A classical structure for composition

Posted on Fri 06 Mar 2015 @ 7.45am HKT


‘Introduction,’ ‘Body’ and ‘Conclusion’ — the famous three little piglets that we’ve all been taught for school essays. And most of us found that wanting even for school essays, to say the least.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what the classicists used to do for formal speeches and writings.

Do we still use these parts of composition today — Exordium, Narratio, Division, Proof, Refutation, Digression, Peroration and Epilogue?

Not necessarily in those terms today — but that is the general structure for most formal public-speaking and essay-writing purposes.

Those eight terms are the six or seven parts of a classical discourse that an orator would have for the dispositio. The dispositio (a discipline or subset of rhetoric?) is the arrangement of the arguments in a classical oration.

Incidentally, those parts are Parts of A Speech, not parts of speech as in grammar.



The Dispositio

The arrangement of arguments in classical oration

1. Exordium (‘Beginning’)


“An exordium is a passage which brings the mind of the auditor into a proper condition to receive the rest of the speech.”
— Cicero, ‘De Oratore (55 BC)

First is the Exordium (pronounced egg-ZOR-dee-um). It is the term in Western classical rhetoric to mean the introduction or beginning of a treatise or discourse.

Nowadays in normal essay writing, we simply recognise or rebadge it as ‘the introduction.” Journalists and other professional writers would rather call it “the lead” (“lede” in journalism jargon).

Here, the orator announces the subject and purpose of the discourse, using some kind of persuasive appeal (of ethos?) to establish initial credibility with the audience.

For instance, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech was powerful because:

“King’s exordium is essentially moderate. This is necessary because he must win the attention and trust of his audience before he can make his more militant plea. Having established his ethos, King is now ready for confrontation.”
— Nathan W. Schlueter, ‘One Dream or Two? (Lexington Books, 2002)

2. Narratio (‘Story’)


Fortified Indian Village from ‘Brevis Narratio’ by Theodore de Bry, 1591

Narratio (nah-RAAT-si-oh) (or Narratio Prima: ‘first account’) is the second part of the classical discourse or oratory. Here, the speaker gives a narrative account of happenings and explains the nature of the case.

Cicero characterises the narratio as “gentle persuasiveness and insinuation” (De Oratore, 55 BC).

In other words, narratio is the statement of ‘facts’ — the facts according to the orator, not necessarily ‘real’ facts. Today we would call it a summary of the main issues. A journalist would rather call it a nutgraf — the whole thing in a nutshell (a nutshell paragraph, hence a nutgraf).

“[…] in a piece of deliberative rhetoric, narratio is only supposed to include the facts that are germane to the presentation the speaker wants to make to his audience, ‘not saying more than the case demands’.”
— Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, ‘Institutio Oratoria,’ Books 4.2–4.3 (AD 95)

3. Partitio/Divisio (Partitioning, Division)


Marcus Tullius Cicero in action

“We are not to consider partition one division of a speech, taken as a whole, but as belonging to every question in it.”
— Quintilian, ‘Institutio Oratoria’ (AD 95)

Third is Partitio (par-ti-shi-oh) of classical oration, otherwise known as Division or Partitioning in English.

Here, the speaker outlines what will follow. In other words, it’s the roadmap of arguments to come. It is partitioning things into claims and key issues.

It’s what your friendly platoon sergeant might say to new recruits: “I’ve told you what we’re here for (exordium) and what we’re talking about (narratio), so here’s what I’ll now be telling you (partitio), you useless girly pretend soldiers!”

An example of partitio:

“So you can see what the situation is; and now you must decide yourselves what is to be done. It seems to me best first to discuss the character of the war, then its scale, and finally the choice of a commander.”
— Cicero, ‘De Imperio Cn. Pompei ad Quirites oratio: pro lege Manilia,’ (Bristol Classical Press, 1966)

4. Confirmatio (‘Strengthen’)

show me the money

Proof (or Confirmation) is the fourth part of classical oration. This is the main body of the speech. This is the juicy bit of the whole roadshow. This is what the journalist or the normal essay writer would say, “Bring on the lovely girls.”

Here, the speaker makes his support for the claim. He presents logical arguments and emphasises their logicality for appeal. He strengthens his case.

An example of confirmatio:

“This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns; where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection, and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen.”
— Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), ‘A Modest Proposal (1729)

To vindicate your own cause, the one single truly effective method is to include both confirmation and refutation in your argument.

“As a general rule, in presenting our own arguments we should not descend from our strongest arguments to our weakest. […] We want to leave our strongest argument ringing in the memory of our audience; hence we usually place it in the emphatic final position.”
— E.P.J. Corbett and R.J. Connors, ‘Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student,’ 4th edition (OUP, 1999)

That, of course, goes against the general principle in general writing — to put the main and strongest arguments up front and early. But this is rhetoric and oration, and that is general writing. Know the difference.

5. Refutatio

How to disagree: A hierarchy

How to disagree: A hierarchy

“Proof establishes; refutation overthrows.”
— Quintilian, ‘Institutio Oratoria’ (AD 95)

Fifth part in classical oration is Refutation. As the name implies, this is where the speaker plays devil’s advocate. He’ll try to answer the counter-arguments of the possible opponent — and destroys them in the most elegant way possible.

In other words, the friendly platoon sergeant would say, “If you think that, this is where you mutts are wrong and stupid.” You get the idea.

Richard Whately (Elements of Rhetoric, 1846) recommends placing the refutation of objections in the middle of the argument but nearer to the beginning than the end. This is because very strong objections usually have obtained much currency — or because the opponent have just stated them. Since the objections asserted are likely to be seen as paradoxical in the framework of your own argument, it’s advisable to start with a refutation and then a confirmation.

6. Digression + Peroratio

peroration ambrose bierce

In the old days when I learnt this crap (sorry!), Digression is combined into Peroration (‘speak’ or ‘completion’), the sixth part of the classical oration.

Here, the speaker is summing up — and appealing the audience through sadness or pity (pathos?). In other words, this part is the closing arguments (as lawyers usually recognise it). Depending on your public-speaking or writing skills, you can move your audience to tears or rage (or both) and get a 21-gun salute — or a bullet in the head.

For peroration, Aristotle (Art of Rhetoric, 4th century BC) had it down pat into four things:—

  1. getting the listener to judge your case favourably
  2. the listener to be ill-disposed towards the opposition’s case
  3. time to show how great or how little the good or evil is (amplification or extenuation)
  4. putting the listener under the influence of his passions or awakening his recollections

Digression is harder to appreciate. When it’s separate from Peroration, it is to deliberately go off-topic a bit — temporarily leaving the main subject to discuss an unrelated matter.

Why the hell would anyone do that?! One novelist’s insight:—

Digression is the soul of wit. Take the philosophic asides from Dante, Milton, or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones.”
— Ray Bradbury, ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ (1953)

That too is digression’s own downfall. Some people get so carried away with it that it easily becomes verbiage (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 3rd edition: 2008, and Bernard Dupriez in A Dictionary of Literary Devices, University of Toronto Press, 1991).

Which is perhaps why in my day digression and peroration tend to be clipped together.

7. Epilogue

walking into the sunset by ridhuan fakhri

The epilogue is the possible seventh part of classical oratory, but it’s usually drawn into Peroratio (above) along with Digression.

If separate, this section ends the discourse by serving as a comment on what has been said.

In other words, the sergeant is telling us, “That’s what I told you and you’d better remember it!”

Aristotle recommends the epilogue must have the advantage of abridgment — short or easy to remember. In his view, the epilogue isn’t essential in a legal rhetoric or judicial discourse (the stuff used by lawyers in a courtroom trial).

* * *



If we had to rename the whole thing above, a normal essay writer would have it as:

1. Introductory statement of subject and purpose

2. Roundup of the main issues under discussion

3. Outlines of arguments to come

4. Application of arguments to issues

5. Possible counter-arguments or counter-issues

6. Summing up and closing arguments

7. A personal note on the discussion

It’s nothing like that three-part essay embarrassment called introduction, body and conclusion, is it?


Images via:— ‘Dispositio’ via ueyamakzk’s fotolife, (1) callcentertoday.com, (2) allposters.com, (3) Harlot, (4) Mobile Marketing Watch, (5) c4c, (6) izquotes.com, (7) Walking into the Sunset by Ridhuan Fakhri at Flickr, and (8) canstar.com.au. Featured image via wikihow.com.

© Learn English or Starve, 2015. (B15067)