A polemic (//) is contentious rhetoric that is intended to support a specific position by forthright claims and undermining of the opposing position. Polemics are mostly seen in arguments about controversial topics. The practice of such argumentation is called polemics. A person who often writes polemics, or who speaks polemically, is called a polemicist. The word is derived from Ancient Greek πολεμικός (polemikos) 'warlike, hostile', from πόλεμος (polemos) 'war'.
Polemics often concern issues in religion or politics. A polemic style of writing was common in Ancient Greece, as in the writings of the historian Polybius. Polemic again became common in medieval and early modern times. Since then, famous polemicists have included the satirist Jonathan Swift, French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire, Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, the socialist philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the novelist George Orwell, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the psycholinguist Noam Chomsky, the social critic Christopher Hitchens, the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, author of On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. Polemic journalism was common in continental Europe at a time when libel laws were not as stringent as they are now. To support the study of the controversies of the 17th–19th centuries, a British research project has placed online thousands of polemical pamphlets from that era.
Discussions around atheism, humanism and Christianity have remained capable of polemic into the 21st century; for example, in 2007 Brian McClinton argued in Humani that anti-religious books such as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion are part of the polemic tradition. The humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling published a book titled Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness in 2008.
In Ancient Greece, writing was characterised by what Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin called "strident adversariality" and "rationalistic aggressiveness", summed up by McClinton as polemic. For example, the ancient historian Polybius practised "quite bitter self-righteous polemic" against some twenty philosophers, orators, and historians.
Polemical writings were common in medieval and early modern times. During the Middle Ages, polemic had a religious dimension, as in Jewish texts written to protect and dissuade Jewish communities from converting to other religions. Medieval Christian writings were also often polemical; for example in their disagreements on Islam. Martin Luther's 95 Theses, nailed to the door of the church in Wittenburg, was a polemic launched against the Catholic Church.[note 1] Robert Carliell's 1619 defence of the new Church of England and diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church – Britaine's glorie, or An allegoricall dreame with the exposition thereof: containing The Heathens infidelitie in religion... – took the form of a 250-line poem.
In the 20th century, George Orwell's Animal Farm was a polemic against totalitarianism, in particular of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. According to McClinton, other prominent polemicists of the same century include such diverse figures as Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Michael Moore.
A 21st century example is The Darkening Age a 2018 book by Catherine Nixey. Professor Tim Whitmarsh of Cambridge University described Catherine Nixey's work as "a finely crafted, invigorating polemic". He also cautions that the work risks being one-sided. He said it represented a reversion to Edward Gibbon's view of the Christians as instigators of the fall of Rome. "In seeking to expose the error and corruption of the early Christian world, Nixey comes close to veiling the pre-Christian Romans’ own barbarous qualities," he said. Richard Tada, Ph.D. in ancient Greek and Byzantine history from the University of Washington, states that Nixey ventured ”into areas where she is clearly out of her depth” and as result her book is ”a shoddy work that fails to make the grade even as a polemic”, and that one of Nixey's attempts to blame Christians for the supposedly destruction of classical world is “simply dishonest”, where she misrepresents both primary and secondary sources.
- The story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door has been doubted. See references in Martin Luther#Start of the Reformation - "the story of the posting on the door...has little foundation in truth."
- "polemic" (s.v.). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. 2005.
- American College Dictionary. New York: Random House.
- Henry George Liddell; Robert Scott. "πόλεμος". A Greek-English Lexicon. on Perseus.
- polemic, or polemical literature, or polemics (rhetoric). britannica.com. Archived from the original on April 11, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
- "Pamphlet and polemic: Pamphlets as a guide to the controversies of the 17th-19th centuries". St Andrews University Library. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- McClinton, Brian (July 2007). "A Defence of Polemics" (PDF). Humani (105): 12–13.
- Grayling, A. C. (2008). Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness. Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1-840-02728-0.
- Lloyd, Geoffrey; Sivin, Nathan (2002). The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10160-7.
- Walbank, F. W. (1962). "Polemic in Polybius". The Journal of Roman Studies. 52 (Parts 1 and 2): 1–12. JSTOR 297872.
- Suerbaum, Almut; Southcombe, George (2016). Polemic: Language as Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Discourse. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-07929-3.
- Chazan, Robert (2004). Fashioning Jewish identity in medieval western Christendom. Cambridge University Press. p. 7.
- Tolan, John Victor (2000). Medieval Christian perceptions of Islam. Routledge. p. 420.
- Sidney Lee, "Carleill, Robert (fl. 1619)", rev. Reavley Gair (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004) Retrieved 27 May 2017. Pay-walled.
- Paulin, Tom (26 March 1995). "The Art of Criticism: 12 Polemic". The Independent. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
- Whitmarsh, Tim (December 28, 2017). "The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
- Tada, Richard (2018-08-11). "The Myth That Christians Destroyed the Classical World Dies Hard". National review.
- Gallop, Jane (2004). Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (1 ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-97228-0.
- Hawthorn, Jeremy (1987). Propaganda, Persuasion and Polemic. Hodder Arnold. ISBN 0-7131-6497-2.
- Lander, Jesse M. (2006). Inventing Polemic: Religion, Print, and Literary Culture in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-83854-1.
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