What does “seven circumstances” mean?


2017 stats of SevenCircumstances.com

My book reviews are based on answering the seven main questions that are asked when investigating a subject; 6 Ws and 1 H, namely:

  1. What
  2. Who
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. With what
  7. How

These are the principles that I was taught in Journalism School – write completely, concisely, correctly and in an appropriate style. And in terms of writing completely, answer the 6 Ws and 1 H questions that must always be answered in the lede or opening paragraph of every article. Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story. Applied to book reviews, the questions are:

  1. What is the plot of the book?
  2. Who are the characters?
  3. When is it happening?
  4. Where is it set?
  5. Why are the actions occurring?
  6. With what mechanisms or techniques are the author conveying this?
  7. How was the book received – how do I feel about it?

These are just some of the questions. The same questions, and more, can be asked of the book, the author, the author’s style and oeuvre, the genre and the current events that influence the perception of the book.

If the book merits Close Reading, I will only look at the contents of the book and the style in which it was written, not extraneous factors like the author or current event.

Elements of Circumstance

I use the Six Ws and 1 H, but this series of questions started as the Five Ws, Five Ws and one H, 5W1H, or the Six Ws, which are questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering, rhetoric, argumentation or problem-solving, since classical antiquity.

These “Elements of Circumstance” are often used in journalism (news style), research, and police investigations. They constitute a formula for getting the complete story on a subject. According to the principle of the Five Ws, a report can only be considered complete if it answers in a factual manner, not using only “yes” or “no”, all the questions that can be started with an  interrogative word. The seven circumstances were also popular as a guide for taking confession, for obvious reasons.

The rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos (Greek Ερμαγόρας, fl. 1st century BC), was an Ancient Greek rhetorician of the Rhodian school and teacher of rhetoric. Quoted in pseudo-Augustine’s De Rhetorica (a 14th century fake collection of sermons that claimed to be authored by Augustine of Hippo), he is nevertheless credited with defining the seven “elements of circumstances” (μόρια περιστάσεως) as the loci or cores of an issue: Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis. This is translated as who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means.

After Hermagoras, philosophers and rhetors such as Victorinus, Cicero, Julius Victor, Boethius, Thierry de Chartres, and John of Salisbury have revised and changed the elements of circumstances, right up to the 16th century.

In the 19th century, the American Prof. William Cleaver Wilkinson re-popularized the concept and explained how these elements of circumstances are used in teaching:

“It is, in fact,” he says, “an almost immemorial orator’s analysis. First the facts, next the proof of the facts, then the consequences of the facts. This analysis has often been expanded into one known as “The Five Ws:” “When? Where? Who? What? Why?” Hereby attention is called, in the study of any lesson: to the date of its incidents; to their place or locality; to the person speaking or spoken to, or to the persons introduced, in the narrative; to the incidents or statements of the text; and, finally, to the applications and uses of the lesson teachings.

The basics of any story

From about 1917, and by 1940, it was taught in Journalism schools that the lead paragraph of any story had to address the “Five Ws” concisely, for practical reasons: people usually read no further than the opening lines of a story, and stories were cut in length from the bottom upwards to fit into papers. So the core facts had to be stated outright in the beginning. These days, the rule of “Five Ws” is no longer being applied to stories with “luring” (or lurid) lead-ins, and speculative, opinion-based and lobbying-type articles. The basic facts are only mentioned lower down or at the end of a story, if at all. This frequently leads to misunderstanding and misinformation and avoid these pitfalls is part of the challenge of keeping the quality of writing on the internet high.

I’m old-school. I still try to get the basic ideas into the opening paragraph of a review and I try to always answer the 6Ws and the H: What, Who, When, Where, Why, With what, How.