An Introduction to Synkrisis

Synkrisis (“Syncrisis”, also called Comparison [the 10th exercise in the series of the Pogymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window]) is a composition of comparison, setting something greater or equal side by side with what is compared to it. It is a comparison by which we either set fine things beside good things or poor things beside poor things or good beside bad or small beside larger. Generally, synkrisis may be viewed as a double encomium or an encomiumOpens in new window coupled with an invectiveOpens in new window, and its subjects are similar to those of the two preceding exercises.

In Aphthonius'sOpens in new window observation, synkrisis is a double encomium or double invective or a speech comprised of both. Theon, in his definition, says “synkrisis is a language setting the better or the worse side by side.” However, he notes that “syncrises are not comparisons of things having a great difference between them”; rather “comparisons should be of likes and where we are in doubt which should be preferred because of no evident superiority of one to the other.”

Template for Composition

Synkrises takes the same headings as in encomium. Theon explains that when comparing persons, the speaker should begin with the external and bodily goods, such as birth, education, good children, offices held, reputation, and the condition of their bodies. Subsequently the speaker is expected to compare actions, focusing upon deeds which can be magnified through the method of amplificationOpens in new window.

One should give preference to actions that are more beautiful, more numerous and greater than the other, more steadfast, more lasting, deeds that were done at a more crucial time, that resulted to greater benefit, and were accomplished by choice rather than necessity or chance, and that were extraordinary, and were achieved with toil, or were done beyond expectation of the person’s age or ability.

Every subject of synkrisis is a forceful one, especially where the comparison is of small things to greater ones. It is appropriate that we compare as many things as we blame and celebrate: both persons and things, occasions and places, dumb animals, as well as plants. It is not necessary to say more about these things. It is only necessary to add one thing, that whether we are making a scrutiny of good things or bad, we should not amplify our subjects by elimination of things that provide the basis of comparison, but our subjects will be great when they seem greater than the great, as in the Homeric line (Iliad 20.158, of Hector and Achilles, respectively), “The man who fled in front was good, but by far a better man pursued.” For example, we want to show that Themistocles was better than Pausanias. Themistocles will not say to him that he did nothing good for the Greeks, but that “although you did many great things, my deeds are much greater than yours.” And similarly in comparison of the bad, as Demosthenes showed us right in the prooemion of Agaisnt Androtion; for Diodorus did not say that Euctimon had not been wronged at all by him, but that “He suffered many great wrongs, but I suffered much greater ones.” Thus, by amplifying what happened to Euctimon his amplification of his own wrongs was not obvious.

Important Hint! 

Comparisons (synkrises) can be used to show the equality of two persons in some or many things; sometimes both persons are praised but one is better; and sometimes one blames one while praising the other. Observe carefully the following comparative composition.

A Comparison Of Achilles And Hector

In seeking to compare virtue to virtue, I shall measure the son of Peleus against Hector; for virtues are to be honored for themselves, but when measured against each other they become more worthy of imitation.

Well then, they were not born in the same land, but nevertheless each in a land to be praised. The one came from Phthia, where the eponymous hero of Hellas came from, and the other from Troy, whose original founders were descendants of gods. To the extent that having been born in similar places is no derogation of praise, Hector is not excelled by Achilles. And while both were born in a praiseworthy land, both had equal ancestry; for each descended from Zeus. Achilles was son of Peleus, Peleus of Aeacus, and Aeacus of Zeus; similarly, Hector was son of Priam and (grandson) of Laomedon, and Laomedon was son of Dardanus, and Dardanus had been a son of Zeus. And having been born descendants of Zeus, they enjoyed similar forefathers: of Achilles, Aeacus and Peleus, of whom the former brought Greeks the end of droughts, and the other was granted marriage with a goddess as a prize of valor for slaying the Lapiths; Hector’s ancestor was Dardanus who earlier dined with the gods, and his father was Prima, the ruler of a city whose walls were built by gods. Indeed, to the extent that marrying gods and dining with them is similar, to that extent Hector is comparable to Achilles. And having descended from such ancestors, both were brought up for bravery. The one was reared by Cheiron, while Priam was tutor to the other, giving demonstrations of his own courage. Since training for courage was equal in both, it brings equal glory to them.

When both came to manhood, they acquired equal prestige from one war. First, Hector was leader fo the Trojans and, while alive, the protector of Troy; during that time he continued to have gods aiding him in the fight and when he fell he made Troy fall with him. Achilles was the leader of Greece in arms; terrifying all, he subdued the Trojans and had the help of Athene in the fight, and his death took away the superiority of the Achaeans. The one (Hector) was defeated and killed through the agency of Athene, the other (Achilles) fell, struck by Apollo. Both were descended from gods and were destroyed by gods. They received the end of their life from the same source as their birth. To the extent that their life and death were nearly equal, Hector is nearly equal to Achilles.

There are many other things that could be said about the virtue of both, if it were not that both had nearly equal fame from their deeds.

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

Lausberg, I, pp. 532–43;Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 1426b.
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.9.38 (Freese, LCL).
Theon, Progymnasmata 60–61; Nicolaus, Progymnasmata 61.
Further Readings:
Kennedy, George Alexander, Progymnasmata: Greek Texbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Leiden, The Netherlands: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Selby, James “The Vertical Integration of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata”
Selby, James “Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata as a Means to Preparing Innovative Communicators”
Selby, James “The Characterization Stage of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata in Light of Hermogenes’ On Style: Exploring the Border between Contemporary and Ancient Classrooms”
Silver Rhetoricae: ProgymnasmataOpens in new window