Prooimion, or Exordium

Prooimion (προοίμιον): “opening, introduction; in epic poems, proëm, preamble; in speeches, exordium; metaphorically used of any prelude or beginnig” (Liddell, Scott, and Jones).

The title of this blog is Etymologies. It is named after a work by St. Isidore of Seville, in Latin Etymologiae. You can read about St. Isidore and his Etymologiae here. You can read Isidore’s work itself here. For more on the significance of St. Isidore and his Etymologiae, see this beautiful essay by Robert Louis Wilken.

Here is an excerpt from Etymologiae: book II, de rhetorica et dialectica, section 7, de quattuor partibus orationis:

Partes orationis in Rhetorica arte quattuor sunt: exordium, narratio, argumentatio, conclusio. Harum prima auditoris animum provocat, secunda res gestas explicat, tertia fidem adser­tionibus facit, quarta finem totius orationis conplectitur. 2 Inchoandum est itaque taliter, ut benivolum, docilem, vel adtentum auditorem faciamus: benivolum precando, docilem instruendo, adtentum excitando. Narrandum est ita, ut breviter atque aperte loquamur; argumentandum est ita, ut primum nostra firmemus, dehinc adversa confringamus; concludendum ita, ut concitemus animos audientis inplere quae dicimus.

The parts of a speech in the art of Rhetoric are four: introduction, narration, argumentation, conclusion. The first of these appeals to the listener’s mind, the second unfolds what happened, the third creates credibility in the assertions, the fourth embraces the end of the entire speech. 2 And so we must begin in such a way, that we make the listener favorable, docile, or attentive: favorable by beseeching, docile by instructing, attentive by arousing. We must state the case in such a way, that we speak briefly and plainly; we must argue in such a way, that we first fortify our own position, then shatter the opposition’s; we must conclude in such a way, that we move the will of our listener to carry out what we say.

The title of this inaugural post, prooimion, is the Greek name for the first of the four parts of a rhetorical speech. Isidore gives it its Latin name, exordium, which is the term typically used by Latin writers on the art of rhetoric. The Greek original, however, survives in English as our word proem, which now means simply any “introduction” or “preface”. But something has been lost in the gradual assimilation of a foreign word—we’ve lost the concrete vividness of the original. The Greek word prooimion is a compound of the prefix pro-, which means “before” or “in front of” and the word oimion, a diminutive form of oimos, which means “way, road, path”.

A prooimion is thus a little path that lies before and leads up to something—an introduction in the etymological sense of that word: a leading into or within. As the OED defines “introduction”, a prooimion is likewise “a preliminary explanation prefixed to or included in a book or other writing; the part of a book which leads up to the subject treated, or explains the author’s design or purpose. Also, the corresponding part of a speech, lecture, etc.”

Isidore’s term exordium, however, contains a different metaphor: an exordium was literally “the warp of a web”. The rhetorical term is thus a metaphor from weaving. Where a Greek orator would lead us along the little path into his subject matter, Roman rhetors laid down the warp of the speech they would proceed to weave.