Rhetoric is an ancient art that has returned to prominence in recent times. Aristotle defined it as the art of "seeing the available means of persuasion." Aristotle divides the means of persuasion into "inartistic" means such as the evidence of witnesses or written documents, what we might call "information," and "artistic" means, which he further subdivides into ethos, pathos, and logos. Our culture privileges logical argument, but there is an ethical and a pathetic dimension to every piece of writing.
The Greek word ethos is related to our word ethics or ethical, but a more accurate modern translation might be "image." Aristotle uses ethos to refer to the presentation of the character of the writer-the writer's trustworthiness, and reliability as conveyed by the writing. Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has "good sense, good moral character, and goodwill," we are inclined to believe what that speaker says to us. Today we might add that a speaker should also appear to have the appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably about the subject matter. Ethos is an important factor in advertising, both for commercial products and in politics. For example, when an actor in a pain reliever commercial puts on a doctor's white coat, the advertisers are hoping that wearing this coat will give the actor the authority to talk persuasively about medicines. Of course, in this case the actor's ethos is a deceptive illusion.
In our society sports heroes, popular actors and actresses, and rock stars are often seen as authorities on matters completely unrelated to their talents. This is an instance of the power of image. Can you think of some examples?
A writer's ethos is created largely by word choice and style. Student writers often have a problem with ethos because they are asked to write research papers, reports, and other types of texts as if they have authority to speak persuasively, when in fact they are newcomers to the subject matter and the discourse community. Sometimes students try to create an academic image for themselves by using a thesaurus to find difficult and unusual words to sprinkle throughout their texts. Unfortunately, this sort of effort usually fails, because it is difficult to use a word correctly that you have not heard or read in context many times.
Sometimes a writer or speaker will use what is called an ad hominem argument, an argument "against the man." In this strategy, you attack the character or personality of the speaker instead of attacking the substance of his or her position. This kind of argument is usually considered to be a logical fallacy, but it can be very effective, and is quite common in politics.
Questions for Discussion:
In our society, logic and rationality are highly valued and this type of persuasive strategy is usually privileged over appeals to the character of the speaker or to the emotions of the audience. However, formal logic and scientific reasoning are usually not appropriate for general audiences, so we must rely on a more rhetorical type of reasoning.
For Aristotle, formal arguments are based on what he calls syllogisms. This is reasoning that takes the form:
However, Aristotle notes that in ordinary speaking and writing we often use what Aristotle calls a "rhetorical syllogism" or an enthymeme. This is an argument in which some of the premises remain unstated or are simply assumed. For example, no one in ordinary life would think that Socrates could be immortal. We would simple assume that Socrates could be killed or that he would die of natural causes after a normal lifespan. Not all assumptions are as trivial as this one, however.
For example, when Bubonic Plague swept through Europe and parts of Asia in the 14th century, killing as much as three quarters of the population in less than 20 years, it was not known how the disease was spread. At one point, people thought that the plague was spread by cats. If you assume that cats spread the disease, the obvious solution to the problem is to eliminate the cats, and so people began killing cats on sight. However, we now know that the plague is spread by fleas, which live on rats. Because cats kill rats, killing off the cat population led to an increase in the rat population, a corresponding increase in plague carrying fleas, and thus an increase in cases of plague in humans. Killing off the cats was a logical solution to the problem of plague, but it was based on a faulty assumption.
Rhetorical arguments are often based on probabilities rather than certain truth. The people of medieval Europe really had no way to determine what the real cause of the plague was, but they felt that they had to do something about it, and the cat hypothesis seemed probable to them. Unfortunately, this is true of many of the problems we face even today—we cannot know with absolute certainty what the real solution is, yet we must act anyway.
Persuasion, to a large extent, involves convincing people to accept our assumptions as probably true. Similarly, exposing questionable assumptions in someone else's argument is an effective means for preparing the audience to accept your own contrary position.
Most of us think that we make our decisions based on rational thought. However, Aristotle points out that emotions such as anger, pity and fear powerfully influence our rational judgments. Due to this fact, much of our political discourse and much of the advertising we experience is directed toward moving our emotions.
Anger is a very powerful motivating force. Aristotle points out that if we want to make an audience angry we need to know three things: 1) the state of mind of angry people, 2) who the people are that this audience usually gets angry at, and 3) on what grounds this audience gets angry at those people. The recent breakup of Yugoslavia into separate countries provides many examples of the power of this kind of rhetoric. Yugoslavia was created after the Second World War out of several smaller states, including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia. Within each state there were ethnic and religious minorities with long histories of conflict. While Yugoslavia was under the control of the Soviet Union, these conflicts were kept in check by military force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new political structures were necessary, and political opportunities arose for the ambitious. The leaders of various factions, understanding Aristotle's three points very well, began to mobilize their followers to war by reminding them of their historical grievances against other groups. Serbian leaders published photographs of atrocities allegedly committed by Croatians during WWII, reviving a conflict from 50 years earlier. Individuals were inspired through this angry rhetoric to attack, rape, and kill neighbors that had lived near them all their lives, simply because of their ethnicity or religion.
Many political decisions have an emotional motivation. For example, when a gunman with an assault rifle shot up a schoolyard full of children, people were suddenly interested in banning such weapons. In this case several emotions are involved, but perhaps the strongest one is pity for the small children and their families. The logical arguments for banning or not banning assault rifles had not changed at all, but people were emotionally engaged with the issue after this event and wanted to do something.
Many advertisements for consumer goods aim at making us insecure about our attractiveness or social acceptability, and then offer a remedy for this feeling in the form of a product. This is a common strategy for selling mouthwash, toothpaste, chewing gum, clothing, and even automobiles.
Appeals to the emotions and passions are a very effective rhetorical technique, and very common in our society. You may find it necessary to use them yourself.
The Classical rhetorical tradition dealt mainly with oratory, but has been adapted to the production of written texts. The Romans divided the art of speechmaking into five general areas:
The first three categories are still very important for writing. Invention has been covered in the section above called "Generating Ideas." Arrangement will be dealt with below in the section called "Organizing the Discourse." By the time of the Renaissance the category of "style" had grown into a very rich and complex tradition of stylistic ornamentation, but our present society values a plain and simple style for most purposes. Style is often neglected in writing courses because there are so many other problems to deal with, but in evaluating writing stylistic perceptions often make the difference between a high score and an average score. Some stylistic issues will be covered in the section below called “Sentence-level Concerns.”
Aristotle’s list of topics or commonplaces is probably the most ancient system for inventing arguments and developing something to say. In a sense, these are canned arguments ready to be used in almost any situation. If your opponent is well-versed in a system like this and you are not, you are probably going to find yourself frustrated and at a loss for words. Lawyers who study case law develop a facility for seeing analogous situations and applying arguments that were used in one case to another case they are arguing. Aristotle’s topics are to be used in a similar way.
The following list was originally taken from Frank D'Angelo’s article, "The Evolution of the Analytic Topoi: A Speculative Inquiry" in Conners, Ede, Lunsford Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse, S.I.U. Press. I have attempted to put these topics into a modern context. Aristotle's discussion of the topoi is in Book II of the Rhetoric.
There are four "common" topics:
Then there are 28 “lines of argument”:
1. Opposites --“Observe whether that opposite has the opposite quality. If it has not, you refute the original; if it has, you establish it.” In a speech at USC I heard George Bush say “They are for taxes, we are for opportunity.” Perhaps we could call this “False and True Oppositions.” Plenty of room for postmodernism here.
2. Inflections-- ”Another line of proof is got by some modification of the key-word, and arguing that what can or cannot be said of the one, can or cannot be said of the other: e.g. ‘Just’ does not always mean ‘beneficial’ or ‘justly’ always mean ‘beneficially,’ whereas it is not desirable to be justly put to death.”
3. Correlative terms--Correlative ideas: “Where it is right to command obedience, it must have been right to obey the command.”
4. More and less--”If a quality does not in fact exist where it is more likely to exist, it clearly does not exist where it is less likely. . .if the less likely thing is true, the more likely is true also.”
5. Time--”If before doing the deed I had bargained that, if I did it, I should have a statue, you would have given me one. Will you not give me one now that I have done the deed?”
6. Opponent's utterance--Apply to the other speaker what he has said against yourself, only you must be sure that the other man is more likely than you are to commit the crime in question.
7. Definition--”Define your term and get at its essential meaning, and then use the result in reasoning on the point at issue.” Definition of terms is an important part of Platonic dialogue. Kenneth Burke is a master of this sort of reasoning.
8. Ambiguous terms--Another way to use definition is to look at various senses of a word.
9. Division--Logical division: “All men do wrong from one of three motives: A, B, or C: in my case A, and B, are out of the question, and even my accusers do not allege C.”
10. Induction--This is to argue a general principle from an example.
11. Existing decisions--If some one or some group in the past decided in this way, so should we.
12. Parts to whole--Taking separately the parts of a subject. In other words, analysis.
13. Simple consequences--”Since it happens that any given thing usually has both good and bad consequences, another line of argument consists in using those consequences as a reason for urging that a thing should or should not be done.” Aristotle’s example: Education leads to both unpopularity (bad) and wisdom (good).
14. Criss‑cross consequences--Of two opposite choices, each has both good and bad consequences. Aristotle’s example: Should one study public-speaking or not? No--If you say what is right men will hate you; if you say what is wrong, the gods will hate you. Yes--If you say what is right the gods will love you; if you say what is wrong, men will love you.
15. Inward thoughts/outward show--”The things people approve of openly are not those which they approve of secretly.” This is akin to what the Japanese call tatemae and honne: public face versus true feeling.
16. Proportional results--Aristotle’s example:”If you count tall boys men, you next will be counting short men boys.” In our time we have seen this argument applied to affirmative action programs and gender equity issues.
17. Identical results--If the results are the same the antecedents must also be the same. Aristotle’s example: It is equally impious to state that the gods were born as it is to say they die, because either statement implies that there is a time when the gods do not exist.
18. Altered choices--Aristotle’s example: Those who have fought to return from exile are unlikely to choose exile again. Aristotle’s explanation of this is either confused or confusing. In some sense, this is the opposite of number eleven, “previous decisions,” but the effectiveness or aptness of this strategy depends greatly on available motives and the situation.
19. Attributed motives--the assertion that a possible motive for an action was in fact the real one. Our political discourse is full of this.
20. Incentives and deterrents--Consider the motives people have for doing or avoiding the action in question. This is closely related to nineteen, above. In American courts the prosecution tries to show that a murder suspect had both the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime.
21. Incredible occurrences--People normally believe what is either a fact or a probability. If people believe something improbable, then it is likely to be true. (Is there a sculpture of Elvis on Mars? Did Clinton inhale?)
22. Conflicting facts--Note any contrasts or contradictions of dates, acts or words in the opponents case. This strategy forms a great part of our courtroom discourse.
23. How to meet slander--Provide an alternative explanation for the false impression given.
24. Cause to effect--Argue that if the cause if present, the effect is present, and if absent, absent.
25. Course of action--Could the accused have taken a more effective course of action in the pursuit of his or her crime? If so, he or she is likely to be innocent. Aristotle points out that this is a weak argument, because the best course of action is not always apparent before the action is taken.
26. Actions compared--Compare a past action with a contemplated action to resolve any inconsistency. Aristotle’s example: The people ask if they should sacrifice to Leucothea and mourn for her. Xenophanes answers that if they think she is a goddess they should not mourn her, if they think she was a mortal woman they should not sacrifice to her. (This example is confusing, because it is not clear which is the past action: mourning or sacrifice. Antiquity is full of examples of heroes and rulers who have become deified in the minds and practices of the people.)
27. Previous mistakes--Make previous mistakes the grounds of accusation or defense. Aristotle’s example: Medea has made the mistake of sending her children away, and thus cannot produce them, and so is charged with having killed them. She argues that if she had killed her children, she would have killed Jason too. (Without the play Aristotle is referring to, it is hard to understand this example.)
28. Meaning of names--Drawing implications from the literal meaning of someone’s name is not a very effective strategy for Americans. In some cultures, this might still be an effective rhetorical strategy.