apologia (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Bill Clinton - Apologia
In 1998, President Bill Clinton apologized to the American public for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)


In classical rhetoric, communication studies, and public relations, an apologia is a speech that defends, justifies, and/or apologizes for an action or statement. Plural: apologia. Adjective: apologetic. Also known as a speech of self-defense.

In an article* in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (1973), B.L. Ware and W.A. Linkugel identified four common strategies in apologetic discourse:

  1. denial (directly or indirectly rejecting the substance, intent, or consequence of the questionable act)
  2. bolstering (attempting to enhance the image of the individual under attack)
  3. differentiation (distinguishing the questionable act from more serious or harmful actions)
  4. transcendence (placing the act in a different context)

*"They Spoke in Defense of Themselves: On the Generic Criticism of Apologia"

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "away from" + "speech"

Examples and Observations

  • "There may be several purposes for apologia rhetoric, including to explain the behavior or statement in a positive light, justify the behavior to minimize damage to image and character, or remove the topic from public discussion so that other issues may be discussed."
    (Colleen E. Kelley, The Rhetoric of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton: Crisis Management Discourse. Praeger, 2001)
  • The Rhetoric of Damage Control
    "Some genres are so complex and 'high stakes' that they require a special kind of rhetorical maneuvering and critical assessment. One such animal is what Aristotle called an apologia--or what we label today as the rhetoric of self-defense, damage-control, image-repair, or crisis management. . . .
    "Its indebtedness to all three genres [deliberative, judicial, and epideictic], but its allegiance to none, makes the apologia a challenging rhetorical hybrid to create and critique (Campbell & Huxman, 2003, pp. 293-294). . . . .
    "The genre [of apologia] is a public purging of sins and a reaffirmation of the ethical norms of society 'dressed up' in theatrical proportions to bring pleasure to spectators; it is the most intimate form of secular discourse. Success in this arena requires a 'let it all hang out (remorse, pride, outrage)' approach. The visual media are especially equipped to provide the excess and exaggeration that this type of theater demands."
    (Susan Schultz Huxman, "Exigencies, Explanations, and Executions: Toward a Dynamic Theory of the Crisis Communications Genre." Responding to Crisis: A Rhetorical Approach to Crisis Communication, ed. by Dan P. Millar and Robert L. Heath. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004)
  • BP CEO's Apologia for the Gulf Oil Spill (May 31, 2010)
    "The first thing to say is I'm sorry. . . . We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
    (Tony Hayward, televised speech in Venice, Louisiana, May 31, 2010)
  • Bill Clinton's Apologia: The Monica Lewinsky Affair (Aug. 17, 1998)
    Good evening.
    This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury.
    I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.
    Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private. And that is why I am speaking to you tonight.
    As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.
    Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.
    But I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence or to take any other unlawful action.
    I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.
    I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct.
    I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration, too.
    In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago, dealings I might add about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago.
    The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation.
    This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people.
    Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most--my wife and our daughter--and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.
    Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours.
    Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.
    Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this. That is all I can do.
    Now it is time--in fact, it is past time to move on.
    We have important work to do--real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face.
    And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.
    Thank you for watching. And good night.
    (President Bill Clinton, televised speech to the American public, August 17, 1998)

Pronunciation: AP-eh-LOW-je-eh

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Nordquist, Richard. "apologia (rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). apologia (rhetoric). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996 Nordquist, Richard. "apologia (rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996 (accessed April 11, 2021).