Rhetorical Amplification

Introduction to Amplification and Minimization

Amplification is a prominent device in rhetoric Opens in new window, today usually meaning the enlargement of a simple statement into more elaborate language. However, Aristotle Opens in new window refers to it as a form of argument specifically suited to panegyric (epideictic) rhetoric Opens in new window. According to him

  • amplification is with good reason ranked as one of the forms of praise, since it consists in superiority, and superiority is one of the things that are noble.”

Amplification and Minimization in Eulogistic and Vituperative Oratories

Related to the subjects of praise are the devices of amplification and minimization. To put it briefly, a prominent author under Aristotle stresses that:

  • “The eulogistic species of oratory consists, in the amplification of creditable purposes and actions and speeches and the attribution of qualities that do not exist, while the vituperative species is the opposite, the minimization of creditable qualities and the amplification of discreditable ones.”

In alternative thought, what this means is that the eulogistic or encomiastic oratories emphasize a person’s strengths and virtues, while downplaying a person’s weaknesses and shortcomings.

Vituperative oratory does the opposite; it enumerates an opponent’s weakness and shortcomings, while downplaying his or her strengths and virtues. As an afterthought, he adds that

  • “materials for amplification are useful in the other species of oratory as well, but it is in eulogy and vituperation that they are most efficacious.

Aristotle further elucidate the ways amplification may be applied in panegyric speeches. A person is worthy of praise when (s)he does something or achieves a landmark feat alone, or first, or with a few, or is predominantly responsible for the act, or does something beyond expectations, or does something successfully and consistently, and “if is for his/her sake that distinctions which are an encouragement or honor have been invented and established; and if (s)he was the first on whom an encomium was pronounced … or to whom a statue was set up in the market-place.”

Similarly, Theon Opens in new window opines that

  • “actions are praised based on the occasion and whether someone did them alone or was the first or when no one else acted or did more than others or with few helpers or beyond what was characteristic of his/her age or contrary to expectation or with toils or because they were done very easily or quickly.”

In the same vein, Quintilian Opens in new window notes that

  • “what most pleases an audience is the celebration of deeds which our hero was the first or only person or at any rate one of the very few to perform: and to these we must add any other achievements which surpasses hope or expectation, emphasizing what was done for the sake of others rather than what was performed on one's own behalf.”

On this note he describes four elaborate ways of amplifying the sense of how bad or good things are, through incrementum, comparatioOpens in new window, ratiocinatioOpens in new window (inference or implication), and congeriesOpens in new window (accumulation).

Basically, they involve comparing extents of seriousness on a scale, making each new stage seem better or worse than the previous one. All these take the following steps:

  1. First, a speaker can indicate that a person’s actions have produced many good or bad results.
  2. Secondly, a speaker may cite a previous judgment, whether favorable or unfavorable, and then set one’s statement alongside it and compare, emphasizing the strong points of one’s argument and the weak points of the other, thus making one’s case appear stronger.
  3. Thirdly, a speaker can compare one’s comments to the smallest thing of a particular class of things, making one’s case appear larger.
  4. Fourth, if something has been judged a great good, the speaker can mention something that is its opposite, making it appear a great evil, and vice versa.
  5. Fifth:
    another possible way of magnifying good or bad actions is if you prove that the agent acted intentionally, arguing that he had long premeditated doing the acts, that he repeatedly set about doing them, that he went on doing them a long time, that no one else had attempted them before, that he did them in conjunction with persons whom no one else had acted with or in succession to persons whom no one else had followed, that he was acting willingly, that he was acting deliberately, that we should all be happy, or unfortunate, if we all acted like him.
  6. Sixth, a speaker can prove that someone was responsible for many things, thus making someone’s actions appear larger.
  7. Seventh, one must decide whether to divide up one’s matter into parts or state it as a whole, and then “state it in whichever way it makes a bigger show.”

Minimization uses the opposite methods just described.

Quintilian advices the speaker should consider the choice of word (s)he chooses to use. A speaker can replace words with other words of stronger meaning for amplification, or words of lesser meaning, if (s)he chooses to minimize. A practical example from Cicero will suffice here:

  • “I have brought before you, judges, not a thief, but a plunderer; not an adulterer, but a ravisher; not a mere committer of sacrilege, but the enemy of all religious observance and all holy things; not an assassin, but a bloodthirsty butcher who has slain our fellow-citizens and our allies.”

Quintilian further offers an example from Cicero of the combination of incrementum with comparatio:

  • “That great man, Publius Scipio … acting as private citizen, killed Tiberius Gracchus, whose subversion of the existing political order was not very radical: shall we, as consuls, tolerate Catiline, whose ambition is to devastate the world with fire and sword?”

Cicero here has deployed amplification by comparing Gracchus and Catiline so that the latter’s relative badness is constructed more precisely: Gracchus was a nonradical subverter of the existing order but Catiline is a devastator of the world. The comparison is intended to script an appropriate passionate stance for Cicero’s listeners to take toward Catiline — moral indignation. Donne and Bacon also make use of such forms of comparative enlargement (and diminution) in their speeches, along with many forms of figuration.

Citations and Further Readings:
Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 3.7.16 (Butler, LCL).
Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 1426a–b (Rackham, LCL).
Theon, Progymnasmata 110 (Kennedy).
Erasmus, De copia (1988), pp. 218–20 (trans. Collected Works, xxiv, pp. 592–5).
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.9.38 (Freese, LCL).