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Procatalepsis: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

I know what you're thinking: 'I can't possibly figure out what something called 'procatalepsis' is.' Well, here's where you're wrong - in this lesson, you'll get to learn about this rhetorical device and see it in action, making that argument just another excuse!

A Preemptive Strike: Procatalepsis defined

How many times have you heard the phrase 'I know what you're going to say, but…' followed by your friends' half-baked attempts to get you to go bungee jumping or run a marathon? However poorly it may have worked for them, they were attempting to employ procatalepsis, a rhetorical device with which speakers anticipate a rebuttal to their following argument in order to discredit it.

Originally, the term prokatalepsis - literally meaning 'the process of seizing beforehand' - was used by ancient Greek military leaders to describe what we might call a 'preemptive strike.' In other words, these men would attack their enemies before their enemies could attack them.

Philosophers, public speakers, and other students of rhetoric at that time adopted the term to label a very effective strategy used in defending one's position. When using procatalepsis, often also referred to as simply prolepsis in the rhetorical world, speakers will anticipate arguments their opponents' plan to use against them. Once they have brought attention to the possible rebuttal, they quickly refute or otherwise discredit it. Having done so, the opponents' positions are weakened considering they're left with much less argument ammo. What's more, procatalepsis also often causes unskilled opponents to trip-up if they're not prepared for the surprise attack.

Since we have a better idea of what procatalepsis is and how it works, let's see how well these folks can put it to use.

Examples of Procatalepsis

Scholarly Seduction

Every Greek and Roman child lucky enough to get a formal education was always schooled in rhetoric. The same goes for Ovid, the famous Roman love poet who often used his rhetorical training as a weapon for wooing. In his Amores I.3, Ovid uses procatalepsis to convince the lovely Corinna that he's the one for her. He tells her that he realizes he may not have a lot of money, possessions, or social standing (apparent turn-offs for respectable Roman women), but he knows he can make her immortal through his poetry. Corinna seems to have been persuaded since we're still talking about her now.

Ovid (above) actually wrote an entire rhetorical guidebook to seduction known as Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), featuring procatalepsis and many other clever devices!
Statue of Ovid in Romania

Preemptive Politics

The political arena is a playground for rhetorical devices. In a 2013 speech defending the Affordable Care Act, President Obama makes use of procatalepsis in an effort to thwart more attacks:

If you ask many opponents of this law what exactly they'd do differently, their answer seems to be, well, let's go back to the way things used to be…You can't just say the system was working with 41 million people who didn't have health insurance.

Here, Obama has anticipated his opponents' argument to return to previous circumstances and dismissed it as unacceptable. Therefore, those who opposed the law were forced to find new approaches of attack, since the president had already beaten them to the punch.

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