This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.
Origin: From the Greek ερωτημα (erotema), meaning “question”.
In plain English: A question that is asked without expecting an answer because the answer is strongly implied; a rhetorical question.
- In Composition, Literary and Rhetorical, Simplified (1850), David Williams states that a rhetorical question is designed “to awaken attention to the subject of discourse, and is a mode of address admirably calculated to produce a powerful impression of the truth of a subject, as it challenges the impossibility of contradiction.”
- A well-structured erotema will lead the audience to the conclusion that the speaker wants them to reach.
- Erotema is similar to hypophora except that, in the case of the latter, the speaker answers his own question.
- While rhetorical questions should not be overused in a speech, two or three can be strung together in rapid succession for added effect.
- Erotema can be used as a direct challenge to someone. (See the quote from Cicero.)
- Erotema is also known as erotesis.
“How long, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience? And for how long will that madness of yours mock us? To what end will your unbridled audacity hurl itself?”
— Cicero, 63 B.C.
“Was I an Irishman on that day that I boldly withstood our pride? Or on the day that I hung down my head and wept in shame and silence over the humiliation of Great Britain? I became unpopular in England for the one, and in Ireland for the other. What then? What obligation lay on me to be popular?”
— Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 6 September 1780
“Another thing that disturbs me about the American church is that you have a white church and a Negro church. How can segregation exist in the true Body of Christ?”
— Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956
“Isn’t that incredible?” … “Want to see that again?” … “Pretty cool, huh?”
— Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007 Keynote Address, speaking about the iPhone
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?”
— H. L. Mencken
Lisa Simpson and her grandmother (singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”): “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?”
Homer Simpson: “Seven!”
Lisa: “No, Dad, it’s a rhetorical question.”
Homer: “Rhetorical, eh? … Eight!”
Lisa: “Dad, do you even know what ‘rhetorical’ means?”
Homer: “Do I know what ‘rhetorical’ means?”
— Homer Simpson, The Simpsons
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?”
— Monty Python, Life of Brian (1979)