Refutation: The 5th Progymnasmata Exercise Explained

Refutation (anaskeuê) (the 5th exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window) is a statement in rebuttal of some matter at hand. Its opposite is confirmationOpens in new window, a statement offering confirmation of some matter at hand.

It is a common opinion of authors that refutation, when inappropriately applied to accounts that everyone does or should believe, could be a waste of the speaker’s time and could ruin his reputation; for if we attempt to refute any statements of acknowledged truths we shall not seem truthful (no one will pay attention), nor by refuting falsehoods either (for no one needs to be persuaded). Rather, one should refute what is neither very clear nor what is altogether impossible, but what holds a middle ground.

Template for Refutation

Those engaged in refuting a mythological or other narrative, should first state the false claim of those who advance it, then add an exposition of the subject and use these headings: first, that it is unclear and incredible, in addition that it is impossible and illogical and inappropriate, and finally adding that it is inexpedient. Consider the following piece, a refutation “What Is Said About Daphne Is Not Probable”

What Is Said About Daphne Is Not Probable

(The False Claim) It is irrational to attack poets, but they themselves stimulate us to oppose them because they first made up stories like this about the gods. How is it not irrational for poets to have belittled the gods and for us to take poets seriously? I myself have been distressed for all the gods who been trampled in the mud, and Apollo especially, the god whom the poets themselves have made the leader of their own art. What follows, the story they have made up about Apollo’s Daphne, is an example.

(Exposition) Daphne, they say, came forth from Earh and Ladon, and since she excelled many in looks she acquired the Pythian as a lover. Since he loved her, he pursued her, but in pursuing he did not catch her. Instead, Earth received her child and gave birth to a flower with the same name as the maiden (daphnê = laurel). Apollo crowned himself with her in her changed form, and the plant becomes a crown, put on the Pythian tripod because of his desire for the mortal maiden, and he makes the bloom a token of his art. This is the story they have made up. It remains to test it from the following arguments.

“Daphne came forth from Earth and Ladon.” What proof did she have of her birth? For she was human, whereas they had another nature different from hers. How does Ladon join himself with Earth? By flooding her with his waters? Then all rivers may be called husbands of Earth; for all flood her. And if a human has come forth from a river, it is time for a river also to come forth from human beings; for descendants reveal their begetters. What name do they give to the marriage of a river and earth? A hymeneal is for conscious beings, but earth does not have the nature of conscious beings. Thus, either Daphne must be classified among streams or Ladon be defined as human.

But let it be so, let it be granted to the poets that Daphne was born from Earth and Ladon. By whom was a daughter so born brought up? For even if I concede her birth, her upbringing becomes impossible. For where did the child have a place to live? “With her father, of course.” And what human endures living in a river? Her father would fail to realize he was drowning her in his streams rather than feeding her with his waters. “But the child lived under the earth with her mother.” Then she was unnoticed (in the darkness), and being unnoticed had no one who saw her. Desire could not come into being for one whose beauty was hidden.

If you want, let this also be granted to the poets. How did a god feel love and how did he betray his nature with longing? Sexual passion is the most troublesome thing that exists, and to bear witness of such dreadful things among gods is impious; for if the gods have all diseases, how are they superior to mortals? If they endure love, the most dreadful thing, how are they exempted from many other woes, since they endure the most severe? But their nature knows not longing, and the Pythian did not appear as a lover.

And how, when pursuing the maiden, did the Pythian come off second to a mortal woman? Men are stronger than women, and do women have more strength than gods? Did something inferior to mortal men even overcome gods? Why did the mother receive the fleeing maiden? Did she think the marriage a bad one? How had she herself become a mother? Was that from a good marriage? And why did she deprive her child of something fine? Thus, either she had not been a mother or she is to be thought a bad one.

Why did Earth act inconsistently with her usual deeds? She was distressing the Pythian by saving her daughter, and was she trying to win him over again by bringing her back? There was no need to try to win him over if she wanted to annoy him. Why did the god crown himself with the tree beside the tripods? The bloom became a symbol of pleasure, but prophecy is a sign of virtue. How then did the Pythian reconcile things unnaturally combined? What? Was the pretext mortal but the experience immortal?

Let this be enough about the poets, lest I seem to be speaking poets’ language.

—An excerpt from: Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric edited by George Alexander Kennedy

This progymnasma includes in itself all the power of the art of rhetoric. Thus, those handling the exercise carefully should be able to assume a level of control with the order, or rather follow the order of the discourse to be refuted. For example, in refuting the story of Daphne or any other narrative for that matter, we must first take cognizant look at the first part of the narrative to ascertain whether it is impossible or implausible, and thus we shall use the amplification of that heading.

Thereafter we shall do the same with the second and third part of the narrative and continue through all of it in this way. By this medium, the speech will not be thrown into confusion, since if we are forced to cut up the narrative in terms of the order of the headings, rather than taking up the headings in accord with the order of the narrative, confusion will unavoidably result; for we are then probably talking about the first incidents last and the last first. Thus we should follow the order of the matter before us as did DemosthenesOpens in new window in his speech Against TimocratesOpens in new window; for attacking the law of Timocrates as inexpedient and taking this up first, after scrutiny of the law, starting over again from the beginning, he sets out in turn other seeming inexpediencies, and with these steps builds momentum on the debate.

Aphthonius 10—16; Nicolaus 29—35; Schouler, La tradition hellénique, 1:86—97.