Exemplum in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Early Christian preachers recognized the usefulness of exempla. In this 18th-century fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, St. John the Baptist preaches to a crowd. DEA Picture Library/Getty Images

In literature, rhetoric, and public speaking, a narrative or anecdote used to illustrate a quotation, claim, or moral point is called exemplum.

In classical rhetoric, the exemplum (which Aristotle called the paradigma) was considered one of the basic methods of argument. But as noted in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 90 BC), "Exempla are not distinguished for their ability to give proof or witness to particular causes, but for their ability to expound these causes."

In medieval rhetoric, according to Charles Brucker, the exemplum "became a means to persuade the hearers, especially in sermons and in moral or moralizing written texts" ("Marie de France and the Fable Tradition," 2011).

From the Latin, "pattern, model"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The exemplum is probably the most-used rhetorical device, as it illustrates or clarifies a point. 'I believe Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest player in NBA history. For instance, he scored 100 points in a single game and played nearly every minute of every game.' Good examples are used to build strong arguments, and readers should pay close attention to them. An exemplum can often be spotted by phrases such as 'for example' or 'for instance,' which serve as flags for the reader, but exemplum may also be disguised and may be missing the key phrases."
    (Brendan McGuigan, Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers. Prestwick House, 2007)
  • Exempla, Parables, and Fables
    - "Unlike the parable, the exemplum was usually presumed to be true and the moral placed at the beginning rather than at the end."
    (Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, Literary Terms: A Dictionary, 3rd ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989)

    - "Aristotle . . . divided exempla into 'real' and 'fictional' ones--the former being drawn from history or mythology, the latter being the invention of the orator himself. In the category of fictional exempla, Aristotle distinguisged parables, or brief comparisons, from fables, which constitutre a series of actions, in other words, a story."
    (Susan Suleiman, Authoritarian Fiction. Columbia University Press, 1988)
  • Five Elements of the Exemplum
    "Exemplum speeches have five elements that follow one another:
    1. State a quotation or proverb. . . .
    2. Identify and explain the author or source of the proverb or quotation. . . . .
    3. Rephrase the proverb in your own words. . . .
    4. Tell a story that illustrates the quotation or proverb. . . .
    5. Apply the quotation or proverb to the audience.
    Select your narrative from personal experience, from historical events, or from episodes in the life of someone else. Choose one that represents, illustrates, or explains something important to you, perhaps a turning point in your life. Identify a lesson or point to your story, then find a quotation that supports this point."
    (Clella Jaffe, Public Speaking: Concepts And Skills for a Diverse Society, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2007)
  • Exempla in Roman Prose
    "Each exemplum consists of an exordium ('introductory'), the narrative proper, and a subsequent reflection. . . .

    "The exemplum, far from aspiring to historical accuracy, invites the reader to identify himself with a great character by way of admiration or sympathy. An emotional presentation adds to the dramatic effect."
    (Michael von Albrecht, A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius. E.J. Brill, 1997)
  • Exempla in Homiletics
    "Exempla became an important element in Christian homiletic writing, as preachers used such stories in sermons to lay audiences. As a guide, anthologies of such narratives circulated, beginning in the sixth century wth Pope Gregory the Great's Homiliae in Evangelia. Such 'example books' enjoyed their greatest vogue from 1200 to 1400, when they circulated in Latin and many vernacular languages. . . .

    "Originally drawn from classical histories or saints' lives, these collections eventually included many traditional narratives. . . . Preachers could employ historical figures as good or bad examples to exhort listeners to practice virtue and avoid sin. But many more contemporaneous examples were used to frighten them with the wages of blasphemy."
    (Bill Ellis, "Exemplum." Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, ed. by Thomas A. Green. ABC-CLIO, 1997)
  • Chaucer's Use of Exempla
    "[T]he term exempla is also applied to tales used in a formal, though nonreligious, exhortation. Thus Chaucer's Chanticleer, in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' [in The Canterbury Tales], borrows the preacher's technique in the ten exempla he tells in a vain effort to persuade his skeptical wife Dame Pertelote the hen, that bad dreams forbode disaster."
    (M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2009)
  • The Restricted Validity of Exempla
    "Viewed logically, there is not even an apodictic validity in the exemplum, for its validity always depends on whether the similarity between both cases, on which the validity is based, actually exists. Viewed practically, however, the restriction is mostly irrelevant. In everyday usage we encounter hundreds of decisions based on exemplary conclusions without ever reflecting on this restricted validity."
    (Emidio Campi, Scholarly Knowledge: Textbooks in Early Modern Europe. Librairie Droz, 2008)

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Exemplum in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/exemplum-rhetoric-term-1690617. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 14). Exemplum in Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/exemplum-rhetoric-term-1690617 Nordquist, Richard. "Exemplum in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/exemplum-rhetoric-term-1690617 (accessed January 23, 2018).