Procatalepsis is a helpful device when one is in the middle of a debate, especially if they know what their opponent is going to say next. It can make one’s arguments sound stronger than if one had waited to dismiss the other point of view. It’s also sometimes known as prebuttal or prolepsis.
Definition of Procatalepsis
Procatalepsis is a useful figure of speech that occurs when someone addresses and dismisses their opponent’s argument before the latter has a turn to speak. By framing the opposing argument in a certain way, a speaker can ensure that their side sounds stronger and is easier to accept as the truth. While the device can be used quite formally, as the definition suggests, it’s also possible to use it in creative writing.
Examples of Procatalepsis
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
This famous literary publication contains an interesting example of procatalepsis. It is also an example of satire in which the writer targets the wealthiest segments of British society. These people acknowledge the issue of starvation and overpopulation in Ireland but do nothing about it. In order to solve their problem (that they’re doing nothing themselves to resolve), Swift suggests that they purchase the Irish children and eat them. Swift includes the following passage in “A Modest Proposal.”
I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and it was indeed the principal design in offering it to the world.
He satirically addresses the one objection he thinks the population is going to have to his proposal. By suggesting that the only problem anyone could have is that there “the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom,” he’s emphasizing how little the English really care about the Irish. He’s implying they’d have no issue eating children.
Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.
“An Appeal to the British People” by Frederick Douglass
This well-known speech, which was delivered at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, England, on May 12th, 1846, contains a good example of procatalepsis. Douglass starts by putting forward an argument against his point of view. He says:
I may be asked, why I am so anxious to bring this subject before the British public—why I do not confine my efforts to the United States?
He makes this quite clear, ensuring that listeners know he’s considered other points of view and is ready to discuss them. He provides this first answer next:
My answer is, first, that slavery is the common enemy of mankind, and all mankind should be made acquainted with its abominable character.
Following this, he adds:
My next answer is, that the slave is a man, and, as such, is entitled to your sympathy as a brother. All the feelings, all the susceptibilities, all the capacities, which you have, he has. He is a part of the human family.
By answering a question that hasn’t been asked yet, Douglass strengthens his argument.
The Captives by Horace Walpole
In this novel, Walpole provides readers with a great example of how procatalepsis can be used. These lines are one instance of the figure of speech being used in the book:
“No, I know you don’t,” Thurston continued quietly. “And I know what you think of me, too. This is your idea of me, I reckon—that I’m a pushing, uneducated common bounder that’s just using this religious business to shove himself along with; that’s kidding all these poor old ladies that ‘e believes in their bunkum, and is altogether about as low-down a fellow as you’re likely to meet with. That’s about the colour of it, isn’t it?”
In this passage, the speaker, Thurston, asserts that he knows what “you think of me.” He puts forward what he assumes the argument is going to be about him as a way of getting ahead of Martin, who he’s speaking to.
Apology by Plato
There is another famous example from Plato’s Apology. Plato addresses the fact that some people who read his writing aren’t going to agree with everything he says. He knows that he isn’t going to be able to convince them no matter how “true” his arguments are. He uses the following lines:
Someone will say: ‘Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you?’ Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this … and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.
By accepting the fact that his rhetoric will leave some people unconvinced, he actually makes his ideas seem stronger. He’s smart enough to realize that he isn’t perfect, a fact that will likely convince more people to consider his suggestions more fully.
Why Do Writers Use Procatalepsis?
Procatalepsis can be found in every literary genre and form. While it seems like it should be incredibly formal, there are many possible iterations that take on a more lyrical format. For example, this literary device can be found in novels, plays, and even poems. It’s easy to imagine how a poet might suggest someone’s argument before dismissing it. This could concern everything from love to the future and the past. In novels, one could find the device used in courtroom scenes, arguments among friends and family members, as well as in a classroom setting. Writers use this literary technique in formal writing as well. It appears in speeches, academic papers, addresses, and professional documents. One might hear examples of this device in business meetings or while reading a colleague’s plans for a personal project.
Related Literary Terms
- Argument: a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Read: The Apology by Plato
- Read: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
- Listen: “An Appeal to the British People” (reenactment)