Roman Rhetoric II
by: M. Horatius Piscinus

Pars II: the structure of an argument

There can be said to be a basic structure for an argument, one most of you would be familiar with by having read Euclid's Elements. There is the statement of a proposition, the reasons offered in arguing your point, and a conclusion reaffirming the proposition. Without actually saying it, you hope your audience will conclude with Quod erat demonstrandum. The specific divisions of an oratio are:

The exordium is an introductary remark, meant to gain your audience's attention with an insinuatio and also to state a principium or the principles you will defend. The principium can be either an individual or an issue. This should be brief and to the point, like Shakespeare's, "Friends, Romans, and countrymen, I come here today not to praise Caesar, but to bury him."

The narratio follows with a brief outline of the facts, limited to those that are commonly known about the matter in question. If writing a history paper, this would be a statement of an historical event as the topic of your paper. It may also include mention of other events, but only those of historical significance. Involved in any event are any number of circumstances directly related to your subject, and mitigating circumstances, and also other things which might be linked to your topic but are not *significant.* So if you were writing a paper on a convention that drafted a peace treaty, a war ended by the conference would be a significant circumstance to include in the naratio. The fact that one of the participants was involved in other affairs at the time, that may have affected his actions at the conference, would be a mitigating circumstance to introduce later in your analsys, but not in the naratio. The naratio establishes a skeletal structure in which your argument is placed, or sets a time frame, and must include the pertinent known facts that your argument will be based upon. Again, the naratio should be very brief, composed of only a sentence or two, laying out what event, when, and who are the principle individuals involved. It can be a statement that is highly slanted in favor of your argument, "Cicero prosecuted Clodius Pulcher for his grievous act of sacrilege and now he seeks vengence by attempting to prosecute my client, Cicero,..."

The propositio is the most important part of your argument. It lays out a statement of your theme and the perspective of events that you will seek to maintain in your argument. It is the conclusion that you want your audience to draw from your argument. At the end of your argument you will restate the propositio as the only conclusion that can be drawn from the description of events as you have offered them and the reasons you have given in the body of your argument. The propositio can be composed of different parts (partitationes) and each proposition you seek to promote must be clearly stated.

The argumentatio is composed of two parts. The confirmatio argues your viewpoint, gives your reasoning. The confutatio is a refutation of your opponent's perspective and the arguments he or she has made, or is likely to make. Writing a history paper usually presents the confutatio first as a survey of different perspectives, with your reasons as to why they should not be accepted. In Roman oration the confirmatio comes first. The reason for the difference is practical and should apply to an argument made in an email as well. You can only hold a person's attention for so long, so give him your propositio and your reasons while you have his attention. If the crowd starts to fall asleep on you, wake them up with some invective against your opponent.

The peroratio is your summation. It summarizes your arguments and applies them to your propositio, makes general remarks on possible consequences if your propositio is accepted or rejected, and appeals to the audience to see things your way. "Knowing these facts, one can only conclude that..." and then a restatement of your propositio is a simple appeal. Roman orators, and others who followed them, made very dramatic appeals at the end of their orations. "You shall not push this crown of gold upon the brow..." for all you William Jennings Bryant fans. Or the example of Crassus' appeal, given by Cicero in De oratore, "Deliver us from our miseries! Deliver us from the jaws of the men whose cruelty even a torrent of our blood will never sate..."

Humor, drama, exaggeration all makes for an entertaining oration that allows you to keep your audience's attention. But do not forget that you are composing an argument, that will in the end have to meet certain criteria of logic, with your propositio being supported by the reasons and facts you have presented.

© 2001-2017 Societas Via Romana