With the two premises of syllogism, readers are capable of arriving at a solid conclusion. But, it’s important that the premises are true and that the entire argument is logical. In this kind of argument, there is a specific premise and a general premise. The latter is also known as the major premise, while the former is sometimes called the minor premise. With these two, the argument is formed. Aristotle first outlined it in Prior Analytics.
Definition of Syllogism
A syllogism is a three-part argument that uses a major premise and minor premise to arrive at a logical conclusion. These arguments use deductive reasoning. They can sometimes have more than three parts, but this is far more unusual. There are several different types of syllogisms. They are explored below. A basic example is:
- All mammals are animals.
- All humans are mammals.
- All humans are animals.
The first line represents the general or major premise. The second is the minor or specific premise, and the final line is the logical conclusion the premises lead to.
Examples of Syllogisms in Literature
To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
In this famous poem, the poet uses an example of a syllogism throughout the lines of the poem. He starts the piece by saying:
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
As the poem progresses, he explores this idea more and thinks about the past. He eventually presents readers with the second premise. It reads:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The poem goes on for a while longer before he adds:
let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
This is the final part of the syllogism, the conclusion. He uses the two premises to say that being coy would not present a problem if there was unlimited time. But, the second premise adds, there isn’t enough time. Finally, the conclusion informs the reader that it’s important not to be coy. Marvell’s poem is far more complex and multi-layered than this analysis suggests, but this is the basic idea his speaker is trying to get across. There are consequences, the speaker alludes, for acting this way.
Read more Andrew Marvell poems.
“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare
In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare presents readers with a good example of a syllogism. The following lines are found in Act II Scene 7. They read:
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’
Why, that’s the lady. All the world desires her.
These lines allude to Portia’s suitors and the three chests made of gold, silver, and lead. The person who chooses the right chest will also get Portia. The above lines are spoken by the Prince of Morocco, who chooses incorrectly. He thought that the gold chest would contain his right to marry Portia as gold represents what all men desire. His logic fails him.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
The Anagram by John Donne
Donne’s ‘The Anagram’ is another example of a poem that uses syllogism. Consider these lines from the piece:
All love is wonder; if we justly do
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, die;
Choose this face, changed by no deformities.
In the first two lines of this excerpt, the speaker is saying that anything loveable is wonderful. His mistress is wonderful and, therefore, loveable as well.
Discover more John Donne poems.
Why Do Writers Use Syllogisms?
Writers use syllogisms when they want to make a convincing and logic-based argument. They can be used in academic writing and speech writing, but they also appear in fiction. There are examples seen in plays, novels, and even poems as the speakers try to navigate difficult situations and figure out what they want to do next. They make logical arguments feel sound and impossible to argue against. Syllogisms also work to create clarity. Even if something seems indisputable, they help to spell it out and make it even more obvious.
Syllogisms have been used for hundreds of years, dating back to before the time of Aristotle. He popularized their form and is usually credited with solidifying this argumentative style. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars used syllogism and incorporated them into some of the most important philosophical texts. Some of the best examples come from 20th-century philosophers.
A syllogism is an argument based on deductive reasoning that contains three parts.
The types of syllogisms are universal, particular, and enthymemes.
A syllogist fallacy is a false argument made using a syllogism. For example, two premises that lead to an illogical conclusion.
They are important because they allow writers and speakers to create solid, indisputable-seeming arguments. They are used in everything from poetry to prose and academic, non-fiction writing.
Disjunctive syllogism is a valid argument form in calculus.
Related Literary Terms
- Ad Hominem: uses irrelevant information in an attempt to discredit someone’s opinion or argument.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Bias: undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
- Concession: a literary device that occurs in argumentative writing in which one acknowledges another’s point.
- Enthymeme: an informal argumentative statement in which the speaker omits one of the minor premises.
- Eristic: occurs when the writer and speakers engage in an argument.