Adapted from Walter Beale, Real Writing, 2nd edition, 1986
One of the oldest organizing devices in rhetoric is the classical argument, which incorporates the five parts of a discourse that ancient teachers of rhetoric believed were necessary for persuasion, especially when the audience included a mixture of reactions from favorable to hostile. They often prescribed this order to students, not because it was absolutely ideal, but because using the scheme encouraged the writer to take account of some of the most important elements of composing:
beginning in an interesting way
providing background or context
that was relevant to their specific audience
stating their claims and evidence
clearly and emphatically
taking account of opposing viewpoints
and anticipating objections
and concluding in a satisfying
and effective way.
The classical argument isn’t a cookie-cutter template: simply filling in the parts does not by itself make you successful. But if you use the structure as a way to make sure you cover all the needs of all parts of your audience, you will find it a very useful heuristic for developing effective arguments.
The classical argument traditionally consists of five parts:
In writing, the first two parts of the classical argument, the introduction and narration, are often run together. In speaking, the introduction often served as an “icebreaker” for the audience. Since the writer needs to focus on grabbing and focusing attention rather than making the audience feel comfortable before beginning the argument, a written classical argument usually condenses these two elements into one. Some of the most common devices writers use in a classical introduction are a focusing event or quotation, a question, a statement of a problem or controversy, a representative analogy or case, an attack on an opposing point of view (especially if it’s a more popular one than yours), or a confession or personal introduction.
The confirmation, where you present the claims and evidence that back up or substantiate the thesis of your argument. These claims and evidence are often connected together in a chain of reasoning that link the reasoning, facts and examples, and testimony (i.e. inartistic proofs) that support the main claim you are making.
The concession and refutation sections, which go together, exist because arguments always have more than one side. It is always dangerous to ignore them. Moreover, reasonable audiences often have more than one response to an argument. So considering the opposing viewpoints enables a good arguer to anticipate and respond to the objections that her or his position might raise, and defuse opposition before it gets started.
The conclusion, where the writer ties things together, creates a sense of finality or closure, answers the questions or solves the problem stated in the introduction—in other words, “closes the circle” and gives the readers a feeling of completion and balance. Sometimes writers like to add a “final blast”—a big emotional or ethical appeal—that helps sway the audience’s opinion.
Let’s look at how these five sections translate into
a written classical argument.
The introduction has four jobs to do:
Some Questions to Ask
as You Develop Your Introduction
What is the situation that this argument responds to?
What elements of background or context need to be presented for this
audience? Is this new information or am I just reminding them of matters they
already have some familiarity with?
What are the principal issues involved in this argument?
Where do I stand on this issue?
What is the best way to capture and focus the audience’s attention?
What tone should I establish?
What image of myself should I project?
There’s a strong temptation in argument to say “Why should you think so? Because!” and leave it at that. But a rational audience has strong expectations of the kinds of proof you will and will not provide to help it accept your point of view. Most of the arguments used in the confirmation tend to be of the inartistic kind, but artistic proofs can also be used to support this section.
Some Questions to Ask as You Develop Your Confirmation
You want to concede any points that you would agree on or that will make your audience more willing to listen to you (as long as they don’t fatally weaken your own side). For instance, you might argue that we need stronger groundwater pollution laws, but concede that we shouldn’t hold cities and municipalities legally liable for cleaning up groundwater that was polluted before the law was passed, if you think that will help sell your case. Again, here is a place to use both pathos and ethos: by conceding those matters of feeling and values that you can agree on, while stressing the character issues, you can create the opportunity for listening and understanding.
But you will also have to refute (that is, counter or out-argue) the points your opposition will make. You can do this in four ways:
In general, strategies 2 and 3 are easier to pull off than strategy 1. Showing that a position is sometimes valid gives the opposition a face-saving “out” and preserves some sense of common ground.
Some Questions to Ask as You Develop Your Concession/Refutation
Conclusions are hard and there’s a temptation to simply repeat your thesis and topic sentences and pray for a miracle. However, if you try to step back in your conclusion, you can often find a way to give a satisfying sense of closure. You might hark back to the background: why has this remained a problem and why is it so important to solve it, your way, now? Or you might hark back to the common ground you have with your audience: why does accepting your argument reinforce your shared beliefs and values? Too many times classical arguments don’t close—they just stop, as if the last page is missing. And this sense of incompleteness leaves readers dissatisfied and sometimes less likely to accept your argument. So spending a little extra time to round the conclusion out is almost always worthwhile in making the argument more successful.
Some Questions to Ask as You Develop Your Conclusion