Definition and Examples of Sententiae in Rhetoric

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In classical rhetoric, a sententia is a maxim, proverb, aphorism, or popular quotation: a brief expression of conventional wisdom. Plural: sententiae.

A sententia, said the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, is an adage that bears particularly on “instruction in living" (Adagia, 1536).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "feeling, judgment, opinion"

Examples and Observations

  • "It is best to insert sententiae discreetly, that we may be viewed as judicial advocates, not moral instructors."
    (Rhetorica ad Herennium, c. 90 BC)
  • "A man's as miserable as he thinks he is."
    (Seneca the Younger)
  • "No man is laughable who laughs at himself."
    (Seneca the Younger)
  • "Things forbidden have a secret charm."
  • "Greater things are believed of those who are absent."
  • "A bad peace is worse than war."
  • "Post-Ciceronian Latin gave vigor and point to style by the frequent use of sententiae--clever, sometimes epigrammatic, apothegmatic turns of phrase: 'what oft was thought but n'er so well express'd,' as Alexander Pope was to put it. Quintilian devotes a chapter to sententiae (8.5), acknowledging that they had become a necessary part of the orator's art."
    (George A. Kennedy, "Classical Rhetoric." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Sententiae in the Renaissance
    - "A sententia, which had overtones of its classical Latin sense of 'judgement,' was a pithy and memorable phrase: a 'recitall of some grave matter' which both beautified and graced a style. Several writers were clear that testimony could take the form of a 'Notable sentence' or was a 'sententia of a witness.' Richard Sherry, in his Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (1550), closely associated the sententia with the argument from testimony or authority when he defined it as one of the seven kinds of figure called 'Indicacio, or authoritie."
    (R.W. Serjeantson, "Testimony." Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
    - "Scholasticism developed around the medieval tendency to treat ancient sources--both the Bible and certain texts of classical antiquity--as authoritative. So strong was this tendency that individual sentences from a respected source, even when taken out of context, could be employed to secure a point in debate. These isolated statements from ancient sources were called sententiae. Some authors collected large numbers of sententiae into anthologies for educational and disputational purposes. Disputes centered on debatable points suggested by one or more sententiae, these debatable notions being called quaestiones. Education by debating general topics drawn from authoritative statements reveals one way in which rhetorical and dialectical practices made their way into the Middle Ages. . . .
    "Writers now known as the Italian Humanists were responsible for a resurgence of interest in the languages and texts of classical antiquity during the Renaissance period, an orientation referred to as classicism. . . .
    "[T]he Humanists sought to place 'the text in its historical context, in order to establish the correct value of words and phrases.' . . . As noted [above], the scholastic practice of splintering classical sources into individual statements or sententiae led to the loss of original meaning and even of authorial identity. Charles Nauert writes, 'from Petrarch onward, humanists insisted on reading each opinion in its context, abandoning the anthologies . . . and subsequent interpretations and going back to the full original text in search of the author's real meaning.'"
    (James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2005)

Pronunciation: sen-TEN-she-ah

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Sententiae in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Sententiae in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Sententiae in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).