What . . . .

Aristotle rhetoric book  The Topoi of “What”

If you want to read more about the rhetorical techniques which all revolve around the concept called “topoi” you had better get ready to dig deep into the three books which Aristotle wrote called “Rhetoric” and/or his work called “Topoi.”*

I hope that I can present a simplified understanding of “topoi” in the coming weeks which you can use in your message preparation.  The classical rhetorical concept called “topoi” is one of the most valuable, yet untapped concepts by public speakers and public speaking teachers.

Simply, “topoi” are ways to generate content in a speech or in an argument.  If you are like I was during the early years of my ministry, I was the only pastor on staff (outside of a youth pastor).  I did the speaking at the adult S.S., Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday services.  At times you feel like a “sermonic mill.”  Add to this, the speaking demands which come with operating a Christian school which reached to over 400 students – K-8.  It was only after those first seventeen years that we were able to expand the pastoral staff and bring in men who could share some of the speaking and preaching demands.

I say that for this reason, after 36 years we had five pastors on staff who I could lean on to help work through a message when I “mentally stalled.” While working on a message I could and would go to one of the other offices and say, “Brainstorm with me on this passage / idea / concept / application.”

That is what “topoi” do.  Simply, they help you mentally generate ideas, especially when you don’t have another pastoral office to go to.  They help generate ways to develop an idea, an application, principle, truth, or an argument.

Let me identify a “topoi” — “one place” to go mentally to help build content, develop and idea, expand a concept, broaden an application, push an argument, etc.

It may be best understood by example . . . .

Let’s begin with a useful “topoi” called – “What.”

What Sample Statements:

What does that look like?


This is what it looks like!


What happens is _______.


What you will see take place over time will be _______.


What you will not see is _________


Do you know what _____ turns into?


Do you understand what it begins to look like, given time?

As you are working on a message or speech, if you need help you can “mentally-flip-through-a-list” of topi – “What” is just one of them.  After using one or more of these “topoi,” over time your mind will call them up more readily as you prepare your message.  As I stated, one of those topoi is “What.”

So as you are preparing a message . . . .

  • on the subject of kindness or giving
  • about a biblical character such as Saul or David
  • a passage such as Philippians 1:27
  • a book like James
  •  chapters such as Genesis 6-9
  • a chapter such as Ephesians 6

You can “brainstorm” using this topoi called — “What.”

Example:  Let’s take a verse and I will use it to begin our illustration of this “topoi, and then go to a message where it is actually used and further developed.

Philippians 1:27 — “I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”

(I will begin with my words to help frame and exemplify the concept of topoi.)

“Let me tell you WHAT that looks like when that happens, what you will see when you see that happening in a local church — a local church which understands that they are on the same team.  What happens in a local church when different kinds of people work as a team?  What should we expect to see when people are “standing fast in one spirit” is in a local church setting — working as a team?” — me

Now, there is still more to do, but my mind has now begun thinking of ways to develop the verse and/or to apply it to a local church setting by calling up — “what.”

Now . . . . I am going to use a message by Stephen Davey to show how what I have just said could be or would be further developed.

Even though Davey did not precede his words with my brief paragraph as stated above, as you will see he is addressing the “whats.”  My words above have been included to help frame and see what Davey is actually doing and how his words exemplify the topoi of “what.”  My brief paragraph is designed to help illustrate how topoi work in the office.

It was when he did the “whats” in his message, I immediately thought — “He is mentally using the topoi of “what” in the development of this content.”

Whether Davey could identify the concept of “what” or not, it does not matter!  You do not have to know what you’re doing to do it.  Davey has the natural or learned mental ability to do it and to do it effectively.


Stephen Davey, “No Room For Superstars.”

Davey is describing the local church which operates as a team ( his words are to be read descriptively, not admonishingly). He is going to describe what it means to be a team in a local church, what it looks like in a local church.

“They looked at each other and knew  — a church that welcomed all walks of life —  this would be the church for them — this is the local church — this is to be the same team.

 Where the white collar and blue collar sacrificially give toward the same vision;

 Where the Mexican and the Portuguese serve together;

 Where the white man and the black man pray together in the same Bible study;

 Where the doctor makes coffee in a classroom while the mechanic gets ready to teach;

 Where the businesswoman invites a housewife out to coffee;

 Where the old man determines to understand the young man;

 Where the young man decides to value the old man; 4

 Where the single appreciates the ministries to couples;

 Where the childless pray for and encourage parents;

 Where the widow volunteers in the nursery;

 Where the CEO serves as an usher;

 Where the drummer thanks God for the violinist;

 Where PhD’rs attend a class taught by a college dropout.

A church is a living demonstration of grace – we don’t live perfectly, but we are determined to live differently – because of the grace we’ve received.v This is being of one mind – one psuche – a team that is committed to the same desire.”

— Stephen Davey

Even though Davey is using the word “where,” he is artfully describing what a church looks like when it has a team spirit.***

So as you are working on a passage, application, biblical concept, biblical principle, etc. you want to say to yourself — “What happens when this takes place?” – What does that look like when it is visible?”  “What do you see people doing when it is missing?”  What changes in one’s life when they get committed?”  “What never changes when exposure to the Word is at a minimal?” “What” – “What” – “What”


*  There are many articles written about “topoi” and some of them completely miss the nature and import of this Aristotelian concept because they lack any serious classical rhetorical background. Aristotle taught his students to be able to argue a position, both for and against, on the spot and the means for doing that was to call up “topoi” or “places” one could find arguments which were persuasive.  Not physical “places” but “in-their-mind-places” where was stored ways to argue a case.

The concept of “topoi” lack complete clarity and one wishes that he had provided greater delineation.**  Those who have a grasp of this concept generally differ and assume one of two positions: #1) that they are logical arguments (i.e. — greater to the lesser / Lesser to the greater), and #2) that they are argumentative patterns known and accepted in the present-day Greek culture of Aristotle.  Because both camps have significant and persuasive arguments, the conclusion seems to be obvious — It included both.

** “The notion of a topos is a difficult one to define. The very nature of topos, the ti esti of topos, is – as has been noted by several commentators — left undefined by Aristotle in the Topics itself.” — Joseph Novak, “Aristotle and the Topoi”

*** You could flip this to another topoi by changing the grammatical structure.  We will exemplify that at another time.

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