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An Introduction to Epiplexis

Epiplexis (etymologically from Greek, literally “a chastisement”) is a specific kind of rhetorical question in which a lament or an insult is asked as a question, mainly to upbraid, reproach, and not to elicit information or answer; usually in this form:

“why will you say to me such hurtful thing?”

“What’s the point you keep doing this?”

“Why are you so mad?” etc,.

The Epiplexis, as a rhetorical figure, seeks to convince and move by an elegant kind of upbraiding. It basically, throws a question, not aiming to obtain an answer but to make a point or rebuke another person’s viewpoint.

Mark Forsyth opines:

  1. “Though epiplexis does not expects a real answer, it does at least have a meaning and a purpose. ‘You just can’t stop being witty, can you?’ A rebuke expressed in the form of a rhetorical question used to reproach or upbraid, as when Cicero has a go at Catiline at the outset of his first speech In Catilinam.”

    —(Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn The Perfect English Phrase)

Classical Examples

“why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” — (Job 3:11)

“Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?”— (Heathers, 1988)

“What shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — (Mark 8:36)

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