Emphasis: A Cognitive Figure in Ancient Rhetoric

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“Emphasis” (emphasis]; significatio) is an ancient rhetorical figure that heightens audience participation through strategic ambiguity, polysemy, or otherwise opaque sentence construction. Through careful diction, the writer/speaker directs audience members to a latent meaning, hidden within a seemingly innocuous phrase. Far from mere ornamentation, this figure fundamentally increases persuasive power through narrative engagement, while also providing the writer or speaker plausible deniability.

Cognitive sciences suggest that all narrative (story) is constructed in the minds of audience members from a mixture of fragmentary discourse and prior knowledge. Audience members tend to resolve narrative ambiguity unconsciously as the brain matches incoming textual information to prior knowledge (e.g., context, relevant prior knowledge, group norms, etc.). As Patrick Hogan puts it, “We fill in a great deal of real-world information without ever becoming aware that anything is missing from the text (e.g., that we do not see actually a bullet leave the gun and hit the man in the trench coat; needless to say, these data are also missing in parallel real life experiences)” (Cognitive Science, 117). From a cognitive perspective, therefore, a well-crafted narrative guides the audience in the mental construction of a story while not spelling everything out for audiences. Narratives that fail in this regard might be said to be “too on the nose,” while the most compelling and persuasive narratives recruit audiences to supply meaning in line with the narrative’s aims.

Even  ancient rhetorical critics grappled with the appropriate ratios of explicit to implicit meaning, or how best to entice audience members to participate in meaning construction without ever realizing they were doing it. These techniques—akin to an ancient art of inception—were transmitted through Greek and Latin rhetorical schools and show up throughout ancient narrative, from Greek dialogues and novels to Latin epic poetry and early Christian gospels.

Both Greek and Latin traditions upheld clarity, conciseness, and credibility as the three virtues of narration. For example, Theon’s Progymnasmata (1st c. CE) taught that a well-ordered diegesis (‘narrative’) balanced clarity and conciseness in the service of credibility (Prog. § 79; cf. Quintilian, Inst. 4.2.31). Accordingly, early in their training students were taught to avoid non-strategic lapses in clarity. Later on, however, they learned ways to use strategic ambiguity (or better, polysemy) to improve audience participation. By highlighting allusive language, an orator could insinuate elements not made explicit, leaving breadcrumbs, as it were, for audience members to follow from their own ingenuity. One could use this figure throughout a passage or in one turn of phrase. Some ancient rhetoricians systematized emphasis into word-emphasis and thought-emphasis. Others further delineated the subtypes of emphasis (e.g., via Hyperbole, Ambiguity, Logical Consequence, Aposiopesis, and Analogy; cf. Rhet. Her. 4.53.67). Whatever the mechanism, all forms of emphasis juxtapose context and text in ways that encourage following a connotation instead of the denotation.

Emphasis based on implications from context. Demetrius (1st CE) calls this figure “allusive verbal innuendo” (to eschmatismenon en logo) (cf. On Style 278-288). For example, in the Phaedo Plato blames Aristippus and Cleombrotus for abandoning Socrates when he needed them most. They were feasting in Aegina while Socrates was imprisoned alone without aid from his friends, despite their close proximity. When Phaedo asks Plato whether Aristippus and Cleombrotus came to visit, his reply is allusive: “No, they were in Aegina.” While there is no explicit censure, the context encourages audience members to read between the lines: Those in the audience already know where Aristippus and Cleombrotus were—and that they were less than 200 stades (~30km or 20 miles) away from their dear friend. The line, “No, they were in Aegina” contrasts the short distance from their friend with the great significance of Socrates’s imprisonment. In Demetrius’s estimation, “the passage seems far more forceful because the force is produced by [the audience’s inference of] the fact itself and not by an authorial comment” (Phaedo 59c in On Style 288; cf. 222). The genius of this figure is that the mind of each audience member supplies what it naturally finds most convincing within the narrative world created by the Phaedo.

Emphasis with polysemous words. The skillful “use of words with an equivocal meaning” can also produce emphasis (On Style 291). Rhetorica ad Herennium (1st BCE) defines such emphasis as when “a word can be taken in at least two senses, but yet is understood in that sense which the speaker wants.” Obviously, ambiguity is not without its risks. Nevertheless, “[e]ven as we must avoid those ambiguities which render the style obscure, so must we seek those which produce an emphasis of this sort.” Done well, emphasis with polysemous words works synergistically with the minds of audience members and “leaves more to be suspected than has been actually asserted” (Rhet. Her. 4.53.67). A century or so later, Quintilian describes emphasis as occurring “when a hidden meaning is extracted from a phrase” (Inst. 9.2.64). This rhetorical figure serves as a Trojan horse in the reader’s mind. When engaged by the reader, the plain words take on additional connotation. For example, depending on the context, the Latin term altus can mean either “high” or “deep,” and sacer can mean either “sacred” or “accursed.”

This type of emphasis peppered the speech of characters across genres in Greco-Roman narrative (e.g., Greek novels, Latin epics, and early Christian gospels). For example, in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe, King Artaxerxes schemes to take Callirhoe as his lover. The plan comes to him while hunting and he calls off the hunt empty-handed: “the king now clinging to hope, rode back to the palace as if he had caught the most beautiful quarry (to kalliston therama)” (Chaer. 6.4.9). On the one hand, the king has not caught anything, but the context and the polysemous superlative kalliston (fine quality or extreme beauty) prompt the audience infer that he had trapped Callirhoe, if only in his mind.

Also,in Vergil’s Aeneid (1st BCE), Dido complains of marriage to Anna with allusory speech: “Ah, that I could not spend my life apart from wedlock, a blameless life, like some wild creature, and not know such cares” (non licuit thalami expertem sine crimine vitam degere more ferae)! (4.550–551) On the one hand, Dido may seem to lament marriage: the life of a wild beast is attractive because it grants freedom from marriage and thus the heartbreak tormenting Dido. However, the life of a wild beast is also pitiable because it suggests a life fit for wild creatures, devoid of the dignity due humans. The ambiguity surrounding the life of wild creatures leaves a gap in the discourse, opening the imagery to emphasis and encouraging audience members to infer that Vergil has buried “something hidden and left for the hearer to discover” (Quintilian, Inst. 9.2.65).

Finally, so-called Johannine double-entendres pepper John’s Gospel and thrive on at least two planes of meaning. For example, Jesus challenges the temple authorities, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The authorities understand him to refer to the second temple, but contextually Jesus is referring to his body (cf. 2:21). Later, Nicodemus renders Jesus’s statements on the “physical” plane whereas Jesus seems to intend them on the “spiritual” plane. For example, the Greek term anothen can mean either “again” (physical) or a “from above” (spiritual). Regardless (or better, because) of the failings of these Johannine characters, the narrative prompts audience members to understand the more profound teaching of Jesus—not on the basis of the denotation alone but rather on the connotation that blossoms in their minds.

Emphasis provides a salient example of ancient rhetorical reflection on the active role of audience members in meaning construction. It ought to prompt us to look beyond the words on the page to the lives of narrative in the minds of those experiencing it. These are the story worlds that occupy the thoughts of those integrating ancient narrative and cognitive science.

Further Reading

Ahl, Frederick. “The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome.” American Journal of Philology 105 (1984): 174–208.

Broek, Paul van den, Katinka Beker, and Marja Oudega. “Inference Generation in Text Comprehension: Automatic and Strategic Processes in the Construction of a Mental Representation.” In Inferences during Reading, edited by Edward J. O’Brien, Anne E. Cook, and Robert F. Lorch Jr., 94–121. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Carlos, Claudia. “Restraint and Rhetorical Craftiness: Emphasis as a Means of Figured Speech in Montaigne’s Essays.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric 14, no. 1 (January 2011): 83–97.

Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Hogan, Patrick C. Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Lausberg, Heinrich. Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study. Edited by David E. Orton and R. Dean Anderson. Translated by Matthew T. Bliss, Annemiek Jansen, and David E. Orton. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Vega, Manuel de. “Toward an Embodied Approach to Inferences in Comprehension: The Case of Action Language.” In Inferences during Reading, edited by Edward J. O’Brien, Anne E. Cook, and Robert F. Lorch Jr., 182–209. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Whitenton, Michael R. Configuring Nicodemus: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Complex Characterization. LNTS. London: T&T Clark, 2019.

———. Hearing Kyriotic Sonship: A Cognitive and Rhetorical Approach to the Characterization of Mark’s Jesus. BIS 148. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

———. “The Dissembler of John 3: A Cognitive and Rhetorical Approach to the Characterization of Nicodemus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016): 141–58.

Whitlark, Jason A. “‘Here We Do Not Have a City That Remains’: A Figured Critique of Roman Imperial Propaganda in Hebrews 13:14.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012): 161–79.

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