Trivium 3: Rhetoric

The third art of a true liberal arts education is rhetoric. I’ve written about grammar and logic already. I’ve also written about rhetoric in the ancient world. Obviously, this post is about rhetoric.

Whereas the purpose of grammar is clarity of communication and the emphasis of logic is the discovery of truth and probability through clarity of thought, the purpose of rhetoric is the discovery and use of what is persuasive.

Rhetoric, as a skill set, can be seen from the perspectives of speaking/writing, listening/reading, and debating:

  1. Speaking/Writing
    Rhetoric, in this sense, is related to the forethought given to discovering what could potentially persuade an audience, what they need to be persuaded of, and the actual delivery of the speech or writing of the paper/article.
  2. Listening/Reading
    Listening involves discerning the intent of the speaker or author as well as the intended audience. Are they trying to get you to act, to believe a proposition, or to support a cause? In knowing the author’s cause and audience, one can determine what methods they are employing to persuade and whether or not they are convincing. At this stage, one will want to use logic to determine whether or not the author contradicts accepted principles without good evidence or contradicts other statements made in the discourse.
  3. Debating
    In debating, rhetoric becomes very important because being able to demonstrate or discover the truth is not always helpful in a person-to-person encounter whose outcome can largely be determined by the emotions of the audience. So rhetoric is especially important in debate. Logic is still one’s friend, especially for discrediting an opponent’s claims, but rhetoric is important for defending oneself from claims on incredibility or incompetence. Rhetoric is also important for framing the debate. It is not uncommon in debate for side issues to become the focus due to ideologically driven participants or people unconcerned about civility. Learning to maintain one’s state of mind and the emotional and cognitive frame of the debate for the audience is difficult, but crucial in a debate.

The Modes of Persuasion
Aristotle identified logos, ethos, and pathos as the three phases of persuasion.

  1. Logos
    Logos is the appeal to facts and evidence. But in a speech, this is not always the same thing as careful and accurate argument. That is necessary for research and writing to advance the field of knowledge. It is not always best for persuading people to act. Logos, with respect to rhetoric appealing to the facts that the audience would find convincing. This is not always different from careful and painstaking accuracy, but it is not always the same thing. Learning to use the common topics carefully will be very important here because they represent the types of evidence available to a researcher, speaker, and writer. Also, I recommend that no matter what type of logical argument you rely on in a speech, you have a tighter more carefully documented version of the argument elsewhere in case questions are asked.
  2. Ethos
    Ethos is appeal to personal credibility. To bolster your ethos, you must associate yourself with the good (morals, principles, groups, and individuals), take the moral high ground (appeal to the audience’s sense of virtue and morality), and when possible use sources credible to the audience. When thinking of rhetoric in terms of debate, ethos becomes very important. Many debate opponents are comfortable discrediting the other by means of attacking their ethos rather than their arguments. Learning to deal with this and take an acceptable risk of punching back in the same manner (because that is the nature of the game) or taking the moral high ground of non-response is a difficult decision to make. In my opinion, this depends on whether or not the debate is about action or fact. If the debate is over an academic topic, then the high ground of seeking truth must be taken, even if this leads to a perceived “loss” on the part of the more accurate and careful participant. In the case of debates about the proper course of action, the one becomes morally obligated to fight back hard in defense of the audience when attacks are made. This is because, in fact, we are easily persuaded to enjoy ruthless winners over kind losers. In the Bible, Jesus does both, which illustrates how difficult a line it is to walk.
  3. Pathos
    Pathos is the appeal to the passions or deeper emotions of the audience. This includes using techniques such as exaggeration, sarcasm, language of shame/honor, flattery, legitimate compliments, and so-on. Pathos is greatly aided by florid language or simple language. Academic language is almost always a passion killer, although if it is accompanied by strong ethos, academic language can ignite the passion for knowledge. Pathos is appealed to, not simply by florid or simple language, but also by emotional style. An enthusiastic speaker is easier to listen to than somebody who sounds like the topic is boring to them.

When you think of writing a speech, I recommend thinking of these aspects like a group of investment accounts. You need to invest enough in the right one depending upon the audience. For instance, your personal credibility might be very high due to your virtue and research capabilities, but that does not mean that an audience of people who don’t believe in virtue will care. So in that case it might be better to appeal to emotions and logic. Similarly, emotional appeal will not help you in a speech about statistical methods to a group of mathematicians. Similarly, an audience might need a strong emotional hook before they are ready for logic and facts. In other cases, logic and facts must come first, but a rousing fiery call to action can come at the end. These things are to be determined on a case by case basis.

Concluding Thoughts and Extra Tools
I really think that the study of rhetoric, as a skill is crucial to the development of your mind and social skills. People who are naturally good at it often say things like, “Just get it without trying to learn it.” That’s literally stupid. Studying rhetoric can help you learn to defend yourself against charming evil-doers and appealing falsehoods, to win debates, to see through cheesy sales tactics, and even to flirt.

Helpful tools for becoming rhetorically minded include:

  1. Grammar and Logic (of course)
    Without clarity of expression and thought, rhetoric is pointless.
  2. Eloquence
    Eloquence is the art of speaking beautifully. It is context dependent. A good tool for gaining eloquence is having a digital copia and listening to the compelling speeches of others.
  3. The Common Topics (Or the destroyers of writer’s block)
    I’ve written about these here. In coming weeks, I will write about each topic and add a few more to the list. Knowing the common topics is incredibly useful for research, finding the truth, writing, and personal mindset (because debating your inner monolog is best done using evidence that you find convincing).
  4. Learn the Five Canons of Rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery)
    These are the five things one ought to think about in order to improve at public speaking. I will write about these soon, but for now I recommend the articles at AoM here.
  5. And, to keep you from being an charming evil-doer, learn wisdom and virtue
    Rhetoric treated as a mere skill without reference to truth, goodness, and beauty leads to speeches which work like fruit eaten off of a forbidden tree. They sound good, but they are poison to the mind and soul.
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