When someone commits to using reductio ad absurdum, they’ll push their arguments to the limit, turning to the most ridiculous of consequences and extraordinarily unlikely impacts of what their opponent is suggesting.
Explore Reductio ad Absurdum
Definition of Reductio ad Absurdum
Reductio ad absurdum is a Latin term meaning “to reduce something to absurdity.” It’s used when a speaker or writer takes their opponent’s argument and pushes it to the extreme. They suggest that an absurd outcome will result from it.
For example, arguing against equal rights for women by suggesting that women are going to enslave men. This pushes the argument into new territory that no one wants to argue for. It can be used to argue for or against ideas/concepts that are to the benefit of humankind or not. One can imagine situations in which someone might use reductio ad absurdum to argue for raising the minimum wage, eating meat, exercising daily, or not doing those things. Like any figure of speech, it can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Examples of Reductio ad Absurdum in Literature
The Works of Jonathan Swift
“A Modest Proposal” is an incredibly famous example of satire that targets British society’s wealthiest segments. They 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. Consider this passage from “A Modest Proposal”:
I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom … cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
In these lines, Swift uses reductio ad absurdum to describe the children’s living conditions. He’s trying to highlight how horrible their situation is and pushes it to the extreme. A reader might be aware of this fact, but in the end, if the argument is convincing, the exaggerations shouldn’t matter. Swift gets his point across.
Additionally, readers can find an example in his poetic work, ‘The Ladies’ Dressing Room.’ Consider these lines and how Swift satirizes the process of getting ready:
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.
He overplays how much work goes into a woman getting ready,,, but he makes a valid point about the time people spend on their appearance.
Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.
The Republic by Plato
The Republic by Plato was written around 375 B.C. It was written to speak about justice, the city-state, and what it means to live a just life. It is the writer’s best-known work and contains much of his most influential writing. The following conversation between Polemarchus, Socrates, and Adeimantus is an interesting example of reductio ad absurdum:
Polemarchus: “The physician.”
Socrates: “Or when they are on a voyage, amid the perils of the sea?”
Polemarchus: “The pilot.”
Socrates: “And in what sort of actions or with a view to what result is the just man most able to do harm to his enemy and good to his friends?”
Socrates: “But when a man is well, my dear Polemarchus, there is no need of a physician?
Socrates: “Then in time of peace, justice will be of no use?”
Polemarchus: “I am very far from thinking so …”
Adeimantus: “The strongest point of all has not been even mentioned, he replied.”
Socrates: “Well, then, according to the proverb, ‘Let brother help brother’”
Adeimantus: “Nonsense, he replied…”
In this passage, Plato uses reductio ad absurdum to show the absurdity of his opponent’s arguments. Plato is not the only philosopher to use this figure of speech in his writing. Reductio ad absurdum is also used in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, and Immanuel Kant uses it in his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he explores metaphysics and its limits.
Why Do Writers Use Reductio ad Absurdum?
Writers use this interesting argumentative technique when they want to get their point across. It is often used to point out the worst parts of another’s argument by extending the possible outcomes to the extreme. For example, suggesting that curbing fossil fuel emissions will crash the world economy. These arguments are meant to be stretched and seek out the most absurd, irrational outcome. Today, this kind of argument is usually used informally. Writers always have to be aware that some listeners might not be aware of when this figure of speech is being used. So, if used satirically, it might be received seriously.
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.
- Ad Hominem: uses irrelevant information in an attempt to discredit someone’s opinion or argument.
- 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.
- Deductive Reasoning: also known as top-down logic, is a rhetorical device and a way to build a successful argument.
- Watch: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
- Listen: What is an Ad Hominem Attack?
- Read: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift