My attention was riveted to the TV. Not that I watch the boob tube too much but I was watching both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the politicians were brilliant orators. Able to persuade, able to convince, but the best authority on persuasion and oratorical study does not belong to either the Democrats or the Republicans, you have to consult the masters. The great Cicero and Aristotle. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (lived in circa 384-322 BC) wrote the book on rhetoric – called The Art of Rhetoric – way back in the 4th century BC.
Aristotle said that aside from “tortures, depositions, and the like,” there are only three ways: logos, pathos, and ethos. In English, you might say logic, emotion, and character. Put it all together, and you get a reasonable argument, passionately made, by a person you trust.
So let’s look at each one.
Logic is an obvious one. After all, who isn’t a sucker for irrefutable facts, verifiable numbers, and the inexorable march of reason across the course of a well-constructed speech? In fact, for many thinkers, including Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, logos is the only legitimate way to win friends and influence people. The rest is sophistry. Logos was even more persuasive to ancient Greek philosophers, because they had a pretty expansive notion of what logos was. It could be the simple reason in the words of a speech, or it could mean the supreme reason of the universe, which all rational appeals naturally plugged into.
Still, unlike old Plato, Aristotle was willing to look beyond strictly rational appeals. He recognized that people “do not give judgment in the same way when aggrieved as when pleased”–especially, he snobbily wrote, “audiences of limited intellectual scope and limited capacity to follow an extended chain of reasoning.” Enter pathos. Let’s face it, said Aristotle. If you really want to persuade people, sometimes you have to resort to emotional appeals. It’s why campaigns try to wrap themselves in the flag and make you fear the other guy. It’s why a winning smile and puppy-dog eyes work magic in getting your way. It’s why lawyers have the saying “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is, pound the table.”
Of course, emotional appeals can take more subtle forms, too. Aristotle pointed out that eloquence itself is a kind of emotional persuasion. “Style makes the matter more persuasive,” he wrote, “for the mind is tricked as though the speaker were telling the truth.”
For a reason-loving philosopher like Aristotle, admitting the power of pathos had to be hard enough. But he goes even further with ethos. “Character,” he wrote, “contains almost the strongest proof of all.”
Quite simply, it matters who’s trying to persuade you. If the person trying to sway you shows “common sense, virtue, and goodwill” (for Aristotle, an ethical trifecta), then really, aren’t you more likely to believe what that person says? Aristotle thought so, and so thought that persuasive attempts must work to “establish the speaker himself as being of a certain type”–namely, the type of person you’ll believe.
Sometimes ethos is the only thing that matters. If, based on arcane medical tests, one doctor says you need immediate surgery, and another says you don’t, how are you going to decide–except by judging who seems more credible? Similarly, lawyers put dueling experts on the stand, and politicians put dueling wonks on TV. Their reasons are obscure and technical, and only ethos makes the sale. That’s why the old vaudeville philosophers used to say, “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
This article from Michael Himick of The Knowledge News Web Site is so convincing.
This is why as a public speaker I am constantly reminded that the message should be right but the messenger should be righteous. By their fruit you shall know them says The Good Book.