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A Writer's Journal: The Enthymeme

Wed Feb 3, 2016, 6:34 PM

“Mark’d ye his words? He would not take the crown.
Therefore ‘tis certain he was not ambitious.”

An enthymeme is an abridged logical deduction. In its simplest form, one begins with three statements: two premises and a conclusion that follows from them.

Consider the following example:
  1. (Premise A) The clean of heart shall see God.
  2. (Premise B) Those who shall see God are blessed.
  3. (Conclusion) The clean of heart are blessed.
Notice that the two premises work in conjunction with one another to automatically produce the conclusion. We have merely cut out the intermediary part. In classical terminology, this is called a syllogism. An enthymeme results from shortening the explicit deduction of a syllogism to its most essential parts. We have:

        Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God. (the sermon on the mount)
        Notice that that bold portion is the Conclusion, and that the remainder is from Premise A.

An easy way to identify many enthymemes is to look for the use of logical connectives like therefore, for, because, since, etc. An enthymeme may combine any two statements from a syllogism. However, one of syllogism's three statements is always left out. Usually, one leaves out the most obvious premise, but one can also leave out the conclusion.  Ethymemes can also be combinations of two contrary arguments as can be seen in examples 4, 5, and 6 below.

  1. No one is ever really alone. You are part of everything alive. (William S. Burroughs) You are a part of everything alive (premise A), everything alive is interconnected/not alone (premise B); therefore you are interconnected/not alone (conclusion).
  2. Better to die, for death is better far than tyranny. (Aeschylus) Death is better than tyranny (premise A), tyranny is what we are up against (premise B); therefore, it is better that we die (conclusion).
  3. Does this place look like I'm married? The toilet seat's up, man! (The Dude in The Big Lebowski) Married men don't leave the toilet seat up?
  4. Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular. (Aristotle)
  5. Wouldst thou have laugh'd had I come coffin'd home/ That weep'st to see me triumph? (Shakespeare)
  6. It is better to write of laughter than of tears, for laughter is the property of man. (Francois Rabelais)
  7. Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who was there to judge it? The critics! (Arthur Rimbaud) Missing premise: the critics are shitty judges.
  8. I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there. (Arthur Rimbaud) Missing premises: belief makes a hell of heaven (derived from Milton). 
  9. Heaven must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there. (Emma Goldman) Missing premise: the poor in spirit are dull people.

What makes the enthymeme useful is its concision. By cutting out the most obvious part of the argument, the resulting expression has greater energy. 
Note 1: The enthymeme and other logical devices were frequently used in Greek literature and philosophy, in the Bible, and throughout classical literature. There is great value in these devices and in the general study of aristotelian logic; in particular, the syllogism. It's only through the careful study of logical arguments that one may ever hope to reach correct and valid conclusions. Unfortunately, the precise details of Aristotle's logic require far more space than one journal entry.

Note 2: Aristotle was considered the foremost authority on logic for about 2000 years (until the introduction of mathematical logic by Gottlob Frege and others). Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice in Wonderland, taught Aristotle's logic professionally. One can still buy Carroll's books on logic (I own one). He consistently uses logical devices throughout his works of fiction and poetry.  

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Submitted on
February 3, 2016


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