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At some point in the tropes course—last week, this time around—we study the argumentums, which are great things to hang tropes on. I’m talking about such familiar terms as argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, argumentum ad ignorantium, and so forth (no, I am not going to add ad nauseam, although it seems sometimes that it ought to be included).

The first thing to know is that these are not valid arguments in the syllogistic sense (all birds have two legs, Socrates has two legs, therefore Socrates is a bird...something like that; I was never real good at it). Rather than being logical propositions, they are psychological strategies. The idea of argumentums is not logical proof but rhetorical persuasion. This is where the philosophers and the rhetoricians—Sophists in particular—part company, and not always amicably. To the philosophers, these are not valid arguments but fallacies. But in skilled hands they can be very effective, and are wicked fun.

Most people have heard of argumentum ad hominem, the mainstay of politicians. If you can’t deal intelligently with your opponent’s ideas, attack his character instead, the implication being that such a lowlife can’t possibly have good ideas anyway, can’t possibly have the voters’ welfare at heart. Accuse him of being in bed with special interests, of voting against the common interest, or of having virtually no interests that anybody of right mind would be interested in. In the campaigning just ended, what you saw on the tv or got in the mail consisted almost entirely of ad hominem attacks, the more vicious the better, apparently, and you almost had to admire these inventive mudslingers. Often other argumentums sneak in. One tv spot revealed that our incumbent congressman had canceled his employees’ health insurance coverage JUST FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS! Then Joe Sixpack stared into the camera and asked us, “What kind of man does that?” Shades of Scrooge. That’s called argumentum ad misericordiam, one of my particular favorites. (Surely you heard about the young man convicted of hacking his parents to death who threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.) Anyway, week after week of these vile attacks did begin to seem like argumentum ad nauseam after all.

My father was a past master of ad misericordiam, the appeal to pity. When we were little, acting up in the back seat of the Olds on a long trip, my mother would be at her wits’ end but Pop, driving, staring straight ahead, would say, very quietly, “I know they can sometimes be a trial, Mother, but, well, just so they keep the grass mowed over our graves.” Oh, Sweet Jesus! My little heart would bolt up my throat, tears would well up in my eyes. With quivering lip, I would be a model child for at least the next hundred miles. Crafty, the old man was.

The crudest is probably argumentum ad baculum, the appeal to force, as when a couple of no-necks stroll into your candy store and opine that it would be a real shame if a fire should break out some night (you get the message). But it can be a tad more sophisticated, this carrot and stick business. If you don’t vote for my bill, I’ll remember it when your bill comes to the floor. Or I will vote for your bill and expect you to vote for mine.

Sooner or later a bright student will realize that heaven and hell constitute the ultimate argumentum ad baculum.

Argumentum ad ignorantium is a favorite of spiritualists, various New Agers, conspiracy theorists, and others: a proposition is true if nobody can prove it false (and if you do produce Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, well, it’s obviously a forgery). Hear about the guy in Brooklyn who littered the subway car floor with his torn up newspaper? Fellow commuter finally asks him why he does so every day. Bright-eyed, the fellow explains that it keeps the elephants away. “But there aren’t any elephants within three thousand miles of here!” And for answer he is favored with a serene smile (funny how many good jokes spring from argumentums).

Then there is argumentum ad vericundiam, the appeal to authority, or often just to celebrity. The Nobel Prize almost guarantees that people will respect your views on political issues, even though your prize was for literature or medicine. And if Harrison Ford wears a Rolex watch and drinks Chivas Regal, that’s good enough for me and my credit card. Nor can we forget the Complex Question trap (“Do you still beat your wife?”) and the ever dependable post hoc ergo propter hoc, as in the eclipse example (“Sacrificing twenty virgins brought the sun back to us! May the merciful Sun God be praised!”).

The most fun, however, since it draws on so many strengths, is the argumentum ad populum, and I want to look at a couple of examples next week.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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