I. What is Exemplum?
“Exemplum” is just Latin for “example.” And that’s all it is. It’s an example, story, or anecdote used to demonstrate a point.
On its strict definition, exemplum specifically means a story used to illustrate an ethical point. We’ll call this “moral exemplum,” but you might also call it a “parable.” These can be anything from short tales to whole novels or plays.
More broadly, “exemplum” can mean any use of an example at all. So any time someone says “for instance” or “for example,” what follows is an exemplum. These, too, can be either short or long, but they tend to be fairly short.
The plural of “exemplum” is “exempla.”
II. Examples of Exemplum
Once there was a boy who lived in a village. He liked to call out “Wolf!” and laugh as the villagers ran around in a panic, only to realize that there was no wolf at all. One day, the boy was playing in the forest, and ran into an actual wolf. He cried “Wolf! Wolf!” but no one believed him anymore. Everyone thought he was lying again, and no one came to save him.
This is one of the most famous exempla of all. You probably heard this story at some point when you were young, when an adult wanted you to understand the importance of being truthful. This is a good, short example of the “moral exemplum.”
The traditional paper newspaper is in dire straits. For example, the venerable Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed its doors in 2009, never to reopen.
This author is using a short exemplum to illustrate a more general point about newspapers. Notice that this exemplum does not prove the point! After all, just because one newspaper closed does not mean the industry as a whole is in trouble. However, the exemplum helps readers see what the author means.
III. The Importance of Using Exemplum
Exemplum is a powerful technique for one simple reason: human beings respond more to stories than to raw facts or abstract ideas. Social scientists have studied this extensively, and it’s quite clear that our brains are set up to process stories and get meaning out of them. We respond intuitively to a single example or anecdote.
This goes for both the “moral exemplum” and the broader definition. Think, for example, of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story. If you were told this story as a child, it probably had a bigger impact on you than if someone had simply said “it’s wrong to lie” and left it at that. Stories have a powerful hold on our minds, and that’s what gives exempla their force.
IV. Examples of Exemplum in Literature
The Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is probably the most famous moral exemplum in Western literature. In it, a man asks Jesus what it means to live morally; Jesus simply says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” When the man does not seem to understand what this means, Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan helping someone he sees on the road, which illustrates Jesus’s point. Here we can see how a good story helps to clarify a more abstract moral principle.
The entirety of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso can be seen as one long, extended moral exemplum, or at least a long series of them. In the trilogy, Dante walks through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, noticing the results of people’s moral and immoral behavior. Through his images, Dante illustrates an entire moral universe for his readers and vividly shows why such sins as wrath and greed are harmful to humanity.
Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course. Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years. (Lemony Snicket, Horseradish)
Here’s a pretty straightforward exmplum. The author makes a general point about tradition, and then illustrates it further with a good example.
V. Examples of Exemplum in Pop Culture
There are two wolves fighting in each man’s heart. One is Love, the other is Hate.
Which one wins?
The one you feed the most.
This is a short moral exemplum from the movie Pathfinder. Obviously, the parable teaches a lesson about controlling one’s destiny by choosing which emotions to “feed.”
When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service. (Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight)
In this line, Harvey Dent is arguing against someone who believes that Batman is a menace and must be stopped. He attempts to support his point by offering the Roman method of emergency management as an exemplum. (This fits in a long tradition of Americans using exempla from Roman history to explain their various positions on contemporary politics.)
You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam. (Rage Against the Machine, Wake Up)
This is from a song about governments resisting their citizens’ calls for freedom. In one line, the song offers an example: the FBI, which targeted Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights movement and attempted to discredit him.
VI. Related Terms
Morality Play (or Morality Tale)
In common usage, these terms are thought to be synonymous with “ moral exemplum,” and in fact much more common. If you used the word “morality tale” to refer to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” most people would understand what you meant. Technically, however, the Morality Play has a narrower definition and is a slightly different form. It comes from the Middle Ages, when moral and religious messages were delivered through simple plays.
A morality play is not just a play with a moral. It’s a play in which moral virtues actually appear as characters. So your main character (usually a man) will be walking along, and suddenly Equity or Mercy or Justice will appear and admonish him to behave more ethically. Or, conversely, Sloth or Greed or Wrath will appear and try to tempt the main character away from his Godly path. This narrative form is not very popular anymore, which is why the meaning of the term has started to shift.
The closest thing we have to morality plays today is the moments in popular movies when an angel and a devil (representing Conscience and Desire, or Superego and Id) will appear on a character’s shoulders to give conflicting advice. For example, in The Emperor’s New Groove, the character Kronk has an angel and a devil who frequently appear to give advice. (The shoulder-devil, however, usually changes the subject away from the real issue and instead makes ad hominem attacks against the shoulder-angel – this rhetorical fallacy is the source of several jokes in the movie.)