The Temple Metaphor for Logical Writing

Many of the words we use to talk about arguments are borrowed from architecture.  We say it "doesn't hold up" or it's "solid."   We build up our arguments, and we try to tear down those of our opponents. 

Architecture offers us a good metaphor for a successful argument.

The Temple Metaphor

Image of U.S. Superme Court building.
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregerson, Phototour of Minneapolis

A classical temple makes a good metaphor for an argument
Temple Argument
Roof Conclusion
Pillars/Walls Evidence
Bricks Suppositions
Foundation Premise

Actually, human beings have been using their powers of reason for longer than they have been building temples... perhaps the first architects actually borrowed concepts from the realm of logic!

  A neoclassical temple and an academic argument both require a solid base. 

While the foundation of a building is stone; the foundation of an argument is a premise.  The building blocks of your argument are facts and assertions, known as suppositions.  A mason shapes and stacks round blocks in order to form a pillar; in the same way, a writer arranges and connects suppositions in order to provide a chain of logical connections; like a pillar that runs all the way from the ground to the roof, these connections are the evidence that supports the writer's main point.  The stronger the columns, the heavier the roof can be; in the same way, a stronger array of supporting evidence can support a "weightier" conclusion.

Just as building must withstand the force of gravity, your argument must hold up under the force of logic.  As you write, conjure up the image of an alter-ego who challenges you at every turn... not a bad guy, but an intelligent and honest critic testing out your argument, the same way one might tap on a wall to test its strength.  If the wall collapses, it's not the tester's fault!


At some point or other, we just have to take a particular premise for granted, and begin from there.  The premise is the starting point of your essay, like the axioms in a geometric proof.  Sometimes the premises can be very basic:
Love your neighbor.

And sometimes they can be complex:

The Three Laws of Robotics 
  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
  2. A robot must follow the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. A robot must protect its own existence so long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. 

  4. -- Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 AD

[Actually, that's from the Isaac Asimov SF classic, I Robot.]

An essay that addresses the question "Was Hamlet mad?" has an unspoken premise -- that we know enough about the play Hamlet to determine the sanity of the title character.  Underlying that premise is a deeper one -- that we know enough about the concepts of sanity and madness to make any such exploration worthwhile.  Those of us who are bored with English literature ask whether it make any sense at all to examine an imaginary literary character in this kind of detail... if we ask this question, we are challenging an even deeper premise.  Those of us who are bored with life as a whole, who wear black turtlenecks and chain smoke in trendy downtown cafes, might wish to challenge a premise that lies deeper still -- can we ever claim knowledge about anything at all?

Note: This line of thought is called "deconstruction."  It digs up the foundation of every premise it can find.  It is very depressing, and therefore very trendy.  It deals with the elimination of all that mankind has previously known to have been good and true.  While it does not actually bring us any closer to the question of whether Hamlet is mad, it has from time to time encouraged many otherwise healthy graduate students to experience madness for the first time.


Suppositions are the building blocks of arguments; we "suppose" them to be true.
  • There is a table at the front of this room.
  • All apples are fruits.
  • An apple is not an orange.
  • Nobody knows the troubles I've seen.

  •      (This one is not as easily verifiable as the others... such a supposition might be a weak link)
  • My favorite color is blue.

  •      (Another potential weak link, since this is not easily verifiable)
  • The population of the United States in 1976 was about 200 million.

  •      (When properly documented, a statement such as this is a fact.)
  • The moon is made of green cheese.

  •      (Scientific research has proven this to be false... but it is still a supposition.)
Just as we use mortar to join bricks together, we use various operators and qualifiers to join suppositions together:
  • Give me liberty or give me death.
  • He is an officer and a gentleman.
  • Some apples are yellow.  [Implies that there are apples with different colors.]
  • I buy this brand of laundry detergent because the box bears a cheerful design.
  • No dogs can vote.  "Sammy" cannot vote.  It is plausible that Sammy is a dog.
    • Of course, Sammy could be a cat, or a child, or a prisoner... or dead.
      By themselves, these suppositions don't amount to much.
  • If he knew his words were misleading, then he must have lied.


To create coherent train of thought preparing the reader to accept our conclusion, we marshall our suppositions into a chain:
  1. Socrates is a man.
  2. All men are mortal.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Sometimes the chain is more convoluted, coiling around, knotting up, and tangling.  It's your job to smooth it out:

  1. It is the responsibility of the state to protect the well-being of its citizens.
  2. The state permits people to smoke cigarettes.
  3. Smoking causes lung cancer.
  4. Lung cancer harms the well-being of citizens.

  5. Equate #3 & #4 to get the following:
  6. To smoke cigarettes causes harm to the well being of citizens.

  7. In #2, substitute equated terms from #5 to get the following:
  8. The state permits people to harm the well-being of citizens.
  9. The revision in 6 shows that statement 1 conflicts with statement 2.
This chain begins with a premise (#1).  It then gives some well-known facts (#2, #3) and a reasonable observation (#4).  We haven't actually proven anything, or made any sort of argument; all we have done is set some parameters for a debate about the conflict between (#1) and (#2).  In doing so, we have stumbled across several new questions: does the personal choice implied in supposition #2 override or negate the state's responsibility?  Is "the well-being" of a citizen (as employed in #1) limited to physical health, or is personal freedom a factor too?  We need to define our terms, establish a hierarchy of values, and justify whatever exclusions or modifications we need to make in order to examine our topic.


Here's where the building metaphor weakens a bit.  The roof goes on last when you build a temple, but you should always begin an argument with a clear statement of your position.

Please allow me to abuse the temple metaphor a little bit more, in the noble interest of making my point:

  • Start with a blueprint (an outline).
  • Build a complete roof, right on top of your foundation (always keeping your conclusion in mind).
  • Prop it up brick by brick, until it's high enough for you live comfortably under it.
  • Once you've got the basic structure standing, test its solidity.  Make the existing columns thicker, and add columns wherever the roof sags.
    • Don't leave portions of your conclusion hanging in the air.
    • Don't try to build grand staircases and lofty towers if you won't have time to complete them.
    • Don't expose parts of your foundation to the open air -- you'll undermine the whole structure.
  • If you have enough time, enthusiasm, and material, make the roof higher or add a new wing.
  • Don't paint the walls or add the decorations until the heavy construction is done!


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