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
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:
The introduction, in which the speaker warms up to the audience, establishes rapport, and announces the general theme or thesis of the argument
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
The narration, in which the speaker presents specific circumstances or issues to be dealt with, a summary of relevant background, and an overview of what is at stake;
The confirmation, in which the speaker gives her or his principal claims and evidence for accepting the thesis or point of view in the argument
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. Often the confirmation section has the typical shape of a Toulmin argument.
The refutation, in which the speaker considers opposing viewpoints, conceding as much as can be without damaging the thesis, and refuting conflicting views. This section also can anticipate and also attempt to deal with possible objections to the speech
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
The conclusion, where the speaker wraps up the various arguments into a summary statement, and amplifies the force of arguments already made.
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
What is the best way to
capture and focus the audience’s attention?
What tone should I
What image of myself should
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
section involves a great deal of what you learned in writing Rogerian
arguments. 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
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
Read a sample student classical argument See more resources on classical argument