The Roman Six-Part Speech as an Essay

In a previous post, I discussed the problem that can be created when students combine a rudimentary understanding of Aristotle’s three appeals–ethos, logos, and pathos–with the five-paragraph essay format. Instead of rhetorical analysis it is easy for students to fall into a pattern of a paragraph about ethos, a paragraph about logos and a paragraph about pathos. I think the solution is to teach more rhetoric! However, we might also provide an alternative to the five-paragraph essay.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will go into more detail in this one. The ancient Romans had a six-part format for persuasive speeches that is still used by orators today and which can easily be adapted to essay writing. In fact, most editorials and op-ed pieces follow a similar pattern today. The format is organized by rhetorical purpose and can be expanded or contracted to fit different kinds of content.

SixPartSpeech

If the five-paragraph essay seems too constraining, this pattern is a good alternative. It has several advantages. The “narratio” section provides more background and context for the reader, so that when we finally get to the thesis in the “divisio,” we feel like we are well-informed about the nature of the issue and why it is important at this particular moment. Then we have arguments in favor of the position in the “confirmatio” and arguments against in the following “refutatio.” The result is that when we get to the conclusion, we feel both informed and persuaded, and that the issue has been viewed from more than one perspective.

In a short paper, the first three categories might be combined into a one-paragraph introduction, but if the issue is complicated, the “narrative” section might take two or more paragraphs. The “confirmatio” and “refutatio” form the “body” of the paper, and the “peroratio” the conclusion. Each of these sections might be one or more paragraphs.

This pattern can be taught as a series of questions:

  1. What is my paper about? How can a make my reader interested in it?
  2. What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about? What is the story behind the issue? How did things get this way?
  3. What are the possible positions someone could take on this issue? What position will I take and why?
  4. What are the arguments in favor of my position? How can I support them?
  5. What will people who disagree with me say? What are the arguments against my position? How can I refute them?
  6. What do I want my reader to believe or do after they finish reading my essay? How do I want them to feel?

These are good prewriting questions even if the student ends up writing a five-paragraph essay. They also work well in collaborative activities. Students can help each other brainstorm arguments for and against the writer’s position, and explore different possible positions on the issue.

This pattern can also be used to analyze published editorials and op-ed pieces. We can ask:

  1. What is this piece about? Why is the issue or topic important, according to the writer? What kind of impression does the writer create?
  2. What background information does the author give us? What is the story behind the issue? Does the writer do a good job of putting the issue in context?
  3. What are the possible positions on this issue? Does the writer do a good job of laying them out? What position does the writer take? Is it clear and well-defined, or a little vague?
  4. What arguments does the writer make in favor of his or her position? How are they supported? Do they make sense?
  5. What arguments against the position does the writer describe? Does he or she do a good job of refuting them? Can you think of other arguments against the position that the writer does not deal with?
  6. How do you feel at the end of the piece? Are you persuaded? Why or why not?

These questions, and the Roman pattern from which they derive (Cic. De Inv. 1.7; Cic. De Or. 1.31.143), are useful for organizing discussions of persuasive texts. They can help the student think about the pros and cons of multiple positions rather than simply taking one position and supporting it with one-sided arguments and cherry-picked examples. They also might reveal gaps or problems with a published writer’s position or arguments, allowing the student to see that just because something is in print, it doesn’t mean it is well-argued.

This post is also available as a handout for teachers in .pdf format. I have also included two analyses of op-ed pieces, one about reconsidering the use of QR Codes in mediating between real and online worlds and one by Stanley Fish about whether history professors should speak out politically as history professors.  (For copyright reasons I have only quoted the first few words of each section.  It is best to go to the URL I have provided to see the full article.)  The QR codes article fits the pattern quite well.  The Fish piece less so, but then I find his arguments unconvincing as well.  Doing the analysis reinforced my opinion that he was less than persuasive.  Picking apart the organizational structure leads to insights about the arguments as well.

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