What is Rhetoric? Age-old Sources of Persuasion

How’s your Latin? And what about your Greek? Because to answer the question in the title, we need to go back to the Ancients. Aristotle, to be more exact, and his book Rhetoric.

Rhetoric means ‘ars bene dicendi‘ – or, in translation, the art of speaking well. Not ‘correctly’ (that’s grammar), not ‘truly’ (that is dialectic), but ‘well’ – as in, persuasively.

According to Aristotle, rhetoric is the faculty of providing good arguments – or, as he puts it, the “faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion”. He identifies several types of discourses, among which:

  • the political (future-oriented or deliberative; used to determine what is advantageous or expeditious),
  • the forensic (past-oriented; used to determine what is true, correct, or just versus false, incorrect, or unjust), and
  • the ceremonial (present-oriented; basically, used to assign praise or blame)

For all his failings with regard to women, Aristotle was a pretty smart fellow, and he was particularly adept at categorizing the world. No wonder, then, that he came up with three different modes (or means) of persuasion which still hold to this day. These are:

  • ETHOS – or the personal character of the speaker. It’s what we, today, would call authority, credibility, or expert power;
  • PATHOS – or putting the audience in a certain state of mind. This is the appeal to emotions we know from AIDA (“desire”) and from psychological sources of persuasion such as liking, belonging or peer pressure, scarcity, time pressure, playing the fear card etc.;
  • LOGOS – the demonstration, the argument itself. In other words, the verbal part of the persuasion game.

For Aristotle it was clear that there is great persuasive potential in the way an argument is structured and expressed: in the words, the sounds, the syntax and style. His qualities of style (clarity, correctness, vividness, appropriateness, rhythm) are still considered essential to this day, as is his notion of adapting language to one’s audience, communicative purpose, topic and genre.

But how to build an effective argumentative scheme? To create compelling arguments, the speaker (or writer for that matter) must consider several stages, or elements of rhetoric:

  • WHAT TO SAY (invention)
  • IN WHAT ORDER TO SAY IT (arrangement)
  • HOW TO SAY IT (style of verbal discourse)
  • HOW TO PRESENT WHAT IS BEING SAID (paraverbal and non-verbal delivery: prosody, intonation, orthoepy, proxemics)

Of course, back in his day, one also needed to memorize speeches, but we won’t get into that now.

Many people struggle to find the right thing to say. Where to start and what path to go down to? What concepts to employ and in what order? To make matters easy, Aristotle suggested a list of ‘commonplaces’ (so-called topoi, in Greek) or stock formulas one can use to generate arguments. And, being the structured person that he was, he begins with definitions. Often, a wealth of arguments lies hidden in the definition of a thing. Lots of persuasive ideas can spring to mind by simply attempting to define the issue at hand. Then there is also division: What part of a generic category is the thing you’re discussing? You can also generate ideas by comparing your topic with another and identifying similarities, differences, and degrees of comparison. You can investigate its relationship to other concepts (spotting contradictions can make for a particularly juicy argument), circumstances and likelihoods, or you can use testimonies (anecdotal evidence, authorities and witnesses, maxims or proverbs, rumors, oaths, precedents, etc.).

If you need to deliver a speech, debate an issue, or simply counter predictable arguments in a conversation, these topoi might come in handy. Any good explanation starts with the definition of the matter at hand, followed by how it relates to other things we find relevant and important.

To summarize, the means of persuasion include the speaker, the emotions, and language itself. Language applied with a purpose. Who speaks, what do they say and how do they manage to elicit emotions? When you need to deliver a speech, consider definitions, relationships, comparisons and available testimony. Also prepare for possible objections and pre-empt them. When you are on the receiving end of persuasive speech, consider:

Is the speaker using lots of “we” pronouns to suggest in-group solidarity? Then they are probably trying to find allies for their proposed course of action. (But are they really that similar to you?) Are they trying to blame a situation on someone else? The fated “they” comes into play. Watch out for the subtle difference between correlation and causation, and analyze word choice, hyperbole and other tropes – what is a metaphor attempting to suggest? What is the term of the comparison and what representation of the world is it trying to anchor? Listen carefully and act wisely. Often, it takes a single well-placed counterargument to demolish a whole line of thought.

I hope this helps,