Polemic: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

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Polemic is a mode of writing or speaking that uses vigorous and combative language to defend or oppose someone or something. Adjectives: polemic and polemical.

The art or practice of disputation is called polemics. A person who is skilled in debate or someone who is inclined to argue vehemently in opposition to others is called a polemicist (or, less commonly, a polemist).

Enduring examples of polemics in English include John Milton's Aeropagitica (1644), Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), The Federalist Papers (essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, 1788-89), and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Examples and observations of polemics are given below. Some other terms that are related to and some that may be confused with polemics include:

Etymology: From the Greek, "war, warlike"

Pronunciation: po-LEM-ic

Examples and Observations

  • "I am in general of the opinion that the best polemic is the perfect presentation of a new point of view." (Finnish folklorist Kaarle Krohn, quoted in Leading Folklorists of the North, 1970)
  • "Polemics are certainly necessary at times, but they are only justified by being necessary; otherwise they produce more heat than light." (Richard Strier, Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts. University of California Press, 1995)
  • "[George Bernard Shaw] is a poet of polemics, as Einstein seems to have felt when he compared the movement of Shavian dialogue to Mozart's music. His polemics are therefore the more dangerous, for polemics are nothing but the art of skilled deception. A prime device of polemics is the either/or pattern, against which so much has been said in recent times, often by great polemicists. Shaw is a great polemicist in his skilled deployment of antithesis."
  • (Eric Bentley, The Playwright as a Thinker, 1946. Rpt. by University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

Why Polemic Has a Bad Name in the Academic World

"Polemic has a bad name in the humanities academy. Reasons for avoiding or seeking to discredit polemic aren't always articulated, yet they surely include these: polemic disrupts the shared endeavours of the academy and preempts the civil or technical discourses of professionalism; polemic is a short cut to professional recognition typically chosen by those whose ambition outruns their achievement; conversely, polemic is the last resort of major figures in decline, seeking to maintain their professional dominance; polemic is a cheap, often trivial, substitute for real intellectual production; polemic belongs to the sphere of public journalism, where careers can be made on the basis of verbal aggression alone; polemic caters to the unseemly pleasures of cruelty and malice; polemic tends to become compulsive and consuming. Such reasons, or perhaps only intuitions, suffice to create an aversion to polemic, at least in the U.S. academy; they also tend to render polemic ethically suspect, with whatever intellectual justifications it is pursued...If, in fact, polemic has become increasingly discredited in the academy during the past 30 years, is it just a coincidence that the trend coincided with a broader academic rejection of violence in the post-colonial, post-Vietnam era?" (Jonathan Crewe, "Can Polemic Be Ethical?" Polemic: Critical Or Uncritical, ed. by Jane Gallop. Routledge, 2004)

Explicit vs. Hidden Polemics

"A polemic is considered to be direct when its subject is explicitly mentioned and the stance taken therein is also explicit--that is, when there is no need to search it out in order to draw conclusions...A polemic is hidden when its subject is not explicitly mentioned, or when it is not mentioned in the expected, conventional formulation. Through various hints, the reader is left with the feeling that a double effort has been made within the text: on the one hand—to conceal the subject of the polemic, that is, to avoid its explicit mention; on the other—to leave certain traces within the text...that through various means will lead the reader to the hidden subject of the polemic." (Yaira Amit, Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative, trans. by Jonathan Chipman. Brill, 2000)

The Introduction to Common Sense, a Polemic by Thomas Paine

Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
As a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right of it in question (and in matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry), and as the King of England hath undertaken in his own right to support the Parliament in which he calls theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpation of either.
In the following sheets, the author hath studiously avoided everything which is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make no part thereof. The wise and the worthy need not the triumph of a pamphlet: and those whose sentiments are injudicious or unfriendly, will cease of themselves, unless too much pains are bestowed upon their conversion.The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure, is
-Philadelphia, February 14, 1776 (Thomas Paine, Common Sense)

"In January 1776 Thomas Paine released Common Sense, adding his voice for public consideration over the deteriorating British-American situation. The sheer volume of issues alone attests to the pamphlet's demand and suggests a significant impact on colonial thought. [It was reprinted] over fifty times before the year was out, accounting for over five hundred thousand copies...The immediate effect of Common Sense was to break a deadlock between a minority of colonial leaders who wished to form an independent American state and the majority of leaders who sought reconciliation with the British." (Jerome Dean Mahaffey, Preaching Politics. Baylor University Press, 2007)

John Stuart Mill on the Abuses of Polemics

"The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interest in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other..." (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Polemic: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-polemic-1691472. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Polemic: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-polemic-1691472 Nordquist, Richard. "Polemic: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-polemic-1691472 (accessed March 29, 2023).