The word stasis is borrowed from the Greek; it translates in Latin as quaestio, and, “in modern parlance”, as issue (Nadeau 1964, p. 366).
In medicine, a stasis is defined as “a slowing or stoppage of the normal flow of a bodily fluid or semifluid” (MW, Stasis); a stasis results in congestion, that is, in “an excessive accumulation especially of blood or mucus in an organ” (MW, Congest).
As used in rhetorical argumentation, the word stasis is a medical metaphor; medicine is a valuable source of examples and an important analogical resource domain for argumentative theory S. Natural Sign. In medicine, a state of stasis occurs when the bodily humors are blocked, and medical arts have to be applied to restore the correct flow of the fluids. Similarly, in the field of human action and interaction, a situation of stasis occurs when the consensual circulation of discourse is blocked by a contradiction or a doubt, and the argumentative arts must be implemented to restore the normal, cooperative flow of dialogue. Nadeau defines the situation of stasis as “a position of balance or rest” established between two opposite discourses (id., p. 369).
In a state of stasis, the equilibrium is that of an aporia: “the Greek verb aporein describes the situation of the person who, finding himself in front of an obstacle, finds no passage”; the associated psychic state is embarrassment (Pellegrin 1997, art Aporia). In philosophical usage, an aporia is an insoluble contradiction.
2. The classical stasis theory
The first systematic formulation of a theory of stasis is found in Hermagoras of Temnos (late 2nd century BC; Benett 2005). The technique of stasis is used by rhetoricians before Hermagoras, but he was the first to formally identify and name the concept along with four basic kinds of stasis (Nadeau 1964, p. 370). This theory is best known via the treatise On Stasis of Hermogene of Tarsus, a Greek rhetorician of the 2nd half of the second century (Hermogene, AR; Patillon 1988). Hermogene distinguishes between:
(i) On the one hand, misconceived questions, upon which an argumentative debate cannot be built, either because their answer is obvious, or because they are undecidable; these questions are “incapable of stasis” (id., p. 385); in other words they cannot be rationally discussed.
(ii) On the other hand, we have well-conceived questions, which can be rationally discussed.
Hermogene organizes the different kinds of general, well-conceived questions as follows (after Patillon, p. 57 sq.).
— Stasis of conjecture: Is the fact established?
— Stasis on the definition, upon “the name of an act” (Nadeau, p. 393): Someone robs a private person in a temple; is he a temple plunderer?
— The next step is the qualification of the act; it can be rational (discussed on the basis of good reason) or judicial (discussed on the basis of an existing law).
Judicial qualification is discussed under the following lines (after Patillon, p. 59).
The defendant does not admit to the mischievousness of the fact: antilepsis (“contradiction, objection”, Bailly, [Antilepsis])
The defendant admits to the mischievousness of the fact: opposition
• He assumes responsibility: compensation
• He rejects responsibility:
— and blames the victim: counter-accusation
— and blames somebody or something else:
≠ who or which can be guilty: report of accusation
≠ who or which cannot be guilty: excuse
3. The authentic “rhetorical question”
A stasis is a question, the node of a conflict articulating a judicial action in order to solve it. The Rhetoric at Herennius defines the first stage of a judicial encounter as the determination of the issue constituting the cause (Ad Her., I, 18, 17):
The issue [constitutio] is determined by the joining of the primary plea of the defense with the charge of the plaintiff (Ad Her., I, 18, 11)
Quintilian explains that the first thing he does to disentangle an argumentative situation is to find the quæstio, the question, or the issue. The question “arises” when a statement made by a party is contradicted by the other party (note that the following text presupposes that adultery was a crime; that it was legal to kill an adulterer; and, apparently, that the executor was prosecuted for killing the man, while he also killed the woman):
5. First, then, (what is not difficult to be ascertained, but is above all to be regarded) I settled what each party wished to establish, and then by what means, in the following way. I considered what the prosecutor would state first: either an admitted or contested point. If it were admitted, the question could not lie in it. 6. I passed therefore to the answer of the defendant and considered it in the same way. Sometimes, too, what was elicited there was admitted. But as soon as there began to be any disagreement, the question arose. The process was of this nature: ‘You killed a man’ —‘I did kill him”. The fact is admitted, so I pass on. 7. The defendant ought to give a reason why he killed him. ‘It is lawful’, he may say, ‘to kill an adulterer with an adulteress’. It is admitted that there is such a law. We may then proceed to a third point, about which there may be a dispute. ‘They were not guilty of adultery’ — ‘they were’. Hence arises the question.
(IO, VII, 1, 5-7; my emphasis).
The question, that is to say, the point to be judged, is deduced from the nature of the reply given by the accused to the accuser. When the parties agree, the facts are considered to be established or “peaceful”; they are disputed when disagreement arises.
At the beginning of On Invention Cicero criticizes Hermagoras for having too general a view of argumentative questions, including philosophical as well as scientific questions, “Can the senses be trusted? What is the shape of the world? How large is the sun?” (On Inv., I, 8, VI). Cicero limits the theory of questions to those belonging to the proper domain of the orator, the epidictic, deliberative and judicial genres. Nonetheless, the concept of question has no such pre-set limit.
The concept of stasis as a question is the counterpart in the rhetorical domain of the Aristotelian concept of problem in the dialectical domain (Aristotle, Top., I, 11, 104b-105a10, pp. 25-28); a question is a rhetorical problem. The theory of stasis is the theory of “rhetorical questions” in the proper sense:
The constitutio of the auctor ad Herennium, then, is the functionally dual stasis of Greek rhetoric […] the psychical counterpart of which is the articulate question, or, as Sextus Empiricus (Against the Geometricians, III, 4) styled it, the “rhetorical question” (Dieter 1950, p. 360).
This meaning of the expression rhetorical question is quite distinct from the current meaning, which designates a question to which the speaker knows the answer, whilst also knowing that his interlocutors also knows the answer, and whose value is that of a challenge to potential opponents. To avoid confusion, we’ll use the expression argumentative question, S. Argumentative Question.
Facing the accusation, “You have stolen my moped!”, the defendant may adopt different strategies which will determine the type of debate to follow.
(1) Denying having committed the act; the fact is not ascertained (“conjectural stasis”)
I did not even touch your moped!
(2) Recognize there has been a theft, and accuse somebody else:
It’s not me, it’s him!
Idem, accusing the author of the accusation:
It’s not me, it’s you, who accuse me, yet who destroyed your own moped to get the insurance premium.
(3) Recognize the fact, deny it was a theft, and re-categorize the action under a more honorable label, S. Categorization. This can be achieved via a number of different strategies:
But this is my moped; you stole it from me last year!
But this moped belongs to me, you pretended to buy it, but have never paid me.
I didn’t steal it, I just borrowed it. I asked you for permission.
(4) Idem, but invoking various kinds of extenuating circumstances:
The gang leader forced me.
I was just taking my grandmother to the hospital
(5) Idem, and apologize:
I made a mistake, Mr. President.
(6) Recusing the judges (stasis on the procedure); disqualifying the accuser:
It is not for the victor to judge the vanquished.
But who are you to judge me?
Suits you (= the accuser) well, you the gang leader, to complain of a theft! This should be solved by a good fistfight, as usual.
(7) Recognize the fact and claim to be proud of it:
You were drunk, I saved your life by taking your moped, and you should thank me!
Maybe because of its spectacular character, the last case is known in the rhetoric of figures as an antiparastasis, S. Orientation.
All these strategies are equally interesting, and all might deserve to be known by a specific name.
Some of these strategies are mutually exclusive, S. Kettle argumentation.