5 Parts Of The Classical Essay Format

‘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’)

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

“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

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

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)

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Tagged: classical discourse, composition structure, discourse, essay writing tips, rhetoric

Posted in: Skills and Lifehacks

Welcome back to our series on Classical Rhetoric. Today we’re continuing our five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. Last time we discussed invention, which is essentially brainstorming and planning your speech or writing. In this installment, we’ll be exploring the canon of arrangement. Let’s get started.

What Is Arrangement?

Arrangement is simply the organization of a speech or text to ensure maximum persuasion. Classical rhetoricians divided a speech into six different parts. They are:

  1. Introduction (exordium)
  2. Statement of Facts (narratio)
  3. Division (partitio)
  4. Proof (confirmatio)
  5. Refutation (refutatio)
  6. Conclusion (peroratio)

If you’ve taken debate or philosophy classes, you’ve probably seen this format for organizing a speech or paper.

1. Introduction

There are two aspects of an effective introduction: 1) introducing your topic and 2) establishing credibility.

Introducing your topic. In your introduction, your main goal is to announce your subject or the purpose of your speech–to persuade, to teach, to praise, etc. Simple, huh? Well, not really.

Your introduction is crucial for the success of your speech or essay. In the first few seconds, your audience will determine whether your speech is worth listening to. If you can’t grab their attention right off the bat, you’ve lost them for the remainder of the speech.

So how can you announce your subject in a way that grabs your audience’s attention? You have the old stand-bys: start off with a quote, ask a rhetorical question, or state some shocking fact relating to your topic. Those are decent ways to introduce your topic, but they’re overdone. Some men also try to open with a joke, but most of the time it falls flat, the credibility of the speaker takes a nose dive, and the audience begins tuning the speaker out.

In my experience, the best way to start a speech is to tell a captivating story that draws readers in and engages them emotionally. Journalists do this all the time. They always try to find a human angle to any story no matter how tangential the connection. For tips on crafting compelling and sticky stories, check out a book I recommended last time, Made to Stick.

Establishing credibility. Quintilian taught that it was during the introduction that a rhetorician should use the persuasive appeal of ethos. Ethos, if you remember from our class on the three means of persuasion, is an appeal to your character or reputation to persuade your audience. It doesn’t matter how logical your argument is, if people don’t think you’re trustworthy or a credible source, you’ll have no sway with them.

2. Statement of Facts (narratio)

The statement of facts is the background information needed to get your audience up to speed on the history of your issue. The goal is to provide enough information for your audience to understand the context of your argument. If your rhetoric is seeking to persuade people to adopt a certain course of action, you must first convince the audience that there really is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Don’t just dryly list off a bunch of facts. Make them interesting to read or listen to. Create a story. Narrate.

While the statement of facts is primarily used to inform your audience, with some subtle tweaking, you can use your facts to persuade as well. Now, I don’t mean you should make up facts out of thin air; only a scalawag would do that. But you can emphasize and deemphasize facts that support or hurt your argument

Attorneys do this all the time. They’ll use certain language and emphasize or deemphasize certain facts to help their case and their client. Let’s use a murder trial as an example.

Both sides have to recognize the fact that someone is dead, but each will do it differently to further their case.

The prosecutor might say,”The defendant, Mr. Killzalots, shot the victim John Smith, a beloved community philanthropist, twenty times at point blank range in front of the victim’s children.”

The defendant’s attorney might convey the same fact thusly: “John Smith was shot.”

The prosecutor emphasized the fact that Mr. Killzalots did the shooting and did so multiple times at point blank range in front of the victim’s children. Moreover, he mentioned that the victim was admired by his community. This was an attempt to create sympathy for the victim and rage towards the defendant. The defending attorney did a lot of deemphasizing. He didn’t want sympathy for the victim or rage directed at his client. So he tried to describe the murder in as neutral a tone as possible.

It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates how your statement of facts can be a powerfully persuasive tool.

3. Division (partitio)

Quintilian taught that after stating your facts, the most effective way to transition into your argument is with a partitio: a summary of the arguments you’re about to make. Think of the division as your audience’s roadmap. You’re about to take them on a journey of logic and emotion, so give them an idea of where they’re going, so it’s easier to follow you. When I listen to a speech, I like when the speaker starts out by saying something like, “I have three points to make tonight.” That way I know how far along in the speech he is (and if it’s boring, when it’s going to end!).

4. Proof (confirmatio)

Now comes the main body of your speech or essay. This is when you will make your argument. In the proof section, you want to construct logical arguments that your audience can understand and follow. If you need to, review our previous segment on logos to ensure you’re using sound and valid arguments. When you construct your arguments, be sure to relate back to the facts you mentioned in your statement of facts to back up what you say. If you’re suggesting a course of action, you want to convince people that your solution is the best one for resolving the problem you just described.

5. Refutation (refutatio)

After you’ve crafted a strong and convincing argument for your case, it’s time to highlight the weaknesses in your argument to your audience. This might seem surprising. Why on earth would we go out of our way to show our audience possible reasons our argument is faulty? While at first blush this tactic would seem to be counterproductive, sharing the weaknesses of your arguments will actually make you more persuasive in two ways.

First, it gives you a chance to preemptively answer any counterarguments an opposing side may bring  up and resolve any doubts your audience might be harboring. Bringing up weaknesses before your opponent or audience takes the bite out of a coming counterargument. And some people will already have objections they’re mulling over in their heads; if you don’t address those objections, your audience will assume it is because you can’t, that you have something to hide, and that they’re right after all.

Second, highlighting the weaknesses in your argument is an effective use of ethos. No one likes a know-it-all. A bit of intellectual modesty can go a long way to getting the audience to trust and like you, and consequently, be persuaded by what you have to say. Recognizing that your argument isn’t iron-clad is an easy way to gain the sympathy and trust of your audience.

6. Conclusion (peroratio)

The goal of your conclusion is to sum up your argument as forcefully and as memorably as possible. Simply restating your facts and proof won’t cut it. If you want people to remember what you said, you have to inject some emotion into your conclusion. In fact, Quintilian taught that the conclusion of a speech was when one should liberally use pathos–or the appeal to emotion. Perhaps the best example of an amazingly effective, emotion-filled conclusion is the finish to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. His “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” still brings tears to eyes and chills to spines, forever searing the memory of the speech in the minds of those who hear it.

Classical Rhetoric 101 Series 
An Introduction
A Brief History
The Three Means of Persuasion
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Arrangement
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Style


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