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Tropes and Figures | Congeries

Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, the craft of writing was carefully systematized into the art of rhetoric. The ancients were the first to recognize the creation of texts and speeches as a “process.” It is not an exaggeration to say that what we now know about composition is largely rooted in Greek culture, and to a lesser extent, Roman culture.

Among the many clever ideas of the Greeks is the notion that rhetoric could be taught to young students. This they did with alacrity. One area of rhetoric is style. To teach style, the Greeks read their most admired authors as models. They might say to students, “Look at this fine sentence from Homer’s Iliad.” Teachers would then give a name to that particular sentence form and then have students mimic it. Eventually, teachers would have compiled a long list of what they called “Tropes and Figures.”

A trope is a change in normal word meaning. For instance, a metaphor is a trope, a comparison between two otherwise unrelated items in the world. “My love is a red, red rose.”

A figure is a change in normal word order. In English, a basic sentence might be “John kicked the ball.” When a writer begins playing around with normal sentences for effect, others might notice and model themselves by whatever the writer created.

Below is an example of prose built on a Greek model:

“This life of ours—if a life so full of such great ills can properly be called a life—bears witness to the fact that, from its very start, the race of mortal men has been a race condemned. Think, first, of the dreadful abyss of ignorance from which all error flows and so engulfs the sons of Adam in a darksome pool that no one can escape without the toll of toils and tears and fears. Then, take our very love for all those things that prove so vain and poisonous and breed so many heartaches, troubles, griefs, and fears; such insane joys in discord, strife, and wars; such fraud and theft and robbery; such perfidy and pride, envy and ambition, homicide and murder, cruelty and savagery, lawlessness and lust; all the shameless passions of the impure—fornication and adultery, incest and unnatural sins, rape and countless other uncleannesses too nasty to be mentioned; the sins against religion—sacrilege and heresy, blasphemy and perjury; the iniquities against our neighbors—calumnies and cheating, lies and false witness, violence to persons and property; the injustices of the courts and the innumerable other miseries and maladies that fill the world, yet escape attention.” Augustine of Hippo, City of God (426 A. D.)

Normally, writers do not add this much detail in sentences as did Augustine above. Augustine is not content with saying that human beings are flawed, sinful creatures.  No, he lists those sins in incredible detail. Augustine was classically trained, as was the Apostle Paul,  so it is not surprising that we see this figure in his writing.

The Greeks called this figure “congeries,” which means a piling up. And Augustine certainly piles on the details. The effect is powerful!

In Southern’s English department, you as a student will learn all about the ancients and the art of rhetoric in advanced courses such as “Expository Writing.”