might say, “I want to talk to you tonight about something that concerns you personally,” or “Our topic tonight is [education and freedom], a topic that touches deeply on the well being of our country itself,” or “This morning we are going to discuss something a bizarre,” etc.

Now we come to the real challenge. You can make them receptive and attentive by standing on your head, but earning their good will is something altogether more difficult. That is why, if our cause is discreditable, we have to turn to the indirect or subtle approach.

Nevertheless, we cannot assume our audience’s good will. We must earn it, and our handbook gives us four options to help us do so:

  1. We can talk about ourselves
  2. We can talk about the person of our adversaries
  3. We can talk about our listeners
  4. we can talk about the facts themselves

We can talk about ourselves either positively or negatively. Positively, we can discuss the services we have rendered and our past conduct toward

  • The Republic
  • Our parents
  • Our friends
  • The audience

Negatively, we can plead for the aid of the audience while we present our

  • Disabilities
  • Need
  • Loneliness
  • Misfortune

Simultaneously, we confess that we have no other hope than those who hear us.

Second, we can discuss our adversary with the intention of bringing them into odium, unpopularity, and contempt. As you read this section, notice how much of the blogosphere and current news follows this pattern.

You can make them odious by showing that some act of theirs was

  • Base
  • High-handed (subperbe – think Tarquinius Superbus)
  • Treacherous (perfidiose)
  • Cruel (crudeliter)
  • Impudent (confidenter)
  • Malicious (malitiose)
  • Shameful (flagitiose)

You can make them unpopular (invidiam) by presenting their (some of this is kind of funny)

  • Violent behavior
  • Dominance (potentiam)
  • Factiousness
  • Wealth
  • Incontinence (lack of self-restraint)
  • High-birth
  • Clients (yikes!)
  • Hospitality (huh?)
  • “Club allegiance” (sodalitatem)
  • Marriage alliances

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these in and of themselves. What you have to show is that they rely more on any of these supports than they do on the truth.

The third way you can win the good will of your audience is to discuss the person of your your audience. Here you should talk about three things:

  1. Judgments they have already rendered
  2. The esteem they enjoy
  3. “with what interest their decision is awaited.”

The second and third are pretty straightforward. On the first, you should mention how their earlier decisions demonstrated

  • Courage
  • Wisdom
  • Humanity
  • Nobility

Finally, you can earn the good will of your audience by talking about the cause itself. If you take this course, then you will extol your cause with praise and disparage the cause of your opponent with disparagement.

So much for the direct approach. First, determine the kind of cause you are defending. Then determine to use the direct approach (or else read a later blog post). Then follow the guidelines above to make your audience receptive, to secure their attention, and to earn their favor.

We are discussing rhetoric, not math, so there are no guarantees that your strategy will work. But if you are aware of these options, you will both present a better case for your own cause and be better able to anticipate the strategy of your opponent.

In Level II of the Lost Tools of Writing, we introduce the strategic introduction in lesson 3.

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An Introduction to the History of Classical Rhetoric

I find it fascinating to read the development of rhetorical practices from the time of, say, Homer to the time of, say, Basil the Great or St. Augustine.

This period gives us the pre-historic Greeks, like Odysseus; the philosophical Greeks of the Pre-Socratic period, like the Sophists; the Socratic/Platonic response to the Sophists; Aristotle; the Stoics and Epicureans and other minor schools that preceded Christ, the Romans who adopted the Greek traditions and created both schools and handbooks to teach it; and the Christian response to the Roman practices adopted and adapted from the Greeks.

You cover pretty much the whole spectrum of possible approaches to rhetoric in that 15oo year span, which is one of the great benefits of a classical education.

Lately I’ve been quite intrigued by the handbook tradition. It developed in Rome after they were converted to the Greek conviction that you master an art when you come to know its nature and align yourself to the nature of the thing you want to do.

The Greeks were speculators and the Romans were practical people, or so goes the bromide, and it is not without validity.

The Greeks thought about the nature of language and rhetoric. But they thought about it in action. Thus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the seminal work in what became the handbook tradition.

The Romans had no Aristotle, Cicero being perhaps their best attempt. But they had plenty of public speakers. In fact, if you wanted to matter in Rome, you pretty much had to master the art of speaking.

As a result, the Romans adopted and developed the handbook tradition and we have benefited enormously as a result.

From what I can tell, the purpose of a handbook was to lay out first principles and basic practices for a given art. Thus, Dionysius of Thrax wrote a grammar handbook that was the first to lay out the eight parts of speech.

During the first century BC, Rome was in a state of continual turmoil at the top. Generals had begun to pay their own armies, which freed them from the Senate and put them in conflict with each other.

From 135 BC to 31 BC, they experienced a continual stream of revolutions and civil wars, finally ending when Augustus Caesar defeated Marc Antony and established what we now call the Roman Empire.

I mention this because I want to talk about a rhetoric handbook and because rhetoric handbook are effected by politics. It was during this 100 year period that the perhaps best works of rhetoric were developed by Roman teachers (the exception is Quintilian).

The rhetoric handbook I want to talk about is called Ad Herrenium, De Ratione Dicendi, or To Herrenius, On the Theory of Public Speaking.

Nobody knows who wrote it, though for a long time it was thought to be a work of Cicero. While it is written to Herrenius, it is a popular book and was intended to be used by anybody who wanted to speak in public.

While it’s debt to the Greeks is obvious by its very existence, nevertheless its populist tone is revealed on the first page, where he scoffs at unidentified “Greek writers” who, “from fear of appearing to know too little, have gone in quest of notions irrelevant to the art, in order that the art might seem more difficult to understand.”

And yet, he is on to something, for it is not uncommon for teachers and theorists, especially those who are quite impressed that they have begun to study an art but have not yet mastered it, to want that art to appear mysterious and difficult.

“I, on the other hand,” he continues, “have treated those topics which seemed pertinent to the theory of public speaking.”

Totally irrelevant aside: I love this Latin word that seems to mean “seemed to be”: sumpsimus. We have to Anglicize that word somehow.

He further demonstrates his populism with this hollow claim: “I have not been moved by hope of gain or desire for glory, as the rest have been, in undertaking to write, but have done so in order that, by my painstaking work, I may gratify your wish.”

OK, let’s get on with it then, shall we?

“I shall now begin my subject, as soon as I have given you this one injunction: Theory without continuous practice in speaking is of little avail; from this you may understand that the precepts of theory here offered ought to be applied in practice.”

From this point forward, he offers some quite sound advice on pubic speaking, much of which I have applied to writing.

Having identified three kinds of causes (epideictic or ceremonial, deliberative, and judicial), he explains that a speaker needs to master five faculties to successfully deliver any public speech: Invention (coming up with something to say), Arrangement (ordering your thoughts), Elocution (adapting expression to the matter), Memory, and Delivery (“the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture”).

We master these faculties through three means: theory (rules and method (certam viam)), imitation, and practice.

He then lays out the parts of a speech and explains that each of the parts has its own invention. Then he explains how to invent an introduction.

Which is why I started writing this blog and is the point at which I must pause with this note.

I started public speaking very young and was generally well-received when I did it. However, my talent was raw and undisciplined. Some people consider these handbooks to be overly formal and even restrictive. I agree, if they are studied without practice and imitation.

But it was not until I studied classical rhetoric that I came to understand how to speak and found the tools by which I could bring the art under control.

This is the theory. It is essential. It is not enough. But it is essential.