Divisions of a text were basic exercises for ancient and medieval students aimed at answering a couple of questions: what is the goal of this piece of writing, what are the parts of this writing, and how are the parts and the goal related? Before a student could begin to analyze a text, that is examine the specific arguments of the text, he had to be able to state clearly its end and its form.
A text’s end or goal dictates everything else about the text. Indeed this is true of everything. If my end is to get to New York from Los Angeles I had better get over to LAX and prepare to be folded into an airplane for four hours. However if my end is to get to Napa Valley from Los Angeles I might take a plane or my car or high speed rail. The means I adopt change based on the circumstances of my end. So to with a piece of writing. If my goal is to inform my audience about an issue the means I adopt to do this will be very different than those used to rouse my audience’s anger at a particular issue and different still from those tactics used to compose a love letter to my wife. Discovering an author’s intended end is the first step to know why he says what he says and why he chooses to say it in the way he does in his text.
For example if a group of people wanted to declare independence from their government they would have to do more than simply declare independence. This is why Thomas Jefferson wrote more than simply the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The first thing that the Declaration does is explain the two conditions under which it is appropriate for a group of people to declare independence namely, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, [Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness] it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Jefferson then goes on to give a second condition for declaring independence and that is, “…that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
After outlining the conditions under which a people may declare their independence he then shows that the experience of the American people fulfills both these conditions.The first condition is explained by a list of grievances experienced by the people and the second condition is fulfilled by the efforts made to resolve these grievances without declaring independence and this latter begins at, “In every stage of these oppression…”
The parts of the text, namely the listing of conditions to declare independence, the case that the American experience fulfills these conditions, and the declaring of independence, are called the form of the text. Form is an important concept in ancient and medieval philosophy but for now suffice it to say that form is the answer to the question, “What is it?” In the case of manufactured things, like a speech or text, the form is simply the identifiable parts of a thing. For example a chair can not fulfill its end, supporting me in a seated posture, without at least a flat surface to support my posterior and legs to elevate that surface. In the case of the Declaration of Independence the act of declaring would not be successful without the other parts of the text.