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Topoi: Cause and Effect

Excerpt from Richard M. Weaver’s
Rhetoric and Handbook,
Chapter 5

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: The Enthymeme
  2. Relation of Logic to Rhetoric
  3. The Topics

Cause and Effect

The topic which depends on cause-and-effect relationship makes use of causal reasoning. It affirms that a given cause implies an effect of proportionate gravity, or that a given effect implies a cause of proportionate gravity. Accordingly, if there is a serious cause, we shall find ourselves in serious plight; if we are now in serious plight, there must exist a serious cause. Let us look at this topic as it might appear in the syllogism.

  • Extravagance produces want.
  • This is a case of extravagance.
  • This is a case which will produce want.

The rhetorical force of the argument depends upon our acceptance of the truth of the cause-and-effect relationship which is affirmed in the major premise. If we grant that extravagance always has, as one of its effects, want, we may be moved to avoid extravagance by our understanding of this relationship. In this way our perception of the causal linkages of phenomena enters into a syllogism as part of its content.

Again let us study the topic in a historical context. When the framers of the Declaration of Independence sat down to produce a persuasive argument for the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain, they relied chiefly upon the argument from effect. The effect was the “facts” which were to be submitted to a candid world. Under seventeen heads the framers listed a large number of particulars in which the colonies had suffered by the policy of the king of Great Britain. Most of us will recall the general tenor if not the content of these. “He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good….He has dissolved representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….” and so on. Now all of these abuses are pointed out as grave effects which indicate a grave cause, and the cause was seen as a desire to reduce the people of the colonies under an absolute despotism. The colonists were determined that the grave cause should be followed by a different effect, which was to be their separation from the oppressive government of George III. But as far as the rhetorical effect of the argument goes, it is enough to recognize that the proposition asserts a relationship between the suppression of local rights and liberties and despotic rule. Insofar as we are impressed by the truth of that relationship, we will feel a persuasive force in the argument. Enough has been said to show that the argument beginning with cause and moving to effect operates in the same way; if grievous causes exist, grievous effects must follow.

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