What is Prolepsis?

Prolepsis (from the Greek, “preconception”), taken as synonym for procatalepsisOpens in new window, is a figure, by which the speaker anticipates or suggests an objection to what he is advancing, or prepare for it an opposed reception; and prepares an answer to it.

The Nature of this Figure — The prolepsis affords an orator a favourable opportunity of altering his voice and manner; hence paving way for him to introduce a greater variety into his pronunciation.

When we propose an objection against ourselves candour requires a certain fairness and openness of manner, which may show we do justice to the opinion of our adversary, and combat any urge that might prompt us to conceal certain facts from our judges.

This guileless and transparent manner is best delivered by a distinct open tone of voice somewhat higher and louder than the common tone of the discourse, almost in the manner as when calling out to a person at a distance; and subsequently proceeds with the answer in low firm tone, that the objection and answer may be the more clearly distinguished, and what we oppose to the objection may have the appearance of cool reason and argument.

Notable Examples

An excellent piece to illustrate the style of delivering this figure is, as follows, in CiceroOpens in new window’s Oration for ArchiasOpens in new window:

  1. Now many examples of the bravest men have the Greek and Latin writers left us, — not only to contemplate but to imitate! These illustrious models I have always set before me in the government of the state, and have formed my conduct by contemplating their virtues.

    But it will be asked, were those great men who are celebrated in history distinguished for that kind of learning which you so highly extol? It would be difficult, I grant, to prove this of them all; but what I shall answer is nevertheless certain. I own, then, that there have been many men of excellent dispositions, and distinguished virtue, who, without learning, and by the almost divine force of nature herself, have attained so great wisdom and worth; nay, farther, I will allow that nature without learning is of greater efficacy towards the attainment of glory and virtue, than learning without nature; but then I affirm, that when to an excellent natural disposition are added the embellishments of learning, there always results from this union something astonishingly great and extraordinary.
  2. Before the prolepsis in this passage, as generally in every other where it occurs, the voice falls into a low tone, as having concluded some branch of the discourse: this gives it a better opportunity of striking into the higher tone proper to the objection; and when this is pronounced, the voice falls into a lower tone, as it begins the answer, and rises again gradually with the importance of the subject.

    We have a beautiful instance of this figure in CatoOpens in new window:

  1. But, grant that others can with equal glory,
    Look down on pleasures and the bait of sense,
    Where shall we find the man that bears affliction,
    Great and majestic in his ills, like Cato?

    The two first lines of this passage require a plain, high, open tone of voice; and the two last a lower tone, accompanied with a slight expression of reproach for supposing any one could be equal to Cato.

  2. PopeOpens in new window affords us another instance of this figure:

  3. You think this cruel. Take it for a rule, —
    No creature smarts so little as a fool.

    The words “You think this cruel” must be pronounced in a high, loud tone of voice, and the rest in a lower and softer tone.

    We have a striking instance of this figure in Pope, where, speaking of the daring flights of the ancients, he says:

  1. I know there are to whose presumptuous thoughts
    Those frёer beauties even in them seem faults;
    Some figures monstrous and misshap;d appear,
    Consider’d singly or beheld too near,
    Which but proportion’d to their light or place,
    Due distance reconciles to form and grace.

    — Essay on Criticism, v. 169.

The objection and answer in this passage are so little distinguished by the author, that unless we distinguish them by a different tone of voice, an auditor would not well conceive where the objection ends and the answer begins. In reading this passage, therefore, we must pronounce the two first lines in a high, open, declarative toneOpens in new window of voice, and commence the third in a low, concessive tone, approaching to a monotone; this monotoneOpens in new window must continue till near the end of the fifth line, when the voice is to adopt the rising inflectionOpens in new window in a somewhat higher tone at the end; and to commence the sixth line in a still higher tone, pause with the rising inflection at distance, and finish the line with the voice going gradually lower to the end.

  • Share
  • References
    • John Walker, A Rhetorical Grammar: In which Improprieties in Reading and Speaking are [...] (p. 202 - 204). (Accessibility of this work is coutesy of Google's Digitized Technology); ProlepsisOpens in new window

Recommended Books to Flex Your Knowledge