Vituperation: The 9th Progymnasmata Exercise Explained

Vituperation (also called Invective [the “9th exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window”]), is a literary exposition, which consists of abusive language, whose goal is to express contempt and publicly denigrate a known person whom must have acted contrary against the background of ethical and societal preconceptions, to the end of isolating him/her from the community.

Vituperation belongs to the demonstrative or epideictic forms of rhetoric, which incorporates the forms of eulogistic and vituperative kinds of oratory. Vituperation share the same topics with Epideictic (Panegyric); both address the target’s birth, education, achievements; his/her physical attributes; and virtues, or their inverse.

Generally speaking, the eulogistic kind is the amplification of certain creditable values, deeds, and words, and the attribution of qualities which do not exist; while the vituperative kind is the opposite of this and consists in the minimizing of creditable qualities and the amplification of those which are discreditableOpens in new window. However, deeds worthy of praise are those which are lawful, honourable, pleasant, just, expedient, and easy of execution.

Method of Exposition

A person who is eulogizing must indicate in his/her speech that one of these creditable deeds is connected with a certain person or his/her acts thereof, because it has either been brought about by the person’s personal exertions, or through his/her agency, or has resulted from a certain action attributable to him/her, or has been done for some object, or could not have come to being except under certain circumstances traceable to him/her. Similarly, a person who is vituperating must indicate that the contrary of this is true of the person whom he/she is vituperating.

As a matter of fact, you will be able to amplify and minimize under all such circumstances by the following method:

  1. By showing, that many good or bad deeds have been caused by certain individual’s action. This is one kind of amplification.
  2. A second method is to introduce a judgment already passed—a favourable one, if you are eulogizing, and an unfavourable one, if you are vituperating— and then set side by side with it what you have to say and compare the two together, making as much as possible of your own opinion and as little as possible of the other judgement; the result will be that your own opinion is magnified.
  3. A third method is to compare that about which you are speaking with the least thing which falls under the same category; for the former will then appear magnified, just as persons of moderate height appear taller than they really are when they stand side by side with persons of unusually small stature.
  4. Another safe method of amplifying good or bad deeds is: if a certain thing has been considered a great good, its contrary then, if you bring it forward, will appear to be a great evil, and similarly, if a thing is considered to be a great evil, its contrary, if you bring it forward, will appear to be a great good. Likewise you can magnify good and bad deeds by showing that the doer of them acted intentionally, proving that the culprit had long premeditated doing them, that he/she purposed to do them often, and did them over a long period, that no one else ever tried to do them, that he/she acted in company with others with whom no one else ever acted, or following those whom no one else ever followed, or that he/she acted wittingly or designedly, and that we should be fortunate, or unfortunate, if we all did as he/she did.
Important Hint! 

For vituperation to be successful, a few conditions have to be satisfied. First of all, the targeted victim has to be an established part of the community, so as to be exposed to its assault and marginalized. Secondly, the speaker must possess the skill to manipulate the audience’s emotions; and thirdly, the audience must be won over to his side and conspire with him against the victim. In order to achieve this, the speaker has to be able to exploit biases already present in his audience: “within each instance of abuse reside values and preoccupations that are essential to the way a Roman of the late republic defined himself in relation to his community” (Corbeill 1996:5).

Citations & Further Reading:
Quintilian (Institutio 10.1.107); Cicero (De Oratore 2.236)
Silver Rhetoricae: Progymnasmata: VituperationOpens in new window