An Introduction to Sermocinatio

Sermocinatio is an imaginary dialogue carried on with a personified object, an absent or deceased person, or with some person in the audience who is in fanciful state to converse with the speaker.

A speech by this figure is very much enlivened. The conversation must be natural, and well represented in the voice and manner of the speaker. It adds much to the effect if the author represents the character of the person correctly whom he thus summons up before him.

If the fancied person is a philosopher, he must talk like a philosopher; if a clown, like a clown. The audience will be disparaged if unfairly delivered. In terms of meeting this standard, a person with a personality akin to a “man of straw,” or personage representing baseless objections, may not measure up to be summoned.

Examples of Sermocinatio

Edward EverettOpens in new window, in a speech upon the Bunker Hill Monument, fancies an objector arguing against it. We punctuate the extract so as to show the dialogue clearly, italicizing what the objector says:

  • “But I am met with the objection, What good will the monument do? * * * Does a railroad or a canal do good? ‘Yes,’ – And how? – ‘It facilitates intercourse, opens markets, and increase the wealth of the country.’ – But what is this good for? – ‘Why, individuals prosper and get rich.’ – And what good does that do? [Here the dialogue ends.] I should insult this audience by attempting to prove that a rich man, as such, is neither better nor happier than a poor one. [Here it is resumed.] ‘But as men grow rich, they live better!’ – Is there any good in this stopping here? – ‘ But these improvements increase the population.’ – And what good does that do?”

We often meet this figure in sermons, especially in the form of supposing some auditor to object to the speaker, or to converse with him. The following is a specimen, slightly abbreviated, from the sermons of John Wesley:

  • “I ask, What can make a wicked man happy? You answer, ‘He has gained the whole whorld.’ - We allow it; and what does this imply? - ‘He has gained all that gratifies the senses.’ — True; but can eating and drinking make a man happy? This is too coarse food for an immoral spirit. - ‘He has another resource – applause, glory. And will not this make him happy?’ - It will not; ’for he can not be applauded by all men; no man ever was. It is certain some will blame, and he that is fond of applause will feel more pain from the censure of the one, than pleasure form the praise of many.”
Adapted from Erastus Otis Haven's manual, titled,Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and for [...] (Accessibility of this work is coutesy of Google's Digitized Technology) | Sermocinatio (p. 163 - 164)Opens in new window