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Topoi: Circumstance

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

Circumstance

A kind of subvariety of the topic cause is the topic circumstance. The argument from circumstance is well summed up in the expression we sometimes hear, “There is nothing else to do about it.” If the situation is such that the facts dictate one course of action, even though that course cannot be vindicated by principle and even though its effect can not be demonstrated, then we are driven back upon the argument from circumstance. We may state its pattern thus: the situation being what it is, there exists no alternative to the action that I recommend. The classic example of the argument from circumstance is Hannibal’s address to his troops upon entering Italy.

You are hemmed in on the right and left by two seas, and you do not have so much as a single ship upon either of them. Then there is the Po before you and the Alps behind. The Po is a deeper, and a more rapid and turbulent river than the Rhone; and as for the Alps, it was with the utmost difficulty that you passed over them when you were in full strength and vigor; they are an insurmountable wall to you now. You are therefore shut in, like our prisoners, on every side, and have no hope of life and liberty but in battle and victory.

In this famous speech, all emphasis is placed upon the coercive nature of the circumstances of the Carthaginian army. This is why we say that it is a simple appeal to circumstances for rhetorical motivation.

But sometimes the argument from circumstances appears in more complex situations. Edmund Burke’s famous speech on conciliation with the colonies is filled with appeals to this source. Indeed, the central point of the speech may be called an argument from circumstance, for Burke was saying to Parliament: since the American colonies are so strong now, and have such a mighty potential for the future, and are so far removed from us, what are you going to do except make peace with them through concessions? The statement often quoted from this speech, “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” is again purely an argument from circumstance, because it maintains that the circumstance of the offenders’ being a whole people overshadows the normal course of the law. But the source is seen in its clearest aspect when Burke, after reviewing the fierce spirit of the colonists, declares: “The question is not, whether this spirit deserves praise or blame, but – what, in the name of God, shall we do with it?”

Circumstance belongs to the order of causal relations, but it is the least perceptive, or one might say the least philosophical of the topics. It admits a kind of helplessness in the hands of circumstance – an inability to demonstrate relationships other than the presence of overpowering fact. We recognize this appeal in many advertising and political slogans. The statement that the popular swing is to this kind of cigarette or that kind of automobile, or that 85% of the people buy this kind of breakfast food, or that you should vote for candidate X because he is sure to win, are all slightly disguised arguments from circumstance. Of course these appeals are sometimes supplemented by other arguments, but as far as they themselves go, they utilize only the circumstance of popularity.

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