A polemic (/pəˈlɛmɪk/) is contentious rhetoric that is intended to support a specific position by aggressive 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.[1] The word is derived from Ancient 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, French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire, Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, the socialist philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the novelist George Orwell, 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.

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 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.[6] The humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling 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, nailed to the door of the church in Wittenburg, was a polemic launched against the Catholic Church.[6][note 1] Robert Carliell's 1619 defence of the new Church of England and diatribe against the Roman Catholic ChurchBritaine's glorie, or An allegoricall dreame with the exposition thereof: containing The Heathens infidelitie in religion... – took the form of a 250-line poem.[13]

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.[14]

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's 1848 Communist Manifesto was extremely polemical.[6] Friedrich Engels's famous work Anti-Dühring was also a polemic against Eugen Dühring.

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. 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."


  1. 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. 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. JSTOR 297872.
  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. Sidney Lee, "Carleill, Robert (fl. 1619)", rev. Reavley Gair (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004) Retrieved 27 May 2017. Pay-walled.
  14. Paulin, Tom (26 March 1995). "The Art of Criticism: 12 Polemic". The Independent. Retrieved 6 November 2016.


  • 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.
  • Quotations related to Polemic at Wikiquote
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