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Updated Jan 18, 2023

Understanding the Rhetorical Device of Apophasis: A Powerful Persuasive Tool

As we explore the world of rhetoric, one particular device stands out for its ability to captivate an audience and leave a lasting impression. This device is known as apophasis, an intriguing rhetorical strategy that involves mentioning something by explicitly stating that it will not be mentioned. By using this clever technique, speakers or writers can subtly draw attention to a particular idea or concept without directly addressing it. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of apophasis, exploring its definition, purpose, and providing some notable examples.

What is Apophasis?

Apophasis, also known as paralipsis or praeteritio, is a rhetorical device that involves deliberately mentioning something while claiming not to mention or discuss it. This strategy allows the speaker or writer to bring attention to a sensitive or controversial topic without directly addressing it. By pretending to ignore or omit a subject, the audience's curiosity is piqued, and they become more attentive to the unspoken ideas.

Purpose and Effectiveness of Apophasis

The strategic use of apophasis serves multiple purposes, all of which are aimed at capturing and maintaining the audience's attention. By pretending to omit a topic, the speaker or writer achieves the following effects:

  1. Intrigue and curiosity: Apophasis creates suspense and intrigues the audience, as they are enticed to learn more about the topic that is supposedly being avoided.

    Example: "I won't mention my opponent's lack of experience in politics, as it wouldn't be fair to focus on their lack of qualifications."

  2. Protection and deniability: Apophasis can be employed as a shield to discuss sensitive or controversial subjects indirectly, allowing the speaker to distance themselves from potentially offensive statements.

    Example: "I won't dwell on the rumors surrounding my opponent's personal life; instead, I'll focus on the policies they propose."

  3. Emphasizing the unspoken: By highlighting what is not being talked about, apophasis draws attention to the implicit ideas or themes, making them more memorable and impactful.

    Example: "Let's not dwell on the mistakes made in the past; instead, let's focus on creating a brighter future."

Notable Examples of Apophasis

Throughout history, numerous influential figures have utilized apophasis to great effect. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: In Act III, Mark Antony skillfully employs apophasis in his funeral oration for Caesar. He claims that he has come to "bury Caesar, not to praise him," while subtly praising Caesar's qualities and achievements.

  2. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Lincoln used apophasis to great effect in his renowned speech, stating, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." By mentioning his inability to adequately honor the fallen soldiers, Lincoln emphasizes their sacrifice.

  3. Political Debates: Apophasis is frequently used in political debates to indirectly attack opponents' weaknesses while appearing fair and focused on the issues at hand. Candidates might say, "I won't stoop to discussing my opponent's scandals, as it distracts from the real problems our country faces."

In Conclusion

Apophasis, the art of mentioning something by claiming not to mention it, is a powerful rhetorical device that has been employed by influential speakers and writers throughout history. By skillfully utilizing this technique, individuals can captivate audiences, protect themselves from controversy, and emphasize unspoken ideas. Whether in politics, literature, or everyday conversations, apophasis remains a persuasive tool that continues to intrigue and engage listeners.

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