Enargia Practice

In-class practice with enargeia

Enargeia: a rhetor describes something so vividly, in such detail, that it seems as though it is happening right in front of them. Enargeia means “bringing to life” or “setting before the eyes,” so that the audience actually experiences an emotional engagement with what is being described.

As Aristotle suggests, this involves “using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity.” This sort of vivid description, he continues, gives “metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey.” The point is to set things in motion for the reader.

Here’s a very famous and powerful example of enargeia in written form: an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Note the way the vivid description and emotional language creates not only a “bringing before the eyes” but a sense of identification between King and his audience, the audience and the message, and among the audience members themselves.

First read it silently to yourselves. Then find your group on canvas collaborations and get together physically. Introduce yourselves, create one google doc for your group through the collaboration page, and respond together to the following questions:

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.


  1. Note the most significant moments of enargeia in this passage—that is, the most emotionally moving metaphors and details that convey the effect of activity.
  2. Aristotle writes in Book 3, chapter 11: “Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, “Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that.” What do you consider the most surprising (“wow!”) metaphors in this section of King’s “Letter”?
  3. What emotions or sensations do these lively metaphors provoke in you as a reader?

Report back to class.


If there’s time, here are a couple of examples of enargeia in video:

    • Just FYEntertainment, here’s an example of enargeia in pop culture (the crime, of course, was not entertaining, but Charles Ramsey is certainly entertaining). See if you can identify the parts where Charles Ramsey “brings to life” what he’s talking about.
    • And here’s that example from Glenn Beck again of a pathetic appeal that uses emotionally charged language as a build-up and then offers a shocking visual, which is a modern-day use of enargeia. To get a sense of the ways in which Beck’s rhetoric is emotionally charged, spend several minutes studying this piece designed specifically to cool the emotions, especially points 6 and 7:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/29/9-questions-about-syria-you-were-too-embarrassed-to-ask/