THERE are, says Aristotle, only two parts absolutely necessary to every public discourse, and these parts are the proposition and the proof; which are equivalent to the problem and its solution in geometry. The narration essentially belongs only to judicial causes. The exordium and peroration may sometimes be discarded. If a distribution of parts be made only for the sake of discovering how much ingenuity can be wasted upon the multiplication of distinctions without difference, we might treat of a narration, a pre-narration, a post-narration, a super-narration; a refutation, a super-refutation, and the like to an infinite extent. These, as the great philosopher observes, are ridiculous divisions. But the proposition and the proof are indispensable.
It will thus appear, that he does not even assign a separate apartment for the narration. But in judicial causes, where it is necessary, he includes it within the compass of the proposition.
By the forms proceeding in our judicial courts the distinction between the narration and the proposition is sufficiently clear. They both constitute a part of the written pleadings, which precede the trial of the cause. The narration in the process of the common law is called the declaration, and is inserted into the writ or indictment, with which the suit commences. To this narration the defendant answers by a plea, and a written altercation ensues, terminating in an issue between the parties. The proposition of the plaintiff is that side of an issue, which he maintains. The proposition of the defendant consists in the direct denial of what his opponent affirms, and the issue is the questions in controversy between them.
In discourses of the other classes it is not always necessary formally to lay down the proposition. Sometimes it is inerrible [sic] from the whole tenor of the speech. Sometimes it comes in most naturally by way of recapitulation at the close of the narration. In deliberative assemblies the proposition is distinct and separate from the discourse, and appears in the form of a motion, resolution, or amendment.
The proposition may be simple or complicated; and a discourse may be adapted to the support of one proposition of either description, or of several distinct propositions.
A single and simple proposition usually forms the basis of criminal trials, when the only question is whether the party charged is or is not guilty of the offence [sic] imputed to him.
A single and complicated proposition often constitutes the foundation of a trial upon a private action, when the facts, the application of the law to them, and the amount of damages, to be allowed the injured party, are all controverted [sic] by the same issue.
It is very common upon motions for amendment in deliberative bodies, when the proposition is to strike out some part of a bill or resolution, and to insert something else in its stead.
It is still more usual in discourses of the pulpit, when the doctrines, deduced from the text, arise from various considerations. In all these cases the proposition is divided into several points by partition.
Finally the discourse may apply to several propositions, entirely distinct and separate from each other. In such cases the orator is sometimes compelled by the abundance of his subject to divide his discourse into several distinct orations, each of itself complete.
The proposition is sometimes used to express the object to be obtained in consequence of the measure proposed; and in these cases a number of subordinate propositions may be combined for the accomplishment of one. Thus in Burke’s speech on conciliation with America, immediately after the exordium and the narration, he says “the proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented from principle in all parts of the empire; not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace; sought in its natural course, and its ordinary haunts. It is peace, sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles pacific.”
By the proposition he obviously means the end, which his plan was calculated to accomplish. And after opening that plan in all its parts, he proceeds to say, “these solid truths compose six fundamental propositions. There are three more resolutions corollary to these. I think these six massive pillars will be of strength sufficient to support the temple of British concord. I have no more doubt than I entertain of my existence, that, if you admitted these, you would command an immediate peace.” So that we have here six fundamental propositions; standing like the pillars of a temple to support the proposition, which is peace.
When the proposition is formally stated, it should be laid down in terms as clear and precise, as the language can furnish to the speaker. It should embrace the whole subject in discussion, and nothing more. Perfect simplicity is enjoined by Horace in the enunciation of the subject, even for the most elevated of all poetical works. It is therefore still more incumbent upon an orator. This statement of the proposition in the forms of oratory, to which we are accustomed, is almost always provided for by fixed and permanent forms, which apply equally to every occasion.
In deliberative assemblies it is put in the shape of a question, when, after reciting the proposition, the speaker or chairman says, shall this bill, resolution, or the like, pass.
In judicial causes it terminates by an issue, upon which the parties put themselves upon the country for a verdict, or upon the court for a judgment.
In sermons it is substantially contained in the text from scripture, which the speaker selects for elucidation or improvement.
In demonstrative orations for public anniversaries it is often assigned to the speaker. As in the Boston fifth of March orations, the proposition was the pernicious tenacity of standing armies in populous cities, in time of peace; and as in the fourth of July orations it is “to consider the feelings, manners, and principles, which led to the independence of these United States.” The proposition in this sense is identified with the subject, and has heretofore been largely considered under the denomination of the state of the controversy. But even when the proposition itself is single, the discourse, by which it is supported, cannot be long, or it must contain a variety of considerations, which derive strength from being methodically treated; which is usually done by partition or division.
Partition is defined by Quinctilian an enumeration, methodically arranged, of propositions, our own, those of our opponent, or both. Its purpose is two-fold; the one to facilitate the treatment of his subject to the speaker, and the other to facilitate its intelligence to the hearer. It has inconveniences, as well as advantages; inconveniences so considerable, that some ancient rhetoricians thought it should scarcely ever be used, and the archbishop of Cambray among the moderns has urgently recommended, that it should be excluded from the composition of sermons.
The objections, alledged [sic] against the practice of dividing the proposition by a formal partition, are, first, that the speaker is liable to forget some of the points, which he has laid down. Secondly, that he is exposed to omit important considerations, because they do not fall naturally within any of his points of division. Thirdly, that it gives an air of stiffness and premeditation to the discourse, at which genuine eloquence always relucts [sic]; and takes from every argument the impression and the grace of novelty. Fourthly, that it necessarily and invariably discloses the whole design of the speaker, when his object often requires that he should bring his audience to conclusions unawares even to themselves. Fifthly, that it counteracts and interferes with all powerful appeals to the passions. As nothing can be more opposed to emotion than calculations, so a minute and scrupulous dissection of parts is utterly irreconcileable [sic] with those great, sudden, unexpected touches, which extort the suffrage of the hearer from his feelings. Sixthly, there are many arguments feeble in themselves, but which may derive strength from their numbers. These require accumulation, rather than division. And lastly, in the division of judicial causes there must be one point stronger than the rest; of course it makes them useless, and perhaps loses some of its strength by the incumbrance [sic] of their alliance. All these objections are fairly and fully stated by Quinctilian. When the archbishop of Cambray then affirms, that division is a modern invention, which came first from the schools, he must have reference only to the particular mode of divisions, usually practised [sic] in writing sermons. Both Quinctilian and Cicero however very explicitly give their opinions in favor of a partition; and, although it must be admitted that there is weight in some of the difficulties, which I nave here stated, yet experience will soon conceive every public speaker, that his own convenience and that of his auditory, nay in most cases I might say an absolute necessity prescribes the use of some regular partition. It is possible that an orator, after laying down his divisions, may forget to treat some of them; but it is impossible that he should avoid forgetting many important ideas, if he has not arranged them in some regular order. If he suffers any material consideration to remain without the boundaries of his partition, so as thereby to lose its benefit, the fault is not in the general character of the partition, but in the imperfection of that, which he has chosen. The appearance of premeditation it certainly has; but without premeditation to deliver a speech upon a long and complicated argument is not within the compass of human powers. The process of the human mind in the acquisition of ideas is successive, and not instantaneous; our reason is discursive, and not intuitive. In the regions of romance a magnificent palace may rise from the earth like an exhalation, with all its pillars and pilasters, architrave, frieze, and cornice. But such a fabric in the real world of man is the work of an age, with incessant toil and hands innumerable. But it does not necessarily follow, that the orator, by marking a division of his subject, should disclose his whole purpose, or forestall the arguments, which may produce an impression by their novelty. If indeed the proposition, which the whole discourse is to urge, be of such a nature, that it cannot safely be made known to those, who are finally to act upon it, then the division must be concealed, not for itself, but as constituting the proposition. But such cases can now very seldom if ever occur. When Cicero addressed the people of Rome to defeat the popular project of an Agrarian law, proposed by the tribune Rullus; when Mark Antony harrangued [sic] them over the dead body of Caesar, for the purpose of stirring them up to mutiny, a formal division would have been absurd; for the success of the speaker depended upon the concealment of his intention. But there can surely be no occasion for rhetorical instructions predicated upon the purpose of rousing a populace to insurrection; and, strongly as the feature of democracy predominates in all our political institutions, our people has wisely entrusted all the important powers of government to delegated bodies, and has reserved to itself the exercise of no great object of national concern. Our deliberative and judicial orations must generally be addressed to select assemblies; and the purpose of the speaker must be apparent in the very form of discussion. It cannot be denied, that the construction of a discourse with accurate partition implies composure and tranquility of mind in the speaker, and that to follow him in his concerted train supposes a similar self-possession in his audience. Yet that it does not preclude the use of pathetic instruments, in the progress of his discourse, is obvious from the orations of Cicero, some of which are equally remarkable for preciseness of partition, and depth of pathos. The accumulation of arguments separately feeble will be rather facilitated, than prevented by a judicious division; and although one point of a pleader’s argument may be stronger than the rest, it will not of course be always sufficient to command the decision of the cause. In the conflict of jurisprudence, as in the contests of nations, the strong may be as essentially benefited by the concurrence of the weak, as the weak by their recurrence to the strong.
So great are the advantages of a just partition in giving clearness and perspicuity to a discourse, so much more easy does it render the treatment of any momentous subject to the speaker and to the understanding of the hearer, that I have deemed it indispensable thus far to attempt its vindication against the speculative objections, which have been at different times urged against it. I call them speculative objections, for, notwithstanding the earnestness and ingenuity, with which they are supported in Fenelon’s dialogues, no eminent preacher since the time when he wrote has ever attempted to practise [sic] upon his precepts; and the usage of dividing sermons into heads still subsists, and will subsist so long, as sermons worth reading or even worth hearing shall be delivered.
In forming however his division the speaker will need the exercise of great skill, fruitfulness of invention, and solidity of judgment. The forms of division for judicial harangues, recommended by Cicero and Quinctilian, were of two kinds, which they denominate enumeration and segregation. The first consisted of a marked distinction, unfolded in precise terms, of all the heads, upon which the speaker was to discourse; and the second of a discrimination between those points, upon which the two parties to a cause were agreed, and those upon which their contest was to turn. This last form, though not very customary in the modern practise [sic] of the bar, might still be employed to great advantage; it would greatly abridge many a tedious argument, in which learned counsel are apt to waste the time of the court and their own, expatiating upon a series of facts or of legal principles, which their opponents have not a thought of disputing. It would lay out of the cause much rubbish, and remove much useless obstruction from the path of justice.
It can however seldom if ever apply to the discourses of the pulpit, where the forms of division necessarily refer to the practice of making a text from scripture the theme of the discourse. But the same method of division is not suitable for every text. There are two kinds of division, which are to be used according to the substance of the text and the judgment of the preacher. The first, the easiest, and the most common, is to divide the text into its parts. The second is to divide the subject itself, which arises from the text. The division of the text may sometimes be made merely by following the order of the words. But more generally it will be advisable to divide it according to the natural order of the matter it contains; for which purpose it should be reduced into a formal or a categorical proposition, and then discuss, first the subject, secondly its attribute, and thirdly its incidents, according to the judgment of the writer.
In archbishop Tillotson’s sermon upon the advantages of early piety, his text is “remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.”* This text he divides by the order of the words; and considers first the duty enjoined, “remember thy Creator;” secondly the special pointing of this duty to your period of life; “now, in the days of thy youth;” and thirdly its further illustration, by opposition to old age, with its cares and griefs [sic], distempers and infirmities.
But in his sermons immediately preceding this, and professedly connected with it, upon the education of children, his text is “train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it.† This text he begins by reducing it into the following proposition; “that the careful, and prudent, and religious education of children hath for the most part a very good influence upon the whole course of their lives.” And in handling the argument he reduces the discourse to five heads.
1. Showing wherein good education consists.
2. Giving directions for the most effectual management of the work.
3. Noticing the common and principal errors in performing the duty.
4. Demonstrating how good education has so great and happy an influence.
5. A warm exhortation to the discharge of this duty.
I have selected these examples of the two kinds of division from Tillotson, not that I consider them as the most perfect of their kind, for this last in particular is liable to considerable objections; but because they exhibit clearly the difference of the two modes, and because the series of sermons, in which they occur, contains many admirable specimens of pulpit eloquence, as well as many excellent instructions of morality. To an ingenious youth, anxious to learn the extent of his duties for the purpose of performing them; the an ambitious youth, eager to possess the keys to the understanding of the heart; finally to every parent, who feels the happiness and comfort of his life to be bound up in the fortunes and the virtues of his children, I know not where I could look for a work more deserving of being recommended to their notice and meditation, than these four sermons.
The division of the subject arising from the text, rather than the text itself, is recommended for the treatment first of oracular texts in the old testament, such as that in the book of Genesis, which denounces enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman; or those, which relate to the covenant of Abraham. Secondly of controversial texts, the understanding of which depends upon the state of the question, the doctrine to be refuted, and the principles of the inspired writer. Thirdly of texts of the new testament, which allude to passages in the old; and texts of conclusion from a preceding argument. And fourthly of typical texts, which are to be explained as well in their direct, as in their allusive meaning. But besides these subjects, which are not so fashionable in the pulpits of the present age, as they have been in the days of our fathers, an ingenious preacher may always divide his discourse instead of his text; and as he is not in any of the protestant communities bound to take his text from the lesson of the day, he may whenever it suits his convenience treat his subject at his pleasure, and adapt the text to his sermon, if he meets with any difficulty in adapting his sermon to a text.
But however diversified the forms of partition may be at the bar and in the pulpit, the rules, by which it should be formed, are alike applicable to both; and these rules, as prescribed by Cicero, are, that the division be short and complete and the heads few in number.
In explaining the rule of brevity, as applied to narration, it was shown, that it must be understood in a relative point of view. But the brevity required in partition is positive. It consists in using the smallest number of words possible to express your idea. Every word must be used in its plain, literal meaning, without any admixture of figurative language. A partition is properly the solution of the proposition into its elements. Its perspicuity must depend altogether upon its precision; and what can be more absurd than for that part to be obscure, the only use of which is to throw light upon the rest?
The partition must therefore be into a few heads. As each member of the division must be short itself, so the whole assemblage must be short by the paucity of the parts. The most celebrated of the French writers of sermons rigorously confine themselves to two or three general divisions; and to them a sermon in more than three parts would appear as incongruous, as a tragedy in more than five acts. The rule however did not originate with them; for Quinctilian in express terms disapproves of the restriction to three parts, which some rhetoricians then prescribed; justly remarking, that some subjects would not bear division into precisely the same number of parts, but instead of three would require four or five parts. More than this can never be useful or necessary.
These parts may again be solved into subdivisions, which may be submitted to the same process, if you please, until every sentence in the discourse shall bear its number. This is one of the great abuses of division; for although logic, with her formal face and solemn gait, may walk in fetters, the light, and airy, and rapid movements of rhetoric will not thus be trammelled [sic]. Subdivision is sometimes necessary, and may sometimes be graceful. But in general it will produce its effects better by being concealed than disclosed. The structure of the human body is not the less admirable, because its mechanism is not exposed to view; and the orator should imitate the beneficent kindness of nature, whose economy presents to the eye of the spectator only those parts of the fabric, which are adapted to give it delight.
But though short with regard to the extent of each individual member, and short with regard to the number of its parts, the division must be complete. It should embrace the whole subject, and nothing more. And this rule, though mentioned the last, is in point of importance the first. Its observance may be violated by two opposite defects; the one of deficiency, the other of excess. If the numbers of a division do not embrace the whole subject, no certain conclusion can be drawn from the argument, and the discourse itself is a fragment. If the divisions are formed so that one of the parts includes another within itself, as the genus includes its species, a confusion of redundancy will ensue. Suppose an orator, says Cicero, should undertake to prove, that all the public misfortunes might be traced either to the passions, or to the ambition, or to the avarice of his adversary. The division would be bad, because the first head is the genus, of which the second and the third are subordinate species. This very blunder was committed by lord Hervey, in a satirical epistle in rhyme, which he published against Pope; in one line of which he spoke
“Of sapphic, lyric, and iambic odes.”
Pope did not suffer it to escape him. He says in his reply, “your lordship might as well bid your present tutor, your taylor, make you a coat, suit of cloathes, and breeches; for you must have forgot your logic, as well as grammar, not to know that sapphic and iambic are both included in lyric; that being the genus and those the species.”
The art of dividing his subject is one of those resources, which the orator must borrow from his stores of logic. It belongs essentially to the art of thinking, and is only subsidiary to that of speaking. Its exercise is in meditation, rather than in expression. But it deserves assiduously to be studied, and as it consists more in skill than in genius, it will amply reward all the labor of mind, that you can bestow upon it. Its general principles may be derived from the foundations of analytical science, and their practical application from the examples of the great orators of ancient and modern times. In the first oration of Cicero, which he deemed worthy of preserving for publication, there is a very remarkable instance of formal partition. It was on a mere private, judicial controversy, a question upon a mortgage, involving an obscure point of municipal law; but it exhibits the genius of Cicero at that interesting moment, when it first burst forth upon the astonishment of the world. I have often imagined to myself, what must have been the impressions upon the minds of Aquilius, his associate judges, and the Roman citizens, who attended the trial, on beholding a young man of six and twenty, a plebeian, merely of an equestrian family, rising in opposition to Quintus Hortensius, a senator of Patrician dignity, armed with a long established reputation, accustomed to sway, without a contest or a rival, the sceptre [sic] of eloquence in the forum. These circumstances are essential to a just estimate of the oration of Quinctius [sic]; in which there is a more than usual ostentation of oratorical talent; a perpetual struggle against the tide of Hortensius’ influence, and an anxious display of ability to grapple with him for that palm of eloquence, which he had so long enjoyed, as his exclusive property. He was in particular famed for his skill at partition; and his young competitor therefore studiously displays his proficiency in that part of his art. He not only announces the divisions of his discourse with great solemnity, but he requests both his antagonist and his judges to take particular notice of them, and invites them to recal [sic] him within the bounds he has prescribed to himself, if he should in the progress of his discourse once step beyond them. It is obvious how important he considers this branch of his profession, and how anxious he was to convince his audience of his attainments in it.
For the discourses of the pulpit the French preachers unquestionably furnish the best models of partition, which you can consult. In this respect they must be acknowledged far superior to their British neighbours [sic]. The English indeed in their literary compositions of all kinds have been generally too inattentive to the principles of method; and hence it was said by one of the ablest and most eloquent lawyers of France, the chancellor D’Aguesseau, that the English, learned and ingenious as they were, did not know how to make a book.
A regular analysis of every sermon is generally published in the complete editions of the works of Massillon, Bourdaloue, Fléchier, and Bossuet; and those of you, who understand the language, may derive great advantage from an attentive consultation of these analyses, as well as from a frequent perusal of the discourses, to which they are annexed. After making every allowance for the prejudices of their superstition and the errors of their faith, religion and virtue have no more ardent supporters and no abler advocates, than the pulpit orators of France.
* Eccles. xii. 1.
† Prov. xxii. 6.