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Eristic is an important and useful literary device. It occurs when the writer and speakers engage in an argument.

These conflicts are usually heated, but they don’t end with any type of satisfying conclusion. Despite their intensity, they solve nothing. It was used most commonly in classical texts and has also been called “discordia.” Eristic arguments are only used to further conflict and can be incredibly frustrating when they appear in contemporary literature as they undoubtedly lead to more trouble for the characters involved.

Eristic pronunciation: eh-ree-stick
Eristic definitions and examples

Definition of Eristic 

The word “eristic” comes from the Greek word “eris,” meaning “to create strife.” It is named for the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, Eris. It is an argument that tries to dispute another person’s point of view for no reason other than to disagree. There is no desire to find the truth or reach a conclusion. They are arguments held for the simple purpose of defeating and overcoming the other side, arguing for the sake of conflict. 

When two people are having an eristic argument, they’re trying to further the argument, using illogical premises and conclusions, baiting, teasing, and confusing their opponent. 

Examples of Eristic in Literature

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett 

Waiting for Godot is a classic example of an eristic argument. The characters make various arguments with one another, but no real conclusion is ever reached. In this particular passage, the characters argue over whether or not they need bones (Note, the stage directions have been removed): 

Pozzo: “No no, he does well to ask. Do I need the bones? No, personally I do not need them any more. But … but in theory the bones go to the carrier …”

Estragon:”Mister … excuse me, Mister …”

Pozzo: “You’re being spoken to, pig! Reply! Try him again.”

Estragon: “Excuse me, Mister, the bones, you won’t be wanting the bones?”

Pozzo: Mister! Reply! Do you want them or don’t you? They’re yours … I don’t like it. I’ve never known him to refuse a bone before … Nice business it’d be if he fell sick on me!”

These lines appear in Act I of the play. 

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Within Macbeth, readers can find a great example of an eristic argument. Lady Macbeth, the main character’s wife, uses this kind of argument with her husband. In the following passage, she uses the word “done” repetitively, suggesting that there’s no way he could possibly argue with her. Here are the lines from Act III Scene 2: 

How now, my lord, why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done, is done. 

Here, Lady Macbeth argues with her husband, asserting that everyone dies at some point, so he might as well do what needs to be done to improve their fortunes. The following lines appear in Act V Scene 1 and are the last that Lady Macbeth speaks: 

To bed, to bed! There’s knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s
done cannot be undone.—To bed, to bed, to bed!

She has no plans for the future. Her entire world has been crushed by the guilt of what she and her husband have done. Even if she wanted to change something, what’s done is done and “cannot be undone.”

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 

Of Truth by Francis Bacon 

“Of Truth” is the first essay in Bacon’s Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moralpublished in 1625. In this work, he argues that people naturally lie to one another. He questions what truth is and suggests that it is a belief that hinders free will. In the following passage, Bacon demonstrates an eristic argument: 

Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

He gives various possible reasons but never comes to a solid conclusion that he sticks to. This demonstrates how an argument about truth and lies could go on forever without ever finding a logical conclusion.

Discover Francis Bacon’s poetry.

Why Do Writers Use Eristic Arguments? 

Writers use eristic arguments in order to prolong arguments and discussions rather than conclude them. They are quite effective when paired with the equally complex subject matter, like truth or human existence. These arguments give the reader and characters time to explore the conflict at the heart of the argument and consider all sides, but it also gives characters time to frustrate their opponent and try to make them lose the debate. Confusion is often the main point of an eristic argument. Today, these types of arguments are found in all genres of literature as well as in the real world of political debates and speeches. 

Eristic or Dialectic 

These two literary terms are often compared to one another, but they aren’t exactly the same. With dialectic arguments, there are rules and distinctions applied to what’s being argued. It’s a method of discourse in which two people holding different points of view argue about a subject in order to establish the truth. They use reasonable argumentative methods are not seeking to defeat the other person just for the sake of it. This is where the method of argument diverges from eristic arguments. The latter is an argument for the sake of arguing. The two sides are fighting just to go after one another with no end goal in mind aside from coming out on top. 

  • 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.
  • Literary Argument: a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
  • Logos: use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.

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