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 Latin, meaning “feeling” or “thought” or “opinion”.
In plain English: The use of a famous proverb, maxim, quotation or saying to support one’s argument.
- Using a proverb, etc. adds credibility to your words. Because the proverb, etc. is well known and accepted, it lends a “truth” to your argument.
- Rhetorica ad Herennium (which used to be attributed to Cicero but of which the author is unknown) states: “It is best that we insert maxims discretely, that we may be viewed as judicial advocates, not moral instructors.”
- Thus, we should use sententia judiciously because (a) too many sententiae will dilute the overall effect; and (b) we risk coming across as preachy or snobbish.
- Sententia is often introduced with phrases such: “As so-and-so (once) said …”; “According to so-and-so, …”; and “In the (famous) words of so-and-so, …”.
- Sententia usually comes at the end of the argument to help summarize and reinforce it in a powerful way.
“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.'”
— Abraham Lincoln, 16 June 1858
“The lesson we have to learn is that our dislike for certain persons does not give us any right to injure our fellow creatures. The social rule must be: Live and let live.”
— George Bernard Shaw
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
— Martin Luther King, 3 April 1968