Prosopopoeia in Dialogue

I’m building up to something, so have patience, as it might come a bit later.

This comes from an ancient Roman orator named Quintilian (ca. 35 – ca. 100) who helped to firm up certain aspects of Roman culture. In setting out boundaries, we find a key to Paul’s dialogue in Romans in which he debates with a fictional Jew (which became common practice for well into the 5th century) concerning sin, grace and Gentiles. Here, we look at Quintilian’s proposopoeia,

27. This some call exclamation and number among verbal figures. When such exclamations, however, arise from sincere feeling, they are not figurative in the sense of which I am speaking, but when they are fictitious and the offspring of art, they must indisputably be regarded as figures. The same may be said of that freedom of speech which Cornificius calls licentia, and the Greeks παῤῥησία (parrhesia). For what can be less figurative than plain and sincere speech? Out under the appearance of it there frequently lurks flattery.

28. Thus when Cicero says in his speech for Ligarius, “After the war had been commenced, Caesar, and even almost brought to a conclusion, I, without being driven by any compulsion, but of my own purpose and will, set out to join that party which had taken up arms against you,” he not only looks to the interest of Ligarius, but bestows the highest possible praise on the clemency of the conqueror.

29. But in the question, “What other object had we in view, Tubero, but that we might possess the same power which Caesar now possesses?” he represents, with admirable art, the cause of both parties as good, while he thus conciliates him whose cause was in reality bad.

A figure which is still bolder, and requires, as Cicero thinks, greater force is the personification of characters, or prosopopoeia.

30. This figure gives both variety and animation to eloquence, in a wonderful degree. By means of it, we display the thoughts of our opponents, as they themselves would do in a soliloquy, but our inventions of that sort will meet with credit only so far as we represent people saying what it is not unreasonable to suppose that they may have meditated; and so far as we introduce our own conversations with others, or those of others among themselves, with an air of plausibility; and when we invent persuasions, or reproaches, or complaints, or eulogies, or lamentations, and put them into the mouths of characters likely to utter them.

31. In this kind of figure, it is allowable even to bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states. There are some, indeed, who give the name of prosopopoeia only to those figures of speech in which we represent both fictitious beings and speeches. They prefer calling the feigned discourses of men διάλογοι (dialogoi), to which some of the Latins have applied the term sermocinatio.

32. For my own part, I have included both, according to the received practice, under the same designation, for assuredly a speech cannot be conceived without being conceived as the speech of some person. But when we give a voice to things to which nature has not given a voice, our figure may be softened in such a way as this: “For if my country, which is far dearer to me than my life, if all Italy, if the whole republic, should thus address me, Marcus Cicero, what are you doing?” etc. Another prosopopoeia, in the same speech, is of a bolder nature: “Your country, Catiline, thus pleads, and as it were tacitly addresses you: ‘No great wickedness has arisen, for several years past, but by your means.'” We also pretend at times, and with good effect, that the images of things and persons are before our eyes, and that their voices sound in our ears, and affect to wonder that the same appearances are not perceptible to our opponents or to the judges, as when we say, “It seems to me,” or “Does it not seem to you?” But great power of eloquence is necessary for such efforts, for what is naturally fictitious and incredible must either make a stronger impression from being beyond the real or be regarded as nugatory from being unreal.

As with epideictic rhetoric, the person in which the speaker is engaging doesn’t have to be real, but to varying degrees is different in the approach and use. Paul uses prosopopoeia as a dialoguing device in Romans, to which I hope to explore in a later post.

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