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.

Natural Law and the Will of Men

To speak of nature is inevitably to speak of the natural law, perhaps the west’s greatest contribution to political thought. Yet, we only discussed it in passing during the conference. I regret that omission, though of course we only had two and one half days.

In the Preface to Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, Edward McLean writes,

Each chapter [of this book] is predicated on the desirability of replacing the dominant school of positive law and its majoritarian legitimating principle with a  commitment to natural law doctrines, which alone are capable of providing the informing principles necessary for a vital, free, and virtuous society.

As is so often the case, even in my own writing, this sentence could be clearer if it contained fewer prepositions and nominalizations. But what it says carries the weight of an age, so we must read it closely.

Modern legal theory roots its legitimacy in majority rule, which effects its rule through something called positive law. We should, McLean suggests, replace positive law with natural law. Only then can we have a “vital, free, and virtuous society.” In other words, modern lawyers, judges, politicians, and rulers look to positive law to maintain order and their own authority, but if we are going to be free and virtuous we need to look to natural law.

Natural law can provide the principles we need to build a society that matters, that moves and lives, that is free, and that is virtuous. There is, McLean suggests, no other source for those principles.

Perhaps you have read the first book of Plato’s Republic. If so, you might remember Thrasymachus, the Sophist who wanted to recruit Glaucon and Adeimantus for his school and to corrupt them into sophistry. When he and Plato argued about the meaning of justice, he posited that it was “the interest of the stronger.” His point was that laws were made by people in power and they made the laws so they could hold onto their power or whatever else was in their interest.

This argument continues today. The sophistic argument now calls itself “Legal Positivism.” There is no “natural law,” they insist. There is simply the law that people make. We turn to the majority for law in our society because the majority has the power to make laws.

Socrates and any other lover of mankind and therefore of freedom finds this notion horrifying. If the positive law (i.e. laws that have been posited) is subordinate to no higher law, then it is only a matter of time before the rulers become tyrants and the people are enslaved.

Furthermore, while human consciousness is always inclined toward freedom, recognizing that freedom is the condition of its realization, the human appetites are always inclined toward immediate satisfaction, which is the sure-footed path to slavery.

Liberty, therefore, arises from natural law and nowhere else.

That being the case, I hereby seek to rectify the failure to adequately present the natural law with a list of books and materials that you can read or study to become reacquainted with what it means to be a free person.

  • Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Edward B. McLean and including essays by Ralph McInerny, J. Rufus Fears, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Hittinger and others. Highly recommended, published by ISI books.
  • Natural Law. Heinrich Rommen. Maybe the best book on the historical development of the idea of natural law. I think Liberty Fund publishes this book. Somewhere close to essential.
  • The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, by Russell Hittinger. ISI books. Stimulating and insightful.
  • Natural Law and Human Nature, a lecture series by Father Joseph Poterski of Fordham University from The Teaching Company.
  • Sophocles: Antigone. You can’t be an educated person without reflecting on the matter of this play.
  • Cicero: The Laws.
  • A very fine article from Villanova posted on their website  (great first read – nice and brief).

In summary, let me urge you to make a recovery of freedom possible again by reminding yourself what “the law of nature,” upon which our fathers built this country, is by figuring out how to live it yourself and to see it restored in your communities.

Because remember, the only alternative to the law of nature is the will of men.

And they aren’t known for setting people free.