In Pursuit of Elegance – What about the Enthymeme?

My book for July, 2009 at the First Friday Book Synopsis is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May.

The book covers many areas and numberous examples of the power of the missing element. To quote the author, “The full power of elegance is achieved when the maximum impact is exacted with the minimum input” (p. 6).

I find it surprising that the author does not include a chapter on Elegance in Argument. Some of the most powerful arguments are those that fail to include all of its components, leaving it to the recipient to fill in the blanks.

This type of argument is called an enthymeme. Popularized by Aristotle in ancient Greece, the enthymeme is a syllogism with an implied premise. You are well aware of the famous syllogism: “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

When the premise is implied rather than provided, the argument becomes an enthymeme. Here are two you likely remember from recent advertising:

“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” (The Partnership for a Drug-Free America)

“Want him to be more of a man? Try being more of a woman!” (advertising slogan for Coty perfume)

Therefore, in an enthymeme, the speaker builds an argument with one element removed, leading listeners to fill in the missing piece. Listen to how Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, September, 2003 illustrated this well: “On May 1, speaking from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush said, ‘The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on. . . . With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got.’ This is classic enthymematic argumentation: We were attacked on Sept. 11, so we went to war against Iraq. The missing piece of the argument–‘Saddam was involved in 9/11’–didn’t have to be said aloud for those listening to assimilate its message.”

In his book, May explains why what is not there often trumps what is. It is unfortunate that he does not extend his case to introduce the enthymeme to his readers.

Remember that one of the most powerful effects of persuasion is when the recipient believes that your idea is his or hers, or when he or she reaches a conclusion that you want, without your own input. The enthymeme is a powerful and elegant tool to do exactly that.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it!

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