Philippic (Rhetoric)

Man ranting
tirc83/Getty Images

Philippic is discourse (traditionally an oration) that is characterized by fierce condemnation of a subject; a diatribe or rant.

The term philippic (from Greek philippikos) is derived from the virulent denunciations of Philip II of Macedon delivered by Demosthenes of Athens in the fourth century BC. Demosthenes is commonly regarded as the greatest orator of his age. See Examples and Observations, below.

Novelist Donna Tartt's Philippic Against Prescriptive Usage

Michael Pietsch: Before I began editing your book, you sent a philippic against standardization. You declared that spell-check, auto-correct, and (if I recall correctly) even sacred cows like Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style are the writer’s enemies, that the writer’s voice and choice are the highest standard. Do you have advice for other writers confronted with editorial standardization?

Donna Tartt: Was it really a philippic? I thought it was more a cordial memorandum.

Pietsch: Two-thirds of the way through a set of notes to the copy editor, you wrote:

I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I've intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.

Tartt: Well--I'm not saying that the writer's voice is always the highest standard; only that a lot of writers who are fine stylists and whose work I love wouldn't make it past a contemporary copy editor armed with the Chicago Manual, including some of the greatest writers and stylists of the 19th and 20th century.

(Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch, "The Slate Book Review Author-Editor Conversation." Slate, October 11, 2013)

Paul Simon's "Simple Desultory Philippic"

"I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored.
I been John O'Hara'd, McNamara'd.
I been Rolling Stoned and Beatled till I'm blind.
I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
Communist, 'cause I'm left-handed.
That's the hand I use, well, never mind! . . .

"I been Mick Jaggered, silver daggered.
Andy Warhol, won't you please come home?
I been mothered, fathered, aunt and uncled,
Been Roy Haleed and Art Garfunkeled.
I just discovered somebody's tapped my phone."

[Paul Simon, "A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)." Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel. Columbia, 1966]

The Philippics of Demosthenes (384-323 BC)

"From 351 BCE, until his self-induced death by poison in 323 BCE (to avoid death at the hands of Philip of Macedon's soldiers), Demosthenes turned his talents to public affairs, particularly to rallying the Athenian people against the imminent threat of invasion by Philip...

The Philippics are speeches delivered by Demosthenes between the years 351 BCE and 340 BCE. There are four Philippics orations although Dobson doubts that the fourth is legitimate.

The first two Philippics are calls to the Athenian people to resist Philip before Athens itself is threatened with domination by the barbarian from the north. The Third Philippic occurs after Philip has gained control of many parts of the Athenian empire and is about to march on the city of Olynthus. Demosthenes pleads urgently and desperately for a military mission to help the Olynthians and prepare for war. Despite his failure in rousing the Athenian people to arm themselves against Philip, Demosthenes' Philippic orations are considered masterpieces of rhetorical invention and technique."

(James J. Murphy, Richard A. Katula, and Michael Hoppmann, A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, 4th ed. Routledge, 2014)

The Philippics of Cicero (106-43 BC)

"With Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE Cicero re-entered a political arena that granted him an opportunity to renew his consular voice and use his Republican rhetoric, now against Caesar's lieutenant Marcus Antonius.

These Philippics allowed Caesar to revive his Demosthenic persona and to provide a capstone to his claim to be the near embodiment of the [Roman] Republic, boasting at the start of the Second Philippic that in twenty years there has been no enemy of the Republic who has not also simultaneously declared war on Cicero... Cicero's proscription by the triumvirs and his brutal murder showed that he miscalculated his rhetoric's power to impose his image of the Republic upon this changed political landscape.

Cicero's final stand on behalf of the Republic in his speeches against Antony secured his heroization as the orator who embodied the Republic and its values, his contradictions and compromises largely forgotten."

(John Dugan, "Rhetoric and the Roman Republic." The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rhetoric, ed. by Erik Gunderson. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

"Despite the final outcome, Cicero's fourteen extant orations against Antony (perhaps three more are lost) may be felt to represent his finest hour. . . . Cicero invokes a rhetoric of crisis, in which good is pitted against evil with no room for compromise (cf. Wooten 1983; Hall 2002: 283-7). Even his style has changed. Sentences are shorter, periodic structures less frequent, and main ideas are not kept in suspense until a sentence ends . . .."

(Christopher P. Craig, "Cicero as Orator." A Companion to Roman Rhetoric, ed. by William Dominik and Jon Hall. Blackwell, 2010)

The Lighter Side of Philippics

A PHILIPPIC*

Down with that phrase soporific, bromidic--
"Whatever that is"--

Relic of days paleozoic, druidic--
"Whatever that is."
Does one remark, in a tone unspectacular,
"I think the comet diffusely opacular,"
Some one will cry in the vulgar vernacular:
"Whatever that is!"

Curses on him who invented the slogan
"Whatever that is!"
Jump on his neck with an ensiform brogan--
Whatever that is.
Phrase without meaning, bourgeois and pestiferous,
Phrase that is wearying, dull and somniferous,
Here is anathema umbraculiferous--
Whatever that is.



*Whateverthatis.

(Franklin Pierce Adams, By and Large. Doubleday, 1920)

Further Reading