For other uses, see Polemic (disambiguation).

A polemic /pəˈlɛmɪk/ is contentious rhetoric that is intended to support a specific 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.[1] The word is derived from Greek πολεμικός (polemikos), meaning "warlike, hostile",[1][2] from πόλεμος (polemos), meaning "war".[3]

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, the socialist philosopher Karl Marx, the novelist George Orwell and the linguist Noam Chomsky.


Polemics are usually addressed to important issues in religion and politics. Polemic journalism was common in continental Europe at a time when libel laws were not as stringent as they are now.[4] 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.[5] Discussions around atheism, humanism and Christianity have remained capable of polemic into modern times; for example, in 2007 Brian McClinton argued in Humani that anti-religious books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion are part of the polemic tradition.[6] The humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling indeed published a book titled Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness in 2008.[7]


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.[6][8] For example, the ancient historian Polybius practised "quite bitter self-righteous polemic" against some twenty philosophers, orators, and historians.[9]

Polemical writings were common in medieval and early modern times.[10] 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.[11] Medieval Christian writings were also often polemical; for example in their disagreements on Islam.[12] Martin Luther's 95 Theses, famously nailed to the door of the church in Wittenburg, was a powerful polemic launched against the Catholic Church.[6]

Major political polemicists of the 18th century include Jonathan Swift, with pamphlets such as his A Modest Proposal, and Edmund Burke, with his attack on the Duke of Bedford.[13]

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's 1848 Communist Manifesto was extremely polemical.[6]

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.[6]

See also


  1. 1 2 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA, 2005), s.v. "polemic"
  2. American College Dictionary (Random House, New York)
  3. πόλεμος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. polemic, or polemical literature, or polemics (rhetoric). britannica.com. Archived from the original on April 11, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
  5. "Pamphlet and polemic: Pamphlets as a guide to the controversies of the 17th-19th centuries". St Andrews University Library. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 McClinton, Brian (July 2007). "A Defence of Polemics" (PDF). Humani (105): 12–13.
  7. Grayling, A. C. (2008). Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness. Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1-840-02728-0.
  8. 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.
  9. Walbank, F. W. (1962). "Polemic in Polybius". The Journal of Roman Studies. 52 (Parts 1 and 2): 1–12.
  10. Suerbaum, Almut; Southcombe, George (2016). Polemic: Language as Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Discourse. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-07929-3.
  11. Chazan, Robert (2004). Fashioning Jewish identity in medieval western Christendom. Cambridge University Press. p. 7.
  12. Tolan, John Victor (2000). Medieval Christian perceptions of Islam. Routledge. p. 420.
  13. Paulin, Tom (26 March 1995). "The Art of Criticism: 12 Polemic". The Independent. Retrieved 6 November 2016.


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