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 bring things to life, right here and now.
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.
- Read the passage silently to yourselves.
- In groups of three, introduce yourselves to each other, and respond together to the following questions. Be prepared to share your responses.
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.
- Note the most significant moments of enargeia in this passage—that is, the most emotionally moving metaphors and vivid details.
- 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 unexpected and so memorable metaphors in this section of King’s “Letter”?
- What emotions or sensations do these lively metaphors provoke in you as a reader?
Report back to class.