Exordium - Definition and Examples

Statue of Dr Martin Luther King Jr


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In classical rhetoric, the introductory part of an argument in which a speaker or writer establishes credibility (ethos) and announces the subject and purpose of the discourse. Plural: exordia.


From the Latin, "beginning"

Observations and Examples:

  • "Ancient rhetoricians gave elaborate advice for exordia, since rhetors use this first part of a discourse to establish their ethos as intelligent, reliable, and trustworthy people. Indeed, Quintilian wrote that 'the sole purpose of the exordium is to prepare our audience in such a way that they will be disposed to lend a ready ear to the rest of our speech' (IV i 5). However, in Book II of the Rhetoric, Aristotle contended that the main purpose of the introduction was 'to make clear what is the end (telos) of the discourse' (1515a). Other functions of introductions, according to Aristotle, include making the audience well disposed toward the rhetor and the issue and grabbing their attention."
    (S. Crowley and D. Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, Pearson, 2004)

Analysis of the Exordium of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech

"The exordium [paragraphs 2-5] breaks down into two parts, both of which make a similar syllogistic argument while shifting its major premise. The syllogism takes the form of (a) America consists of a promise of freedom, (b) the Negro in America still is not free, therefore, (c) America has defaulted on its promise. The major premise of the first argument is that the Emancipation Proclamation constituted a promise of freedom for Afro-Americans. The major premise of the second argument is that the American Founding as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution constituted such a promise. In both cases, King argues, the promise has not be fulfilled.

"King's exordium is essentially moderate. This is necessary because he must win the attention and trust of his audience before he can make his more militant plea. Having established his ethos, King is now ready for confrontation."
(Nathan W. Schlueter, One Dream or Two? Lexington Books, 2002)

Exordium of John Milton's Address to His Classmates (An Academic Exercise)

"The noblest masters of rhetoric have left behind them in various screeds a maxim which can hardly have escaped you, my academic friends, and which says that in every type of speech--demonstrative, deliberative, or judicial--the opening should be designed to win the goodwill of the audience. On those terms only can the minds of the auditors be made responsive and the cause that the speaker has at heart be won. If this be true (and--not to disguise the truth--I know that it is a principle established by the vote of the entire learned world), how unlucky I am! What a plight I am in today! In the very first words of my speech, I am afraid that I am going to say something unbecoming to a speaker, and that I shall be obliged to neglect the first and most important duty of an orator. And in fact, what good will can I expect from you when in as great an assembly as this I recognize almost every face within eyeshot as unfriendly to me? I seem to have come to play an orator's part before an utterly unsympathetic audience."
(John Milton, "Whether Day or Night Is the More Excellent." Prolusions, 1674. Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. by Merritt Y. Hughes. Prentice Hall, 1957)

Cicero on the Exordium

"The exordium ought always to be accurate and judicious, replete with matter, appropriate in expression, and strictly adapted to the cause. For the commencement, constituting the introduction and recommendation of the subject, should tend immediately to mollify the hearer and conciliate his favor. . . .

"Every exordium ought either to have reference to the entire subject under consideration, or to form an introduction and support, or a graceful and ornamental approach to it, bearing, however, the same architectural proportion to the speech as the vestibule and avenue to the edifice and temple to which they lead. In trifling and unimportant causes, therefore, it is often better to commence with a simple statement without any preamble. . . .

"Let the exordium also be so connected with the succeeding parts of the discourse that it may not appear artificially attached, like the prelude of the musician, but a coherent member of the same body. It is the practice of some speakers, after having put forth a most elaborately finished exordium, to make such a transition to what follows, that they seem solely intent upon drawing attention to themselves."
(Cicero, De Oratore, 55 BC)

Pronunciation: egg-ZOR-dee-yum

Also Known As: entrance, prooemium, prooimion

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Exordium - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/exordium-rhetoric-term-1690693. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Exordium - Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/exordium-rhetoric-term-1690693 Nordquist, Richard. "Exordium - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/exordium-rhetoric-term-1690693 (accessed June 3, 2023).